Photoshop is more than just the gold standard by which all graphic programs are measured. It has become a verb that means “to turn an ordinary graphic into something that totally rocks.” We’ve all seen the amazing magic it can do on magazine covers and websites. But such power comes at the price of a staggering and mind-numbing learning curve.
If you’re like me, you probably know some of the basics well enough that you can transform amateur photos into decent enough ones. And you have probably watched or read a number of online tutorials. You might have even bought one of the many thick books that promise to turn you into a Photoshop master. I bought one, but reading it for very long makes my brain hurt.
I can most definitely use some serious help. That’s why I was overjoyed at the opportunity to review the Topaz Labs Plug-In Bundle. I was blown away by the “Before & After” examples displayed at on their website.
The Bundle contains 10 plug-ins that promise to be not only simple enough for amateurs like me, but flexible enough for professionals as well:
- Topaz Adjust 5: corrects color, detail and exposure and includes stunning HDR effects.
- Topaz B&W Effects: versatile Black and White conversion and enhancement tool.
- Topaz Clean 3: tool for smoothing skin textures, removing defects and stylizing.
- Topaz DeJPEG 4: removes JPEG compression artifacts and enhances quality and detail.
- Topaz DeNoise 5: removes noise and banding while recovering details.
- Topaz Detail 2: selectively enhances detail intensity and depth without artifacts.
- Topaz InFocus: rescues blurred images and sharpens micro-details with vivid clarity.
- Topaz Lens Effects: a virtual camera bag of lenses and filters.
- Topaz Remask 3: a dream-come-true masking tool that can isolate fine details.
- Topaz Simplify 3: transforms photos into “works-of-art” like cartoons, oils and watercolors.
I immediately downloaded the 30-day trial of the bundle and requested a trial key. But there was some problem with the request process. So I emailed Topaz labs at the address shown on the trial page. Within 30 minutes I had received a reply with a trial key and was on my way.
Installation was very straight forward. When I opened up a snapshot into Photoshop, I found an entry at the bottom of the Filter drop-down menu for “Topaz Labs.” When you choose to apply any of the plug-ins, a separate window will open up. You have to activate each plug-in individually via the “Menu” bottom at the bottom left corner. Otherwise, you’ll be prompted to activate it the first time you try to save your work.
After making sure all the plug-ins were working and activated, my next task was to find some photos that need some help. Last year, I accompanied my brother on a road trip through British Columbia. I took hundreds of shoots with a small point-and-shoot Canon that I was totally unfamiliar with. When I got home, I discovered that it had been set at 640×480 resolution for the whole time. That’s about the quality of pictures taken by first generation cameras in cell phones!
Those photographs needed much more help than my meager Photoshop skills could provide. But they’ll be great for testing the Topaz Bundle. If it can help make bad photos look fairly good, just imagine what it can do for well done, high-resolution photographs.
True HDR (HighDynamicRange) imaging requires at least two shots of the same scene taken at different camera settings to pull out the details in its darkest and lightest parts. But what if you’re driving along and spot an elk? I wouldn’t count on it not moving while you set up a tripod.
Topaz Adjust has a number of HDR presets that can make the colors and hidden details of a single photo really pop. As we’ll see later, I also found Topaz Adjust to be invaluable when I processed some other shots through several Topaz plug-ins in succession.
Next, let’s look at the “Before & After” of a sight you will often see driving through the Canadian Rockies. I used Topaz Detail with the “Fill Light” preset to bring out the details in the mountains and add some much needed lighting to trees lining the highway. What a difference!
The plug-in that excited me the most is Topaz Remask. I’ve found that masking out parts of a photo to do selective color corrections is tedious and frustrating work. This tool makes it fast, simple and easy. Instead of showing you an example—wouldn’t you rather see the masking of a
young hottie instead of me? I thought so—take a look at this video tutorial of Remask in action. It’s simply amazing how easily it can mask out tiny wisps of blond hair from the background.
Here’s a screenshot of Topaz Lens Effects as the final step in a process. I used Topaz DeJEPG first to remove some of the blockiness in the original snapshot. Then I ran it through Topaz Adjust with the “Medium Pop Smooth” preset to bring out the high details and enhance the colors. Lastly in Topaz Lens Effects, I selected the “Dual Tone Filter” and made some tweaks to the “Top Left Red Leak” preset. And voilà!—an unremarkable photo becomes quite interesting.
If you look just above the cursor, you’ll notice a great feature in all the Topaz plug-ins. You can take a “Snapshot” of the current settings. Then you can safely try tweaking various settings. If you don’t like the result, returning to an earlier group of settings is just a click away.
Next I want to show what the wonders Topaz Bundle can for even a disastrously bad photo. I had spotted a Jackalope head hanging on the wall of pub in downtownVictoria. But the camera’s battery was so low the flash wouldn’t fire!
In the panel below, the first shot shows the original—I thought it was a complete loss but I decided to see what could be done. The second one is result of tweaking the “Levels” in Photoshop. Next, I ran it through Topaz DeNoise and then Topaz Detail. Looks a great deal better but… Then, as you can see in the fifth shot, I remembered the surrealistic effects of the “Stylize Details” preset in Topaz Clean.
It’s starting to become interesting… but what if I ran it through Topaz Clean again? As you can see below, the second pass transformed a total loss into a bizarre “work-of-art.”
For the finale, let’s look at Topaz Simplify. This time, I chose a high-resolution shot taken by my brother using a high-end Nikon DLSR set on a tripod. We had noticed a Canuck woodland critter having a snack. I used the “Oil Painting” preset to produce the charming result below.
Note the upper left and right panels above. The one on the left will show the effects of a preset when your cursor hovers over it while the right one shows the pre-processed image and the adjustable selection that will be displayed in the center. These panels are illustrative of the time and thought that have gone into crafting the Topaz plug-ins.
But Topaz Labs doesn’t stop there. They offer lots of support so you can best the most out of their plug-ins. They have video tutorials on their YouTube channel, well-written and thorough User Guides as well as archives of the in-depth webinars they periodically offer for free. There’s also a user forum where you can get technical support, learn new tricks and show off your own masterpieces.
Although it’s designed for Photoshop CS3-CS6, most of the plug-ins can be used in other programs like Infraview, Lightroom, and PaintShop Pro. You can find the listing of compatible Mac and Windows software on the specifications page.
If you’re serious about your photography or you just enjoy playing with photos, you owe to yourself to check out the 30-day trial and see what the Topaz Labs Plug-In Bundle can do for you. I’ve found it to be an excellent, finely-crafted toolbox well worth having. I simply love it.
Reviewed by Jelson