Topaz AI Software Review

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Topaz comparison

I typically refrain from reviewing software since functionality and technology evolve even more rapidly than new cameras and lenses. Nevertheless, occasionally, a standout piece deserves a thorough exploration. Topaz AI is a prime example of this.

Image Test 1
Results 1
Results 2
Image Test 2
Conclusion

Postprocess Workflow


For more than two decades, I’ve been utilizing both Macs and Windows systems. Photoshop has consistently served as the primary cross-platform tool throughout this period. With the introduction of Lightroom, opting for it over the proprietary Mac software, which held a market-leading position at the time, was an easy decision.

Given my frequent travels and the need to work in remote locations, cloud-based versions are not suitable for my workflow. Currently, I’m using local versions of Photoshop 2023 and Lightroom Classic 13.1. While both seamlessly integrate with each other, when it comes to sharpening, Photoshop still outperforms Lightroom on its own.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various standalone tools and plugins, but my success has been quite limited, and their integration into my workflow is less than optimal—something crucial when managing my extensive catalog of over 320,000 images. Through my lens reviews, I’ve gained a solid understanding of environmental influences and technical constraints, particularly with older yet still professional lenses.

Test Gear

My favorite wildlife lens is a  Nikon 200-400 f4 VRII  It s quite a beast at over 7lbs, was introduced in 2010 and still retails for around $5,500 US.

I match this with a Nikon D850, which is a 45 Meg Full Frame DSLR. A tried and tested combo I have used for numerous photo safaris.

Canon equivalent would be the EF 200–400 mm f/4L from 2013 not the one with the built in Teleconverter. Combined with the EOS 5D Mark III or IV

Shooting any lens fully open isn’t the optimal setting (check MPL charts) however most photographers do it to get the right burry backgrounds or bokeh, keep iso low or bump up the shutter speeds. I was keen to see how the Topez plug in for lightroom could improve sharpness inadequacies common in less then perfect conditions or with older lens with fewer coatings, etc.

The Plug in allows for mostly upscaling, noise reduction and sharpening. For this review I will focus on the latter and the auto masking ‘subject only’ feature

Lightroom Plug in Installation

Opting for caution not to disrupt my existing workflow, I went for the free trial of the standalone version. The interface and outcomes proved to be remarkably impressive, offering diverse options and the capability to process a broad range of RAW formats while retaining full editability with DNG output. Convinced by its performance, I proceeded to acquire the full version along with the Lightroom plugin.

Installation was a breeze. In Lightroom library mode, the plugin is easily accessible and seamlessly launches the software as a window over Lightroom.

Observation 1

Selecting your raw file and launching Topaz opens the RAW file without your LR edits. This is the best way to work, as there are no effect clashes. Output as a DNG version, and once automatically imported as a separate file in LR, you have full control, the same as with native RAW.

Image Sample 1 – Black Crested Snake Eagle

Full bird unedited

1/5000 sec f4 400mm iso 400

I picked a random image from a recent photo safari. I knew the high-resolution sample would allow for careful detail checking, especially since I would be selecting just a small part of the full frame.

Focus Check

Focus Check
Focus Point Check

Observing the image, it appeared reasonably sharp, and I successfully achieved focus lock. When I zoomed in to a 200% view in LR, I realized I had captured something quite unique. I had caught the Black Crested Snake Eagle blinking, revealing a moment when half of its eye was covered with a nictitating membrane. This membrane moves horizontally and is semi-transparent, unlike a solid top-to-bottom membrane.

My ideal end image would be a tight portrait crop to emphasize the bird and draw attention to the blinking.

Proposed Crop
Proposed Crop

As you can see the crop Im looking to perfect appears soft/blurry

Launching Topaz

Here we have the plug-in launching. I am using the autopilot feature to give me a baseline point. After which I will run through each of the Four AI models offered.

loading plug in
Lightroom plug in

The software can automatically select a subject allowing selective editing. You can override or modify the selection at any time.

Subject selection
Auto subject selection

Sharpening options

Standard – Low to medium blur

Strong – medium to high blur

Lens blur – out of focus images

Motion blur – streaking in images

Standard AI

Here a standard 85% sharpening and 14% minor denoise have been selected. The beak, eye and head have been well rendered. The throat feathers are soft but not a concern, minor denoise has reduced some background artifacts.

Strong AI

This rendering seemed to bring out more throat detail without overworking the pixels. As well as generally better sharpness then the standard setting.

Lens Blur

The autopilot selected lens blur gave a very good result with an increase in overall sharpness higher than both the standard and strong setting. It also maintained a softness on the body feathers without excess noise or the image looking overworked.

Motion Blur

This last mode produced almost identical results on the chosen preview crop to Lens Blur mode. Again the sharpness while maintaining a natural feel was better the both Standard and Strong modes.

Observation

The subject is relatively static with a shutter speed of  1/5000 subject. Movement caused by wind on the branches should be minimal. The 200-400 is relatively well supported so lens blur should also be minimum, VR is off due to the support.

Photo Safari Camera Rig
Photo Safari Camera Rig

This Set up would lead us to assume that the Standard or Strong AI modes would render the best results. Although they are an improvement on the original image they didn’t give the best ‘auto pilot’ results

Results 1

Each sharpening mode although designed for specific image issues might not render the best result for the subject.  So far Motion Blur 36% is producing the most desirable result.

Non static or blurred elements test

I decided to move my preview image to the blurred branches. Whether caused by movement or an out-of-focus zone. For these tests the ‘subject only’ masking is disabled and the whole image is rendered in the selected modes

I selected motion blur based on the results generated by the previous test. I can say without a doubt the rendering was OUTSTANDING compared to the original

Whole image rendering

I decided to extend the preview to the whole image

Even at this full-frame view increased clarity in the branches is visible with no excess noise or imperfections being generated.

I ran through the same sequence of modes this time focusing on the effect they would have on the branches.

Standard – Whole Image

Standard 85% 14% minor denoise
Standard 85% 14% minor denoise

As you can see Standard sharpening renders only a minor improvement to the branches. Hardly worth applying to the whole image.

Strong – Whole Image

Strong 32% whole image
Strong 32%

The results here are very similar to the standard mode. Only a slight improvement on the original can be noted.

Lens Blur – Whole Image

Lens blur 1% whole image
Lens blur 1%

We see quite a visible improvement using the lens blur mode. Texture and imperfections in the wood are significantly clearer then both the Standard and Strong mode.

Observation

Given the wide open lens setting of f4 and 400mm Topez appears to be correcting for some of the environmental effects when the lens coatings are falling short

Motion Blur – Whole Image

Motion blur 36%
Motion blur 36%

Here we have perhaps a 25% improvement on the Lens Blur mode with edges rendered much crisper.

Results 2

In this test, the image gained an advantage by avoiding subject masking and letting Topaz render the entire image using the Motion Blur mode on autopilot. This proves to be an excellent method for addressing challenging conditions, such as haze, where even professional lenses may not deliver perfect results.

Texture Rendering

For the last test with this image I selected the heavily textured feet to see how Topez would handle lots of detail and tones.

On a 200% image zoom we can see although standard mode does a good job motion blur is still a winner.

Topaz has managed to do an amazing job with rendering the Eagles legs from a blurry image to a clear and sharp picture. Note the foreground branch still remains slightly out of focus as it should,

2nd Image Test

I decided to pick a less saturated but more textured image for a second image test.
D850 200-400 f4
280mm f4 1/640 iso 2500

Original Image Elephants
Original Image


The complete original image appears satisfactory, but I aimed to enhance its impact through cropping. I thought Topaz could assist in preserving quality, enhancing sharpness, and minimizing noise for large-scale printing. Here is the unaltered full original image alongside the motion blur mode, with a focus on the protected elephant to the left.

Next motion blur on the young elephant. Note standard blur rendered a result that was a little less sharp

Final Versions

Here is the final Topaz version

Brought into lightroom the image is converted to monochrome and cropped. cropped. Further adjustments to shadow, highlight. etc. are made.

Test Results and Conclusion

With over three decades of experience capturing wildlife, I am discerning when it comes to selecting subjects and curating images for sale and marketing. The challenges inherent in shooting scenes often push professional equipment to its limits, contending with factors like haze, dust, varying angles of light, cropping considerations, shooting at maximum focal length wide open, and employing high ISO settings during peak animal activity. Unfortunately, these variables are often beyond our control.

This is where post-processing becomes crucial. Even with just utilizing the auto-pilot feature in Topaz, the results are truly game-changing. It stands out as the best photo-related product I’ve acquired within its price range. While initially skeptical about the merits of adding another software piece, both in terms of results and integration, I have been amazed by the diverse options and quality of output.

Relying solely on Lightroom or Photoshop can sometimes lead to over-processed images, where each pixel is pushed to its limit. Topaz takes a unique approach to sharpening and noise reduction, delivering remarkable results. Its efficacy is evident in examples like the before-and-after crop of eagle feet.

For those interested, the software is available here.

It’s important to note that this review is unsolicited and uncompensated by Topaz Labs.

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