Peaking Sunset

Topaz'd Sunset
Pulled this set out of the archive. Earlier this week Nik (owned by Google) released a new version of their software plugin suite for Aperture (and those other photo editors) for a much reduced price of $150. Considering the suite used to go for $450-$500 this was a pretty big deal. In this suite is an HDR plugin (HDR Efex), a black and white conversion (Silver Efex), a color and tone enhancer (Color Efex), a sharpener, and a denoise tool. I had gotten Silver Efex and absolutely love it, but had tried some earlier version of HDR Efex that I felt weren't as good as Photomatix, and I couldn't get into using Color Efex. But with this new release and tempting price I thought I'd try them again.

Nik'd Sunset
I denoised in Topaz's DeNoise. After playing with Nik's version I just felt more comfortable with DeNoise and wanted the 2 HDR photos to start off on the same equal footing. After that one set of exposures went to Photomatix for HDRing then to Topaz Labs plugins for finishing and the other set went through the Nik suite of HDR Efex and Color Efex. I originally wanted to try and get the same look and feel for the two. I wanted to bring out the colors and the clouds, the reflection in the water, and the sun rays peaking around the cliff. Some of those things are brought out in both photos but certain things obviously turned out differently.

HDR

Nik  HDR Efex is a two step process. The first step involves alignment on or off, helpful for when you shoot handheld, ghost removal, and chromatic aberration removal. The first two are pretty automatic with you being able to click different percentages of ghosting, but the chromatic aberration removal have two sliders that I couldn't really get the hang of so I ignored them. After that the HDR is made and you're able to do a bit of toning. I felt more comfortable in this area than I do in Photomatix's comparable screen, though photomatix uses quite a bit more sliders to fine tune things, and after years of playing with them I'm comfortable using all of them now. I think if I was just starting out HDR Efex would get the nod here in terms of being able to jump in and do things, though I feel I can do more in Photomatix. So I'm going to give Photomatix the nod, if just barely.

Toning and Finishing

Topaz Labs a little bit ago released an awesome plugin/standalone program called photoFXlab which allows the user to easily access all their plugins through a simple interface, and even make use of layers. My typical workflow has me sending the HDR photo to FXlab where I make layers, or copies, of the photo with every plugin used. This way I can easily see the progression of the photo, and if need be tone down some of the edits with layer masks. My two most used plugins are Adjust 5, which works on the colors, toning, and detail of a photo and Detail which, well, works on the details of a photo in a much more powerful way. For this photo I only used Adjust.

Nik Color Efex and Topaz Labs Adjust have a similar workflow; presets on the left, photo front and center, and sliders to fine tune an effect on the right. In both you can one click a preset and call it a day, if you like. Their presets are grouped by looks (Adjust) or uses (Color Efex) which are helpful to quickly sorting through what amounts to a hundred or so presets. The big difference between the two are in how you can adjust locally, or specific parts of a photo. Topaz Labs does a kind of internal layer that you can either brush in or brush out an adjustment while Nik uses control points. Place a point in an area and on a specific part of a photo and you now have control over that circle of influence. Going into this I thought Topaz's way of doing things would be easier, but I think Nik's control points were easier to get the hang of using. With Topaz I found myself often resetting the mask and adjust the opacity of the effect, or the overall effect, then re-painting. With control points there are sliders available that make it easy to make adjustments on the fly. But after years of using Adjust I admit to feeling more at home there which is why I'm again giving Topaz the nod, though I think Nik might even take that spot.

I'll be using the Nik suite more over the next couple weeks to see how it works out, but either way you look at it $149 for these world class plugins is a deal. Topaz Labs used to seem like the best deal in this space at $300, but at half the price Nik and Google have made a statement. The question is, can the quality stay up to par?

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