I have been seeing ads on social media for months touting Topaz Labs' Sharpen AI as being able to take out of focus images and turn them into tack sharp photographs. My initial reaction has always been one of profound disbelief. Like a lot of other photographers, I have been shuttered from a lot of my favorite locations due to COVID-19. If the global pandemic has had any positives, one is that I have had the opportunity to really go back and take a second look at some of the images in my back catalog. I don't know about you, but I have a ton of images that I have taken over the years that for a variety of reasons did not pass all of my litmus tests for making it into my portfolio. The biggest one is the proofing challenge (ie I proof at 12x18). My experience has been that if something looks good under a magnifying glass at 12x18 that I can easily blow it up to 24x36 (the largest my printer will allow) or larger. On a lark, and admittedly after seeing another of their ads, I decided to download a 30 day trial of the software and see how it worked.
Instead of my waxing whimsically about all of the functions, I think it will be easier to show you some samples and let your eyes do the judging. The following image of the Grizzly bear (a lady I have been following for over a decade) is hanging in my office at 20x30 inches. It was already a good file - BUT, there was some softness in it that has always bothered me. Due to the way the subject matter was framed, I have allowed it a bit of leeway as I think the composition is really nice. At the time, the bear was arguing with those three ravens (which was actually 6 or 7 of them) over a carcass that was hidden underneath the detritus. There was a lot of movement of the bear and the wood. Take a good look near the eye where the coat of the bear shifts original to preview. It is rather amazing to see the detail in the bear's coat come to life in a way that the original did not. It is so good that I may wind up re-printing the 20x30 and rehang it.
This bull moose is another COVID re-process that has been sitting on my hard drive for close to a decade. This is another example of a 'good' image that printed well at 12x18. The eye was sharp enough, and there was decent detail in the antlers. I honestly was not too focused on the detail in the coat. This is an image that really came alive under the Sharpen AI algorithm. Look at that coat and the area around the antler. I am honestly blown away at the difference between the two images.
This next series of images are taken from Glacier National Park. Yes, another COVID series where I could see a slight bit of softness in the image, but I really liked the composition. Take a look at the rock in the foreground rock. and grass in the Sharpen AI image. There is a clear difference in the before and after that turn this image from something that I liked but discarded because it was just a little bit off into something that I could really use. The 12x18 proof of this is really stunning now.
In terms of operation, using the program is very easy. It is as simple as either loading the program directly or using it as a plug-in in Affinity Photo. I have been creating a second layer for AI Sharpen to use that does not damage the original image so that I can make a final decision for myself after I have seen the whole image. This is important, and I will go into that in my conclusions. Also, while it takes a bit longer than just using the 'before and after' preview feature, I have found that using the Comparison View (seen below) is really the best way to get a real sense of what settings AI Sharpen will work best for your image. For people who want to more manually mix the settings to fit their image, or what to sharpen elements of an image, those features also exist. For example, I am using their Masking Tool to go over pieces of a screech owl that was buried in the recesses of a high tree. The mask element allows you to more accurately pinpoint where I want the detail.
The conclusion? Topaz Labs AI Sharpen WORKS. Will it take any blurry dog of a photograph and turn it into a stunning winner? LOL, probably not, and it is not perfect. However, it will definitely take images that are close and take them over the goal line. The only trick to the program is that you really need to have a sense of what and where detail belongs. For example, I have found that in some landscapes where textures change (say going from a foreground rock into a mountain scape) that the program started to create some textures that did not look quite right to me. This is where having that second layer that you can delete elements that you don't want becomes very important. This is particularly important in a lot of my landscapes where I am shooting with very narrow apertures and long exposures and I am counting on a bit of diffraction to fool the eye into seeing detail that may not actually be there. Having said that, I think that should be an assumption whenever you use ANY sort of program like this. Ie it is going to make global changes to the whole image - and you may not (probably don't) want that.With that rather important caveat, this program works well beyond my dreams. I strongly encourage people to try it out. Look at your own images with your eyes and make your own judgment.