Saturday, May 3, 2014

Review: Topaz Labs photography plug-ins

Many of my readers have noticed an improvement in the quality of my recent blog photographs. (This Ring-billed Gull was taken on Wednesday near Northfield.) This advance is due to software by Topaz Labs that comes in the form of plug-ins that work with popular photo editors (including Photoshop, Lightroom, and iPhoto).

Topaz Labs offers a suite of 14 plug-ins for $379.99, half of the cost of buying the plug-ins individually. If this price is a bit high for your budget, you can purchase only the most essential plug-ins for your needs. The individual plug-ins, which run independently, are occasionally on sale for half-price (around $20 to $40). All the plug-ins are offered with a 30-day free trial, and satisfaction is guaranteed. Topaz promises a full refund, no questions asked, if you are in anyway dissatisfied. Rather uniquely, Topaz Labs gives you free upgrades on their products for life! I did not have to wait 30 days to figure out that these are great programs.

The plug-ins do many of the same things that you can already do with your photo-editing software, but they are specifically designed to perform better. The plug-ins often attack the problems they fix more holistically than non-dedicated programs. The plug-ins effortlessly download and install and come in both Mac and PC versions.

Here is my normal work-flow, using the four Topaz plug-ins that I own to date. (First I do an automatic levels fix in Photoshop, followed by tinkering with color saturation).

Topaz DeNoise rids a file of noise. Noise occurs in almost all photographs, especially those taken at an ASA setting of 400 (like I do). Photos taken in dim light and low speeds are also prone to noise. With sliding buttons in the plug-in, noise can be removed while detail is maintained. Basically the photograph is made less grainy. The result is like having a very expensive lens that allows you to get shots you might otherwise miss. My recent Sora photo was taken on a drizzly, dark day at an 80th of a second. Thanks to DeNoise, you might think the day had been sunny!

Topaz InFocus, as its name suggests, sharpens photos. The plug-in offers several ways to restore focus—fixing camera shake and reversing blur or fuzziness due to your subject’s forward motion (very helpful with many photos of birds on the wing). At the same time, InFocus refines and sharpens image detail. Other programs sharpen photos by sharpening only the edges within an image. InFocus, on the other hand, has algorithms that detect and fix what made the original photo out of focus. The result is that lost image detail may be recovered. A good photo will become superb. A mediocre photo will become good. Sadly, a completely out of focus photo may be beyond repair. My recent photo of flying Black-necked Stilts was blurry before I applied InFocus.

Topaz Detail is the best of the plug-ins that I have used. If you buy just one, get Detail. This plug-in achieves exquisite image detail and allows you to manipulate the intensity of your photograph. The results are seen in my recent Sora photos. Photos manipulated with Detail can be made to be vivid and almost three-dimensional. There is a learning curve to all these Topaz products. Topaz comes with instructions, has video clip help, and, perhaps more useful, preset settings that you can use to compare the results on the photograph you are currently developing.

Finally, Topaz DeJPEG gives you the ability to improve the quality of JPEG images. JPEG format is commonly used on the Internet and is often required in blogging programs. The problem is that JPEG images often contain artifacts caused by compression during saving. Outlines in the images are often disrupted. These flaws are not always too noticeable until DeJPEG fixes them. Sharpness is enhanced, noise reduced, and color maintained. The result is a clear, clean, photograph. Pictures appear as though they are taken with a lower ASA setting instead of my normal 400.

If you take digital photos, I urge you to take advantage of Topaz Lab’s 30-day trial.  If you are like I am, you will be hooked!

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