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Topaz AI - As Good as They Claim?
[Editor's note: This is an expanded version of an article which appeared in a recent edition of Cameracraft magazine.]
AI has been the buzzword in the technology industry for the last 30 years. But when Topaz used it as a branding for their latest collection of image enhancement tools, the phrase they should have used is “deep learning”; a technique in which a learning algorithm is trained with thousands of before & after images to allow the computer to slowly learn what a good cleanup looks like. Most people who have spent years learning how to do these things by hand in Lightroom and Photoshop may not think these new tools are anything special; for they can’t possibly improve upon a skilled retoucher. I thought I would spend a few days testing that theory.
The data set I used were my images from my 2003 – 2004 trip to teach English in China, taken with the state-of-the-art 5 megapixel Minolta Dimage A1 camera. At ISO 100 the image quality was wonderful; higher than that not so much. I shot digital instead of film because I was broke and couldn’t afford the film and processing; I also didn’t have a large hard drive on my laptop so I had to shoot .jpg only for my six-month trip. Time has added historic value to these images and so I thought I’d see what modern technology can do to clean them up. My main goal here was clean up my entire China photo library without having to tweak every image by hand (which would have taken forever).
Topaz offers many different tools; for this test I will use three: 1) Topaz DeNoise AI, which promises to clean up noise like a pro; 2) Topaz JPEG to RAW AI which claims to be able to get rid of .jpg compression artifacts AND expand the dynamic range of a .jpg (!), and 3) Topaz Gigapixel AI, which claims to be able to up-res an image better than Photoshop’s bicubic resampling algorithm. (Topaz has other tools as well… see topazlabs.com ).
Step 1: DeNoise AI
The DeNoise program (like all of the other Topaz programs evaluated here) has a simple user interface with remarkably few controls. It offers two noise cancelling algorithms called “DeNoise AI” and “AI Clear”. I tried both – AI Clear seems to emphasize smoothing over noise (while sharpening fine detail); while Denoise AI seems to reduce the noise 10% but still leaves lots of detail for the purists. It’s the old noise vs. detail tradeoff. While I vastly preferred the results of the AI Clear algorithm, I found that when left on AUTO it tended to oversmooth skin and make things look somewhat plastic-y. (As always, click on any image to view larger and sharper.)
|Denoised by Topaz|
Putting it on Manual gives you a small set of controls: Remove Noise (Low – Med – Hi), Enhance Sharpness (Low – Hi), and a Recover Details slider. I found that settings of Medium, Low, and 25% provided good noise reduction without going overboard on smoothing.
|Baoting Train - original|
Below is a good comparison between the original, Denoise AI Clear, Denoise AI, and sharpening by hand via Photoshop:
|5 Heads Studying - Original|
|Hand-denoised in Photoshop|
|100% crop showing original vs. AI Clear. Topaz took the liberty of sharpening the eyelashes too.)|
I must say I like my Photoshopped image slighty better, but it took about 3 minutes to play with the sliders to make it look the way I wanted. Let’s try it with a more difficult image.
|Dancers with Fans - Original. Pretty gosh darned noisy.|
|Hand-denoised in Photoshop|
And here are some 100% crops:
|Original (left), and AI Clear (right)|
|Denoised by Photoshop|
Once again, Photoshop wins. This time by a lot.
Here’s an image in which the Topaz actually did a slightly better job:
|Headache on Phone - Original|
Just as no single RAW conversion program does the best job on all types of images, so too will no single noise reduction tool do the best in all examples. But the overall winner here is Photoshop in the hands of a knowledgeable retoucher.
Step 2: JPEG to RAW (!)
The next program is Topaz’ too-good-to-be-true-sounding JPG to RAW converter, which promises to get rid of .jpg compression artifacts AND expand the dynamic range of a .jpg so you can recover highlights that you thought were blown out. That sounds impossible, but their marketing material points out that with machine learning, the old rules don’t apply and now anything is possible. Let's see if that reasoning has merit.
Here’s the image I started with (an image already denoised via the AI Clear algorithm):
|Original - Already de-noised via AI Clear|
|Converted to .dng - can Topaz make the .jpg compression artifacts go away?|
First let’s look at how it can reduce .jpg compression artifacts. There’s no Photoshop comparison here, as getting rid of .jpg compression artifacts is something Photoshop can’t do. I don’t even know how one would go about algorithmically un-doing JPEG compression artifacts.
|Original (left) and converted to .dng (right)|
Something else about the JPEG to RAW program you need to know: Not only does it convert the format from .jpg to .dng, but it also converts the color space from sRGB to ProPhoto. Important to know if you plan on doing a batch process on the .dng files immediately after the conversion. Don’t do it – you’ll end up with images whose color balance looks off:
Here’s an acid test for .jpg compression artifact removal. I’ll use an image from an even earlier digital camera which appeared in one of my most-read blog posts ever, “Where the Anti-JPG bias came from” (https://bit.ly/38UK2yK (and its sequel, https://bit.ly/38RUW8h)):
|Converted to RAW|
To attempt to get optimal results, I adjusted the image with the program in Manual mode with the Reduce JPEG artifacts slider all the way to the right; viewed at 200%:
|Original (left). Converted to DNG (right).|
Not impressed. On the other hand, I don’t think I had any right to expect even this level of improvement.
What about the claim of increased dynamic range? Let me use this image that appeared in an earlier issue of Cameracraft, which was shot in .jpg only (what was I thinking?) and the sky kind of blew out:
|Original (left) and converted to DNG (right). Yes, a slight improvement.|
Step 3: Gigapixel AI
The last program to be tested is Topaz Gigapixel AI, designed to upsample images. And really, the only proper way to evaluate this is to blow up the original and up-res’d image to poster size and view them from a reasonable distance. 100% crops on an A4 magazine page won’t tell you anything meaningful.
But I can summarize the results for you: At 2x, it did about the same as what Photoshop could do. At 4x, Topaz did a little bit better.
|4x upsizing via Photoshop|
|4x upsizing via Topaz|
Topaz could go as high as 6x but that’s just an unreasonable thing to ask. It’s like asking the new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone to actually zoom in to 100x. It’s not a useful capability.
So far, the differences between the Topaz and Photoshop versions of these test images are so nuanced that you really have to pixel peep to see them. In my mind that means that the differences are not that meaningful.
BUT - here is the big thing that the Topaz tools have going for them – there are designed for people who don't want to spend half their lives learning Photoshop, but want to get Photoshop-like output with a minimum of effort. The user interface is incredibly simple and straightforward, usually having only one or two sliders plus one or two buttons to press. That’s it.
After having played with these tools for a few days, I bit the bullet and used these tools to perform a mass batch denoise-and-upscaling on all of my China .jpgs Photoshop might have been a little better if you pixel peeped, but Topaz did the whole batch in minutes whereas Photoshop would have taken me a couple of days. How much more time do I want to spend in front of my computer?
Bonus!! Topaz can up-res video too!
20 years ago I flew myself to Hawaii to make this Xaphoon "How it's Made / How to Play" video, showing how the inventor chops down the bamboo from the forests of Hawaii and concert-tunes each instrument just by eyeballing it. So to test Topaz' Video Enhance AI program, I up-res'd a small clip from that video - the part where he tunes it by eye without measuring anything. (Remember, all of the bamboo dimensions are different! How much genius do you have to have to just eyeball it and say, "D should go HERE!"?)
So below are links to three different versions of that clip: The original SD version, plus an HD and 4K version which were up-res'd by Topaz' Video Enhance AI program. Aside from some small artifacts (which I think are related to a de-interlacing function I neglected to do), the results are quite impressive, and way better than what I was expecting!
Original SD version: https://youtu.be/RfWW_JSJFWQ
HD version: https://youtu.be/KJJhWzWwzkw
4K version (!): https://youtu.be/4awc11nCD3o
|Original SD video (left); enhanced to HD (right). Impressive!|
In The Pipeline
Fujifilm X-T4 is being released in stages; Release 1 is now available.
The Friedman Archives Guide to Sony's ZV-1 is now out and available in all formats!
Olympus E-M1 III is being worked on by Tony Phillips. It can be pre-ordered at a discount here.
Sony A7S III can be pre-ordered at a discount here.
Monster Adapter Update