This article discusses some of the potential benefits and challenges when using multiple programs in post processing. As regular readers will know, I’ve been using multiple programs in post for many years now. About 8 years ago I started using DxO OpticsPro 8 as my main RAW processor. I’ve been using DxO software in conjunction with PhotoShop CS6 and the Nik Collection for an extended period of time. In 2020 I added Topaz Denoise AI to my process in post.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.
Over the years I have updated my version of DxO on an intermittent basis. I now use DxO PhotoLab 4 as I needed some of the camera and lens modules that are available in that particular version.
Even though my copies of PhotoShop CS6 and the Nik Collection are long out-of-date I still use them with all of my images. In case you’re wondering, I have no plans to update them.
Unless I happen to add some new camera gear to my kit… which is highly unlikely… I will probably not bother updating DxO PhotoLab 4 in the future. The caveat being that it continues to function properly with Windows in the years to come.
Since I started this blog many readers have posed questions about using multiple programs. Given that I added Topaz Denoise AI to my regular workflow late last year I thought an update article may be of benefit. I’ll try to cover the most common issues about which I’ve had questions on this blog, as well as in personal emails.
How Is More Important Than What
Knowing how to use the software program(s) we have is far more important that what those programs actually are. Just like there is no such thing as a perfect camera, there is no perfect software. As is often said, everything photographic comes with some kind of trade-off. The key is for each of us to use whatever software program(s) work best with the gear we use… and with our photographic approach. I happen to use a combination of 4 software programs. These may, or may not be, the right choice for other photographers.
We can get caught on the software replacement merry-go-round just as easily as we can get caught on the gear replacement one. It is prudent for each of us to learn how to use what we currently own, before we go rushing off to buy other software. Just because a reviewer may say that a particular photographic software is the best thing since sliced bread, doesn’t mean we’ll be able to use it effectively. Plus, moving to new software can involve a steep learning curve.
Post Processing Efficiency
Many folks have had concerns about how post processing efficiency may be negatively impacted when using multiple programs in post. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. In my experience using multiple programs in post has allowed me to process my images in less time. Since I hate working in post, this is a real benefit to me. I typically spend a maximum of 3-4 minutes on a specific image. This includes computer processing time.
Just like different camera formats have their advantages and challenges, so too does post processing software. Not all programs are equally adept at making particular corrections to specific images. So, rather than messing around with one software program trying to make all of my corrections… I can cherry pick what I consider to be the best adjustments from the different programs that I own. This allows me to reach my desired end result quickly and effectively.
My process starts with doing my basic RAW adjustments in DxO PhotoLab 4. I then export a DNG file into PhotoShop CS6 where I make a range of potential corrections. The Nik Collection is set up as a plug-in to CS6 so I can very quickly access any of those adjustments very quickly. At the end of my process I usually finish my files off with Topaz DeNoise AI. This also operates as a plug-in with CS6. On the surface it may seem complicated to use 4 different software programs in post, but it is actually very quick and efficient.
Using Custom Presets
When I was using DxO PhotoLab 2 I had a few dozen custom presets programmed. This made it very efficient for me to make multiple corrections with a single mouse click. For example, I had three custom presets for bird photographs captured with a Nikon 1 V3 and a 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. These included ‘standard bird’, ‘white bird’ and ‘dark bird’ custom presets.
My custom presets tend to be camera, lens and subject specific. Again, this makes it very efficient for me to make a wide range of image corrections very efficiently with only one mouse click. I haven’t taken the time to move all of my custom presets into DxO PhotoLab 4 as I’m still deciding whether they all still make sense. Or if I shouid adjust some, and perhaps even delete others.
Don’t get me wrong… if you’re a DxO PhotoLab user I would highly recommend taking the time to set up, and use, the custom preset option. These custom presets can dramatically streamline your post processing workflow and save you a lot of time in post.
Working With Dynamic Range In Post
Using multiple programs in post can help squeeze the available dynamic range out of RAW files. The biggest reason why I use DxO PhotoLab as my main RAW processor is because of how it works with my Nikon 1 and Olympus files. I’ve found the auto lens corrections to be excellent.
The DxO Smart Lighting Spot Weighted tool is something that I use with every one of my RAW files… regardless of the ISO at which they were captured. Depending on the size and number of boxes and I put on an image with this tool, I’m able to quickly fine tune the shadows and highlights in a photograph. This certainly helps to squeeze out some dynamic range. Those of us who use small sensor cameras know how critical this can be.
When I first began using Nikon 1 gear I discovered that it was very important to ‘double bump’ my files in order to squeeze out as much dynamic range as possible. This was especially true with landsape photography. I would make some initial adjustment to highlights, shadows and midtones using DxO. Then after exporting a DNG file into Photoshop CS6 I would make additional corrections to highlights and shadows. Depending on the photograph these ‘double bump’ second round of adjustments could be very aggressive with highlights taken to -100 and shadows to +100 if needed.
When I owned Nikon full frame cameras I never had to ‘double bump’ my RAW files to have a good level of dynamic range. Understanding the performance of our camera gear and adjusting our post processing approach is key.
‘And’ Is Better Than ‘Or’ When Dealing With Noise
There have been a number of software advancements that can help photographers deal with noise. The majority of material that I’ve seen recently on the internet seems to view noise reduction as a competition between software programs. I think this type of debate is counterproductive. Rather than pit one software program against another, it is far better to figure out how to leverage the strengths of various programs. And, use them in combination when possible.
For example, I apply DxO DeepPRIME to all of my images, regardless of the ISO at which they were captured. I experimented with various Luminance settings, trying to find a good balance between noise reduction and detail retention. For the work that I do, I determined that a Luminance setting of 15 is the highest that I should go with DeepPRIME.
After doing all of my corrections in DxO PhotoLab 4, PhotoShop CS6, and the Nik Collection, I typically finish my images off in Topaz DeNoise AI. I’ve found that using an and approach by applying noise reduction at the start of my process in post, and at the end (using 2 different programs) produces much better results than only using one or the other program.
Many Roads To Image Sharpness In Post
One of the common objectives that many photographers have is to enhance the sharpness of their images in post. Quite often this is done by applying formal ‘sharpness’ to an image file in post. Overdoing a sharpness setting can create a number of digital artifacts. These include increased noise, light halos, exaggerated textures, loss of highlight and shadow details, and increased saturation.
Sometimes we forget that there are a number of roads in post that can help lead to perceived image sharpness. Thinking about image sharpness in terms of edge acuity helps us investigate a number of ways to work with our photographs in post. Edge acuity is basically the contrast between the edges of an object in an image. When edges are well defined and abrupt transitions are made from one colour or tone to another, we perceive the image to be ‘sharp’.
When multiple programs are used in post, we have more tools at our disposal that may compliment one another in terms of helping to create a ‘sharp’ image. When it comes to perceived sharpness, moderation in post is often the best route. The sum of a number of small adjustments can lead to a pleasing image.
Depending on the software that is used there is often a wide range of adjustments that can be made to impact edge acuity. Many of them are not specifically adjusting ‘sharpness’ settings. For example, when using DxO PhotoLab 4 a photographer could impact edge acuity by using black and white sliders, and by applying contrast and/or microcontrast. Although I almost never use it, some photographers may choose to use DxO Clearview.
When working with PhotoShop CS6 Black and White sliders, Clarity, and Levels can all impact perceived sharpness. Vivenza 2 and Color Efex 4 (components in my copy of the Nik Collection) have functions like Contrast, Structure, Pro Contrast, Tonal Contrast and Detail Extractor… all of which can impact edge acuity. Topaz Denoise AI also has some sharpness adjustments that can be made. So, we have an extensive range of adjustments available to us that can affect edge acuity when using multiple programs in post.
Then, there are programs like Topaz Sharpen AI that many photographers like to use as part of their process in post. On a personal basis I bought a copy of Topaz Sharpen AI. My intention in purchasing it was to use it at the end of my process as a final sharpness ‘tweak’.
After experimenting with Topaz Sharpening AI for several weeks, I found it to be basically ineffective for my purposes… so I don’t use it at all any more. In defence of the software I have never trying using it at the front end of my process as is recommended. It just wasn’t a good fit into my work flow at the front end. This brings us to another important consideration when using multiple programs in post… does the program fit seamlessly into our work flow?
Smooth Transitions And Seamless Integration
When using multiple programs in post it is critically important that there are smooth transitions between workflow components. When these are present the various programs can then function with seamless integration.
The primary reason why my workflow functions well for me is that the Nik Collection and Topaz Denoise AI both operate as plug-ins to my copy of PhotoShop CS6. Plus, there is a smooth transition between DxO PhotoLab 4 and PhotoShop CS6 with the exporting of a DNG file. Depending on the software you use, it may be very difficult to transition from one program to another. When multiple programs cause a workflow to bog down… the potential benefits are signficantly reduced.
Clarity Of Vision
We need to have a clear vision of how we want our images to look after we have completed our work on them in post. If we don’t have this clarity of vision we won’t be able to select the best software programs for our needs. Nor will we be able to integrate various software components into a powerful and effective workflow. For many photographers, how they process their files in post becomes their ‘secret sauce’ that helps differentiate their work.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. This is the 1,026th article published on this website since its original inception.
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