Funk (not the George Clinton kind), and a Review of Topaz Labs Software

Me Rambling

It’s been a while.  A long freakin’ time, I know.  If you knew me, you’d completely understand, okay? I am soooo not a talker.  I need an outgoing girlfriend or a chatty best buddy to do this stuff for me, because as you know, I don’t jabber much.  So consider this my apology.

It sucks.  I’ve been completely off the grid lately.  I completely blame myself, too, so it’s not like I have good cause, either.  I get ideas in my head, and that’s what I want to shoot.  I don’t want to do other interim ideas while I’m waiting for something to happen before I can do what I really want to do – I wait.  Sometimes, it’s good, sometimes it’s not.

I was waiting on two things to happen:

  1. To get access to a particular freight elevator.
  2. To get my bike back from the paint shop.

Well, with someone retiring, #1 has now happened, and after three freakin’ months, #2 finally happened, so now it’s just my lazy butt.  So DON’T BE LIKE ME, BOYS AND GIRLS!  Don’t get fixated on ideas; it’s not healthy, and it holds you up.  Kinda like eating too much bread.  (Yeah, there’s a mental image you didn’t need.  You’re welcome.)

Okay, onto the review…

Topaz Labs Software

http://www.topazlabs.com

They have a number of products in their suite, including:

  1. Adjust – Adjusts contrast, colour and detail.
  2. B&W Effects – Black and white, in a variety of tones.
  3. Clarity – Boosts contrast more intensely.
  4. Clean – Smooths an image out on edges and texture.
  5. DeJPEG – Makes JPEGs look less like JPEGs.
  6. DeNoise – Gets rid of the noise.  Sorry, Chuck.
  7. Detail – Loses the halo effect.  ‘Cause, you know, we ain’t exactly angels around here.
  8. InFocus – Gets rid of shake and blur.  ‘Cause lets face it, we’d ALL like to get rid of Blur!
  9. Lens Effects – Lens effects, as if you had other, expensive and funky lenses.  George Clinton funk*, not my previous “I haven’t shot lately” funk.
  10. ReMask – Makes masking complicated things like hair, veils, TREES, a breeze!
  11. ReStyle – Not actually sure about this one.  It’s not in the menu or in the PhotoFXLab.  Unless it’s the effects themselves in the PhotoFXLab menu?  Anyway, I’m not going to talk about this one further.
  12. Star Effects – Adds trippy flashy stuff.  Think sparkles on diamonds.
  13. PhotoFXLab – A control panel of effects within Photoshop.  You’ll see in the screenshot below.

Just so that you can see a sample of how these work, I’m going to use a recent shot I took up north of my charming aunt, out on the boat.  She’s not actually mad at me, as her face in the picture may imply.  Well, she might be a little, when she sees that I’m using her as my demo model, but c’est la vie (“that’s life”).

A lot of these have a number of options, so while I may mention that they have a variety, I won’t show all options.  I’ll just give you an idea of what you can expect, and one sample.

Here’s the shot at a colour temp of 6000k and no other tweaks – everything else is at 0.

6000K, no other adjustments.

6000K, no other adjustments.

 

Adjust

This has overall colouring changes.  It ranges from the basics (cool, warm, high/low key) to more funky ones like Sketch – Color and Solarized Dreams I-III.  There are two groups of settings that I prefer to use here: Classic Collection and Film Collection.  Classic has the basics that you can use every day, while Film has ones that I like to use when I’m aiming for an older photograph look.  I tend not to use most of the others very often, as I don’t like to go overboard on my images, but that’s just me.  Here’s a sample of “Retro III” from the Film Collection:

Retro III from the Film Collection

Retro III from the Film Collection

B&W Effects

I almost had a really pissy comment here, because B&W Effects wasn’t loading on my Mac (my PC is down right now with BIOS issues – ASUS, get off your butts and tell me if I can order a frickin’ BIOS chip already!  I know it’s removable!).  …but I digress.  A download of the B&W Effects on its own and running the installer fixed it right up.  Array! 🙂

The thing I really like about B&W is that they do have a wide range (beyond just the traditional overexposed/underexposed stuff), and some of it looks like you did masking work after the fact, to bring back colour.  When you’re not interested in doing a manual black and white conversion, or you just don’t have the time, Topaz has a lot of options that work.

As an example of one with a little colour in it, here’s “Tea Green Fall Off” from the Opalotype Collection.  I don’t usually use ones with colour in them, but I thought it’d be a cool example.  Plus, I like the name.  Really, doesn’t Tea Green Fall Off sound like some new slang for weed?  “Hey dude, I know this guy, grows the best tea green fall off you’ve ever had!”

 

Tea Green Fall Off

Tea Green Fall Off

Clarity

Clarity will clean it up, but not just a general sweep.  You can tell it what you’re looking for, and it’ll react accordingly.  Again, it’s all about the collections.  Architecture, Fashion, Wedding, Portrait, etc., and within each collection, you have a preset (editable, as are all presets in the Topaz Lab software) that is intuitively named.  As an example, within the Wedding collection, there is Bouquet I, Bride I, Rings & Stills I, and so on.

I’ll admit, I don’t use this one a whole lot.  Nothing against it, it’s just not one that I tend to fire up very often.  I can see, however, that it would be quite useful to people, so I’m not knocking it. As a sample, here’s Portrait-Soft from the Portrait Collection:

Portrait-Soft

Portrait-Soft

 

Clean

This one cleans up skin and edges.  To be rightly honest, this is the first time I’ve really used this one.   I haven’t found any use for some of them yet (particularly the ones in the Cartoon Collection), and while I would normally get the most use out of the Skin Collection, I picked up a fantastic action from SharkPixel.com during a webinar with the amazingly talented Kristina (if you go there, it’s free, by the way).

No really.  Go get it.  I’ll wait.

Okay, now where were we?

Ah yes.  As I was saying, this one, if I didn’t have the aforementioned action, would be great.  However I do.  Sorry, Topaz.  That said, here’s a sample from the Skin collection – Skin Even, to be precise.  Actually, it does look good, I must say, but you definitely need to mask off skin, or everything else gets too blurred in the process. Look at the vest, the seat cushion, the water and the trees, then compare them to the original, to see what I mean.

Skin Even

Skin Even

 

DeJpeg

I can’t say I’ve ever played with this before.  I don’t shoot in Jpeg, so this one is new to me.  Instead, I had to grab a jpeg from the Internet and try it.  I found one that’s really rough, and only used presets, no tweaking.  If you look in the “J” and to the left of it, it did a pretty good job, given the mess it had to work with.  I’m sure that, with some adjustments, I could have done better, but I didn’t shoot that, so I’m not wasting my time on it!

DeJPEG - Very Noisy

DeJPEG – Very Noisy

 

DeNoise

Yeaaaah boyeeeeeee!

Man, I really tried to write this without getting any Public Enemy references in my head, but it just didn’t work. I’m a Gen X’er, so sue me.  Anyway, this is why I bought the software in the first place.  I had an image, a while back, that I wanted to clean up, but it was beyond my capabilities. I did my homework and compared a whole bunch of software, like Noise Ninja, Neat Image, NDNoise, and others.

In no comparison did DeNoise come in first, in terms of speed.  It is one of the slower ones out there, be advised.  However, in every review I came across, it ranked in at least the top two, if not the very top.  Since I don’t have any images right now that have any noise (I try not to take images with noise, and I have this nasty habit of deleting bad images), I found one on the web and ran it through the denoiser.  Again, no tweaking.  This is just merely a sample.

DeNoise: Jpeg Moderate

DeNoise: Jpeg Moderate

Detail

This one I don’t play with much, but upon looking at it, I should.  It has a variety of useful presets in it.  Creative, Highlight, Shadow, and Stylized Details, as well as Smooth Collection give you a whole whack of toys.  If you shot too dark and want to pop the highlights, done.  Did the reverse? Easy ’nuff.  The Smooth Collection is another skin smoother, which might be a little overkill, but since most of us shoot people (depending what mood you’re in, that might’ve come out wrong), you can never have too many skin editors.

The one I’m thinking I’ll like, though, is the Stylized Detail collection.  With some masking, it’ll help transform the background easily enough.  The sample I’m going to use is “Cool Dreams”, specifically because the photo was shot on an overcast day with very dark clouds coming in fast, and a very dark water below.  Granted, I’d want to play with the settings a little, but the Cool Dreams gives it more a look of being out on a nice day (albeit cool, since she does still have her vest and sweater on).

Cool Dreams

Cool Dreams

InFocus

InFocus is just that – a de-blurring tool.  Like anything else, if you’ve been whipping your camera around like you’re a ninja, then no, nothing short of intense therapy is going to help.  However, for those times when you screw up in the minor sense, yeah, it’ll save your bacon.

I’m not going to bother posting a before and after, here.  It’s a long weekend, and I’m too lazy to go out and take slightly blurry photos just to get this right.  Just one of life’s little disappointments!

 

Lens Effects

This has a bunch of effects, ranging from “yeah, I could use this every day” to “huh?”  There’s just one collection here, so you just go through the list and see what you like.  Things like the Split Prism, that make it look like you’re seeing it through a kaleidoscope, tend to be ones I never touch, but there are also ones like Filter-Polarization that do come in handy.

This one is a feature you use when you want to get your art on.  I tend to go for more realistic photographs (yeah, I know – boring!), so other than the Polarizer, Graduated ND, and one or two others, I don’t spend much time in here.

Just for kicks, since we were out on the water, here’s Fog II.

Fog II

Fog II

PhotoFXLab

PhotoFXLab is a base for everything.It lets you run all of the effects or plug-ins from one central location, if you want.  One nice feature (and you’ll see in the screen shot, in the bottom right) is that it has a layer list, with the option to duplicate, so you can create a layer for each effect, rather than making an effect, exiting, duplicating, re-entering, and repeating.  It also has the Opacity and Blending Modes in there as well, in case you wanted to make an effect an Overlay, rather than a Normal layer.

Top left has tools for masking, adjusting settings (or the entire layer/mask/image), which again, is very handy and saves leaving all the time.  Top right has the effects list, and the history, that can be undone, just like anything else in Photoshop.  They also have the EXIF data; I haven’t had a need for this yet, but I’m sure someone has.

PhotoFX Lab

PhotoFX Lab

Simplify

I’m not sure why they call this Simplify, because it doesn’t, really.  It has cutesy artistic changes, to turn your photograph into a sketch drawing or a cartoon or things to that effect.  There is a Dust Removal and Spot Removal section, but if you’re changing your lenses properly and keeping them clean, you shouldn’t have a whole lot of problems in this field in the first place.

Until this post, I don’t think I’ve ever produced an image using this feature.  Again, for the more artistic crowd, it may be quite useful – just not for me.

Cartoon Black and White

Cartoon Black and White

Star Effects

This is another artsy one, so I hope you’ll understand when I say I’m not too big on it.  It is exactly as the name implies – star effects.  Remember those pictures you had when you were a kid in hockey or figure skating, and the photographer added stars dancing on your helmet or costume?  That’s what this is.

Some of the ones, like the Sun Flare series, can add a nice touch, but for my taste, they’re about it.  Now, for a commercial purpose, like jewellery or luxury cars?  Hell yeah.  I’d probably be all over this one like white on rice.  Add it as a new layer, tone down the opacity, and it could rock.

Jewel Sparkle II

Jewel Sparkle II

 ReMask

This one is part of the PhotoFXLab, but for some reason I keep thinking it was on its own in v13 (they’re on v14 now).  Anyway, this alone is worth the price of the suite.  This thing is freakin’ insane.  You use a tricolour system to mask things off: red is for what you definitely don’t want, green is for what you definitely do, and blue is for what you want the computer to think about.

Everything starts off green.  Take the blue, paint the questionable areas (hair, leaves, wherever) and fill in the outside area in red.  Click “Compute Mask” and it sets it up for you.  Through a series of simple refinements, you can improve details, get transparencies, and kick some serious butt in your masking.  Things like glasses and…oh, wedding veils! are no longer a problem.

There are some videos on YouTube on how to take full advantage of this.  They don’t take long to watch, and it takes an equally short time to master.  I suggest you watch one.

ReMask

ReMask

Overall

There are elements of Topaz Labs that you probably won’t use, regardless of what you use it for.  There will be things that the art community will use that the commercial community probably won’t, and vice versa.  However, there are a lot more elements that everyone will use.

There is a learning curve to this; don’t fool yourself.  With this many things, and this many options, for as intuitive as they’ve made it, there still is a little learning curve.  YouTube or simple experimentation can fix this in a matter of minutes.  Topaz Labs isn’t that hard to figure out.

Right now, it costs $380 USD for the whole ball o’ wax, and each individual element ranges from $30-80.  If you’re not sure, they do have a 30 day trial of the complete suite (a FULL trial, not just a limited use one – huge bonus, in my never-so-humble opinion) so that you can put it through the paces for yourself before deciding if you want to part with your hard-earned money.

One thing that I recently learned was that a license is good for future versions as well.  It’s also good for Windows and Mac (not or, and), so if you’re like me and have both a PC and a MacBook, you’re good to go.

Also, I have to give kudos to their staff.  I’ve dealt with their staff before, and they respond quickly, and are honest, stand-up people (yes, even the sales staff)!

 

Conclusion

I love it.  But that doesn’t mean a thing to you, does it?  It shouldn’t.  Instead, go to their site (www.topazlabs.com), download the suite, get a free 30 day demo key and try it out for yourself.

Personally, I’ll recommend this software to anyone who asks.  Of course, that’s just my 2¢.  Sorry, no refunds!

 

*Note: copious amounts of acid may help in understanding Parliament Funkadelic a little better.**

**Relax, people – I’m only kidding.  Ken Kesey and Tim Leary together couldn’t have dropped enough acid to understand Parliament, and they could do enough to kill an elephant, so don’t you even try it. Just groove with the music.

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