Topaz B&W Effects Review

This is an image that I processed using Photoshop CC, Topaz B&W Effects and Topaz Denoise. It is called “Tribute” as it is part of the Beisheim Center in Berlin, a tribute to American Art Deco architecture.

I will start this review with a bit of background information. I am a long time user of various Topaz plugins. The first ever Photoshop plugin that I used was Topaz Denoise , which is still part of my current workflow (I remember at that point I was not even using Photoshop but Gimp and it was quite a struggle to make Topaz plugins working inside it). Later on, during the period when i was experimenting with HDR, I was a happy user of Topaz Adjust and Topaz Details. Now most of my work is in black and white, so I had explore more or less all the conversions techniques, from simple Film&Filter, to more complicated channel mixer techniques in Photoshop and more sophisticated plugins like Topaz B&W  Effects and Nik Silver Efex.  

Also, it is worth mentioning that black and white conversion is only one step of my complex workflow. It is usually followed case by case by 2 or more exposure  blending,  lots of layer and masking work, light painting, local and global contrast adjustment in order to achieve the final look according to my vision. But being a relative early step in my workflow, it is an important base to start, hence it is critical to have it done as good as possible. 
Lets take the example two adjacent areas of an image, having the same saturation and luminosity, but different hues. In the color raw file they very well separated, but after a basic b&w conversion you cannot distinguish between each other. So its critical that the early b&w conversion takes care of the tonal separation, so that there is no need later to solve this problem using dodge and burning techniques. Of course, my expectations for a good b&w plugin is not to push a button and get the final look of the image. It can work for other types of photography, where it is not required or allowed to alter reality too much, but in fine art photography, as I said, the plugin is just a starting point. 

So, my expectations about a good b&W conversion plugin are:
  • good overall contrast of the image
  • no lost details
  • good local tonal separation
  • ability to control whites, blacks and various mid-tones area separately
  • ability to have a quick evaluation of the zones in my image (Ansel Adam’s zonal system)
Here are B&W conversion right after applying Topaz plugin. It consists of two different layers, one conversion for the buildings and one conversion for the sky, blended together in Photoshop CC:

The version that I reviewed is the latest Topaz BW Effects 2.1, which added the zonal system representation.  An important addition that I am really happy to see in Topaz plugin, and one of the must to have features for my work.

Other important additions to this new version, include:
  • support for different languages (Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese, making it really helpful for anybody not so familiar with English.
  • ability to stack up various effects by using the Apply button
  • a multitude of new borders option
  • quick access to the 5 toning presets (Selenium, Cyanotype, Copper, Sepia and Antique Dye)
A quick introduction to the user interface of the plugin:

The interface consists of 3 different sections: the presets section in the left, the image preview in the middle and the Settings section in the right. You can easily get rid of the first of last of the three, using the “Change viewing options” button. 

For example, while working at an image, you can start by selecting only Presets and Image Preview, select the preset that is closer to your need, turn off the Presets panel and turn on the Settings panel and start fine tuning your image. Turning off one of the left or right section, gives you extra space for seeing the Preview image larger.

As the Presets panel is quite obvious how it is organized (all the presets are placed into one collection, including your own saved presets placed in My Collection) I will spend a little time in explaining how the Settings section is organized and how different parameters can impact your image. Settings Panel consists of 4 categories of parameters: Conversion, Creative Effects, Local Adjustments and Finishing Touches:

Conversions is very important for any type of effect as it controls the Basic and Adaptive Exposure, the Color Sensitivity and Color Filter and offers as well a Curve Tool. Basic Exposure is where you control the overall look of your image: the overall Contrast, the Brightness , the Black and the Whites of your image. Here you can achieve a good starting point for your conversion and fine tune it later using the other parameters. Adaptive Exposure section is a nice tool developed by Topaz for Adjust plugin, which helps you to do local adjustments on the image. Here you can control the separation of the smaller area (if you want smaller granularity just move the Regions slider to a larger value) and the Details of your image. If you are looking for a more HDR-ish effect on your picture, this is the place to achieve it: Adaptive Exposure and Detail slider, at higher value gives exactly this kind of effect. Protect Highlights and Shadows are rather helpful to avoid clipping whites or blacks as result of too much local separation:
Color Sensitivity and Color filter are a must have for any B&W conversion tool, and the ones offered by Topaz work quite nice. I like that in Color Filter section you can chose from a hue slider, rather then couple of predefined colours. This actually gives you an unlimited amount of different colour filters, to fit exactly your needs. In the Color Sensitivity section, you can control the strength of Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue and Magenta, achieving a darker or lighter tones in the B&W conversion for this colours. The Curve Tool is very helpful in doing all kind of effects on the global contrast of the image. I like that it has a Reset button but I find the control a bit too sensitive (whenever I add a point on the curve, it just need one click and the point is already moved up and down)

Creative Effects is a collection of fun things to try, but I am not really into all this effects. So my advise is to play with them and see if there is something that you like. Simplify and Posterize can be helpful for those looking for cartoonish effects, but something like Camera Shake I find it kind of useless. I bet I can shake my camera better than a piece of software 🙂

Local Adjustments gives you access to a brush and 5 different effects that can be applied selectively on your image: the classic Dodge and Burn, Details and Smoothness that reveals and hide the details and the Color that reveals the original colour of the image, for selective colouring effects. Very similar with the Lightroom concept. The brush is a smart brush that can be edge aware if you use a high value for the slider with the same name. This means that the effects you apply will be aware of the edges of the objects.

The last section of the settings panel is Finishing Touches, that collects quite a lot of interesting effects. Here you can apply the toning effects, either  by Silver and Paper technique or by Quad Tone technique. I can only recommend to play with those methods, as you can have almost unlimited ways to tone your image, by choosing the colours from a Hue slider. Film grain is an interesting option, giving you ability to add different type of grain, similar with the ones of some famous films, Kodak, Ilford, Fuji and couples of others. The grain can compensate for uneven noise reduction or for the banding effect produced by gradients, so I find this option very useful. Edge Exposure darkens or lightens a particular edge of the image, according to a gradient whose size and smoothness can be control by Edge Size and Edge Transition sliders. Using the option with the same name, you can add vignette to your image, by controlling the centre location, the size, the smoothness of the transition and the curvature. Using Border option you can add borders to your images, choosing from a predefined collection of types and sizes. Transparency is another very useful option if you are using the plugin from a non-layer based host and you want to apply the effect just partially.

A quick visit in the list of presets can reveal that one of the main targets for Topaz B&W plugin are the people who love to tone their images rather than use a traditional B&W. They will really have a blast with Topaz B&W Effects, discovering that most of the time, their choice of toning can be as simple as one or two mouse clicks. On top of the above mentioned quick access buttons for some of the toning, there are 6 different collections of presets: Toned Collection, Cyanotype Collection, Albumen Collection, Van Dyke Brown Collection, Opalotype Collection and Platinum Collection.
I have picked up on example from each of the collection, just to give you an idea of what you can achieve and how easy this can be done:

Toned Collection: Sepia and Selenium I

Cyanotype Collection: Cerulean Cambridge Dynamic

Albumen Collection: Levander Grey Dynamic

Van Dyke Brown Collection: Raw Umber Dynamic

Opalotype Collection: Flavescent
Platinum Collection: Platinum VI

Of course, on top of this, you can easily make your own favourite toned image, using the Finishing touches section of the settings and choosing one of Silver and Paper or Quad Tone techniques.
About compatibility: I have performed this review using Adobe Photoshop CC, the version that I am using for my work. However Topaz plugins are compatible (with some exceptions )with Lightroom, Elements, Aperture, Irfanview, Paintshop Pro, Photo Impact and Serif Photo Plus (read the compatibility page on their website). And more, if you are an open source lover and a keen fan of GIMP, there is a good news: Topaz Labs plugins are working with GIMP as well (I tried this combination successfully 2 years ago).

Things that I like:
  • A very easy to use and professional looking user interface, where I can customize the appearance by removing some of the panels, maximizing the working area
  • Adaptive exposure section where I can easily control the details and the local contrast of my image
  • The Edge aware option of the brushes which make them smarter than traditional Photoshop brushes
  • The ability to save snapshots (settings at some particular points in time). They are pretty useful as one can save intermediary steps of processing one particular image, compare them and restore them at any point in time. You can save up to 99 presets
Some things that I would improve to make it even better:
  • I would like to apply finishing touch at the end of my workflow.
  • I would like more control on the Curve Tool. Something similar like the hand picker in Photoshop, where I can click some area of the image and move the corresponding point on the curve.
  • I would like a real split preview where you can view before and after just by dragging a slider inside a single image. I consider this a better way of previewing than the classic side by side before and after.
  • It would be good if Topaz BW Effects, when used from Photoshop CS, would duplicate the layer before applying the effect on the image.
  • The preview speed has been improved a lot since the first version of the plugin, but I think there is still room for the improvement.
  • More traditional B&W presets would be useful.
  • Ability to type in the parameters value additional to the slider.
Conclusion: After this review, I can say that Topaz B&W Effects plugin can definitely do the job. It is a very reliable piece of software, with a lot of powerful features that can produce good quality B&W and toned images. I can highly recommend and I will definitely use it more often in the future in my workflow.

Final thoughts: in the world of B&W photographers, for quite some time, Nik Silver Efex was the uncrowned king of plugins. We all know it is so powerful and easy to use, so making a competitor for it is a very daring job. Topaz started this few years ago and managed to produce some innovating technology in their software. And B&W effects, only 2 years old has improved quite a lot and really closed the gap comparing with Nik Silver Efex. 

And considering the speculation and rumours following the Google acquisition of Nik Software, going that far as predicting the end of the Nik professional plugins, I think Topaz has really an opportunity to continue their good evolution. They should ask and listen for opinions of various photographers and use their feedback to improve their software even further. And even if Nik plugins continue to exist and improve, there is still enough room in the market for more players.

UPDATE: Topaz is running a 50% sale on B&W Effects from November 5th through November 19th. Just use the code : “novbw” (remove the quotes) to benefit from this.


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