Topaz Photo AI V2 vs. Lightroom noise reduction showdown

Topaz Photo AI V2 vs. Lightroom noise reduction showdown

We all want to know how Lightroom Classic Denoise AI compares to Topaz Photo AI. We denoised a high-ISO Milky Way photo to address the big question.

What is Topaz Photo AI V2?

Photo AI is an image enhancement app that sharpens, reduces noise, and increases the resolution of your photos through machine learning. It works on either Mac or PC. It also works as stand-alone software or in Lightroom Classic or Photoshop CC. It also supports RAW files as well as JPGs, TIFFs, and DNGs. It allows you to refine your selection using masks, apply enhancements in layers, preserve text in photos, recover the detail in faces, and much more. And finally, it supports batch-processing.

The price is currently $199 and is not subscription-based. You will most likely be able to use the app for many years. Why do I say this? I purchased Topaz Star Effects in November 2013, initially using it with Photoshop CS6 using OS 10.7.5. Topaz Labs hasn’t made Star Effects in years. Despite that, it still works in Photoshop CC more than 10 years later. Seriously, how many companies do that?

Topaz also transferred it to my new email when I lost access to my previous email. Topaz, take a bow for creating apps with such longevity and providing solid customer service. This should never be overlooked.

We compared the noise reduction software in Topaz Photo AI v2.4.2 to Lightroom Classic Denoise AI v13.2. For the comparison, I selected a single exposure photo from Borrego Springs, CA in September 2015, using a Nikon D610 DSLR full frame camera at 20 seconds f/2.8 ISO 4000.

Comparison issues

There’s no apples-to-apples direct comparison. Sure, I could try to set the strength of each one to the same amount and compare them. But what is “30” on one model doesn’t necessarily correspond to the other. So in what is admittedly a subjective move, I simply tried to make each one look the best it could, then compared them. More to the point, I tried to have each one apply the same amount of noise reduction to the image.

Denoising with Lightroom Classic Denoise AI v13.2

RAW file with no processing of any kind. Single exposure high-ISO Milky Way photo, Borrego Springs.
Dialing in Lightroom Classic's Denoise AI. Note there is only an "amount" slider. The controls are about as simple as you can get.
Dialing in Lightroom Classic’s Denoise AI. Note there is only an “amount” slider. The controls are about as simple as you can get.

I don’t tend to like tons of noise reduction in my photos. I set the denoising slider to 22. I felt that it got rid of most of the noise without blurring anything or introducing horrible artifacts.

Image with Lightroom's Denoise AI applied. Lightroom  has saved the file as a new DNG file.
Image with Lightroom’s Denoise AI applied. Lightroom has saved the file as a new DNG file.

After clicking okay, the image processed for thirty seconds, also creating a new DNG file.

Denoising with Photo AI

Next, I went back to the original RAW file. This time, I was going to try denoising with Photo AI. However, it didn’t offer a DNG file as one of the options. I chose a PSD file, thinking that it would be reasonably close for comparison. Twice, Photo AI gave an error message, saying it couldn’t open that file. I switched to a TIFF file, and this worked perfectly fine.

Denoising a RAW file with Topaz Photo AI.
Denoising a RAW file with Topaz Photo AI.
Upon opening a file, Photo AI Autopilot automatically examines the file, determining what things need enhancements are requires for your image.
Upon opening a file, Photo AI Autopilot automatically examines the file, determining what things need enhancements are required for your image.
Dialing in denoising with Topaz Photo AI after its initial suggestion.
Dialing in denoising with Topaz Photo AI after its initial suggestion.

Instead of a tiny window like Lightroom, Photo AI offers a side-by-side comparison. After its initial suggestion via Autopilot, I decided to tweak it, reducing its initial suggestion, but boosting Minor Deblur (essentially, sharpening) and Original Detail. Like I did with Lightroom Denoise AI, I adjusted it so the program would remove most but not all of the noise in an effort not to give it that glossy, plastic sort of look that occurs when you push denoising programs too far.

Other features Photo AI’s Remove Noise feature

I want to briefly mention several other features. Unlike Lightroom’s Denoise AI feature, Photo AI features three different models, Normal, Strong, and Extreme. However, if you use the stand-alone version of Photo AI and try to denoise a RAW file, it only gives you Normal and Strong models.

Also, when denoising an image while launching from Lightroom Classic, Photo AI offers various selection masks. This includes Subject, Background, portrait, Landscape, and Sky.

Additionally, it offers different masks so you can apply noise reduction to specific areas. It defaults to All, a change from previous versions of Photo AI where it curiously defaulted to None. You can also change the selections to Subject, Background, Portrait, Landscape, or Sky. I kept Photo AI on All, but wanted to show you the mask of the sky, and that’s very sweet of me.

Photo AI allows you to apply denoising to a specific area of the image. This is using the Sky selection.
Photo AI allows you to apply denoising to a specific area of the image. This is using the Sky selection.
Photo AI allows you to apply numerous enhancements as layers. This includes not only Remove Noise, but also Sharpen, Adjust Lighting, Balance Color, Remove, Preserve Text, and Upscale. And of course, you can apply Autopilot again.
Photo AI allows you to apply numerous enhancements as layers. This includes not only Remove Noise, but also Sharpen, Adjust Lighting, Balance Color, Remove, Preserve Text, and Upscale. And of course, you can apply Autopilot again.
Screenshot of single exposure high-ISO Milky Way image from Borrego Springs after removing noise using Photo AI.
Screenshot of single exposure high-ISO Milky Way image from Borrego Springs after removing noise using Photo AI.

After you press Save Back to Lightroom, Photo AI does just that.

How do they compare, you are asking? You came to the right place!

Comparisons between Photo AI and Lightroom Classic at 300% magnification

Screenshots in Lightroom

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Above: RAW vs. Lightroom Classic Denoise AI set to a strength of 22, 300% view

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Above: RAW vs. Photo AI Remove Noise at 14 Normal Strength, 70 Minor Deblur, and 72 Original Detail, 300% view

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Above: Lightroom Classic Denoise AI vs. Photo AI Remove Noise at 14 Normal Strength, 70 Minor Deblur, and 72 Original Detail, 300% view

Comparisons between Photo AI and Lightroom Classic at 400% magnification

Screenshots in Lightroom

Comparisons are difficult to see sometimes in these articles. However, we hope that by zooming in at 300% or 400%, you can sufficiently pixel-peep and really see what each program is doing. Let’s have a look at 400% magnification, zoomed in on the galactic core of the Milky Way this time.

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Above: RAW vs. Lightroom Classic Denoise AI set to a strength of 22, 400% view

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Above: RAW vs. Photo AI Remove Noise at 14 Normal Strength, 70 Minor Deblur, and 72 Original Detail, 400% view

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Above: Lightroom Classic Denoise AI vs. Photo AI Remove Noise at 14 Normal Strength, 70 Minor Deblur, and 72 Original Detail, 400% view

After pixel-peeping, what is your opinion?

Thoughts while comparing Topaz Photo AI V2 with Lightroom Classic when reducing noise

From this one example, Denoise AI in Lightroom boosts contrast and sharpening even at a somewhat low level such as 22, but reduces noise at an earlier stage, even with low settings. It grows increasingly “plasticky” as you increase the strength.

On the other hand, Photo AI V2 doesn’t boost the contrast, also growing increasingly “plasticky” as you increase the strength.

A contrast in contrast

Both work very well. I don’t like Lightroom Denoise AI boosting the contrast and sharpening for me, as that’s a decision I’d rather make on my own. Of course, if I don’t want the added contrast or sharpening, I can reduce it easily, so this isn’t a large issue at all.

Both are very simple to use. Lightroom offers only one slider. That’s it. Photo AI V2 offers several models and several sliders, offering more control, but it’s still very easy to use.

Photo AI V2 is quicker than Lightroom’s Denoise AI. It took about five seconds on average to examine and determine various settings, then took five seconds to render the noise reduction for you to see. After that, it took another thirteen seconds to save, for a total of 23 seconds. Lightroom typically took about 30 seconds after pressing the Denoise button. And of course, it takes a second or two to instantiate as well.

For this particular photo, I prefer working with Topaz Photo AI V2 a little more. Why? It’s a bit faster and offers a few more parameters to tweak while still being simple. Also, I like the much larger window for seeing what the noise removal looks like. I also like that it’s not adding contrast or sharpening.

Either program allows you to increase or decrease contrast and sharpening easily afterwards, so this is not that large of an issue.

Are we comparing nanometers of difference?

Lightroom kept some of the odd swirly parts that are between the stars in the RAW file. You can basically only see these when you are zoomed in at 300% or 400%. You cannot see them at 100% magnification.

We must bear in mind that we are pixel-peeping. No one is going to look at our photos at 300% or 400% magnification. It’s unlikely, if not impossible, for anyone to determine what noise reduction algorithm you are using when you post these on your website, and much less on Instagram. And it’s quite obvious that you can do really good work using either. Unless you are creating a large print and someone stands very close to it, I’m not sure that the minute differences between two solid kinds of noise reduction will matter as much as we think they do.

What I like about Photo AI specifically

Photo AI offers a good amount of denoising, which I love, so I feel like I can tweak the parameters a little more.

Additionally, it also analyzes the photo via Autopilot and automatically offers suggestions, which are often good enough on their own. This is not only for Remove Noise, but also Sharpen, and subject. This can be especially useful for batch processing, novices, or people in a hurry.

Using AI for denoising

Although I often stack my Milky Way photos to reduce noise, I have found that with more modern noise reduction tools such as the very capable one found in Photo AI V2, I feel increasingly comfortable taking single-exposure high-ISO photos. There’s a real immediacy and beauty to being able to take a single exposure photo knowing that with a few simple clicks, you can get rid of most or all of the noise and be able to create large prints. And there’s also the ability to take ten-year old photos taken with an APS-C sensor and revitalize the photos with modern denoising.