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expanding control point areaNik Silver Efex Pro review

Creating black and white images from colour

Sometimes a quick conversion of an image to black and white with the channel mixer or the black and white adjustment in Photoshop is all you need for creating your black and white photographs.

However, for a lot of my own black and white prints, there are a number of masking and conversion steps that I can take in producing the precise image I want.

Apr 2011 - V2 of this software is now available, we have a full review.

Digital Black and White

In this review I'm looking at the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin (15 day demo available).

I'll show a few examples of what can be done with it, and particularly why I might choose to use it rather than do some of the process manually with Photoshop (it also works with Elements, Lightroom and Apple Aperture).

The Apple Mac version of the plugin is covered here, but the PC windows version works the same.

digital black and white logoFYI: I've set up a LinkedIn group (~6800 members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

Black and white from colour

silver efex pro from Nik softwareI've written quite a few articles about digital black and white photography, which you might also find of interest if digital monochrome is new to you.

I'm going to be looking at converting this particular image to black and white.

It's a landscape view from just south of Lander in Wyoming.

See the Google map at the end of the article for the precise location.

It was taken with my old Canon 1Ds (11MP) and converted from a RAW file using ACR in Photoshop.

Those colours are real and will illustrate some of the reasons why converting to B/W is not just about turning down the colour.

  • Appreciate that the images in this web article could easily look rather lurid or washed out depending on your browser and monitor - the web is not a good place to show subtleties in images.

Wyoming landscape, south of Lander

Note that although the colours are 'real', just how you produce your colour image can have a considerable effect on how the black and white conversion looks. I'll discuss this a bit more in the conclusions section.

The image has a lot of detail, including some distant snow capped mountains.

  • As an ex geologist I love the way that the structure of the rocks is so evident in the landscape.

rocks in a wyoming landscape

Here's a fairly basic conversion in Photoshop - just losing the colour (mode>grayscale).

The image is not bad, but lacking in depth and structure. I'd want to show more of the shape of the landscape and darken the sky, in a print.

south of Lander, wyoming

You can see some of the basic techniques below, if you move your mouse over the image.

These techniques are covered in my article 'Introduction to Digital Black and White'.

converting colour to black and white

It takes quite some practice to know what all the effects are going to look like - what does Silver Efex Pro offer?

What's in the software?

The plug-in is installed both as a filter and as a selective tool that allows you to use the filter selectively (painting in its effects). I'm going to cover the actual tool features here, since you need to know what effects there are before you can selectively apply them.

I've started off by opening the RAW file of the image - the original was actually slightly underexposed. I've adjusted the image to get a good range of levels. The underexposure has also contributed to the rather saturated colours, although the scene was very much like this - it's one of the reasons I stopped the car and took some photographs.

For my own prints I often convert to a larger colour space like ProPhoto, so as to get more possible colour variation. I also only ever work at 16 bit, since if there is one sure-fire way to get banding and other artefacts, then it's to do your conversions at 8 bit.

colour image for converting to black and white

If you are working from a JPEG image then convert it to 16 bit colour before your black and white conversion (see this article, for why it can actually make a difference).

Applying the filter opens up a new window with this default view.

black and white landscape

There are lots of sample conversions available at the left.

You can select favourites and also add your own conversions.

The key to understanding the conversion process is to realise that the particular shade of grey you get in for any pixel, is related to both the colour and brightness of the original coloured one.

There is no 'real' mapping between the world in colour and a black and white image.

It's this flexibility that gives you the power to emphasise different elements of the image.

You can use elements of different conversions too.

The 'Selective Tool' fires up Silver Efex Pro and allows you to 'brush in' filter effects into your image using any brush tool available in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Layers and layer masks are created automatically, enabling you to apply effects to particular areas of your image.

sample conversion styles

If you want, there is a split preview of the current conversion...

split screen mode

...or a dual 'before/after' view

dual image mode

...or you can just go for the converted result on its own.

full screen mode

The background grey of this view can also be altered.

There are a lot of preset conversions available, including various film and print type effects.

sample conversion styles 1

sample conversion styles 2

wyoming landscape 1894 - NOTSample Conversions

There are a lot to choose from.

My own personal preference is that unless you need them for a specific purpose, they should be used sparingly.

Far too many people use such effects to try and cover up less than inspiring images...

Here's a print I made back in 1894 when I last visited the area... :-)

The real power of this plugin lays in the range of adjustments and fine tuning you can apply to the images.

There are a growing collection of 'Custom Styles' you can download from Nik Software.

Adjusting your Conversion

The three basic controls are Brightness, Contrast and Structure.

Brightness and Contrast are relatively straightforward, although they are less destructive than the Photoshop adjustments of the same names.

Up until PS CS3 I always suggested people avoid them - they work much better now, but I still rather use other tools for the effects (curves, levels).

The example below shows the effect of the contrast adjustment - move your mouse over the image to see an extreme setting.

The best conversions often need quite subtle adjustments.

main adjustments

bw contrast adjustment

The Structure adjustment is quite different.

It is applying a form of local contrast enhancement, not dissimilar to an Unsharp Mask with a low amount (~10%) and high radius (100 pixels or more).

Move your mouse over the image below to see how it works, but notice areas of the image where the effect (at this amount) is detrimental to the image quality (the clouds for example).

bw structure adjustment

There are important controls to protect shadows and highlights from being crushed or burnt out.

The histogram here, helps you spot potentially damaging adjustments to your image.

It's important to note that sometimes you might want to crunch things up, but it's still worth knowing what's going on.

histogram, shadows, highlights

Much like with film photography, filters can be used to selectively change how the black and white image responds to different colours in the original.

A range of filter presets are offered.

In this first example (move mouse over image to see) you can see the effect of adding a virtual orange filter to your 'black and white camera'.

apply orange filter

Note how the orange rocks look brighter through an orange filter.

However that might be too strong, so you can turn down the density of the filter. (Mouse over image to see)

adjust orange filter

One other useful basic tool is the 100% view or 'Loupe'.

100% loupe view

More advanced Black and White

Notice those little numbered boxes under the Loupe view?

Well that's there for people who like the 'Zone system' of black and white photography/printing.

Here I've picked Zone 5 and the shading shows me areas of the image at this level.

zones in black and white

Zone 4 is slightly darker...

zone 4

...whilst zones 7,8 and 9 are brighter.

Zones 7,8 and 9

Although often thought of as something to do with film, the Zone System lives on...

  • For those of you wishing to explore the Zone system (aka the dark side of the force ) I'd suggest this article at Luminous Landscape as a starting point.

Another interesting effect is the range of film emulsion simulations offered.

As well as spectral sensitivity matching, the grain is extremely realistic.

I've still got several images I regularly print, which are from shots taken on Tri-X and FP4.

emulsion types

Whilst I'm not sure why I'd want to simulate the ultra fine grain Pan-X at ISO 32, I've found that applying Tri-X grain to high ISO digital images often looks nicer than typical digital sensor noise.

If you move your mouse over the image below, you can see the sorts of variation you get.

film type variations

There are a whole range of toning and tinting options.

toning and tinting

Selective vignetting effects can be applied.

selective vignetting

There is selective edge masking too.

selective edge masking

This particular effect can be applied in different amounts to different edges (this one is lost on me - suggestions gratefully received).

Control Points

So far, quite a few of the conversion effects could be duplicated fairly well (if not so quickly) in Photoshop.

The ability to fine tune adjustments in areas of the image with control points, gives a whole new level of adjustment capability.

Nik call this their 'U-point' technology (that's my one and only concession to 'text speak' for this article ;-).

I'll try and show some examples of how it works.

In the window below I've placed a red control point. This has several different settings that match the basic controls of brightness, contrast and structure.

It also has a radius, showing its range of influence.

I've adjusted the brightness slider upwards, and you can see how it is affecting the image - note how the effect extends out beyond the radius marker.

control point lightens sky

In the detail below, you can see how turning down the brightness alters the output.

control point to darken sky

You can also see, in the example above, some noticeable patterning in the blue sky area.

I mentioned at the start, that this image had been underexposed, but I'd 'fixed' in in the RAW processing.

Unfortunately, underexposed digital images can often show far more noise in shadows when corrected. This is particularly so when looking at a deep blue sky and applying an orange filter, which has the effect of enhancing noise in the red channel.

As if this wasn't bad enough, using the 'structure' adjustment brings out sensor noise even more, particularly if it is what is called 'pattern noise'. This was sometimes an issue with my 1Ds, and shows up well as a light horizontal bar just over halfway up the image below.

Look carefully at the picture below and you'll see the noise is much less inside the circle.

I've selectively turned down the 'Structure' enhancement.

  • BTW the small white mark in the circle is the Moon.

control point and structure

OK, so I'll just expand the control point to turn down structure enhancement in that chunk of the sky.

expanding control point area

But what about the detail in the rocks and clouds?

This is where the really crafty aspect of control points comes in. They only affect colours at the control point itself. Dark blue sky in this case.

The example below should clarify things.

I've added a control point to an orange bit of rock.

Move your mouse pointer over the image to see the effect of altering the brightness slider. Note in particular, the bright rock outcrop that isn't orange.

control point affecting selected colours

That is what allows really fine control of how your colour image converts to black and white.

Conclusions

The important thing about the Nik plugin is that it allows you to compare and test lots of alternative versions quite quickly - you can experiment with an idea, without needing to produce lots of masked layers.

Sure you could do a lot of this in Photoshop, but I like it for quickly sketching out alternative treatments of colour images.

I found it very easy to use and was particularly taken by the power of the control point options.

Not a cheap option, but it's value is in the work you can produce with it - certainly makes for very good BW conversions.

I'd warn people not to go overboard on all the various effects options - most will look excessive once you've tried them a few times. In particular, most digital examples of toning I see are far too strong, losing the delicacy of well done darkroom examples. A good rule of thumb is to turn the effect down until you can just see it, and then halve it again.

You can also use Silver Efex Pro as a Smart Filter within Adobe Photoshop CS3/4, allowing you to go back and fine tune your conversions at any time.

You may remember I mentioned the critical differences that your RAW processing could have on how your black and white image looked.

The example below (move mouse over image to see) shows how changes in choice of camera profile alter colours, and hence BW image tonality.

One of the reasons I've often used the DxO raw converter is that it can sometimes produce colour images that work better in black and white.

If you try converting an image and don't like the effects, the go back to your raw file and process it differently - the colours don't have to be 'correct', since the colour image is just an intermediate step in creating your B/W image.

effect of camera profiles

If you're curious, I recently wrote an article on how to make your own profiles for Adobe Camera Raw.

I only tried the software with Photoshop, but with multi-image support in Apple Aperture, Silver Efex Pro can be applied to multiple images at once. When more than one image is opened, "Previous" and "Next" buttons appear that allow you to copy and paste settings between images.

Summary

Easy to use, and ideally suited to exploring digital black and white photography.

The plugin is available from Nik Software and is available as a demo version. If you get the demo, then do get the well written user guide (PDF), which explains the many options this software gives you.

There is a good collection of tutorials on the Nik web site that help in getting the hang of the software - do read them, since it does an awful lot.

You can also download additional Custom Styles from Nik

System Requirements (from Nik)

Macintosh

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Windows

** Nik Software product filters are developed to integrate with many popular image editing applications that support the Adobe plug-in architecture and there are numerous software applications that accept Adobe plug-in compatible filters. Please consult your image editing application's documentation for compatibility and installation instructions for 3rd-party plug-ins.

Further Information

Where the photo was taken

You should be able to work out quite easily where I was standing - note the red rocks.


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