Multiple Programs in Post

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.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/400, ISO-250, microscopic mode

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800

Even though my copies of PhotoShop CS6 and the Nik Collection are long out-of-date I still use them with all of my images.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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 26 mm, efov 70.2 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-200

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 483 mm, efov 966 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-640, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3335 pixels on the width

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20.3 mm, efov 54.8 mm, f/6.3, 1/30, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/16, 1/2, ISO-160

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/50, ISO-400

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-6400

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 24 mm, efov 48 mm, f/5.6, 4 sec, ISO-200

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.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/100, ISO-1250, microscopic mode

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-400, Kenko 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes used

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 46 mm, efov 124.2 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/800, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-400

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.

NIKON 1 V2 + 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7.3mm, ISO 160, 1/125, f/5.6

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 42 mm, efov 113.4 mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-3200

‘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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8.1, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, subject distance 7 metres

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/13, 1/250, ISO-6400

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-2500, subject distance 4.9 Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 235 mm, efov 470 mm, f/8.8, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI, full frame capture, subject distance 18.4 metres

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’.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 195 mm, efov 390 mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-5000, subject distance 4.5 metres, full frame capture

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/5, -0,.3 step, 1/250, ISO-320, subject distance 855 mm

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-3200, Handheld Hi Resolution, cropped to 7742 pixels, subject distance 255 mm

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’.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 80 mm, efov 160 mm, f/5.5, 1/400, ISO-6400, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used

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?

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-400

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 100 mm, efov 270 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

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.

Glengarriff Blue Pool Walk Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7 mm, efov 18.9 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-160

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.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 46 mm, efov 124.2 mm, f/6.3 1/50, ISO-3200

Technical Note

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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12 thoughts on “Multiple Programs in Post”

  1. Hi Tom,
    Bravo for your blog. I discovered it a few days ago !
    Regarding post-processing, I am curious about the use of Photoshop. What are you using in Photoshop that are not available in DXO Photolab and the NIK Collection tools ?
    My current workflow include DXO Photolab 5, NIK Collection (current version) and Photomatix Pro for HDR processing.
    I am not a post-processing expert but I found that these three applications fullfill all my needs. So, what is the need of Photoshop in your post-processing workflow ? Do you use/need advanced layer and masking tehniques available in photoshop ?

    1. Hi Marcel,

      When working with RAW files from smaller sensor cameras like Nikon 1 I always ‘double bump’ my RAW files. By that I mean that I make adjustments to basic settings like highlights and shadows in DxO, then push these settings a second time in PhotoShop. After making some initial adjustments in DxO (typically with one of my many custom pre=sets), and depending on the needs of an individual image, I have no hesitation to take highlights to -100 in PhotoShop, or take Shadows to +100.

      Again, this is AFTER I’ve already made initial highlight and shadow adjustments in DXO. I’ve never liked how my RAW files respond to aggressive adjustments in DXO so I tend to keep my initial post processing work to modest levels in DxO. I do love the automatic camera/lens adjustments and also use DeepPRIME with all of my RAW files at the front end of my process. I never apply DeepPRIME at levels higher than 15. I finish my files with Topaz Denoise AI (or occasionally Topaz Sharpen AI) as I like the ‘double barrel’ effects with noise reduction.

      So, my main reason to use DxO and then PhotoShop is because my approach in post often requires more shadow and highlight adjustments than a single program offers. I also like to use PhotoShop as Topaz and NIK can be quickly accessed as plug-ins.

      I absolutely hate working in post and seldom spend more than 3 minutes with a file, including computer processing time. I don’t use advanced layers or masking.


  2. Hi thomas,

    My workflow is similar to yours but I get my DxO Photolab4 dng files with Optical corrections and Noise reduction only (Deep Prime default 40 or 15 depending on subject, lighting conditions etc), and open in ACR with NO adjustments as presently experimenting Luminosity Masks which, surprisingly enough gives me as satisfactory results as my previous NiK collection workflow, but much easier and much quicker.

    You might eventually google – “Stunning shadow and highlight details with the TK7 Triple Play” – July 9, 2019 – Tony Kuyper
    His panel is working on recent Photoshop versions only but it seems that the “tk-basic-v6-panel-new-and-free” might run on your CS6 (though is a limited version – so no triple play)


    1. Hi Vic,

      Your approach is very similar to what I have also been doing… which is one of the primary reasons why I have not imported my previous Custom Presets in DxO PhotoLab 4. I always use DxO Smart Lighting Spot Weighted adjustment with each of my files, and will sometimes apply some microcontrast depending on the subject/lighting. Other than those small differences I typically do not do any other adjustments in DxO PhotoLab 4. The current PhotoLab 4 seems to process things a bit differently than PhotoLab 2 for some reason. This is the second reason why I don’t use my previous custom profiles from PhotoLab 2 in PhotoLab 4.


  3. A useful article Tom.
    Like Juan, I use Sharpen AI after initial Lightroom edits, (inc. basic noise reduction, radial filter and even crop). I have even used a copy of Denoise after that with good results. I certainly agree with the multiple uses of denoise.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    Just to share with you my experience with Topaz Sharpen as I use almost the same setup and workflow than you (I use alternatively Lightroom or Photoshop).

    I did also an early test with Sharpen AI along with Denoise, and decided (like you) to keep Denoise and don’t use Sharpen. After some test, I got the best results in using those programes just for finishing the final jpg’s.

    About two months ago, by reading an article about the new update of sharpen, I decided to give another try with the evaluation version, and the results were clearly differential with my initial test, so I got a license and now use mostly Sharpen as the final step instead Denoise. The reason for that change is that I have normally more problems in getting tack sharp focus than having noise, specially after the latest release of DxO 4.

    It’s processing for birds eye and feathers has helped me to save some photographs that were not tack sharp enough. It’s a bit tricky to select the right choice of processing, I do normally several test before deciding what gives the best result, including the use of masks for processing only the areas I like to enhance.

    As I said. I use it as the final processing of jpg, linking the app in the export function of Lightroom or Photoshop.

    I hope this can help.

    Best regards

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with Topaz Sharpen AI Juan! I must admist that I haven’t even bothered to keep my copy of Sharpen AI updated as I saw little point in doing so. We’re in the middle of doing some computer upgrades, and once that’s done we’ll update Sharpen AI, then test it out again.


  5. Hi Thomas,

    I also use different programs as plugins either within LR or PS, as you said there’s no perfect do it all software and better results can be obtained with a combination of programs. Occasionally though there is a file that works fine with a few adjustments in LR only and I tend to believe it has more to do with the lighting/contrast of the scene rather than my/camera exposure ability.
    I found interesting your approach to noise reduction, I will definitely give it a try.

    1. Hi Mauro,

      I’ve had the same experience that you describe in terms of some images needing far fewer adjustments than others. For example my Olympus files need fewer adjustments than my Nikon 1 files.


  6. Nice to see examples from the Nikon 1. Been quite a while. Thought you had moved to the Olympus exclusively.

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