Nik recently unveiled the latest version of Siver Efex, their highly-regarded black-and-white conversion software that can emulate the film look. Let's take version two for a spin.
Photographers pondering their options when it comes to converting color digital images into black and white have a plethora of choices. In Photoshop, there are at least five ways to do a conversion and to create decent black-and-white images. Photoshop Elements offers an elegant, easy-to-use but limited black-and-white conversion tool. But actions that would be the digital equivalent of darkroom techniques like dodging and burning localized areas of images can be a harder to master and time consuming.
When Photoshop plug-in Nik Silver Efex Pro was first introduced, it included some powerful tools that not only made these darkroom-like techniques more intuitive, but they gave photographers even more control and creative options than were possible when working under an amber light with the smell of Dektol in your nose.
Nik’s U-Point editing tools are very powerful, letting users select small areas of an image and apply an effect like contrast control, lightening or darkening, applying the effect of a color filter, etc., on just the selected area. The original version of Silver Efex also emulates dozens of film emulsions, tints and tones that hearken back to darkroom days and alternative processes.
Before we get started, let’s look at my demo shot, of the fence in my backyard bathed in a dramatic mix of late afternoon sunlight and shadows.
Shot with a Canon EOS 20D and 18-55mm kit lens, this was a simple, graphic grab shot. A red filter may help darken the distracting green leaves, and the reflection off one of the leaves needs to be darkened. Let’s see if we can turn this into a dramatic black-and-white masterpiece.
New features include a revised History browser which lets you try different actions with the power to undo adjustments at any time, Dynamic Brightness and Amplify Blacks and Amplify Whites, which increase the presence of shadows and highlights dynamically, a soft contrast option, and Selective Color Toning, which lets you add back color that was removed in the black-and-white conversion. Finally, Nik added over 30 Visual Presets, which are characterized by photographic styles.
The software algorithms have been tweaked so changes can be applied faster and processing time is reduced.
Let’s take a quick tour around the Silver Efex Pro 2 workspace:
Clockwise from upper right corner: Add Control Point: Click on circle then on the desired part of the photo to add a control point, where you can control brightness, contrast and other features via expandable menu. Color Filter applies the relative tonality effect you would get when shooting with a colored glass filter. Film Types lets you select specific films, such as Ilford HP5 or Kodak Panatomic-X (which I chose for our demo shot) and apply the tonal and grain characteristics to the image. Grain and other characteristics that might be affected by choice of developer can be controlled in the “Grain Per Pixel” and “Soft/Hard” sliders. Sensitivity and Levels and Curves control overall exposure. Finishing Adjustments let you add borders, tone the image, add vignetting or burned edge effects that you could also get in the darkroom.
At the bottom right is the Loupe & Histogram, which shows a 100% enlarged segment of the image as well as a histogram so you can make sure no clipping is occurring. The Brush button selectively applies the chosen effects, and the Cancel and OK buttons are self explanatory.
Now we move to the right side. The default setting shows the many possible preset settings that you can choose, each with a different effect. You can scroll through all 38 presets, or select specific categories. The presets are divided into Modern, Classic, Vintage, and Favorites. You can also create your own custom presets. A “Compare” button along the top lets you toggle between different variations, while other buttons let you divide the screen in half, showing before-and-after comparisons on the split screen so you can gauge your progress. Other buttons on the upper left let you access one of this version’s cool features, Smart History.
Smart History appears on the left side of the workspace and shows all of the adjustments you’ve made. You can select any history action and the image will revert to that point in your process, and compare that point to any other point in the history. However, all newer changes are saved so you can return to the final version at any time.
The Before-and-After setting here compares the image in the middle of when I’d applied the first control point (left) to the final version (right). The history panel shows the gold arrow indicating the before, while the gold highlighted history item at the bottom indicates the After image.
Control point at work: There was a distracting highlight in the upper right corner of the photo that I wanted to “burn in” (to borrow a darkroom term). To do this, I selected “Add Control Point, clicked on the area I wanted to work on, clicked on the gold target and moved my mouse to control the size of the area to be changed, then moved the Br (brightness) slider until I got what I wanted. This powerful but easy to master feature is U-Point technology, and it’s one of the distinguishing features found on most Nik software.
Final image: Mission accomplished! While I could have gone for more dramatic contrast in the wood, I like the detail of the grain. The slight toning and filed negative carrier look make this look like something I could have shot 30 years ago. Silver Efex Pro 2.0 let me experiment with different settings in minutes that would have taken me hours to accomplish in the darkroom, and I can easily retrace and adjust each step via the History panel. Yes, these settings could have been achieved in Photoshop, but that process would have been more involved.
Conclusion and recommendation
Nik Silver Efex 2.0 puts powerful black-and-white image controls at your fingertips, letting you quickly apply the desired effects. (If you order Nik Silver Efex 1.0, you are eligible for a free upgrade to 2.0.) Even better, it lets you quickly and easily compare different effects before permanently applying them, and remembers all of your settings so you can easily access and return to any step in your process. After spending a couple of weeks playing with this software, I recommend it as a must-have for any black-and-white digital darkroom.
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