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Nik Silver Efex Pro V2 review

Make black and white images from colour

There are no specialist black and white digital cameras from the major manufacturers, so digital black and white photography usually starts with a colour image that you can convert to black and white.

We've lots of info on this site covering various aspects of black and white photography, including the many different ways that you can approach the conversion.

Keith Cooper has been looking at the latest version of the Photoshop plug-in Silver Efex Pro (version 2), from Nik Software.

Some time ago he looked at the original software, which he's often used for his B/W prints. The new version offers a lot of subtle improvements.

Digital Black and White

In this review I'm looking at Version 2 of the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin (demo available).

I'll be showing some examples of how I've used it for prints, 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's Aperture.

Given it can be a chargeable upgrade from Version 1, I'll also look at some of the ways that I feel it improves on V1, and some questions that may help you decide if it's for you.

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

digital B/WFYI: I've set up a LinkedIn group (~6500 members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

Black and white from colour

I'll start off with a quick note about the conversion process - if digital monochrome is new to you, you might find some of my other articles about digital black and white photography of interest.

I'd also suggest looking at the original Silver Efex V1 review, since it does have a lot of functionality that is similar, and there are more sample images showing the kinds of results you can get.

There are some quick and easy conversion that you can do without any additional software. The photo below shows how the three colour channels that make up a RGB image (Red/Green/Blue) each 'see' a scene in a different way. Also shown is the 'Yellow Filter' effect from the B/W conversion adjustment in Photoshop.

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

basic colour to black and white conversion

There are plenty of different ways of doing this in Photoshop - note how the bright orange rocks and sky look different in the different versions.

Couldn't I just do all this Colour to B/W stuff in Photoshop?

This is one question about Silver Efex that I often get asked, so I'll address it here, at the very start.

Quite possibly, many of the effects in Silver Efex Pro can be duplicated with layer masks, curves and blending modes and other features of PS that most people never find. However, just because I can, doesn't mean I particularly want to acquire the Photoshop guru status needed to remember how to do it, and all the variations possible.

If at the end of this review you feel that you could easily do it all in Photoshop, then good for you, I couldn't. Pat yourself on the back and smile admiringly at your bookshelf of Photoshop books (some of which you probably wrote ;-).

What's in the software?

The plug-in will install in the appropriate locations for your computer, depending on what it finds (so, for example, it detected Photoshop CS3 and CS5 along with Elements 8 on my Mac). The software requires activation, and can be installed on two different computers.

The key changes from V1 are listed (by Nik software) as:

There are so many variations and possible starting points that I'm just going to be showing selected effects on a few sample photos.

The Nik software site has numerous videos and tutorials that show many more ways of using Silver Efex - remember that like most complex pieces of software, there are sometimes different approaches to doing similar things.

The screen shot below, gives a good feel for some of the options when you open an image in the plugin (I'm only looking at doing this in Photoshop, but other working environments have similar layouts).

split view option - nik sfx2

At the bottom RH side is a 'loupe' view at 100% - this is also where you can optionally see a histogram for the image.

At the left hand side are a number of preset conversion options, whilst on the right are all the adjustment controls.

The plug-in also offers a comprehensive history view of your previous selections.

This saves having to remember exactly what a particular image version looked like, but it records every slider move. so can be a bit difficult to navigate if you move very far back.

You can select particular history states and toggle between them with the Compare button at the top of the screen.

When you click on the compare button, an orange slider appears.

In the example below, I've set the history to an application of the blue filter, but have moved the slider to the top or 'original image'

Now, when I press the compare button, the image flips between two states - I find it useful to go back to the original colour image every so often to remind me what the scene looked like when I took the photos. This is what I saw when I was there and may well jog my emotional memory as to what I wanted the B/W print to show.
I'm sure some people keep notes, but I was never any good at doing this when I shot film either....

Move your mouse over the image to see the original and what a difference filters can make with strong colours

comparing conversions with others in the history display

The help button links to the on-line help, not quite so useful if you're working on a non-networked computer...

You can save your own presets too, which is worthwhile doing if you get interrupted or find a 'recipe' which you like and want to use as a starting point for other images.

There are additional presets available from Nik, including ones that repeat some Silver Efex Pro V1 options.

The central area, which can be expanded to the whole window, shows the image that you are working on.

In this example, I'm showing it as a split view, where the left side is the 'basic' conversion, and the right from applying a preset adjustment set.

The view normally includes the whole image, but you can move right in for those 400% pixel peepers out there ;-)

If you look carefully at the bottom LH corner of the percentages window above, you can see a tiny box in the 'Navigator' window - this is what's being shown in the main window.

Here's a version at a more useful 100%.

zoomed to 100% view

You can also view images in side by side comparison, such as this detail from a carving of a coat of arms on the side of a Leicestershire church.

Move your mouse over the image to see how all the adjustment options scroll. I've used various types of local contrast enhancement to bring out more detail in the carving (from the side of Kings Norton Church in Leicestershire).

different adjustment options

Main Adjustments

Have a look at the various ways the main adjustments affect the results below, then I'd suggest getting the demo software to explore with your own images - there are so many interacting variations that you will need to do quite a bit of testing to get the very best from this software.

Try out the presets too, but do notice how they move the various sliders.

Brightness

There is an overall setting, with individual settings for shadows, mid-tones and highlights.

This follows the pattern for the three main adjustment types (Brightness, Contrast and Structure).

Mid brightness (Move your mouse over the image to see variations).

mid tone brightness adjustments

With brightness, you also get a 'Dynamic brightness' adjustment (Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

dynamic brightness adjustment

Contrast

Along with overall contrast adjustment, there are adjustments aimed at highlights and shadows

Amplify whites (Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

amplify whites setting

Amplify blacks (Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

amplify blacks setting

A final global Soft Contrast setting works at a large scale and is image content dependent (i.e. it's effects are based on large scale image structures).

Move your mouse over the image to see variations.

image soft contrast

Structure

Structure is the name given to various forms of local contrast enhancement.

This is where the effects vary over the whole image area, depending on the details of the original image. It works very well in helping transfer some of the visual contrast that we perceive in a scene, to a final print, which can never have the dynamic range of the original.

  • It's something to be used with care, since it's easy to over-do it. It's all too easy to produce unnatural looking images with glaring halos. Now, some people don't seem to mind this, but it just jars with me. I've long been of the opinion that obvious fixes (HDR/Grad filters/toning) are all too often an attempt to apply a sticking plaster to an 'OK' image in the hope that they will magically turn it into a 'great' image. This rarely works...

Here's the overall structure boosted (Move your mouse over the image to see variations).

overall image structure adjustment

Below, it's applied just to mid tones (Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

  • This photo is part of a panoramic shot in spring woodlands - I've taken it on a lightly overcast day, so as to avoid strong shadows and a burnt out sky. The scene had a particular feel about it that I wanted to convey - The colour originals of all samples are shown later.

structure adjustments applied to image mid tones

Here's another boost to mid tone structure - the photo was taken late afternoon, on a cloudy day, so is going to look rather 'flat' as-is. This was not intentional, it's what the weather was like when I was in Oakham that day (testing the TS-E17 lens on a Canon 60D).

(Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

mid tones structure boost

For finer image detail, there is a fine structure enhancement. Note the 100% detail in the corner.

(Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

Fine structure adjustment

The shot above shows two other important sliders - they protect highlights and shadows from excessive alteration.

In general I'll go through the main adjustments in order and leave the protection sliders until later. I find it much easier to initially over-do adjustments and then back them off, than try and get everything right.

It's important not to try and do everything in Silver Efex Pro, if it's not the best place for it, there's nothing wrong in doing two different conversions and then masking them together, or like I'll often do, apply a levels or curve layer after image sharpening for print, to get the look I'm after on a particular paper.

The final print is the end result, not getting it to look perfect on my screen.

Don't forget the colours

Although I'll go through the adjustments in order, there is one aspect that I'll still often take a look at first.

It's the Silver Efex 2 version of the Photoshop B/W conversion, with sliders for different colours

If you move your mouse over the image you can see how the changes in the yellow and blue sliders affect the image.

channel mixer

This is often what I'm looking for, to affect the overall balance of the image, particularly in making clouds show up more against a blue sky.

A bit of adjustment here, can mean you need less elsewhere, so I could apply structure adjustments to parts of the image, and avoid sharpening effects around cloud edges - you just need to experiment to see what you like.

An easier way might be to use the coloured filter options, such as the example below, of applying a 'Yellow Filter'

(Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

applying a yellow filter effect

The 'filters' are similar to what you'd get with film, which can be even more accurately emulated if you want with various B/W film types (inc. grain).

(Move your mouse over the image to see variations)

film emulation

The film type emulations are good, but as in when I looked at DxO FilmPack, I'm wondering how many people will still want -that- precise an emulation?

'Finishing' Adjustments

If you try out some of the presets, you'll notice all kinds of border effects that can be applied, often shown in the presets as versions simulating 'old' photos or prints.

The borders do have considerable ranges of adjustments, and seem to be effectively randomised in their details (i.e. they look a bit more realistic)

However, unless you're into producing prints that look a hundred years old, this sort of stuff just doesn't cut it with me, but as they say 'tastes differ'...

Oakham Castle circa 1895 - not

  • Oakham Castle in 1895 (OK a few weeks ago in reality)

You can apply fading effects without borders, such as these faded edges

Oakham castle - faded edge view

There are numerous toning/tinting effects too (move mouse over to see)

applying tinting and toning effects

More useful for my own work is the subtle control over corner vignetting.

With all the efforts that go into 'lens correction' it's easy to forget that vignetting can be an important tool in guiding the viewers eye into your image.

Move your mouse over the images below to see how the feel of the image changes.

corner vignetting

Note that I've also got a control point (discussed later) in the middle of this image to slightly boost detail in that central area.

There are preset options and variations as well as more adjustment sliders.

Move your mouse over the image to see effects

vignetting options and settings

You can also lighten/darken from edges, allowing you you use the fade as a graduated filter.

As with real graduated filters, there is always the problem of trees, mountains and buildings showing an unnatural darkening towards their tops.

This is one reason I generally dislike overuse of real graduated filters, but once again... tastes differ ;-)

Control Points

Now to one of the key features of the plugin, where I particularly like the ability to fine tune parts of the conversion process.

All the adjustments shown so far affect the whole image. What if I don't want to bump up the structure setting for all of my image?

In the case below, I want to increase cloud detail on a dull day, so I've added a control point (CP) in the sky and set its radius of influence (the curved line).

Each CP has a number of sliders you can set, corresponding to the main global adjustments

Move your mouse over the image to see the area affected by the CP - note that this extends beyond the curve.

The overlay that you can see is the mask for the CP - as with layer masks, the lighter it is, the more the effect is applied.

use of a control point

As such, I might want to restrict the area of influence.

I can still cover the area I want by duplicating the points and linking them as a group. Grouping applies slider settings to all linked points together.

Below, three in the sky, each with a smaller overlapping area of effect.

multiple control points

Or five for the gravel path - this is a view of their areas of influence.

5 linked control points

As a rule of thumb, once I get past two or three control points, I like to pause and think about whether there is a simpler way to achieve what I want?

Years of editing images has taught me to get up, walk around, and re-think what it is I'm trying to do, when the adjustments start getting too complex.

The area of effect of a CP is based on the original (colour) pixels at the control point, so a point in a clear blue sky will just affect that sky.

Some conversions can, if pushed a bit far, produce halos around objects that I dislike. In this instance the CP allows me to turn down 'structure' for the sky.

Move you mouse over the image below to see this.

removing a structure halo

In more detailed areas of images, you do have to be careful about where your CP is positioned.

Just a small movement can alter where the CP affects the image. (move mouse over image to see)

choice of control point position

test image created to show conversion optionsMore obvious selective colorisation is possible.

I've taken this test shot to show the influence of original image colour.

The ColorChecker card also allowed me to look at some aspects of how choices in how I process my camera RAW files can alter subsequent monochrome versions.

I'll look at this later.

The print at the back is of Leicester Museum, taken early one Sunday morning. The blues in this photo are a bit stronger than the print, but I wasn't aiming for precise colorimetric accuracy in this photo...

It's one of those images that some people like in black and white, and others in colour.

Since it's produced for sale to some clients in offices near the museum, this is one of those times where my personal preference (for the B/W version) takes a back seat to the commercial needs of the business.

Control points can be used to select colours to re-apply in your monochrome image.

I'm using the ColorChecker card to select colours to influence. (move mouse over image to see)

selective colorisation of image

I did wonder whether to produce a version of the big panoramic woodland shot with just the green leaves showing in colour, but decided it looked really tacky ;-)

Just because a tool exists, doesn't mean you have to use it (as noted in parts of my Nik HDR Efex Pro review).

Of course, you can use this colour selectivity just to alter aspects of the conversion, such as this effect on the green die. (move mouse over image to see)

use of selective colour in conversion

Other Issues

When preparing colour images for conversion to B/W is one of the few times I'll almost always use a larger colour space, such as ProPhoto, for the colour versions.

It doesn't matter that my monitor can't display some of the colours in a bigger space.

The colour image retains more of the original camera data, which allows your B/W conversion more opportunity of showing differences in tone based on differences of colour.

Move your mouse over the composite image below.

It shows four spot measurements from my test photo, and how the values change when I move from sRGB to ProPhoto.

output variations depending on colourspace choice

It's important to realise that although such intense colours are rare in the natural world, if you want to show fine detail in dark foliage, it's probably best to avoid smaller spaces such as sRGB.

One other thing - if you're having to work from a JPEG colour image, convert it to 16 RGB bit before converting to B/W. Sounds odd, but it can -potentially- make a difference (more details).

Originals

Here are some of the original colour images and some B/W versions that I was happy with for prints.

Note how dull the colour versions look - the original histograms show no clipping at either extreme.

Swithland Woods - final print is eleven feet wide (Move your mouse over the image to see B/W)

large panoramic print of swithland woods, leicestershire

A detailed view, since it's very difficult to convey some of what I was trying to achieve in a big print, with a web image only a few hundred pixels wide.

detail of large print

The image is a stitched (and cropped) panorama of Canon 1Ds3 (21MP) images taken with an EF14/2.8L II lens. Stitched with Photoshop CS5

Oakham Castle on an overcast day (Canon 60D w. TS-E17/4L tilt shift lens - hand held)

Oakham Castle in color

...and a B/W conversion (from a version for an A2 sized print) - note the 2 airbrushed features ;-)

Black and white print of Oakham castle, Oakham, Rutland, UK

Colorado - NE of Gunnison I believe, however this one is from May 2004 and I don't have any notes [suggestions?] - Canon 1Ds EF 16-35/2.8L

colorado mountains

Conclusions

After putting together all those sample images, I still feel I've only touched a few aspects of what Silver Efex can do.

The improvements over version one make a clear difference - for my own work.

Therein lies one issue - if all you want is to produce a few black and white images from your photos, then the plugin is seriously over the top for what you'll want. If you've version one and only ever use a few presets, then the price of the upgrade might be questionable, unless you've deeper pockets.

However, lets get back to users with a somewhat more 'serious' interest in black and white photography...

If you regularly find yourself using masked adjustment layers and tweaking the sliders for conversions, then give the demo a serious tryout.

Take time to appreciate the subtle differences that all the different adjustments make - if video tutorials work for you, then give some of the resources on the Nik site a try too, since I know that different people learn things in different ways.

The history record was of less immediate use than I'd thought - perhaps because I often have a strong preconception of what I want the final print to look like. The feature is very effective in the way that it records any minor alterations.

The results of the conversion can be in a new layer or applied to the original one. The results can also be 'brushed' onto the existing image. Whilst I use this often when selectively sharpening for printing, I've yet to find a use for this with Silver Efex Pro.

The software activation failed several times - once this was fixed after an update of my old version of the software, but on another time I just got an 'error -15' when I tried to re-enter my authorisation code. A re-boot fixed this, but I've no idea why. Note too that I've no experience of running this software on windows machines.

Running on a Mac Pro (10.6, 8GB, CS5x64, ATI 4870), I rarely had to wait long for the display to catch up with my alterations.

It seems that there is a degree of caching going on in the background, so if things get out of step (toggling CPs on/off was one example), then waiting a few seconds let everything catch up. This was when I was editing that big panoramic image, and that's over 30,000 pixels wide as a full size print.

Much as with Version one, I just didn't use the zone info feature - I've never bought into the zone system enough for it to be meaningful and useful to me (YMMV ;-)

Below, a split mode view showing 'zone 4 areas'

digital B/W - zone system

I find Silver Efex Pro a great tool to help me explore different ways of producing black and white images for my prints.

However, don't expect it to just do everything for you. After conversion, you may need to make further adjustments before and after sharpening for printing.

Great B/W prints start before you take the photo and include the whole process right up to the print coming out of your printer (oh, and framing/mounting is important too). I like having a tool like Silver Efex pro sitting in the middle of it all.

A few things to remember though.
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The more extreme ways you push your conversions, the more likely that underlying image defects will show through, whether noise in shadows or dust spots in the sky exacerbated through local contrast enhancement (structure).

Working at 16 bit is important, and as I've mentioned earlier, even the choice of colour space can make a difference.

Remember that the best colour version of a photo does not automatically make the best B/W version. As well as Adobe Camera Raw, I use DxO Optics Pro for some of my initial RAW->Colour conversions, since its noise reduction and contrast handling often make for black and white images I prefer. I don't use Lightroom or Aperture, but I'd expect operation to be broadly similar.

Watch out for sharpening/enhancement artefacts. Version 2 is supposed to be more resistant to this, but with an image like the Colorado one above, it's not difficult to produce visible darkening around the clouds. The secret here, is to make good use of control points, whether to turn down the effects, or just apply them to particular areas (such as the clouds)

Remember that our perception of tonal variation depends on the angular size of these variations, so get used to viewing images at different scales. For a large print, I want it to have a particular feel when viewed from twenty feet away, but that changes as you walk towards it (print sharpening is vital too - see my Sharpener Pro V3 review for more info).

So, could I have produced an image like the large panoramic print using just Photoshop? Maybe, but not easily - not without a lot of adjustment layers and fancy masked blending, and even then it would take me a long while for a big print.

Do I always use Silver Efex? No, sometimes a basic conversion just looks right, and I'll perhaps tweak it with a masked curve or a bit of additional localised sharpening before printing.

This is a tool for people who are serious about their black and white photography - I've no issues with people who prefer different approaches, but this one works for me...

Summary

The plug-in is easy to install and use, offering a wide variety of different ways of getting a monochrome image from colour.

Lots of preset options make it easy to explore options, although it could be confusing for the novice user.

To really get the best from it, you need to experiment and have your own vision of what you want to achieve.

If you get the demo, then do have look at some of the videos and guide which explains the many options this software gives you.

You can also download additional Custom Styles from Nik

System Requirements (from Nik)

Macintosh

Windows

Further Information

The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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