Review: Topaz Labs Clarity

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Since the introduction of the Clarity slider, it’s become one of my favorite tools for controlling the finer contrast of my images. I’m not the only one as many photographers have discovered how this one control is capable of adding a nice “pop” to photographs. However, when this tool is used with a heavy hand, it not only begins to not unnatural, but it also creates unwanted halos and artifacting.

Enter Topaz Labs Clarity, a software that takes this tool and provides far greater control over clarity, while eliminating that common issues of haloing and artifacting that commonly occur when the control is applied aggressively.

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Pros and Cons

Pros

Powerful and versatile plug-in for controlling contrast

100+ presets tailored for different types of photography

Large previews of presets

A masks tool to help isolate the effect on select portions of the image

Cons

The software can be slow or sluggish when opening or hiding the side panels

Gear Used

iMac 27-inch w. OS 10.8.5 running Adobe Lightroom 5.1 and Photoshop CC. Image created with Samsung NX300

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Main Features

One-click effect specially developed and fine-tuned for specific types of photos.

Uses intelligent contrast enhancement to increase impact and depth for a natural look

Eliminates halos and artifacts commonly associated with Clarity control

Features redesigned HSL control for greater control over color and density

Includes a powerful mask tool for localizing effect to some or all of the image

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Ease of Use

Topaz Labs Clarity features a desktop design very similar to its other popular line of plug ins and bares some resemblance to the Lightroom interface. The far left column features sets of presets which are categorized into different genres of photography. They include fashion, nature, portrait, wedding and others. The presets within each category appear below. When chosen, the software takes a few moments to create large previews that will pop out from the left giving you a good-sized view of the potential effect of the filter. It takes less than 15 seconds to render those previews, but the software will only do it once allowing you revisit them at any point.

The right side panel contains the fine controls including tools for controlling all levels of contrast from thigh contrast to fine-contrast. The effects of the sliders are immediately apparent on the image which is displayed large in the center of the workspace. The controls are all easily marked. For anyone already familiar with the interface in Adobe Lightroom, these controls will come as second nature. The side panels can be hidden to make best use of the desktop, but in my testing, these controls performed rather sluggishly. I had to tap the icon repeatedly in order to activate it if it did at all. As this is a relatively new computer, I am assuming that this may be a glitch in the software that will be remedied in a software update. It was the only frustrating thing about my user experience.

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Real Life Application

I see many photographers whose use of clarity is very aggressive, which to my eye draws far too much attention to the process rather than to the image itself. I like to use it with a more subtle eye in mind. Topaz Clarity provides me the kind of control that I want to control even the small fine details of my shot, without necessarily having to do so to the rest of the image.

For example the micro contrast slider provides me the ability to control the look of skin tones where the contrast level may not be too high. I can increase micro contrast to bring out the details of a weathered face or pull back to smooth out blemishes. I can then increase the contrast in other areas of the photograph to increase the contrast dramatically while maintaining the look of the micro contrast. This level of control becomes incredibly powerful and takes things beyond the level of a single  global effect.

While in the plug in, I also have the ability to control my tone levels from the blackest black to the whitest whites. Thankfully, a histogram panel is included to ensure that I am not being too aggressive with such adjustments.

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The software also boasts an improved HSL control window that provides not only the means to control hue, saturation and luminance globally, but also selectively. It’s an important feature that really frees me to make the most of my creative choices all within the software itself.

The mask features is powerful and important as it allowed me to select what areas of the image will and wouldn’t be impacted by the software’s effect. Whether it’s painting in or out the effect using the brush tool or using the color range control, this an invaluable tool for fine-tuning the look of my images.

As promised there was no evidence of the haloing and artifacting that is so common with the use of clarity, which is great especially for landscape photographers who can often benefit from a more assertive use of this kind of contrast control.

The software include a Snapshot control on the left side panel that allows you to save each stage of your work. While this is an important features, I would have preferred something along the lines of the history panel in Lightroom and Photoshop that records this automatically. As is, I have to remember to create a snapshot. Otherwise, my only option is to revert to the original file.

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Conclusion

After a few weeks of using the application, I can say that it’s become a big part of my workflow. I like my images to have “punch” especially my black and whites. So, having a plugin that provides me greater control over contrast than I could enjoy with a single clarity slider or a curves adjustment is a boon.

At just $49 is a download, Topaz Labs Clarity an affordable plug-in that will give you more than your moneys work. It also available as part of their plug-in bundle. I think that after you make use of the free trial, you will quickly discover how this plug-in is one that you don’t want to live without.

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