Topaz B&W Effects Review: B&W Made Easy

Tunnel, Grand Central Station

Tunnel, Grand Central Station – New York, New York

Look through my daily photo postings at mostlyfotos and you know I add a black and white photograph to my daily photoblog once in a while. I like the artistic effect of black and white and I think it works especially well when I want to emphasize texture or shape in an image. The lack of color, simplifies the photo and brings the basic elements to life. I’ve done my black in white conversions directly in Apple’s Aperture 3 program and been satisfied with the results. However, when Topaz Labs released their B&W Effects plugin, I decided to give it a try. Since it was just introduced they had 50% off the regular $60 price. Topaz also offers a 30 day free trial so I had nothing to lose. The B&W plugin works directly through Aperture 3 with the free Topaz Labs Fusion product or it can be used through Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop.

Working with B&W Effects couldn’t be easier. To use it directly through Aperture 3, go to the Photos menu and select Edit with Plug-in > Topaz Fusion Express 2… You can select B&W Effects in a small pop-up window. I have also tried it via Photoshop Elements. Access this by selecting the Filter Menu, Topaz Labs > Topaz B&W Effects… Regardless of the way the plug-in launched the B&W Effects interface looks the same. As you can see below, you get one window with several panes around the periphery. On the left side, under Effects, there is a collection of presets. Below that, under Presets, you can choose the desired effect. As you hover over each preset, the small preview window on the top left corner dynamically updates to show the effect. When you select a preset, it displays in the main, center window, quite quickly, usually in about a second or two. The four collections of controls on the right size, 1 Conversion, 2 Creative Effects, 3 Local Adjustments and 4 Finishing Touches allows fine tuning of any of the controls. Each of the 4 sections can be opened up to expose all the options. Notice in the screen shot I have the Finishing Touches section open and the available options are displayed in blue.

Topaz B&W Effects Screen Shot

Topaz B&W Effects Screen Shot

All of the photographs on this post were created with the Classic preset under the Traditional Collection. The other collections such as Toned, Stylized and Cyanotype mainly offer different monochrome tones. You can get brownish, greenish, bluish or multi-toned effects or any other colored effects that you like. In total there are around 200 presets to choose from. While there are many options and much flexibility, I found it really easy to get the black and white look I was looking for. With a few clicks and under 30 seconds, I was done. I’ll need more time to explore the other fun options but I’ve been happy with just the Classic preset. There are two custom configurations that I’ve used on the right side. Under Conversion, Basic Exposure section, I’ve adjusted the Brightness, Boost Blacks and Boot White sliders. Also under Finishing Touches I’ve applied Film Grain texture to the photo. Because the processing occurs so quickly, the plug-in encourages experimentation. You can easily change preset or fine-tune the sliders. In a way, it feels like an iPhone Camera application where you can apply post-processing effects to your camera photos. Of course unlike a typical iPhone App, the effects all revolve around black and white or monochrome and you get to apply these to high-resolution photographs. The Topaz plug-in is fun, quick and easy. It has a lot of presets to get you started but has the power to adjust and fine-tune all the details.

Ticket Booth, Long Island Rail Road

Ticket Booth, Long Island Rail Road – New York, New York

NYC Subway, 81st Street Station

NYC Subway, 81st Street Station – New York, New York

I find the concept of Film Grain really interesting in the world of digital. I’ve heard the complaint that digital black and whites tend to be too clean and lacks the character of real film based photographs. And while high ISO noise can add graininess or texture, true film grain is different. With B&W Effects, one click and you can set Kodak TriX 400 or a whole slew of Fujifilm, Ilford, Rollei and Kodak grain patterns. I am the first to admit that I am no expert in true film based black and white photography. While I enjoy the look, I have never shot in TriX. All I know is that Kodak TriX 400 was very popular and was often used by photojournalists. The irony is that I’m basically adding a nostalgic effect to a brand new digital image but since I’ve never used black and white film the search for nostalgia is a bit fake. Maybe I’m just responding to the look of old black and white photographs that I’ve seen many times but never taken myself. So I’m sure when I talk about simulated film grain, the experienced B&W film photographers may have their doubts. I can not say, first hand, how authentic these grain patterns are or how realistic these black and white conversions look. I do notice however, that they do look different from the Black and Whites I create out of Aperture 3. Look at the two sets images below. The top ones were created using B&W Effects while the lower ones were made using the Black and White tool in Aperture. They do have a noticeably different feel. Now it maybe possible to get something similar in Aperture or Photoshop with much experimentation and effort. However with the Topaz plug-in I can create this look in a couple of clicks and with no effort. Some may argue this is merely faux digital trickery but I’m perfectly OK with this. My photography has grown up in the digital world and I don’t have a large hankering to play with film, at least not yet.

Information Booth, Grand Central Station

Information Booth, Grand Central Station (Topaz B&W Effects)

Information Booth, Grand Central Station

Information Booth, Grand Central Station (Aperture 3 B&W)

Now let’s look closer at the difference between the Topaz B&W Effects conversion and the Black and White conversion done in Aperture 3. Both the Grand Central Station images above and the 42nd Street Subway photos below share similar characteristics. The Topaz version have more detail, texture and glow from the lights. You can see the differences even in these small photos but make sure to click the images to see a larger version. Look at all the veins in the marble that is visible with Topaz. I especially love the glow of the lights and the shine of the clock on top of the information booth. I believe the B&W Effects photos have more of a 3D feel to them. The standard Black and White conversion seems more flat and dull to me. Like wise, look at the fluorescent lighting in the subway station. There is a crispness and detail in the ceiling that is missing in the Aperture 3 version. Also, compare the texture and the reflection off the floor.

42nd Street Subway Station

42nd Street Subway Station (Topaz B&W Effects)

42nd Street Subway Station

42nd Street Subway Station (Aperture 3 B&W)

How about adding multiple levels of digital manipulation to the mix. It can be quite interesting and compelling to make Black and White images of HDRs. Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of realistic HDRs. Now, what if we apply Topaz B&W Effects on top of HDRs. I did just that on a photograph I recently posted. You can see the original, color HDR posted in mostlyfotos. You saw a preview in the Topaz screen shot above, now here is the full quality photograph converted with the Topaz software. I believe both have their merits and I like them both. Which do you like better?

Furness Library Staircase

Furness Library Staircase, University of Pennsylvania

Topaz Labs just released an update to the software and you can purchase B&W Effects at $29.99 until October 3, 2011. Here is a link to their product page. Just remember to add the coupon code “bwandbeyond” when you pay for the software. If you like black and white, the $60 seems reasonable but the special offer for $30 makes this a great deal. Nik Sofware has a similar product called Silver Efex Pro which retails for $200 so the Topaz software sounds like quite a bargain. I have not used Silver Efex myself so I can not say how the two products compare. Nik software does have their powerful U Point technology that simplifies making local adjustments without using layers. The Topaz B&W Effects also allow for local adjustments but uses a brush based interface rather than a control point interface found in the Nik product. For me, just the classic black and white conversions in Topaz have opened up another level to my photographic post processing. I think the gritty, urban New York City photographs look especially compelling in black and white. Maybe it is the memory of seeing many black and white images of NYC but the look fits my aesthetic. I’m also excited about doing black and white conversions of street photography, which also seems work well. Either way, I expect to post more monochromatic images on moslyfotos as I have really been taken with this newly acquired capability. I still plan have lots of color in my portfolio but black and white has never looked so good or has been so easy to create.

NOTE: Please click on the photos to see a larger version. I shot all the photographs in New York City with the Sony NEX-5 that I recently reviewed. The HDR of the Furness Library on the University of Pennsylvania campus was shot with my Canon 7D using 3 exposures.

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