I've been a dyed-in-the-wool Photoshop user for years now and have never seriously considered any alternative workflow except Lightroom. I've tried Lightroom a number of times over the years but have always found it lacking (for my purposes). But now a new (to me) app, DxO Photolab 2 has me reconsidering my loyalty to Adobe Bridge & Camera Raw. Because I recently received a free copy of PL2 (along with my upgrade to the latest version of the Nik Collection) and because Bridge hasn’t received any significant updates in some time (none that are useful to me, at least) I decided to give PL2 a try.
Adobe Bridge Issues
At the same time, I’ve had some irksome problems with Bridge, including:
- It can be slow. Not nearly as slow as Lightroom, mind you, but slower than Photo Lab 2, for sure.
- Bridge often displays blurry image previews, both in the Preview Window and when previewing full screen. If you click to blow the image up to 100% it then becomes sharp. But I don't always want the image at full screen size. And that’s an extra step that slows my workflow. There may to be a workaround for this; details below.
- There is no histogram within Bridge—you have to open Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). This slows me down when culling images and checking to see if a portion of the image is blown out or blocked up. And opening Camera Raw implies opening Photoshop which is not a speedy operation even on my speedy PC. Having a histogram directly in Bridge would also be helpful in selecting the best image from an exposure-bracketed series.
There are other major and minor annoyances. A major annoyance is Bridge’s limit of only two zoom levels. A more minor problem is the way that Bridge sometimes defaults to the sRGB color space or to a lower resolution version of your images. This is settable in ACR but you have to keep your eye on it because it occasionally seems to change of its own accord. I’ve also had problems with losing collections and keywords during software upgrades.
DxO’s PhotoLab 2 avoids some of these problems while also providing some useful features that are lacking in Bridge/ACR. The most powerful of these additional features are “Local Adjustments.” Local Adjustments is PL2’s name for the Control Points (U Point Technology) which allow you to very quickly create selections/masks which you can then use for selectively applying adjustments.
At the same time, Bridge/ACR, together with Photoshop, provide powerful features that cannot be matched by PL2. And, if I’m going to switch there will also be a cost in terms of adapting my workflow. So, I decided to do an in-depth comparison of the two to help me decide which options would provide the best workflow for my needs.
One of the problems with Bridge/ACR is that these are two different pieces of software. Some functions are done in one app and some in the other. For example, as I previously mentioned, with Bridge you have to launch ACR (which also opens Photoshop) before you can see a histogram. But with PL2 you can see a histogram by quickly switching from PhotoLibrary mode to Customize mode by just clicking a tab:
In editing (Customize) mode the histogram is immediately visible.
Differences and Similarities
Control Points & Local Adjustments
I’d like to continue with an overview of some of the key differences between Bridge and PL2. Most notable is the inclusion of Control Points in PhotoLab 2. If you’ve never seen control points before do yourself a favor and learn about them because it could substantially change your workflow. You should run, not walk, to DxO’s U Point Technology page or to this short YouTube video where you can see them in action.
In 25 words or less: Control Points are the quickest way of creating accurate selections/masks that I’ve seen in any photo editing app. This powerful feature alone is reason enough to consider switching from Bridge to PhotoLab 2.
But let me back up a minute and briefly describe the PL2 user interface so you can better understand how Control Points apply. When you first open PL2 you see a screen that looks a lot like Bridge or Lightroom:
This screen allows you to browse your folders and images in the same way you would do with Bridge. From there, you can switch to the Customize tab to either edit your images directly or open them in another app (such as Nik’s Color Efex Pro).
With PhotoLab 2, just as in Adobe Camera Raw, you can apply non-destructive exposure adjustments globally to entire photos. These adjustments are stored in a sidecar file in the same folder with your photos. In the case of ACR these sidecar files have an .XMP file extension; PL2 uses a .DOP extension. Either way, once you make exposure & color adjustments your edits are saved and the next time you view/edit the photo the same adjustments will be applied. But wait—there’s more!
In ACR if you want to apply localized adjustments such as darkening the sky without affecting the foreground you have to use the Brush, the Graduated Filter or a Radial Filter, etc. These are quite useful but they’re not as fast and accurate for most purposes as Control Points.
In PL2 you can start by doing global (entire image) adjustments and then you can fine-tune your image using one or more Control Points. This provides the ability to very quickly adjust photos without any brushing, building of lassos, or otherwise manually creating selections. Control Points are also, in my experience, quicker and more accurate than Photoshop’s Quick Select tool for most purposes.
I was disappointed, however, by the inability to temporarily turn off individual Control Points. When editing it’s common to switch back and forth between the original and edited versions of a photo. This allows you to better see how well your edits are working. PL2 does have this ability for the whole photo, as does ACR, but PL2 doesn’t provide an option to turn off individual Control Points to see exactly what changes a given CP is making. The Nik Collection apps like Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro do provide this ability and I find it quite helpful for seeing exactly what effect each CP is having.
Of course, there are lots of situations where a quick automatic tool just won’t be adequate. In those cases, you can still fall back on Photoshop with all its powerful selection and masking features.
Tagging & Rating
One of the key features of a digital asset management (DAM) program is the ability to quickly and easily rate photos and tag them for further editing. Adobe Bridge provides three mechanisms for this purpose: labels, star ratings and keywords. PL2 also has labels, called tags or selection markers, but it offers only two options for labels vs. Bridge’s five. Both Bridge and PL2 offer from zero to five stars.
Of course, both apps have the ability to filter images based on criteria that you specify although I have to say I found the feature hard to find in PL2. Bridge provides both a menu option and a filter icon in the toolbar. PL2 provides only the filter icon and it’s not in the top toolbar like Bridge. Instead it’s in another toolbar which is located closer to the middle of the screen. By carefully scanning the entire PL2 UI I eventually found it there. While I was still searching for it I checked the user guide but didn’t find any information about how to filter in the “Sorting & selecting the best images” section. In fact, I found the user guide to be very skimpy overall. Too often, the explanations were terse and minimal. Furthermore, the online user guide is essentially unformatted so there’s no control over the page layout like you see in the PDF version of the Bridge manual.
Getting back to filtering… PL2 works in the opposite way of Bridge. In Bridge you show a selection of images based on the attributes of the images you want to see. With PL2 you hide images based on the attributes you don’t want to see. This latter approach feels awkward to me. Maybe it’s just because it’s different from the way I’m used to working but it does seem to require extra mouse clicks. In Bridge I can quickly choose “Show Labeled Items Only.” Later, if I want to see everything again I can clear the filter. But with PL2 I have to turn off both untagged and rejected images in order to see only the selected photos. Then, to see all images again I have to turn back on both untagged and rejected images. Same issue for star ratings.
Both apps also have the ability to sort a folder’s contents based on various image attributes. Here are the fields available in PL2:
Here’s the list of options for Bridge; these seem more useful to me:
Don’t ask me what Processing Status is. I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.
Other Tagging/Rating/Sorting Issues
One other Bridge feature that I regularly use is the Stacking feature. I often take three or more bracketed exposures which can be combined easily into a single stack in Bridge. The stack can be expanded or collapsed depending on your needs at the moment. PL2 doesn’t have stacks.
Another feature that is absent from PL2 is Keywords. Bridge has the ability to create and assign keywords and sub-keywords to images. And, of course, Bridge is able to search for specified keywords. In fact, this search feature is quite robust with the ability to search based on much more than just keywords:
And there is a full set of Boolean operators:
After you get your search results you can then apply a filter (e.g., 3 or more stars) to further refine your results. Finally, you can save your results as a Smart Collection.
Zooming and Panning
I need to back up a step now and look at some basic functionality which should be a no-brainer requirement for a digital asset management (DAM) offering: sharp zooming and panning. You might be surprised to hear that lots of people have problems with getting blurry images in Adobe Bridge in preview mode.
To review: if you click on a thumbnail and then press space the selected image is blown up to fill the screen (or to 100% of actual image size, whichever comes first). Unfortunately, in my experience that preview image is often blurry. Before you tell me to get new eyeglasses take a look at these results from a Google Search. You’ll notice that, not only do lots of other people have this problem but this is a longstanding issue. At the time of my search (July 15, 2019) I see results going all the way back to 2010.
I’ve found a partial workaround by clicking on the preview image which is then blown up to 100%—and then the image is sharp. But for my typical 23 MB photo file that means I’m seeing about 20% of the image on my HD screen. I usually don’t want to start out looking at a photo zoomed all the way in. OK, if I click again it zooms back out to fit the image on my monitor and then it’s sharp. But that’s two clicks more than should be necessary as well as a waste of 2 seconds for something that should be immediate. And in PhotoLab 2 it is! PL2 has none of these problems with blurriness in preview mode.
But wait—there’s more (or maybe less, depending on your point of view). In Bridge there are only three image viewing sizes: thumbnail (which can be as large or small as your screen allows), fit-on-screen preview and 100%-zoomed in preview. When I think about this it seems ridiculous that that’s all you get from Bridge. In 2019.
PhotoLab 2 to the rescue again! PL2 obligingly allows you to zoom to any arbitrary zoom level. Click once to select an image. Roll the mouse wheel to zoom in or out in roughly 2% increments. Click and drag to pan a zoomed-in image. It seems so obvious that this is the way a DAM should work that I feel embarrassed for Adobe that Bridge doesn’t attain this base level of functionality. How would Bridge answer this accusation? Open the image in Camera Raw. Then you can zoom in and out to your heart’s content. If you don’t like that there are workarounds circulating on the net that tell you to clear Bridge’s preview cache. I’ve tried this a few times and have had some provisional success. But even if it works I then need to rebuild the cache in order to have good viewing performance. And how long will it be before I need to clear the cache again? Sigh.
These two issues have been a thorn in my side for years and a substantial part of my motivation to evaluate PhotoLab 2 as an alternative to Bridge.
Contrary to my statement below, DxO software user John M pointed out that it is possible to have a non-destructive workflow using DxO's PhotoLab 2 and a Nik filter like Color Efex Pro. In my opinion this workflow, though possible, is less convenient than a non-destructive workflow using Adobe Bride/Camera Raw and Photoshop.
The first problem with the DxO workflow is that it requires a manual step of exporting the CEP settings. This could get tedious when making multiple changes to a filter's settings. Another problem is that PL2 settings could change between the first time an image is edited and a subsequent edit. This could cause the photo to change in an unexpected way. And a third problem I see is that if you want multiple Nik (or other software) filters the workflow becomes even more manual and is too unwieldy. (E.g., if you want both CEP and Dfine.)
John M and I had a lengthy discussion on the DxO forum. You can follow our discussion there: https://feedback.dxo.com/t/comparison-of-photo-editing-using-photolab-2-vs-adobe-bridge-acr/8658/10
Next, I’d like to discuss the overall process of taking an image from first look all the way through basic editing. For Adobe Bridge/Camera Raw/Photoshop here’s the procedure:
- Look at thumbnails in Bridge; use the two zoom modes described above to zoom in for a closer look.
- If the photo looks promising open in Adobe Camera Raw. Apply basic corrections in ACR. How far you take this is optional. Usually, I’ll just do some really basic adjustments: exposure, color correction, lens distortion removal and a touch of clarity.
- If I need more than steps 1 & 2 I’ll usually take the image into Photoshop next.
This is just my typical process. Other people do a lot more work in ACR. That’s fine. I just usually feel boxed in by the limitations of ACR so I figure I might as well go all the way into Photoshop where the sky is the limit. Unless it’s blown out 😁.
Step 1 doesn’t make any adjustments and any step 2 adjustments are non-destructive so that’s great. Within Photoshop you do, of course, have the option of either a destructive or a non-destructive workflow. I tend to lean toward non-destructive for serious work; for quick snapshots I don’t mind a bit of destructive editing. (And I can always create a backup copy of a layer.) This fully non-destructive option is where Bridge/ACR/PS has an advantage in my opinion.
Here’s the default workflow for PhotoLab 2 with the Nik Collection:
- Same as 1 above: preview and select (except that here you have a full range of zoom in/out options).
- Analogous to 2 above: Make non-destructive edits using PL2. Now, at this step PL2 has a serious advantage with its Control Point feature. ACR’s local editing tools are anemic by comparison.
- But I have a problem is when I get to this stage. Suppose you now want to apply filters in Nik Color Efex Pro. PL2 has a nice button that will take you there. But there’s a detour! First, PL2 exports its edited raw file to a TIFF file—which bakes in the PL2 edits so that they are now destructive (i.e., no longer editable). Similarly, any changes applied in any of the Nik Collection tools get baked in immediately.
So, with the DxO approach only the PL2 edits are non-destructive and then only if you don’t apply any further effects. But with ACR/PS you have the option of a completely non-destructive workflow all the way through. Here’s that procedure:
- After making changes in ACR open as a SmartObject1. Now, from within Photoshop you can close the file and then reopen it; then, reopen the SmartObject and make any further edits in ACR non-destructively.
- Next, the Pièce De Résistance: open the file again and then edit in Color Efex Pro (or other Nik filter). Add one or more CEP filter layers, as desired. Save & Close.
- Reopen: your original ACR adjustments are still preserved as editable. Tweak these as desired. Open again in Color Efex Pro and edit as you wish. Tweak your existing settings or replace filters with new ones. All done non-destructively. And there are other advantages: you can duplicate the original layer before editing in Nik; you can add Photoshop notes to remind yourself or others about key points of the processing; and more.
DxO can’t compete on this playing field. What about PL2’s powerful Control Points which allow for quick localized non-destructive editing? ACR & Photoshop don’t have those. But guess what? Viveza has control points, too and a lot of the same adjustments as PL2. Plus, Viveza can be applied as a SmartFilter just like Color Efex Pro. Viveza doesn’t do everything that PL2 can but it accomplishes a lot of the most common tasks.
These issues I’ve discussed above are the most important ones for the way I edit photos. So, for my purposes, I’m leaning heavily toward the full non-destructive workflow described in the four-step procedure above. I may do a bit more testing.
And there’s a lot of other features that may distinguish one product or the other. I don’t have the time to cover them here but here’s a short list in case any of these matter to you:
- PL2 has presets that might save you time or provide a different look that you might not have considered. And you can create your own presets.
- PL2 has Projects which sound similar to Bridge’s Collections. But Bridge also has Smart Collections.
- If you’re thinking about using both Bridge and PL2 be aware that PL2’s DOP sidecar files show up in Bridge thumbnails as an unrecognized file type. If you do a lot of editing in PL2 and then look at your folder in Bridge it will be littered with DOP icons. You can filter those out in Bridge but then you have to do that every time you go to a different folder.
- Bridge has a bunch of built-in workspaces with the option for you to customize these and save them as new workspaces.
- Image files in PL2 can have a variety of Processing Statuses. I don’t know what the implications of these are. Does time have to be spent processing files? Processing is discussed here but the meaning is not elucidated.
- PL2 has a search feature. I don’t know how it works. Again, the user manual is not very helpful.
- PL2 does not show the last modified date for files. Seems like an odd omission. Maybe I’m just missing it.
1 If you open a raw file from Bridge and then open it as a SmartObject it does indeed come into Photoshop as an SO with the ability to make further adjustments to the ACR settings. But the icon in the Layers palette doesn't say Camera Raw like it does if you open it from Bridge with no initial adjustments and then create an SO followed by ACR adjustments. It just shows as an undifferentiated SO. Just a small difference—you have to remember that there might be an ACR adjustment lurking in there.