This blog post looks at the ‘holy trinity’ of photography software. Three products that, when combined, provide everything you need to develop your RAW images and edit your photos. There is some overlap between the three, as each continues to add to and refine their capabilities. Yet I don’t view them as competing with each other. Put them all together, the union of their strengths equips you to get the absolute best from your photos.

What are these products?

  • DXO Photo Lab/DXO Pure Raw – RAW converters with emphasis on technical quality

  • Luminar Neo – RAW Converter and Image Editor with emphasis on creativity

  • Topaz Photo AI – RAW and Image editor with emphasis on noise removal, sharpening and upscaling

I have made DXO Photo Lab and DXO Pure Raw a choice. DXO Photo Lab is a full-blown RAW converter plus a reasonable Image Management tool. DXO Pure Raw is a top quality RAW converter that offers DXO’s unique lens + camera optics technology and class leading noise reduction. It then saves the results as a DNG file, ready for processing in other RAW converters. It is aimed at those who prefer to stick with another RAW converter and want the unique benefits DXO alone can give.

You can use all the above products as standalone applications, or as plugins to Photoshop and Lightroom.

RAW processing

All three tools work with RAW images. DXO and Luminar NEO are specialist RAW converters. Topaz Photo AI doesn’t pitch itself as a RAW converter and, currently, lacks features to make it rival any dedicated RAW converter. However, its DeNoise technology is interesting, because removing noise is best done during RAW conversion. That said, Photo AI’s ability to remove noise from JPEGs and TIF files is exceptional and is useful even for RAW shooters. Enhancing images sometimes introduces noise and nothing is better than Topaz Photo AI for cleaning that up.

This is just a subset of their features. The last item is of great interest. DXO ClearView Plus clarifies images dramatically. Luminar’s Enhance AI improves colours and brings out details in shadows better than anything else I have tried. The combination of these two features alone justifies owning both products.

DXO also offers local editing, blemish removal and adding watermarks to images. It also links into its Nik Collection and DXO Viewpoint products.

Luminar offers a whole host of image adjustments—more than I can mention here. DXO is best described as a ‘pure’ image editor, whereas Luminar provides artistic enhancements. You can use Luminar to replace the sky, remove and add objects to the picture, add the sun and sun rays, add fog and a ton of other effects.

Of late, Luminar has added the following AI-driven tools:

  • Noiseless AI for noise reduction.

  • Supersharp AI for intelligent sharpening

  • Magic Light AI for lighting effects

  • GenErase for removing unwanted objects

  • GenSwap for replacing an object with virtually anything

  • HDR Merge for HDR photography

  • Focus stacking for combining up to 100 images that have different focus points

  • Upscale for intelligent enlargements

  • Panorama stitching for creating panoramas

I have not yet tried all of these. This review will focus on the capabilities shared by at least two of the tools under consideration. Therefore, I am looking at noise reduction, sharpening and image enlargements. In this RAW section, we’ll compare de-noising of RAW images, as that is best done during RAW images.

Post RAW Processing & JPEG/TIF Sharpening

In the old days, we used to process our image and then apply some unsharp mask to the result. Usually, that gave OK results. Then we started to do three-phase sharpening. A small sharpening during RAW conversion, followed by a stronger sharpening after post-processing, followed by a final sharpening after the image was resized for the target (screen/print).

In those days, I used DXO for the first phase and then, in Photoshop, I used the excellent FocalBlade Photoshop plugin for the second and third phases as it provided settings designed for that purpose.

The problem with this approach was that the sharpening algorithm was applied to the whole image with no real regard to its contents. Yes, the sharpening methods attempted to mask the image to target the areas needing the most sharpening. It’s not that they were bad methods; it is that this can be improved on. Both Topaz Photo AI and Luminar NEO offer AI based sharpening which, in theory, ought to do better. DXO only provides unsharp mask sharpening, so I won’t be comparing it here.

The AI sharpening tools go one step further. Topaz offers sharpening that can improve both ‘soft’ pictures, where the camera was out of focus, and pictures where there is motion blur due to the camera not being held steady. Luminar offers motion blur correction.

Topaz’s sharpening technology is mature; Luminar’s is brand new, so I expect it to be challenged here.

As this kind of sharpening is a post-processing step, I will present Topaz and Luminar with JPEGs of:

  • A sharp image

  • An image with motion blur

Enlarging Images

Images need enlarging when you want to make prints that exceed the ‘natural’ dimensions of the photo. For example, a 6,000 x 4,000 pixel image produces good prints up to 20″ by 13″ on a 300 DPI printer. If you want a bigger print then the image needs upscaling to avoid losing quality.

Also, you may have cropped an image and need to enlarge the crop for viewing and printing.

Prior to AI, we used algorithms such as BiCubic or Lanczos3 to upscale an image, but this led to loss of sharpness and image quality. Many years ago, Topaz Labs introduced Gigapixel AI, which I have reviewed many times. Its results exceeded my expectations by an order of magnitude. Topaz has been the major player in this field for a long time, but Luminar NEO now has Upscale—an AI-based image enlargement tool.

To test them, I am using the mountain picture I previously sharpened. I will enlarge it to 200% and see how the results compare to a ‘standard’ enlargement using the BiCubic algorithm.

Final thoughts

This is a large post, thank you reading this far. This has been a large comparison of the three photo apps I regularly use. I purchased them with my hard-earned cash because their unique strengths combine to make a winning team.

There is overlap in the features they offer. My strategy is to use the strengths of each, to produce the best results possible. I am aware that Luminar NEO’s addition of AI sharpening, noise removal, and upscaling competes with Topaz Photo AI. Topaz retains the advantage in these areas due to being much faster and having better quality results. But the quality gap is small and, if Luminar can address the speed issue, then it will really challenge Topaz. That’s a good thing—it will push Topaz to continue improving their product.

Topaz is adding extra features to Photo AI. It has introduced Adjust Lighting and Balance Colour modules, although they are not complete. They don’t work on RAW photos yet, and they are a work in progress. My first impression is that they work really well, enhancing the colours and overall look of the images. I will review them later when they are finished. I think Topaz is right to add such things to Photo AI. The competition is relentless, and they are doing the right thing improving the quality and breadth of Photo AI.

DXO remains the RAW converter of choice if the best quality output is desired. For those wanting to stick with another RAW converter, DXO Pure RAW is a good choice. It outputs the best RAW version of your image, which you then process in whatever converter you use. DXO Pure RAW plus Luminar NEO is an ideal combination.

DXO Photo Lab offers far more than image purity. It has tools, such as ClearView Plus, that provide fantastic image enhancement.

Luminar isn’t just about ‘arty’ conversions. It, too, offers ‘regular’ RAW processing functions, but its creative options are its unique selling point. And the addition of extra AI tools increases its appeal.

Topaz Photo AI is a photo finishing tool par excellence. It lacks the features needed to make it a true RAW converter, but astro photographers in particular should check out its superb RAW denoising. For noise reduction, sharpening and upscaling JPEGs and TIFs it remains pack leader.

Photo AI now has a competitor in Luminar NEO and Topaz will need to work hard to retain this quality and speed edge. That’s a good thing, IMHO.

Conclusion

Best ‘pure’ RAW converter: DXO Photo Lab & DXO Pure Raw

Best ‘artistic’ RAW Converter: Luminar NEO

Best RAW noise removal: DXO, but only just. Topaz Photo AI is better for astro photography and excellent for regular scenes. Luminar NEO is good.

You have to examine the pictures closely to declare a winner and all gave great results.

Best RAW conversion sharpening: DXO. Nothing competes with its first-pass RAW conversion sharpening. Photo AI and Luminar don’t offer a first pass sharpening option.

Best post-processing sharpening: Topaz Photo AI. It wins because it’s an order of magnitude faster than Luminar and edges Luminar for quality. Luminar produces good results but takes too long to do so. DXO only offers unsharp mask sharpening, which is OK, but nothing like as good as AI sharpening.

Best image enlarger: Topaz Photo AI. Its up-scaling is superior to Luminar’s. Luminar’s quality is good but, when
examined closely, Topaz Photo AI has the edge.

Best post-processing and non-RAW DeNoising: Topaz Photo AI, by a long way. It is faster than Luminar, and its results are superior. For extreme noise and astro photography, Topaz Photo AI is a league of its own.

Links

To get trial versions of these great apps, visit these links:

Topaz Photo AI

Luminar NEO

DXO Photo Lab

DXO Pure RAW

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All content is Copyright Andy Bell 2024

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