Anything Photoshop or Photography

Digital Lady Syd’s Review of Topaz photoFXlab v1.1

Wow! What to say! What to say! This is a totally new direction for Topaz – technically this is a stand-alone interface that can also hook into Photoshop as a plug-in. It combines all their individual plug-ins into one spot to be accessed together, instead of individually (which you can still do if you want). For those looking for a quick answer, I am recommending photoFXlab for two very good reasons – InstaTone and the Dynamics slider. These are rather unique features and I commend Topaz for coming up with them. Also the Mask and Brush tabs with the already familiar Edge Aware technology is top-notch. For a full review, see below. Definitely worth downloading the trial and trying it out, especially if you have some of the other Topaz plug-ins. (To access the Topaz Website, see sidebar of my Tidbits Blog.)

Topaz had a difficult time getting Version 1.0 to work smoothly so Version 1.1 was released and now it is a much more solid program. This lovely bovine image from the Big Island in Hawaii is my first attempt at using photoFXlab and overall it went pretty smoothly. To create it, the original image layer was duplicated by clicking Duplicate at bottom right of the interface or CTRL+J can be used just like in Photoshop (the plug-in now has layer capability). Next the Plugins tab on the top left was accessed, Topaz Adjust 5 was opened, and the Sun-Dynamic preset was applied with Adaptive Exposure set to .25, Regions 5, and Tone Setting Strength set to 0.74. I did not use one of the canned effects in the Effects tab, to me that is not where the strength of this program lies. The sky’s reds and yellows were too harsh, so the next step was to go to the Masks tab at the top right and create a sky mask using the Mask Brush set to 125 (set to 0, it will be a totally black brush) to soften the color by 50%, and the Edge Aware slider was set to 100 to follow the skyline closely. The sky was selected very easily and inverted so only the sky was revealed. (Remember – White reveals and black conceals.) At this point you could go the Adjustments tab which is very similar to the Basic tab in Camera Raw and correct the sky, or just adjust the opacity of the layer or change the blend mode for a different look. In this case the layer was changed to Linear Light at 82% opacity, just as if you were in Photoshop’s Layers Panel. That is all that was done on this really basic attempt to try out the new product.

What I Like!!!

  • The Dynamics Slider – might be worth buying this plug-in just because this is a great slider to have in your bag of tricks, and they have got the halo issue under control. It could be a plug-in all by itself. As Topaz says “It gives it the dynamic local contrast without the dirty grungy look.” I love it! Also all the sliders use IntelliColor technology which gives a more natural effect – for example, the Contrast slider does not increase Saturation like it does in Photoshop or Lightroom.
  • Being able to use InstaTone – just click on a number of internet sources or use your own file of photos – it instantly will apply the tones to your image. (This is totally addictive!) By clicking the Remember button, up to six different tonal images can be revisited before you decide which one to apply. Of course, you may need to go to the Adjustments tab for some tweaking to make it look good on your current image. Still great idea and very easy to do! See the image below.
  • The Masks tab with Edge Aware brush capability has made using the masking function very easy. Much easier and faster than actually going into ReMask 3 for detailed selections like the sky behind tree branches. Apparently it is best to use ReMask 3 when selections are fairly simple.
  • The addition of layer capability such that the image can be duplicated and the Opacity and Blend Modes set – looks very similar to Photoshop’s layer palette. Great addition! Also, can just scroll over the different Blend Modes to see what effect they have on the image without actually applying it – very quick to see if you like it.
  • The Brush tab – great functionality here – and all the brushes from Topaz Adjust 5 and Black and White Effects are included, just have to adjust the top slider to get the effect you want. The Edge Aware technology for general selecting is much better than anything Photoshop has IMO. Great time-saver here.
  • Even though I do not love the Effects in the Effects tab, they do make it very easy for you to see what the effect will look like on your image by just clicking the Preview With My Photo checkbox. This has a similar feel to using presets in Lightroom.
  • The Tools tab may actually help with compositing a couple of images together to get an interesting effect or to add a texture to an image. Still has some limitations here but does have some possibilities. See orange daisy image below.
  • The addition of a History tab – have not had to use it yet, but I can see where it could be very useful in certain circumstances.

What I do not like!!!

  • The thing I dislike the most is that you cannot get back into the Topaz layers once you have applied the settings. You would never know that you had applied a Linear Light Blend Mode at 82% Opacity to a layer if you did not write it down. It would be great if the final application would come back into Photoshop as a Group containing the Topaz layers that could then be adjusted for opacity, blend mode changes, sharpening, additional masking, etc. as a group or individually. It would be so much more functional that way. UPDATE: Topaz has added a unique file extension to their program. Now you can open the image up in photoFXlab and restore your settings as applied. Not a total solution, but much better than before!
  • In a related issue, the Smart Object functionality does not work when entering from Photoshop – I have always had trouble with all Topaz plug-ins when using Smart Objects – they do not retain the settings applied, but the ability to save your own presets has kept this from being a major issue. I understand that they cannot add the individual image changes made from brush strokes, but it would be nice to have the settings available that were made in the Adaptive Exposure or Details sections of the individual plug-ins or the Adjustments tab in photoFXlab. The image is flattened upon exiting and that is it, even if converted to a Smart Object before opening the plug-in. This requires me to write down everything I did and then create a note in Photoshop for the image if I want to refer to the settings at a later date. Big problem!
  • The Effects are not that great – so I still end up going into the individual plug-ins using the Plugin tab. This is the only way I can reach the presets I created with each individual plug-in, which tend to be the ones I use the most. You cannot save them in the Effects panel at this time.
  • It will not read RAW files, although in Topaz’s defense, if you bring your image into the plug-in through Photoshop (which converts NEF files to PSD immediately and Lightroom creates a TIF) or some other program, it will read PSD, JPG and TIF files. I have not had a problem with this. It would be a problem if you used the stand-alone program and wanted to bring in a RAW file.
  • When zoomed in to apply brush effect in tighter areas, it is hard to get around the image – no window to move where you are painting. Need to know that ALT + click in layer will switch brush to Hand Tool to move around and it is very jerky.
  • The Tools tab has a Scale section but it only scales 1 to 1, does not transform or stretch so it is hard to get a texture with interesting borders lined up  – they get cut off.
  • This program does not come with their bundled package at this point – if you do not own all the different plug-ins, you get a much shorter list of examples in the Effects tab.
  • As touched on before, no way to create presets, especially in the Effects tab, like you can in the individual plug-ins so that you can use the same settings again.
  • When you use the bracket keys in the brush tabs be careful as it associates with the last slider you changed, so when you think you are changing the size of the brush, you might be changing the strength or some other slider. Also, the size jumps in large amounts – not a smooth change adjustment. Small nags here.
  • In InstaTone Photo Library, there is no way of remembering which tonal image you used – have to count over rows and down to locate it again. This is another small nag. The work around is to use your own finished image next time you want that look applied.
  • In InstaTone internet locations or when using your own folder of images, when a black and white image is clicked, the effect applied to your image is still in color –  it will darken the image a lot, but the color is still visible. (Work-around for this is to switch your image layer to black and white first – easiest way to do this is to set Saturation slider to -100 in the Adjustments tab, then click on black and white image in InstaTone.)

This image of the Lagoon Towers at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island in Hawaii uses the InstaTone tab. The button was selected and by clicking on different images that pop up, the tone is transferred to your image. This is ingenious! The image above uses an image called Chiesa die Croce Rossa by Sven Fennema. Next the Adjustments tab was selected and the wonderful Dynamics slider that simulates the Topaz Adjust HDR look was set to +75. The Brushes tab was used last and the Burn Brush Tool selected and set to a Strength of -.10 to darken the shadow of the palm trees just a little. Be sure the Edge Aware slider is set to 1.00 for sharp selection. I have to admit this turned out really nice with just a little effort. To see what my original image looked like, see below.

As usual, Topaz has good documentation for the plug-in with the User Guide (which needs to be slightly updated with the new version release) and forums. They also have a good video on U-Tube, Quick Intro into photoFXlab v1.1, which shows you all the bells-and-whistles in detail, and I found it very helpful as the program can be a bit confusing until you look at it.

This image is actually two images composited in photoFXlab using the Tools tab. Using the +From File and adding another of my orange daisy images as a new Topaz Layer, the Tools tab was selected and the image was scaled, rotated and moved to adjust over the original layer correctly. On the new image layer mask, the Brush Value moved between a Strength of black (0) and white (255) to create an effective mask – this was a little tricky until you get the hang of it. Clicking on the +From Stack, a composite of the two layers was created on top, preserving the layers underneath. Next the Adjustments tab was used and several of the sliders were tweaked including the Dynamics slider set to 94. On the top layer, another +From File was clicked and Shadowhouse Creations Scratchbox4 texture (and one of my favorites) was added and set to Linear Light blend mode. The centers and a little bit of the petals were painted out using a Brush Strength of roughly 125 or middle gray. The OnOne PhotoFrame (see sidebar for website link at my Tidbits Blog) was added back in Photoshop to finish up the image. I believe with a little more time, I can probably do more creative things using the composite feature, but it might still be easier to do this in Photoshop where a Free Transform command can be used to adjust textures and images.
All in all this plug-in is a wonderful addition to the Topaz line up of plug-ins – just needs some smoothing out. What I love about Topaz is that once you buy it, you always get the upgrades for free and I do believe this product will get much better. It has lots of useful things going for it. If you have a mental block on what to do with a picture, the InstaTone tab is fabulous for that. I would never have thought to try out the tones in the Hawaiian image without using it. Also the Dynamics slider is a terrific addition. I am hopeful that Topaz will make it so you can at least retain their layers in Photoshop once the plug-in is applied. It would be wonderful to have that flexibility. I will definitely be trying out more effects and hope to bring you some new ways to use this plug-in in coming posts. In the meantime, try out the program, especially if you already have some other Topaz plug-ins on your computer. They have a great discount going until the end of the month.  …..Digital Lady Syd
Digital Lady Syd Related Blogs:
Using photoFXlabs v1.1
Using Topaz photoFXlab to Replace Skies

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