• Price: $39.99 (£26)

  • Company: Topaz Labs

  • Pros: Sharpens and brings out detail without halos or significant increase in noise. Lots of different presets. Can smooth detail out for portraits. Tackles highlights and shadows. Lots of parameters to fine-tune effect. Relatively cheap.

  • Cons: Some settings have minimal effect. Can create noisy images. Limited scope compared to some plugins.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

One of the problems of dealing with images is when you are given one to use and it was taken on a poor quality camera, or the photographer used the wrong settings and everything from the mid-ground backwards is soft. Normally this requires a trip to Photoshop’s sharpening filters to see what can be done. Unsharp Mask is good for adding localised contrast to an image so it appears to be sharper than it is, though it creates halos around edges.

Sharpen doesn’t do that and does actually sharpen the image, but it doesn’t give it more contrast and is does tend to increase visible noise. That’s where Topaz Labs’ Detail 3 Photoshop plugin comes in (which also works as a plugin for Aperture and Lightroom). First a quick note about Detail 2 though. If you already have that installed, it remains so because the presets for it aren’t compatible with Detail 3, thanks to the latter’s new imaging engine.

There are five collections of presets covering Creative Detail, Highlight Detail, Shadow Detail, Smooth and Stylized Detail. Clearly if the highlights or shadows lack definition then that’s the collection of presets to use, as they have little impact on good quality exposures.

Clicking on a collection brings up the preset list for it. Rolling the mouse over a preset give a thumbnail preview in the top left, while clicking on the preset itself gives a full screen preview. You can run this as a split-screen affair or have it set to After and click and hold on it to see the Before version.

As the filters tend to affect the entire image it makes sense to be able to see everything. There’s a Navigator window on the top right to move and zoomed in viewpoint around. Also on the right are the parameters and this is where the fun begins, not least because some of them aren’t entirely obvious.

 
The Summer Landscape II preset has been used to tone and give impact while tweaking the Medium Detail adds sharpness.

The four parameter sections cover Detail, Tone, Colour and Deblur. Diving in to the Detail section, this is where most of the sharpening and detail enhancement is done. You can either tackle the Shadows, Highlights or apply the settings across the entire tonal range. There are adjustments for Small Detail and Boost, Medium Detail and Boost, and Large Detail and Boost. These are slider controlled with immediate feedback on the preview screen. Just move it up and down to see the effect.

Pushing up the Small Detail gives the image a very fine grain look, while Medium tends improve it overall. Increasing the Large detail is like using Unsharp Mask with lots of contrast enhancement. While it’s easy to go overboard trying this out, it’s just as easy to rein it back in again.

The other parameters come into play more on the Smooth and Styliszed preset collections. Here the image can be toned or made more abstract. There’s definitely use for the smoothing functions on portraits and these can work well. The toning does a good job, and there area  couple of HDR presets worth trying as well. However, this isn’t primarily a toning plug-in and shouldn’t be approached as such because Topaz Labs itself has plug-ins that cover those areas. Consider them a bonus to the basic quest of sharpening and giving an image more impact.

While not an essential Photoshop plug-in by any means, this is one of those that tends to slip under the radar but you find it worth firing up when flabby images lacking sharpness and impact come in. If you want to get your hands dirty there’s a lot of localised control you can try out but the presets will often do pretty much what you wanted when you started. Topaz Detail 3 is definitely worth having in your digital toolkit.