DxO PureRAW

In my post about improving my bird photos, I talked about increasing shutter speed and stopping down my lens to improve sharpness. Doing this requires increasing the ISO to gather enough light to expose the image but adds additional noise to the image. Images at ISO 5,000 and 10,000 are common, which destroys detail and color even on my D750.

The image above is a good example of a typical bird photo. Taken at 550mm, I needed ISO 3200 to expose for a minimum 1/640 shutter speed at f/8 on my D500. Even that was underexposed, requiring a +1 stop exposure bump in post, giving me the equivalent of an ISO 6400 image and all the noise that comes with it. The framing is good and the bird is large enough, but the noise is very visible. The detail is there but so is the noise.

The image on the left is detailed, but noisy. Lightroom obliterates the detail with its noise reduction. 😦

So what do I need? I need noise reduction. Lightroom has it but it is terrible at any level above the default. When turned up high enough to remove the noise, it also removes much of the detail and starts to border on a watercolor painting. I don’t use it because it’s just bad.

Turns out this is a common problem and there are plenty of tools that provide much better noise reduction than Lightroom while maintaining the details. These include DeNoise AI from Topaz Labs, On1 NoNoise AI from On1, Capture One, Skylum Luminar, and DxO Photo Lab. Many of these are full-fledged image management solutions and competitors to Lightroom but also offer plugins that allow you to shuffle images from Lightroom, apply edits, and send them back. The problem with this approach is that the images are transferred as TIFF’s with any RAW edits committed and no longer adjustable once they get back to Lightroom. It’s the same reason I don’t use Photoshop for many of my edits – I like to have the flexibility to continue RAW edits after the fact instead of having to ensure they are all complete before doing something like noise reduction.

Enter DxO PureRAW

DxO Pure RAW is different – it works with DNG files – allowing me to continue to make RAW edits after the image is returned to Lightroom. It does this by applying its edits and putting them into what’s called a Linear DNG, which basically commits DxO’s pixel-level adjustments into the file while keeping the RAW profile capability. The downside is that it still creates a new file, leaving me with a duplicate image, and that file is about 3x larger than the original RAW file. I only use PureRAW when I need it, so the file size impact is minimal.

So what does PureRAW actually do? Its main focus is on noise reduction and detail enhancement, but it also corrects distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration from lenses. Its noise reduction engine is called DeepPRIME and uses AI to remove noise from different areas of the image in different ways. It’s designed as a batch-style application where you drag a bunch of images in, click process, and dump them back into Lightroom. There are no sliders to adjust and no features to toggle on or off.

The interface is very easy to use and it even provides a before and after comparison slider to see how much better the image looks, but beware that the before image is a completely unprocessed RAW file and looks far grainier than the default Lightroom or Camera RAW processing would look. I like to consider Adobe’s defaults as my “before” and PureRAW doesn’t show that.

The Results

PureRAW came out in April 2021 and I downloaded a 30 day free trial to see what it was about. I had plenty of bird photos that were good overall but just too darn noisy, so I dropped a few in and was immediately impressed. The difference was like night and day. The noise nearly disappeared, replaced by smooth tones, but the detail remained and was even enhanced. It was astounding!

Regular Lightroom processing to keep detail (left) versus PureRAW (right)
Lightroom’s noise reduction (terrible, left) versus PureRAW (right). Look at all of the feather detail that PureRAW retains!

Since it outputs DNG files, it immediately fits into my workflow. I import all of my images into Lightroom as I normally do, cull out the bad ones, and edit the good ones. I drop any near-final images that have high grain into PureRAW and send them back to Lightroom after. This creates an additional file for each image, so I flag it the original and copy / paste the edits over from the original (all at once, not individually). Since PureRAW already performs lens correction and sharpening I do have to go into each image and disable the Lightroom versions of those corrections otherwise I end up with overly-high vignette correction. I can make that tweak to all of my PureRAW images at once using Lightroom’s Sync feature. While PureRAW does not yet run natively on my M1 Mac, it still processes every image relatively fast, in about 15 seconds.

Before (left) and after (right) – This ISO 36,000 image went from unusable to usable.
PureRAW can make a difference even on less noisy images like this portrait at ISO 1600 – look at the eye and eyelash detail.

The result are images that contain all of my edits exactly as I had them, but with significantly reduced noise and moderately finer detail. I can continue adjusting the images as much as I want and I don’t lose any of the quality of RAW edits. That’s extremely powerful because it means I can use PureRAW at any point in my workflow. I’ll get the same result if I drop images into it before I make a single Lightroom adjustment or after I’ve already finalized everything and copied the edits back over.

Drawbacks and Wish List

So far I’m really enjoying PureRAW. The quality is amazing and it fits into any part of my workflow. The most important part is that I continue to get RAW editing latitude regardless of where I use it. That said, I would like to have some control over the type and amount of adjustments that are applied. While I can disable all of the lens corrections, I can’t disable parts of them (e.g. disable vignette correction but keep perspective correction) or dial up or down the amount. I’d also like the ability to tweak the amount or configuration of the noise correction in case I’m trying to recover something really noisy or if I don’t want as much reduction applied. At the moment PureRAW is focused on being a one-button batch application, but I’d like a bit more control. That’s why I use RAW in the first place.

Conclusion

I’m not much of a trend-follower and I prefer to use tools that get the job done. PureRAW is one of those tools. I won’t use it on every image and I still prefer to get images at ISOs that aren’t noisy to begin with, but it allows me to save and enhance photos that I otherwise wouldn’t. I can use higher ISOs in an area that I typically wouldn’t, like a portrait, and correct it later. PhotoRAW lets me capture more images in more places.

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