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Monday
Oct262009

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro Black and White Conversion Photoshop Plug-In Review

nik_split_500



I love looking at black and white photographs, I love converting my colour shots to black and white, and since downloading this piece of software, I love Nik's Silver Efex Pro to do just that. In fact, I'll go a bit further. This is the most exciting piece of software I've used since I produced my first tone-mapped HDR's with Photomatix, it's that good.

Silver Efex Pro is a Plug-In, that is to say that it's a piece of software that works from within Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom 2, Apple's Aperture 2, or any other Photo Editing software that is compatible with Adobe's plug-in filters. If you haven't got any of the above, I'd recommend you start off with Adobe Photoshop Elements or Lightroom 2, depending on your budget and needs, then you'd be good to go with Silver Efex Pro.

Let's have a look at how Silver Efex Pro works, and what you can do!

First up, remember that this is a Plug-In, so once you've installed it, you start off with your normal Digital Workflow - if you shoot in RAW, fire up Adobe Camera RAW, make your usual adjustments, then open the image in Photoshop / Elements / Lightroom 2 or your compatible image-editing software. You'll want to straighten and crop your photo before you start up Silver Efex Pro. When you're ready, you'll find the plug-in through "Filter", "Nik Software", then "Silver Efex Pro", and you'll see this:

sep_first_500



Silver Efex Pro has applied a neutral black and white conversion to our image, and that's what you can see in the middle. On the left are small previews of the presets that can be applied without having to customise the sliders - think of them as a menu of possibilities. You could choose one and be done, or alter it to your tastes. Possible starting (or finishing!) points include simulated High Contrast Red, Orange or Yellow Filters, Holga, Pinhole, Infra-red and a whole host of others. Even more of the presets can be downloaded for free, from Nik's website.

High Contrast Red Style:
high_contrast_red



Cyanotype:
cyanotype_style



Antique Plate II:
antique_plate_2



Pinhole:
pinhole



The presets, or Custom Styles, on the left are great, and you could stop right there, they make our photo's look so good. However Silver Efex Pro is all about control and flexibility, so it's the right side of the screen we're going to look at in detail next. These are the sliders and settings that allow you to come up with a unique black and white conversion suited to every image. You've got a massive amount of control and variation. Let's start at the top.

sep_basic_sliders_500



The first two sliders, brightness and contrast, you'll be familiar with already if you've used any sort of photo-editing software. A good start is to increase the brightness and contrast a little, then try the simulated filters near the bottom of the screen. (The coloured circles).

(Coloured filters are used in front of the camera lens when shooting with Black and White Film to alter the tone of a photograph. Red and orange are the most popular to darken blue skys.)

I like to try all the filters one at a time to see which one best suits the shot. Then if I think I need a little more detail in the shadows, or if I need to bring out some detail in the highlights (usually in the sky) I'll take those sliders to the right a bit, then maybe go back and increase the contrast some more. These shadow and highlight recovery sliders are incredibly powerful - just like the similar tool in the full version of Photoshop.

You'll see the "Add Control Point" button. This allows you to define areas of your image and change them independently of the rest of the photo, sort of like using a mask in Photoshop. You just click on the part of your photograph you want to change, expand the area of influence (a circle), then you can change the brightness, contrast and structure:
control_points



Nik call this "U Point Technology", and like any great feature, at heart it's very simple. Do your global adjustments, and if there's areas such as faces, foreground interest or details that you want to highlight (or darken) just add a control point. Brilliant. (oh, and you can have as many control points as you need).

"Wait a minute!", I can sense you thinking, "You've missed one of the sliders out! What about the Structure Slider?"

Well, the guys and girls at Nik software made a mistake with this slider. They shouldn't have called it the "Structure" Slider. Oh no. It should be called "The Bloody Magic Slider That'll Transform Your Photos In a Wonderful Way". This one setting is worth the price of admission alone. I don't know what it's really doing, but I think it's improving local contrast in a similar way to tone-mapping when you create HDR's. It adds clarity and sharpness too, without Halo's or other nastiness. The Structure Slider is magical!

Basic Conversion, No Structure (Magic!) Added:
basic_convert_wo_structure



Basic Conversion, 90% Structure (Magic!) Added:
basic_convert_with_structure



When we're converting to black and white, one of the reasons is because we love the look of b & w film. Well, Silver Efex Pro lets you simulate the look of famous b & w films, the look, grain and colour response, all with a couple of clicks:

film_types



Ilford Pan F Plus 50:
ilford_50



Kodak BW 400CN Pro:
kodak_400



Just as with the style presets, we can customise the details ourselves. We can adjust the level and look of the grain:
grain



We can adjust the colour sensitivity of the simulated film (if you know what this means this will be a big deal!):
colour_sensitivity



And we can adjust the tone curve of the film (a bit like doing a curves adjustment in Photoshop):
tone_curve



Now we're into one of my favourite tools, the Toning Feature. You should be used to this by now, Nik Silver Efex Pro offers a choice of presets, or we can delve in for a fully customisable look:

Presets:
tones



Full access settings:
custom_tones



Here's some examples of what you can do:

Split Tone (2).
split_tone_2



Copper Tone.
copper-tone



Selenium.
selenium



Sepia.
sepia



No black and white enthusiast can resist the odd vignette, and Silver Efex delivers the goods here, with expert control and a realistic look. You can choose the type and size of the vignette, its strength and shape. Here's the controls:
vignette_controls



Here's simple versions of what you can do:

Dark Vignette.
dark_vignette



Light Vignette.
light_vignette



This plug-in doesn't stop there. Instead of (or as well as) a Vignette, we can burn the edges, with complete control over size, strength and the transition into the image:
burn_edges_controls



And here's a simple "burnt edges" treatment:
burn-edges



Conclusion

I hope I haven't made it seem that Nik Silver Efex Pro is complicated to use by showing you all the controls. With every choice the software gives you a quick preset to use, or you can fully customise the look - so you can dive it and do a b&w conversion in seconds, or spend hours fine-tuning the settings.

The software is almost perfect. It could do with a rotate and crop option within the plug-in, Nik should release a stand-alone version that works outside of Photoshop, and if they created an Iphone app they'd be minted. I'd also like to see the ability to click on a point in the image, then drag to the right or left to darken or lighten that tone, like you can in Photoshops Black and White Adjustment Layer.

Silver Efex Pro is Smart-Object compatible, which means that in Photoshop you can convert the photo you want to work on to a Smart Object, Silver Efex will recognise this, and when you apply the filter you can then go back and make changes to the settings without having to start again from scratch.

Silver Efex Pro is the best Black and White / Mono converter I have used - it is a pleasure to open up images with the plug-in and see where the options can take me. It is a whole programme in itself, and I discover new things every time I use it. Highly recommended for any lover of black and white and mono images.

But don't take my word for it, head on over to Nik's website and download the free trial.

Cheers, Rob.

References (2)

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Reader Comments (12)

Hi Rob,

Great to put together more information regarding Silver Efex with some example imagery.

I must say from my point of view there is some rather 'artistic license' regarding some of the settings. The film simulations are close but not quite the same as the 'real thing' but then there were so many variations in processing and printing available to the B&W photographer that 'close' is good enough. The edge burning tool looks like a good feature that is missing from most editing suites and I like that particular feature it reminding me of the methods I used in the classic darkroom. The toning options look like they have the same 'over-the-top' methods that most people made the mistake of in the classic darkroom, a split selenium toned print being far better utilised subtley than for obvious colouring, but artistic license was always wide and loose.

It still strikes me as strange that software companies are still producing software that 'emulates' film features as best they can. I suppose the assumption is that it would make it easier for someone from a film background to transcend to the digital platform but even I have realised it's a completely new medium and no real comparison can be made.

I think for someone looking at producing better results than a simple desaturation gives it's definately a good piece of software, if not a bit pricey. I still have many things to figure out with my digital B&W, (decent looking prints for one, even when using a pro lab), but this is one piece of software I'd personally give a miss.

I know I'm being a bit of a devils advocate and it looks like you've found this software quite exciting and useable. I think I'll stick to my basic, (and free), editing methods where I also won't be tempted to fling sliders settings all over the place for 'artistic' effect ;-)

Overall a good review of the features available and for those interested in this software it will be invaluable, so congratulations on the good work Rob.

All the best,

Victor

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Hi Victor,

Good points, and the beauty with this software is the level of control - in the examples I used the stronger settings, but Silver Efex allows you to apply just the right amount of each effect to suit the image.

I only really touched upon what is possible, what I'm really looking forward to is printing the results, which should be very special indeed!

Glad you enjoyed the post,

Thanks, Rob.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

A very nice post about one of my favorite pieces of software. Nice job!

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Barclay

how does one minimize the control point after adjustments are made. I realize that the red dot remains on the screen as you open additional control points, but the last one selected does not "minimize"

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermarty silverstein

Greta write up and post, Rob.

We now use Nik Software for all of our lab work at Digital Silver Imaging. We print exclusively on black & white silver papers from digital files, so we have been big fans of Silver Efex Pro since it was launched in July 2008. We appreciate the control it gives us and the time it saves us working on clients files. All of the files that we have received from clients using SEP have printed beautifully on our Durst Theta printer and Ilford silver papers.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEric Luden

This is the best converter out there. Thanks for talking it up. I only wish there was a way to have the control point adjustable in shape. Then it would be complete....
I use it everyday...
shooter

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStreetshooter

Thanks for your comments guys! @marty - next time I work on an image I'll look for an answer.

Cheers, Rob.

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

Great write up Rob - thanks for putting this together. I'm just getting back into my photography and would love to learn how to make stunning b&w images and prints. After reading this I think I already know the answer to my question but I'd like to ask you anyway: Is Silver Efex that much better than creating a B&W image out of Lightroom? With so many available presets for Lightroom I'm wondering if the $200 for Silver Efex would be worth it or can you can get the same results in Lightroom.

Thanks for any input you can provide
Thank you
Tyler

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTyler Wainright

Hi Tyler,

I'd look at it this way. $200 seems a lot for a plug-in, but Silver Efex Pro is often cited by many top pro's as the best black and white converter.

I don't have any experience with Adobe Lightroom - so if you're still unsure about Silver Efex, make sure you download the demo first and compare it with the built in tools, and the other plug-ins that are out there.

Cheers, Rob.

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

Thanks for the response Rob. I forgot they offered a 15 day trial - I just might download it and try it out. Again, thanks for the great write up.

November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTyler Wainright

Hi Rob,

I use Lightroom which has some great B&W controls. What would you say is the biggest advantage of Silver Efex over Lightroom? Keep up the great work!!

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGeekNeck

I can't really say because I haven't got Lightroom to compare the two.

I love the look Silver Efex gives to black and white conversions - everything from the grain, tones and vignettes. You don't seem to get the banding in similarly toned areas that you can get with other techniques.

I think the best bet is to download the trial and have a play, you could be very impressed indeed.

Cheers, Rob.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

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