It is a few days since I’m experimenting with the new Topaz Clarity plugin, and I think it is the time to write down my thoughts about this package. Topaz Clarity is a new tool that promises to easily manipulate the contrast and clarity of your images without creating those nasty halos typical of contrast and clarity adjustments.
The software is available as a plugin for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements , Lightroom, Aperture and iPhoto, and its main features are an halo free selective contrast control, the ability to fine tune hue/saturation/luminance and a masking toolset. As you can see, it is a task specific package, so it has to be able to do wonderfully what it is meant to do to have a reason to exist.
When you open an image in Topaz Clarity, you will be presented a simple and well laid out interface. If you are accustomed with plugins, you will soon find your way around, as the layout is quite similar to the layout of other image manipulation softwares.
On the left column you will find a list of default presets. There are 100 of them and they are arranged in 9 groups called Collections. Two collections are reserved to the user, namely Favourites and Snapshots. Of course you are able to create your own collections and presets to suite your workflow.
On the right column there are three modules. On the top there is a typical Navigator window to find your way around large images. You can switch the navigator with a Loupe, a preview of the Mask and the Histogram. The other two modules are the core of the software and contain the sliders to set contrast and colour.
In the centre of the interface there is your image preview, and on top of it a toolbar with buttons to set the zoom level, change the background colour and set the preview layout. If you need more space you can easily hide the left and right columns making this central area bigger.
What I don’t like is a little quirk of the interface. Sometimes, when I click on buttons, I have to click twice, just as I had to gain the focus before being able to click. I am testing the Mac version of the software, so I can’t say for the Windows version. Maybe this is a glitch of the UI framework they use to develop the interface, but it is quite unnerving.
Also, when I switch to the side by side view in the preview area, it doesn’t centre the two previews. I have to zoom 100% and then fit them again every time. Nothing so bad, just a little bothering. I have to say both this quirks don’t impede the use of the software that is quite good and stable (I never experienced a crash).
If you are a clicker rather than a setter, you will find Topaz Clarity presets excellent. There are 100 presets, developed and fine-tuned for specific types of photos. Hovering the mouse pointer over the preset name a preview window pops up. The preview is big and you will have a precise idea of what that preset will do to your image.
I usually prefer to fine tune my images one by one setting sliders, but a lot of photographers prefer to start with a preset and go on from there. Given the quality and number of the presets, I admit I have clicked on them more than one time and used presets as a starting point. Kudos to Topaz Labs!
Topaz Clarity does one thing and does it very well, and its contrast engine is excellent.
The Clarity module is divided in two areas: Dynamics and Tone Level.
The Dynamics area has four sliders:
- Micro Contrast to set contrast of very small details
- Low Contrast to set the contrast of low midtones
- Medium Contrast that targets midtones
- High Contrast for shadows and highlights contrast
The Tone Level area has three sliders:
- Black Level setting the black clipping level
- Midtones that adjusts the brightness targeting midtones
- White Level setting the white clipping level
The quality of the contrast and clarity you can reach with these sliders is quite good, and the promise of not producing halos is honoured. I have tried to boost all the sliders of the Dynamics panel at their maximum value, and still I can’t see halos.
One feature I would like to see in a future release of the plugin is the possibility to preview black and white clipping, just as you can do in Lightroom holding the ALT key while setting sliders. For now, you have to count just on the histogram to set your black and white point. For a software targeted at contrast manipulation, I think this feature is a must!
Messing up with contrast often alters colours. For this reason Topaz Labs engineers have added a colour module in Topaz Clarity. This module is quite like the analogous module in Lightroom, where you can set hue, saturation and luminosity on single colours or on the overall image.
This module is useful to tone down colours when the contrast adjustments boosts them over the top, or to create particular effects targeting specific ranges. All in all it is a nice addition to the toolset.
Both Clarity and HSL modules can benefit from masking. To create a mask, you have to open the Masks sub-panel in the respective module and work from there. You can use both a Brush Tool and a Gradient Tool to create your mask.
The brush can be straight or you can use a Edge or Colour aware brush to produce more precise selections using edge and colour detection. The gradient tool can produce linear, radial and reflected gradients.
In the masking arsenal there are also a Colour Range tool, able to create masks selecting specific colours in the image, and a Smart Filter to fine tune the mask, blurring edges and smoothing transitions.
The only way to look at your mask is in the little navigator window at the top of the right column. It is quite big, but not enough to see small details. It doesn’t seem to exist a full screen preview of the mask. Too bad! I don’t think this is a feature that hard to code, and a semi-transparent full screen preview of the mask would be a nice addition.
The overall performance of the plugin is good. It loads fast and saves images in a reasonable amount of time. What is less responsive is the preview update while setting sliders. In fact when you move a slider, it takes three to four seconds to update.
I fine tune my sliders moving them back and forth finding limits and narrowing the range until I find the setting I like. This lag in the responsiveness of the sliders prevents me to work this way. This is the same problem I have with the OnOne Software suite of plugins. The responsiveness of the Nik Collection plugins is still unsurpassed.
Can’t Photoshop manipulate contrast? Sure it can, and in a more powerful way. What makes Topaz Clarity worth the purchase is how easily you can manipulate contrast and clarity without introducing artefacts to the image. With Topaz Clarity you can produce high quality, halo free contrast just in seconds, without the need of messing with curves and levels.
Topaz Clarity doesn’t substitute other plugins such as Nik Collection. In fact, Nik Collection arsenal of contrast tools is broader than Topaz Clarity, but Topaz Clarity does just one thing and excels in it. The quality of the contrast produced is superior (if limited) to other packages.
I have introduced this plugin half way in my workflow, and I now use it to set the contrast before manipulating colours, and before sending my image to Nik or OnOne to creatively stylise it.
If you don’t own Nik Collection or OnOne Perfect Photo Suite, I would suggest you to save to buy them before Topaz Clarity. I think Topaz Clarity is comparatively more expensive, in fact for around $150/$200 you can buy a whole suite of plugins, while Topaz Clarity does (very well) just one thing for $49.99.
This is not to say that Topaz Clarity isn’t worth $50, and I am really impressed by the quality of the contrast it produces, in fact I introduced it in my own workflow and used it in almost all of my recent images. Topaz Clarity is really powerful and, at the same time, delicate on your images, and it can make them pop without looking over processed. I highly recommend it!
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Disclaimer: if you purchase the software using one of the links in this article, I might earn a commission. Rest assured that my review is honest, and that it express my real opinion of the product.