Detail of Gecko & Pot in photoFXlab

Learning to use Topaz photoFXlab

Why I am looking at it once again

When Topaz photoFXlab was first released, I jumped on it without really thinking. It would work, I imagined, like Google Nik’s Color Efex Pro—a plug-in I’ve been using since it was plain “Nik” and cost half as much as Photoshop itself. I thought photoFXlab would let me stack up filters while keeping them editable, at least through Smart Filter technology. So when I found out that while it could be run as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it didn’t save the stack of layers, I was disappointed. It was also a bit buggy, difficult to install and update with that manager Topaz briefly used, and didn’t recognize when I had updated one of the filters. I basically quit using it. When they released an update, I updated the plug-in, but reopening a Smart Filter still showed that I couldn’t get back to my original layered file, so I ignored it again.

photoFXlab as a Smart Filter

Smart Filter layers lost in photofxlab
If you run photoFXlab as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it won’t remember the layers when you double-click on the filter to edit it again. In fact, if you accidentally run it as a Smart Filter, be sure to rasterize the layer immediately to prevent Photoshop from rerunning the filter after you perform a command, such as duplicating the layer.

Maybe I was a bit hasty. If I’d bothered then to watch the video tutorial I recently watched on YouTube (Introduction to photoFXlab™ v1.2), I might have realized two things about the update that I hadn’t noticed. First, Topaz developed a proprietary file format (.pfxl) that does save all the layers in a file. And second, they added the ability to use other 3rd party plug-ins inside photoFXlab. Learning this was inspiring enough for me to try it again, this time with a more open mind.  I have mixed feelings about the results of my experiments with photoFXlab, but that’s a big step up from not finding it worth bothering with.

Whether or not it’s useful to be able to use other plug-ins depends entirely upon which plug-ins you have. Topaz can only use them if they are installed by default into Photoshop’s Plug-Ins folder. Since many companies install some of the working bits to their plug-ins outside that folder, I found many of my plug-ins wouldn’t work—not even if I manually copied them to the folder. That’s cheating, and Topaz apparently knows it.

Add/Remove plug-ins dialog box
To add 3rd party plug-ins, in photoFXlab choose Filter> Add/Remove Plug-Ins. Click the Add button and navigate to your Photoshop Plug-ins folder, then click on a plug-in folder.

Beyond that, some plug-ins simply won’t work. The bad news for me was that the only plug-ins Topaz both recognized and that worked were Google Nik plug-ins. The good news was that the latest Silver Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Analog, and HDR   all worked, and I use them more than any of the rest, with the exception of On1’s Perfect Effects. I didn’t attempt to add Dfine and Sharpener Pro, since Topaz has its own filters for reducing noise and sharpening that I use more often. Viveza installed, but on my system, I only saw a solid black document when I opened it from photoFXlab. Depending upon what you may have, many more of your plug-ins may work.

Filter list after adding plug-ins
If photoFXlab believes a proper plug-in has been installed, it will add it to the list. Note that it may believe a plug-in is installed, but that plug-in may still fail to work with photoFXlab.

By the way, all my On1 Suite 9  plug-ins are in Photoshop’s Plug-ins folder, but the plug-ins themselves have to be inside a folder, and On1 doesn’t put them in their own folder—which I assume is why I can’t seem to get Topaz to believe in those plug-ins. Creating a folder is cheating once again, but I’m trying to be thorough. Since this is just an extra goodie that Topaz is providing us, I’m not upset to find that many plug-ins won’t work, and delighted that a few of my favorites will. The one frustrating aspect is that to find out, I must add them through the manager, close it, see if they made it into the Filter list, and then if they did, try to run them on an image. But it’s still definitely a net gain.Layers with Nik and Topaz effects

Image after photoFXlab
Using Nik plug-ins along with Topaz plug-ins inside photoFXlab. The final image also used customized borders from On1 Photo 10, which sadly doesn’t work with Topaz, but I was still able to nearly complete my image edits in one place, and save to the PFXL file format for added flexibility.

Using photoFXlab, however, is more difficult for me to really enjoy. I do most of my image editing on raw files in Photoshop using the Bridge> Camera Raw> Photoshop route. When I use photoFXlab, I can save all the layers for an image (using File> Save As and choosing the .pfxl format) before I run the results and return to Photoshop. Once in Photoshop, the results still return as a flattened image layer. I can choose that layer in the future, re-enter photoFXlab, then immediately choose File> Open, telling Topaz not to save the file I just opened, navigate to my saved .pfxl file, and open that. All the layers are there, and if I edit this file and return to Photoshop, it will overwrite the old layer with the new results. Whew. It really works, despite having to go through a couple extra steps to get the layered file open in photoFXlab in the first place.

Dialog box after choosing Open
If you want to reopen a PFXL file, open a file in Photoshop, open the plug-in from the Filter menu, then choose File> Open from the photoFXlab menu. Don’t save your changes (you really haven’t done anything yet), and navigate to where you stored the .pfxl file. If you don’t want to overwrite the layer in your Photoshop file, make sure you’re working on a duplicate layer. The filter won’t run on empty layer.

Against that is the fact that none of these layers are Smart Filter layers—ever. I can’t “open” a layer to edit the filter settings I used, something I can easily do without the plug-in, and that offsets the convenience in having access to all my primary filters handy in the photoFXlab interface. This just doesn’t beat running the plug-ins individually on a Smart Object layer and stacking up the results as editable Smart Filters. So I had to wonder why I’d use this plug-in, but it didn’t take me long to think of a few very good reasons.

Using multiple Smart Filters in Photoshop
Running filters as Smart Filters, if you have the option, is the most flexible way to keep your effects non-destructive and re-editable.

Even if you have a program that uses layers and layer masks, blending modes and opacity—such as Photoshop Elements—that doesn’t mean you can use Smart Filters. Without Smart Filters and without using photoFXlab to run your Topaz filters, all you’ll get is a flat image layer each time you run the plug-ins separately. If you save a .pfxl file, though, you can keep most of your edits on separate layers, so even if you can’t edit the filters directly, you’re not starting from scratch just to edit one of the layers.

If you have Lightroom, which doesn’t have layers, photoFXlab lets you work with layers, layer masks, even multiple images, to build up an image that, once saved, adds the image straight back to your Lightroom catalog. And again, the .pfxl file can be your friend. The downside is it has to run through Photoshop. But if you have recent enough versions of both Photoshop and Lightroom, you can stay organized in Lightroom while taking advantage of a streamlined plug-in workflow. Anyone who uses Lightroom knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to keep your catalog intact when you use outside editors.

Fusion Express in Lightroom
If you don’t have Photoshop or (Photoshop Elements 12-14) to act as a host for PhotoFX Lab, Lightroom will run each filter listed above separately and return the results to Lightroom when using Fusion Express 2.

The third best reason to run photoFXlab is it runs as a standalone application—no expensive host required. You can do quite a bit of editing with all the power of layers, masks, and blend modes, as well as several powerful image adjustments you can make in photoFXlab itself. Topaz works with TIFF or JPEGs, but if you shoot raw, you doubtless have a converter for your camera files already.  If you want the greater flexibility of desktop plug-ins without the additional expense of a major desktop application to host them, photoFXlab  just might hit the sweet spot between power and price.

Topaz photoFXlab native edits
photoFXlab comes with several basic image adjustments you can make, including to color and tone, using brushes for local adjustments, cropping, scaling, and straightening a horizon. Even run as a standalone, you’re not without the ability to do some basic edits to your photos.
Panel for preset Effects
You can apply some presets for some of the plug-ins with one click using the Effects menu, or choose the Plugins menu to launch and run most of the plug-ins you have installed . You can also run InstaTone, which recolors your photo using a small library of photos as the source. Results are similar to using ReStyle.

Having now spent a bit more time with photoFXlab, I’ve come to the conclusion that it can work well for quite a few people with a variety of different workflows.  It would be much better if Topaz put some effort into creating some kind of Smart Filter technology for it. On1 has Smart Photo technology that lets you open the Smart Photo inside On1 to edit everything, including your original filter settings. If they can do it, so can Topaz.

However, even if limited in usefulness, I intend to begin putting photoFXlab to work in my Lightroom JPEG workflow. Because it’s still not a Smart Filter type of workflow, I’m not likely to use it in Photoshop with my raw camera files. It also  doesn’t run two of my favorite Topaz filters—Impression and Texture Effects, so I’m sure to always run those as Smart Filters anyway. I’m glad, though, that I gave it a second chance, even if I ultimately decide it isn’t all that valuable for my type of editing, because now I have a much greater appreciation for the choices I have. And maybe someday Topaz will revisit this editor. I think it deserves more of their attention.

Layers for Gecko & Pot image
Using Masks, Blend modes, and layers, it’s easy to build an image from several Topaz filters. Here I began with basic color and tone adjustments, then used DeNoise, Clarity, ReStyle, and InFocus. The detail from the image is shown at the beginning of this review.
Gecko & Pot final image
Gecko & Pot: After running photoFXlab, I duplicated the layer and converted it to a Smart Object, then ran Topaz Texture Effects as a Smart Filter. Because I saved the .pfxl file for this image, I can still go back to photoFXlab and edit the base image without having to start over from scratch.

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