DxO is a French company that has long been known for their lens and camera optical benchmark tests published through their eponymous website DxOMark. With that massive database, they were then able to develop tools for making optical corrections during processing. That led to apps like PhotoLab. (And along the way, they managed to save Nik Collection from Google’s growing pile of abandonware, a move I’m personally grateful for because Nik Color Efex and Nik Silver Efex are tools I use daily.)1
Now they’ve come out with a new app that’s quite unique in what it does. It’s called DxO PureRAW. I’ve been putting it through its paces to see how it performs in real-world use.2
What It Does
PureRAW doesn’t fit neatly into the usual categories of apps for working with RAW files. It’s not just another RAW processor or Lightroom alternative. And it’s not really a Lightroom plugin, either. It works a bit differently.
Rather than competing with Lightroom, it complements it. (I’m using it with Lightroom, but technically, it’s not specifically limited to Lightroom or Photoshop. Because it generates DNG RAW files, any RAW-editing app should be able to take advantage of the improved files.) It fits in the workflow before you process in Lightroom by prepping RAW files by applying a bunch of optical corrections before you even start working on it in Lightroom.
The real value of these corrections is that DxO is drawing on their extensive real-world data that comes from their long-running optical benchmark tests of lenses and cameras. That data is then applied to the photos, drawing on the specific combination of camera and lens profile for each individual image.
PureRAW addresses these specific issues:
- denoising / noise reduction
- chromatic aberrations
- unwanted vignetting
- lack of sharpness
It is possible to replicate much of this using Lightroom’s own built-in tools. Lightroom has its own lens profile sections, and you can even generate your own profiles based on the specific copy of the lens you have on your camera. But that’s a tedious process. And there are real advantages to relying on the expert and consistent testing regimen of the folks at DxO. And the tools are all integrated into a single-step process, which automates it nicely (you can also pick and choose which corrections to apply—it’s not an all-or-nothing approach).
PureRAW works as a standalone app, not as a plugin. Its interface isn’t bad, but there’s definitely room for polish and improvement.
The gist is that you select the images you want to work on, decide which optical corrections you want to apply, and then process those images. PureRAW will then do its thing and output the corrected images either as DNG or JPG files.
Interface. The main interface looks like this. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. I’m not particularly a fan of the rather limited browsing options in the selection list. You can choose to view processed or unprocessed, and the images are sorted by date by default. You also sort alphabetically by filename, but that’s about it.
Once you’ve processed the images, you have an option to see the results. It has a before/after slider, which is good, but I’m not particularly a fan of the way the filmstrip at the bottom works, which is the main way to navigate through the images.
Speed. The speed of the processing depends on a few things, such as what corrections you’re applying, the size and type of the RAW files, and the speed and processing power of your computer.
You also have a choice of three different levels of processing. By far the fastest is, of course, the simplest and least effective. I found that the two higher versions seemed to take around the same amount of time.
I have found that the estimates in that screen significantly overestimate the amount of time it will take. But it’s still not a lightning-fast process. That’s not an issue with a small number of images, but something to be factored in if you’re trying to process large batches.
Results. As for the results—the most important part—color me impressed. You’ll naturally see less improvement with images taken on a high-quality camera/lens combination with proper exposure and at low ISOs. Where it really shines is with problematic images. Sometimes the effect is very subtle. But I have yet to come across an instance in the many images I’ve run through it where the results weren’t better than the original.
I’ve processed several hundred images through it, and I’ve found that the most dramatic results are those where the denoise algorithm goes to town on very high-ISO images. And for those, I’ve been impressed with the results. As with any aggressive denoising, you can end up with a slightly artificial texture in some cases. But I’ve really only come across in a very small number of images, and in those, it’s starting with image noise that is pretty much off the charts, and the original image just isn’t usable for anything (up to ISO 204800 in some cases). Even if I still wouldn’t consider those images print-worthy or make the cut for selling, PureRAW’s denoise can take those images and make them acceptable for some uses, such as reducing the size and posting on social media. On Instagram, you really can’t tell that the original image was so flawed. And that’s in part because it’s not just a case of reducing image noise. The denoise/noise reduction goes hand in hand with the other corrections—a little sharpening, a little color cast correction, etc. Here are some rather dramatic before/after examples. You can see what I mean to some extent in these small versions.
By far the best way to see the full effects is to download the trial version and run some RAW files through it. But sharing RAW files here is a bit problematic because RAW files have to be rendered to be viewed, and the rendering varies from app to app and won’t show up through the browser window anyway. So while I would normally generate RAW files for the results, for this special case, I’ve chosen JPGs as the output. And for comparison, I’ve exported JPGs of the originals from Lightroom (both apps set to a quality setting of 90). And the Lightroom versions are using just the default settings–I haven’t applied any of the optical fix tools. I haven’t processed these in any way after that–normally, these images would still need editing to fix the usual brightness, contrast, leveling, etc.
The JPGs are derivative versions, and what you see through your web browser are derivative versions of those. So showing these JPGs is by no means a perfect solution, but at least it gives a reasonable sense of the effect that PureRAW is having on the image quality. You can get a much better idea by running your own RAW files through it and viewing at 1:1.
So, for what it’s worth, here are some before/after sliders to give some idea of what it’s doing. I’ve included images from a range of different camera and lens combinations, as well as some taken at almost obscenely high ISOs (up to 204800 in some cases) that include horrendous levels of noise. It’s very hard to see some of the issues with these small versions, so I’ve included download links for each full-size version below.
Example 1: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 2: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 3: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 4: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 5: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 6: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Example 7: Download Original Version / Download DxO PureRAW Processed Version
Overall, the results are impressive. In some cases, really impressive. Some reach wow level with photos that I would have thought were completely lost causes. But it varies from image to image. On low-ISO, correctly exposed images on good-quality gear, the results are much more subtle. But they are there and make a real difference if you’re going for maximum quality.
Fitting into a Workflow
Tools are great and all, but they really need to fit in a workflow to be truly useful. Everyone’s workflow and preferences are going to be different. In my case, I have a pretty good workflow down that works well for me. And there has to be a good reason to disrupt it. Which is really the ultimate test for me—not so much whether an app or tool works well, but whether it justifies disrupting and revising my workflow. And that’s where I have the most trouble in working out how to incorporate PureRAW.
PureRAW works best when used right at the beginning of the workflow, at the time—or just after—you copy the files to your hard drive and before you import them into Lightroom.
Lightroom doesn’t have a way to insert apps or processes into the middle of the import process. You do have some options—copying to a second location and converting to DNG—but there’s no way to build a custom automated ingest operation.
If you want to create temporary intermediary RAW files, one thing you can do is to export the files from Lightroom using the Original format setting. You can then use the Post-Processing tab with After Export set to Open in Other Application and assign PureRAW as the receiving app. That will create derivative intermediary RAW files that are sent automatically into PureRAW.
PureRAW does an export-to function built-in. That lets you send the resulting DNG files to Lightroom (or Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or you can define a custom app). That sends the files to Lightroom’s import dialog. So it saves the step of manually locating the files, but it doesn’t solve the issues related to the files being treated as orphaned images unrelated to the originals.
I’m still trying to figure out the most efficient workflow (and am very open to suggestions). My current thinking is to ingest and cull through PhotoMechanic, run PureRAW on what’s left, and then import those new DNG versions into Lightroom. It’s still pretty messy, involves multiple manual interventions, and potentially results in a ton of duplicated RAW files (i.e., the camera-generated RAW and the PureRAW-generated DNG).
All of this makes it hard for me to imagine that I’ll be incorporating it into my workflow as a default process. More likely is that I’ll use on a very selective basis on a few images at once. And I’ve found that PureRAW naturally works best on problematic images, so that’s a natural fit.
Things Worth Knowing
Does PureRAW Work on Images Already in Lightroom?
Yes, you can use PureRAW on images that you’ve already got in your Lightroom catalog, but it gets a bit messy. That’s because PureRAW generates new DNG versions of the images (or new JPGs, if you prefer) that Lightroom doesn’t know about (there’s no roundtrip reimport function—at least for now). So those new DNG versions need to be imported into Lightroom, and they’ll be treated as entirely new files. So they don’t automatically inherit any of the original version’s catalog settings or metadata. For a handful of images at a time, that’s not a dealbreaker, but if you’re looking to run hundreds or thousands of images through PureRAW, it gets old quickly, and you’re going to wish you’d done it at the beginning of your workflow.
It would be interesting to me to be able to right-click on images in Lightroom and then apply the fixes to those as a roundtrip process (i.e., the new, processed files would appear automatically in Lightroom stacked with the originals and retain any catalog attributes). But for now, at least, that’s not an option.
Can You Undo the Changes or Tweak the Amounts
Because of the way in which the corrections are made to the RAW files, when you reimport the DNG files back into Lightroom, you can’t see evidence of the corrections in Lightroom’s sliders. You can still edit the files as normal, but you can’t “undo” the changes, as such, or adjust the mount of correction for each. In that respect, it’s functionally equivalent to the corrections having been hardcoded into a JPG version.
One thing I haven’t yet checked is whether DxO PhotoLab or another DxO product has access to the correction metadata and can adjust them.
PureRAW + Rawsie
This isn’t a thing—these apps are entirely independent of each other and created by different companies in different countries (even if they are neighboring countries). But I’ll throw this out there anyway: wouldn’t it be nice if they were an integrated app to combine the top-notch processing of DxO with the excellent RAW files compression of Rawsie to provide one-stop RAW file prepping and compression? Now, that would be a really interesting app!
PureRAW + Nik Collection
Again, this isn’t a thing, but while I’m throwing crazy ideas around, finding a way to integrate PureRAW with Nik Collection would also be interesting. On the plus side, DxO owns both apps (or a suite of apps, in the case of Nik Collection). But they also work very differently, and Nik Collection creates an external, derivative TIFF file to work on rather than a DNG RAW file. But if there was some magic way to combine the functionality of PureRAW and Nik Collection, it would make a very useful combination of correction and enhancement tools in one step.
I’ve had PureRAW lock up several times. I’ve found it to be something that happens far too often in DxO software, unfortunately. I haven’t been able to diagnose exactly where the problem is. (Using macOS 11.5.)
Overall, the results I’ve gotten from PureRAW are very impressive. So far, I’ve found it most useful for salvaging otherwise unusable shots and processing small numbers of images at a time. And for that, it often does a pretty amazing job. I’ve been running into old files in my archive that would never make the grade for anything I’d use them for. But after running them through PureRAW, it breathes new life into them. While the noise reduction is often the most dramatic fix, it’s by no means the only one. The files become brighter, the optical lens distortion and vignetting are essentially gone, the color casts corrected, and the details sharpened. I’ve been particularly enjoying running old family photos through it–it can really bring them to life. It doesn’t solve every flaw or salvage every image, but it sure goes a long way on many images. More than enough to convince me to fork out for a full, paid license.
If I can come up with an efficient workflow, I’d love to be able to incorporate PureRAW for all of my images. For now, though, that workflow remains elusive. But I really hope that future updates help with this aspect.
There are, of course, other ways to apply similar optical corrections. Lightroom has a suite of tools built-in. There are standalone apps that can tackle certain parts such as denoising (ON1’s new NoNoise AI is one I’m looking forward to trying soon).
But PureRAW is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that it is built on the foundation of DxO’s extensive research and data adds enormously to its value.
Overall, PureRAW is an intriguing and very useful RAW processing tool to have available, and now that I’ve decided to buy a full license and use it to salvage otherwise problematic images, I’m looking forward to seeing where the developers take it from here.
Where to Find It
There are versions for Windows and Mac.
You can download a free trial of DxO PureRAW here.