Topaz Studio First Look

What the open beta says about the next Topaz product

Like probably most of you, I’ve recently been playing with the Topaz Studio public beta. As someone who owns the full collection of Topaz plug-ins, I’ve been paying attention mostly to what the Studio does for me that the plug-ins don’t. Topaz Studio is quite different from the plug-ins—a bit more like the next generation of photoFXlab. But does it do enough to make me willing to pay for another Topaz venture?

Unlike some popular editing software, Topaz Studio makes no attempt to manage your files. It offers neither a browser nor a catalog solution; it’s up to you to know where your files are and to manage them. It does, however, offer a complete workflow for editing your images and adding a variety of effects, along with masks, blend modes and layers to keep the non-destructive workflow edits fully customizable.  It will open your raw files, as well as JPEG, PNG, or TIFF in its standalone version, and acts like a regular plug-in if you invoke it through Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. You can run it as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, or choose Edit In Topaz Studio with Lightroom.

The features in Topaz Studio emphasize workflow and effects presets constructed from multiple individual adjustments, much like the presets you find in Texture Effects. The Workflow menu covers the more common editing methods, such as “Detailed Architecture” or “Perfect Portrait.” The “More” adjustments section contains a separate menu for each adjustment to be added in any order, or to use in addition to a workflow. The Effects menu works just like it does in Impression and Texture Effects, providing a list of categories to search for effects, previewing them in the sidebar thumbnails, and providing the customary edit button to enter the editing workspace with the chosen effect. Most of the other tools are shortcuts to basic adjustments, as well as to quick editing workflows for the first basic edits you usually perform.

Menu Contents shown
From R to L: Workflow, Adjustment, and Effects menus (not all fully shown)
Quick Edit and tools interface
Icons for basic editing tools, the Workflow and Adjustments menus, as well as quick access to the most common adjustments and basic editing workflows are always available. Shown above is the workflow if you click on the Quick preset.

I think its fairly clear from  looking at the main features in Topaz Studio that its design is intended to leverage the power of the presets they’ve already been offering us through their filters. At the same time, it speeds up the process by creating workflows that combine many of the features that are currently found in their separate plug-ins, such as adding a Radiance adjustment created from their Glow filter, with a Texture adjustment from Texture Effects, and a Precision Contrast adjustment from Clarity, perhaps. If you don’t own some of their filters (or any of them), you still will be able to use many of the more popular features contained in them through these adjustment layers. And if you do own their filters, you can use the Plug-Ins menu at the top to take a copy of your image directly into a filter to gain access to the full power of any of the plug-ins, while still using the simplified workflow approach in Topaz Studio.

Showing thumbnail previews and Edit panel
To the left is the thumbnail view for presets in the selected category. This feature should be familiar to anyone who has Impressions, Glow, or Texture Effects. To the right are the editable layers that constitute the selected effect. If an adjustment layer is neither free nor purchased, it shows up with the effect, but without the sliders that allow for more customization of the settings.
Image Tray can hold many images to blend with each other
Images open into an Image Tray. Any image can be duplicated or duplicated as a new image with all the current active edits applied (using icons in the tray not shown). Although the images in this example are from the same original, an Open icon in the tray also allows you to open different images in order to blend them, similar to using the multiple exposure option in Topaz Texture Effects. Note that the image on the far right was created in Topaz B&W Effects 2 run as a plug-in to Topaz Studio on a duplicate of the image first edited with a Studio workflow.

There’s of course a trade-off to using Topaz Studio to run their more powerful filters—unlike running them individually on Smart Object layers, you can’t later on edit the results non-destructively, re-entering the plug-in merely by double-clicking on its Smart Filter name. However, while you’re in Topaz Studio and working with multiple versions or any other images, you can use the Image Layer feature right then and there to blend results from Topaz filters with each other or with an image you edited solely with Topaz Studio.

The Image Layer interface
A very nice feature in Topaz Studio lets you blend image layers, so versions that have been edited for different qualities can continue to be adjusted before leaving Topaz Studio, or completely different images can be blended as desired.

When I first started looking into the use of Topaz Studio, I was feeling hard-pressed to find a good reason to invest any of my time, let alone my money, in yet another standalone/plug-in image editor. Topaz Studio in particular appeared too simplified to offer much, since even the individual adjustments aren’t as powerful as the full plug-in filters, whether Clarity, or ReStyle, or Texture Effects. However, the more I explore Topaz Studio, and the more images I throw at it, the more I’ve come to feel this simplification of features is an asset, not a liability. The basic editing workflows are very well designed to cover a wide variety of images, and are especially welcome in my workflow when I’m editing the numerous snapshots I have taken or had given to me, like the bridal image I’ve used for these examples. It may not be the ideal application for your very best fine art images, but if we’re honest, most of us have plenty of snaps that we don’t want to spend hours editing. We would, however, like to quickly and easily make them more interesting to look at or better memories to hold. And being able to use our Topaz filters with Topaz Studio makes for a very powerful combination that goes well beyond the quick fix for a snapshot, providing us with a creative adventure.

Results from Topaz Studio modified in Adobe Photoshop
Although the Topaz filter B&W Effects 2 wasn’t run as Smart Filter, but inside Topaz Studio, the image can of course still be modified in Photoshop to alter color, texture, and tone as desired.

Topaz has recently announced that the basic version of Topaz Studio will be free. A small collection of basic editing adjustments will be fully customizable, while the remainder won’t include their sliders unless you purchase the “pro” version of the adjustment separately. From what I can tell, the Effects and Workflow presets that include adjustments you don’t own will produce results, but only Opacity, blend mode, and masking is editable. I won’t swear to this, of course, since this is still beta and anything can still be added or removed. And since this still IS a beta, I won’t go into any discussion of bugs or other feature limitations. I am, however, increasingly aware of the place this application could have in my day-to-day workflow.

Student Debt Art Journal page for Democracy
Student Debt, from my Democracy art journal series, used a photo art action and several textures to blend the old photo of Stanford University with the lower half from Mischief Circus, including several art dolls from Xquizart. The unifying color and textures could have been even more easily added if I’d had the Topaz open beta when I made this.
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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.