Hands-On With Topaz Studio, a Free and Powerful Image-Editor

November 8, 2017

By Stan Sholik

All Photos © Stan Sholik

If there is any truth to the adage, “The best things in life are free,” then it certainly applies to Topaz Labs’ new Topaz Studio software. Topaz Studio is an amazingly complete image editor and RAW file processor that is actually free, with free updates promised for life. It is available at for Mac and Windows computers with fairly minimal hardware requirements other than a decent graphics card. Topaz Studio functions as a standalone editor, a plug-in within Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and as a host for any Topaz plug-ins. Of the Topaz plug-ins that I own, all but ReMask appeared in the Plug-ins drop-down menu in the menu bar.

Ten adjustments and many preset effects are available in the free version. For most users, this is pretty much all you will need. Fourteen additional adjustments are available in the Pro Pack for $275 that you can download at no cost and preview for 30 days. I reviewed the free version and Pro Pack as a standalone application and looked at it in Photoshop and Lightroom.

You can stack the programs on each other as layers and drag the layers around in the stack. The layers are non-destructive until you output the file. Each adjustment includes a few presets that preview on the image as you roll your mouse over them. If you find a combination of layers that you like, you can save them as a preset. An opacity slider is available for each adjustment, but you can also adjust the opacity of the entire stack. There are 29 blending modes, which preview their action on your image as you roll your mouse over them as well.

It is also possible to open multiple RAW, TIFF or JPEG images in the image browser, apply adjustments as you desire and compose them together. Masking is available for compositing as well as masking the adjustments from areas of an image. A variety of masking tools, including adjustments to masks, are available. They don’t reach the level of sophistication of Topaz ReMask, but they address the needs of a vast majority of situations.

There are loads of preset effects—I quit counting when I reached 200 and saw that I wasn’t even halfway through the list. Fortunately, Topaz was thoughtful enough to group similar effects into 22 categories, which include portrait, landscape, fashion and fine-art categories. The effects range from subtle to wild but serve as useful jumping off points for your own creations, as each effect includes a set of sliders you can adjust to your own taste.

The free adjustments are shown at the top of the list. I chose the first adjustment, Abstraction, from the Pro Pack.

After applying it, I used the masking brush on the model’s face to remove the adjustment.

User Friendliness

Topaz provides a product tour and link to tutorials in the Help drop-down menu, along with videos and more information on their website. Overall, the program is very intuitive to navigate and use. The only area where I needed help was in using the masking tools when compositing images as there are layer masks and overall masks available.

The center of the interface contains the Canvas displaying a preview of the image with presets and adjustments applied. An icon in the toolbar above the image allows you to quickly look back at your original. To the left of the preview is the Effects panel with an Effects toolbar, below it is the Image Browser, and to the right is the Adjustment panel with an Adjustment toolbar. You can close any or all of the panels to enlarge the preview image. There are RGB and HSL displays at the top of the Adjustment panel along with a Details panel (that I didn’t find useful) and a Navigation panel. Flyout descriptions are available for most of the icons.

What We Liked

For an initial software release, Topaz Studio has a lot going for it beside the free price. While I am generally not a big fan of effects presets, their implementation in Topaz Studio makes them very functional. Organizing them into categories is helpful, although some categories have effects that I wouldn’t have included. Having the adjustments that were used to create the effects open in the Adjustment panel makes it easy to fine-tune them to your liking.

The adjustments in the free version includes basic exposure sliders, skin-softening blurs, brightness and contrast controls, color overlays, split toning, film grain, posterization controls, curves and vignetting options. Healing, lens corrections, cropping, layers and overall masking tools are also available. If you don’t need more sophisticated tools such as dehaze, HSL color tuning, radiance, sharpening, texture and others in the Pro Pack, you have what you need.

I found the slider ranges for the adjustments to be adequate for my needs and the range of tools more than adequate. The masking tools deserve special mention: they are well implemented and available for each of the adjustments. You can mask with a content-aware brush, a configurable spot, a gradient, by color and by luminosity. And you can create a mask with any of the masking options, then add to the mask using any of the other masking options. Pretty slick.

The final image using the Abstraction adjustment from the Pro Pack.

What We Didn’t Like

Topaz Studio is so well conceived and executed that it doesn’t even seem fair to look for things to criticize. Rather, there are places where I would like Topaz Labs to add and enhance some features. What Topaz Studio needs more than anything is an integrated file browser. With this release, a File>Open Image command takes you to your OS file browser. I would love to see the Effects panel share the left side of the workspace with an integrated file browser.

I’d also like RGB readouts to be available and far more keyboard shortcuts to speed the workflow. I had no problem opening or working on RAW files with the latest digital cameras, including DNG files from the Pentax K-1 and ARW files from the Sony A9. However, many of my Nikon D2x files that normally open correctly otherwise opened with a green line running through them.

As well implemented as the masking is, there needs to be a better way to completely remove part of the mask other than moving the density slider to the far right of the slider. Yes, it gives you the option of lowering the mask density in specific ways, but adding an Alt/Option keyboard command to change from adding a mask to deleting the mask would really speed the masking workflow.

How It Compares

In some important ways, such as image adjustment, Topaz Studio is a competitor for Adobe Lightroom. It does Lightroom one better with effects presets and the abilities to mask and compose multiple images, but it lacks Lightroom’s cataloging and browsing abilities. Lacking the ability to create sidecar files, RAW files adjusted in Topaz Studio and subsequently saved without saving them as a TIFF, JPEG or PNG lose the adjustments you have made. Exposure X2 offers a file browser and many of the same features as Topaz Studio, including layers, but its presets are concentrated on film looks. DxO Optics Pro 11 includes both a file browser and useful presets for portraits and landscapes as well as film looks, but with a somewhat steeper learning curve. Probably the closest in features and much further along in development is ON1 Photo RAW 2017, but it too takes some time to become comfortable with.

Bottom Line

If you don’t use effects presets and are happy with the feature sets in these other programs, you may not want to switch to Topaz Studio. But if you aren’t or have the time to look, download Topaz Studio software and the Pro Pack trial and see what free gets you these days. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, Shoot Macro, for Amherst Media is available now.

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