Topaz Labs has long offered a set of Photoshop plug-ins that have been favorites of those who enjoy manipulating tones and colors. Through products like Topaz Simplify and Topaz Detail, they were among first to offer the highly processed HDR look without multiple exposures and to change a straightforward image into something resembling an oil painting or charcoal drawing.
They combined some of these tools in Topaz Adjust, which also offered tools to balance exposure and color. Topaz B&W Effects brings some of their best tools together in a package designed to offer great creative control over the conversion of digital color images to black and white. The program can be accessed from Photoshop or, through its free Topaz Fusion Express interface, from Lightroom, Aperture, and iPhoto. Here is the Topaz B&W Effects interface which, in this example, I called from Lightroom:
The left side of the screen offers a window that previews the results you will get from any of the effects below. The "Effects" pallet contains groupings of some of the 100+ presets available in the program. Hovering over any of the presets gives you a preview of what you will get if you apply that preset.
The right-hand side offers tools for conversion, creative effects, local adjustment, and finishing touches. Clicking on any of these reveals a multitude of options, and the sliders allow you to test the effects at various strengths. You can combine a preset with any or all of these tools or go directly to the tools without touching the presets. If you find an effect that works for you, you can save it as a custom preset to reuse in the future or to use as a starting point.
Using only the tools, I was able to convert an overexposed color shot of the Columbia River at Astoria into a dramatic black and white photo in just a few minutes.
On a 64-bit machine, 4 GhZ of memory is not enough to run Photoshop and B&W Effects. It slows to a crawl. I encountered one software glitch that I've referred to Topaz: My Wacom Intuos 3 mouse does not work in the program. It took me awhile to realize what was (not) going on, but once I reached for the Intuos pen, all was well. (Please let me know if you experience the same behavior, and I'll post any comments or updates I receive from Topaz.)
Finally, I'm not too impressed by the local adjustments panel. I managed to burn in lower exposure on the hills on the Washington side of the river, but no matter how hard I tried and how low I set "Overall Strength," I could see the edge of the effect if the pen touched the sky -- even though I had turned on the "Edge Aware" feature. Applying the change without local adjustments and using the brush tool in Lightroom 4 seems a better solution, at least on this iteration of the program.
At $59.95, Topaz B&W Effects is less than a third the price of Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro, and it provides most of the functionality, plus several tools the latter does not have. Topaz B&W Effects works well and is a great value for the money.