Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 review

 

Create Stunning Black and White Digital Photos

(You can now get 75% off of the original price of the ENTIRE NIK Collection from Google when you use Coupon code KENK)

While there are countless ways to create black and white digital photographs today, Nik software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 stands out as  my preferred method of creating Rich and beautiful black and white images in the digital darkroom.

I spent many years in real darkrooms back at the beginning of my career in photography. I think that having that background allows me to have a deeper appreciation of what is possible to do with digital images today on a computer. We are living in a golden age of photography where the possibilities for creating incredible images is near limitless.

While programs like Lightroom, Aperture, and Photoshop are quite capable of creating excellent black-and-white images, Silver Efex Pro 2 offers incredible diversity along with simplicity for the user. Anyone who is serious about black and white photography needs to try this excellent plug-in.

Luckily, there is a 15 day free trial of the software that allows you to test the full version with no limitations.

Intuitive Flexibility and Versatility

This software can be as intricate or as simple as you would like it to be, making it a solid choice for both amateur and professional photographers.

Some of my favourite features of the software are the possibility to emulate types of film, adding filters, total control of “film” grain, controlling image structure, one-click toning, and Nik’s U Point® Technology. While I’m using Silver Efex Pro 2 as a Photoshop plug-in, you can also use it as a stand alone product or in Lightroom and Aperture.

Let’s take a closer look.

Open up a colour image in Photoshop

The Silver Efex 2 workspace

The Silver Efex 2 workspace

The workspace is divided into 3 basic parts:

  1. The Presets
  2. The Image Preview
  3. The Adjustment Panel or Tools
While you get a somewhat passable result in the neutral, there is no one button solution to creating a striking black and white image. The quick and easy way is to test some of the presets. If you want a quick conversion then one of the dozens of presets may very well be all you need to use. If however, you are more like me, then starting with one of the presets is a good place to begin before fine tuning the image with the robust adjustment tools at your disposal.
Each preset contains adjustments in brightness, contrast, structure, tone, film grain, and more. The serious photographer can use some of these presets as a starting point but will want to edit and fine tune the image more specifically to his or her needs.
Silver Efex Pro 2 presets

Silver Efex Pro 2 presets with a split before & after preview screen

 Less is more

As with so many other image editing plug-ins (as well as in Photoshop itself) going to the extreme possibilities can lead to destructive results to your image. Knowing when to stop is one of the keys of producing high-quality digital photographs. The controls in Silver Efex Pro 2 are extremely in-depth yet simple enough to use.

Global Adjustments

 Global Adjustments

In this panel you control the typical brightness and contrast within the image. Two excellent features within this panel our dynamic brightness and soft contrast.

With the dynamic brightness slider Silver Efex Pro 2 does some of the thinking for you. The unique algorithms within the software assesses the different areas of your image and takes that information into consideration to give you a much smoother blending of overall brightness.

The soft contrast slider also will intelligently assess the overall contrast of your image and allow you to make subtle yet striking changes to the photograph you are working on. You really have to play with this slider in order to fully appreciate what you can do for you. It is a great addition to the plug-in.

Structure is one of my favorite parts of this software. Partly a sharpening tool, partly a depth tool; structure adds that extra bit of “oomph” to a photograph that takes it to the next level in terms of image detail.

Silver Efex Pro 2 control points

Silver Efex Pro 2 control points

Control Points

I love this feature. Control points allow you to selectively manipulate global adjustments in specific areas of your image. You can add as many control points as you wish to the image you are editing and control the size of each one individually. The top slider is the size slider which controls the area that you wish to adjust. The adjustment area is represented by the circle you see in the photo above. Dragging the slider left and right allows you to increase and decrease the size of each control. Below that slider are the enhancement sliders that give you full control over global adjustments in each individual control point.

With pinpoint precision you can adjust everything from brightness, contrast, structure, and even add color back to specific parts of your image. The selective adjustment control point tool is a very powerful feature yet amazingly easy to use.

Original Image

Filter Efects

Filters

Back when we were all still using film cameras, it was customary to use coloured filters on our lenses in order to achieve certain books to our black-and-white images. The same effects can now be achieved in Silver Efex Pro 2 with the colour filter palette. In fact you have far more control now than ever before since you can manipulate these filters from 0 to 200% intensity as well as select any color in the spectrum by using the hue slider to choose any colour you could possibly want.

Once again starting with the presets is a good starting point but certainly not a one-button solution. Carefully selecting hue and strength allows you to have incredible control over the colour filter tool. In the thumbnails above you will see how each filter reacts to a vividly colourful photograph at 100% intensity. Using the colour filters in conjunction with global adjustments, selective control points, film grain, and toning allow you to make stunning black-and-white or monochromatic images.

Silver Efex Pro 2 Grain Engine

Silver Efex Pro 2 Grain

Grain Engine

Like so many of the other features in Silver Efex Pro 2, the grain engine is extremely versatile and delivers near unlimited possibilities in terms of grain structure within your black and white images. When are used to shoot with film I was a big fan of high grain films from Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford. Today I gravitate much more towards high definition low grain images. There still is a place for grain in photography though, especially in black and white photographs. With precision control of the grain engine it has never been easier to create beautiful high grain black and white digital photos.

 

Silver Efex Pro 2 toning

Toning menu with drop-down presets

Toning

I’ve always been a big fan of sepia and selenium toning of black and white photographs but I sure never enjoyed the horrible chemical smells especially when working with sepia toners in a traditional darkroom. This is just one more reason why I love working on digital imaging which gives me far more versatility and is far better for the environment as well. Like the other tools in Silver Efex pro 2 the toning tools are quite extensive.

You can use any of the 24 different presets for toning your images or create your own unique tones and save those as presets as well.

Silver Efex Pro 2 toned image

Sepia Toned Image with Custom Vignetting

Vignettes and Burnt Edges 

Creating custom vignettes has never been easier. Using the vignette and burnt edges tool allows you to darken or lighten the edges of your photo with good accuracy. Once again you can start with one of several presets and fine tune the results quite nicely with the different adjustment sliders.

Silver Efex Pro 2 Image Borders

Image Border sample

Image Borders

This is one of the only parts of the software that I find lacking. Image borders are tricky and also very subjective in terms how people judge them. Is a border really necessary? I’d say that in 100% of commercial professional photography applications the answer would be no. They just risk looking tacky. While I do like the use of image borders in iPhone or Android photography, those are just fun and playful ways of sharing snapshots. If your professional images require a fancy border to make them good, then it’s not saying much about the images.

These borders are customizable to a degree . There are several standard presets that you can fine tune but you can’t save your favourites as custom presets. Even if I doubt that I’ll use this feature much, the borders are relatively well done and certainly fitting in style for use along with black and white photography. There is room for improvement here though.

Presets

Silver Efex Pro 2 allows you to use any of its already existing presets but you can also create your own. Once you achieve an overall look that you enjoy, clicking the “Add Preset” button at the bottom left of your screen will allow you to save and name your own custom presets. Now with one click you can re-create your favourite overall looks on any new image that you are working on.

Creating and naming your own custom presets by using the selective tools can be a great time saver for future projects.

Pros and Cons

If when you are reading this review you feel like I’m not finding anything wrong with the Silver Efex Pro 2, you’re close to being correct. While I don’t do a lot of black and white work anymore, when I do, this is my go to software.

On the plus side

  • Amazing Versatility
  • Speed
  • Ease-of-use and navigation
  • Pinpoint accuracy in adjusting select parts of your photograph with Nik’s “U point technology”
  • Excellent overall image presets and toning presets
  • Infinite possible end results
  • The intuitive history browser similar to Photoshop’s history pallet
  • Nik’s intelligent dynamic brightness, fine structure, and soft contrast sliders
  • Compatibility with Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture
  • Film Emulation with grain control

The down side

  • Image Borders don’t support transparency on PNG files
  • It isn’t possible to see the original colour file while Silver Efex Pro 2 is active*
*Editor’s note: You can see the original colour image as was pointed out to me by the Nik team. I find the solution to be complicated and would love to see a simple “See Original Image” button that would allow you to revert to the colour image you began with as a preview at any point during your editing.
Here is the solution as given to me from Nik Software:
How to see the original colour file

a. Go to the History browser.

b. Click Compare once, this will have the History State Selector show up (this may seem like an odd UI, but when we always displayed the history state selector in the single image view mode, everyone that tested the software got really confused since the control didn’t do anything. It’s always visible in the side-by-side and split-view modes).

c. Drag the History State Selector to Original Image

d. Press and hold the Compare button

Wrap up

Nik Software offers some excellent tools for digital photographers and Silver Efex Pro 2 to me is their flagship plug-in. Not only does it work well and offer high end results that top photographers around the world are using but it is a lot of fun to work with. I do not say that about most software I use for work.

I’ve been wanting to share my Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 review for a while now but I kew it would take some time to cover all the features properly. This is a powerful and robust piece of software aimed at professional photographers and proficient amateurs. If you’re looking to take your black and white photography to the next level, then this software is exactly what you are looking for. Try the full product with no limitations for 15 days to see if it’s right for you.

Explore, Learn, Grow

Nik Software also offers several ways to learn how to use their products more efficiently. They offer webinars hosted by top professional photographers, on demand video tutorials, and a blog full of valuable hints and tips. All of this material is available for free.

Silver Efex Pro 2

You can now get 75% off of the original price of the ENTIRE NIK Collection from Google when you use Coupon code KENK at checkout.

This means that you get the entire suite which includes:

Now priced at $126.65

All products come with a 15 day free trial

Comments (46)

Add A Comment

  1. says

    Hi Ken – nice review; very complete.

    One comment re: your “Cons”: it is possible to see the original color image w/in Silver Efex Pro 2. You have to choose either the split preview or side-by-side preview, then click on the History button and choose “original image” from the edit list.

    Cheers, Kevin

  2. says

    I love Silver Effex Pro but have been extremely hesitant to buy the latest version since Google acquired Nik.

    My guess is support for Nik plugins most likely won’t last long. Time will tell.

    Why would google want to support a photography plugin. The got what they wanted which was snapseed. I don’t trust Google period.

    That being said, I have tried OnOne but still love the amazing control points of Silver Effex.

  3. says

    Matt, Google did not purchase Nik simply for Snapseed. I have that on very good authority. Snapseed is a quality product for mobile and casual photo users but the rest of what Nik offers is high end professional editing software.

    Google is a HUGE supporter of the photo community. Just see what they do on Google + and I think your fears will disappear. :)

  4. says

    I totally love SilverEfex Pro 2, it’s 100x better than the 1st version. NIK is a AWESOME company who responds quickly to clients and provides fantastic customer service. I use this software all the time for a lot of my work.

    For the next version, tell them to make the control point borders conform to different shapes or act like a quick-selection tool. Round doesn’t always work for me.

    • says

      Adamski, I’m not sure why anyone would worry about Google stealing images. They are so gigantically huge that photos really are not (and should not) be on their radar. If Google, FB or any other giant online service wanted to use your images they would and there would not be much you could do anyway. It would be a PR disaster for them to do so and all you have to do is take a look at Instagram when they decided to change their terms of service. It sure didn’t take them long after the public outcry to change those terms that would have given them the right to commercialize your images.

      Personally, I am not concerned with Google making photos available for term papers and other such uses. I am more concerned with Getty and the other stock agencies paying me pennies for use on images and cutting the percentage of what a photographer makes on an image license down to next to nothing. Google has bigger fish to fry than photographers and their photography. Getty on the other hand, well… paying photographers as little as they possibly can, that’s their business model.

      In my opinion, I think that the Google purchase of Nik software is a positive thing. Now, with almost unlimited resources to create the best products possible, Nik software/Google has the opportunity to really shine. I prefer to keep an optimistic outlook about this.

      All this being said, I’m not sure what any of it has to do with a great product like Silver Effex Pro 2.

  5. says

    Working with Silver Effex Pro 2 is nothing short of amazing for me. I love having total control over my images. Nik Software allows that happen when others fall short.

  6. says

    Yes, Google supports photography on Google+.

    But Google+ is an identity platform. When you sign up with a Google service you are now forced into creating a Google+ account with your real name. They then have your information and can collect the data on what you do, what you are interested in etc.

    In fact, Google is a credentialed provide or trusted identities for the federal government. National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace.

    http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2121003/In-Google-We-Trust-Your-Identity

    The Google+ social network is just a layer used to collect more data on users (identities).

    How does Google make their money? Advertising. Period.

    Everything they do is in support of their advertising efforts in one way or another.

    I get why snapseed was purchased. They can integrate that techonlogy into Picasa etc.

    However, I don’t see how supporting Photoshop plugins for a very small amount of users benefits Google or their advertising business. Why would they continue to support it?

    So ask Google “What is the roadmap for Nik Silver Effex 3?”.

    Because they still have the team they might update the plugins for now. But I can’t imagine them supporting or developing Nik plugins long term.

    Why on earth would anyone trust Google on this when they have a long history of acquisition and destruction of products.

  7. says

    Google +, Facebook, Twitter, etc… All are free services. If you don’t like their terms, don’t sign up. If you don’t like Google, use Bing or Yahoo.

    This is not a post about internet privacy, Google, or image copyright. I’d appreciate it if comments could be about the software.

    Thanks :D

  8. Josh Haftel says

    Hi there! I’m a product manager on G+ Photos and was the product manager at Nik working on all of the products (from plug-ins to mobile).

    I just wanted to chime in here regarding Matt’s comment about the long-term strategy for the plug-ins. While of course I cannot comment on any specifics, I can say that we DO have a long-term strategy for the plug-ins, we plan to continue to create and release new plug-ins, and I’m really excited about what we’re working on.

    I can definitely understand the trepidation due to previous acquisitions at Google, but the cool thing about working here at Google is that everyone here (from executive level on down) is willing to admit when something hasn’t worked in the past and to try something new.

    I also realize that nothing I (nor anyone else for that matter) say can really convince someone that seems to have their mind made up about they think the future holds (Hi Matt :) ), so all I can say is “wait and see” :) .

    -Josh

  9. says

    This software looks very interesting. I would love to cut my bw conversion time down yet retain fine control of the detail as well. I am also interested to know what resolutions the software supports? Many plug ins are suited for electronic file formats but not so much printing.
    Thanks for the heads up, I will give it a test run soon, definitely.

  10. Josh Haftel says

    Lisa, the software can definitely handle print resolution files. The current max res is 100,000 pixels by 100,000 pixels, which works out to 333inches by 333inches at 300 dpi. I’d recommend for the most part though to process at normal resolution (i.e. native res from your camera) and then upres after processing.

  11. says

    Ken, do you do any HDR post processing in HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix before putting your images through Silver? Have you had good luck with it if you have?

  12. says

    I think we should keep our eye on the ball.Matt has given us some very useful info on nik silver.I for one find dwelling on what politicians or big companies hidden agendas are is very negative. Life is to short, lets concentrate on something far more beneficial brothers. Taking and enhancing our images.

  13. wayne johnson says

    Ken. You state that SEP2 can be used as a stand alone processor. I can’t locate any means of directly loading ANY kind of file….tiff, jpeg, cr2, etc into Efex. Any suggestions you might make would be greatly appreciated. As I am on a limited budget, is there a “reliable” free photo editing program which will support/utilize/connect with SEP2? Thanks for all your most useful information…and comments from others. wj

  14. says

    While you cannot open RAW files (CR2) directly into Silver Efex Pro 2, you can either use right click > Open With > Silver Efex Pro 2 or you can drag the file you want to edit on top of the application icon. Please keep in mind when you edit an image directly within SEP 2, the original image will be overwritten. Therefore, make a copy prior to editing within SEP 2 directly.

    At this point, other than Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, and Aperture, there are no other available host applications available that works well with Silver Efex Pro 2.

  15. says

    Great review and examples Ken!
    I love NIk Silver Efex Pro! It’s the only software I use for my monochome work! I’ve tried others, but nothing comes close to Nik! My prints and canvases come out beautifully! Thanks for such a thorough review! :)

  16. says

    For professional and gallery quality fine art use, the fact that Silver Efex Pro can not use RAW files is a no starter from the get go. You are just throwing away too much information when converting down to a 16bit TIFF file. It’s akin to trying to make a quality silver oxide print from a poorly made internegative of an original film negative.

  17. Josh Haftel says

    I think there’s a bit of misunderstanding about what a RAW file is. I see this common misunderstanding quite a bit throughout the internet, hopefully I can elucidate a bit :)

    To make this a bit shorter, I’ve made some shortcuts, please forgive the shortening of some of these steps.

    A RAW file, as we all know, is basically a direct dump of the digitized values captured from a sensor (the voltages that are measured from a photosite need to be converted to a digital value). Since nearly all sensors (we’ll leave foveon sensors out of this) capture only one color per pixel, and because sensors capture information linearly while our eyes perceive light logarithmically, a RAW file would look quite weird if we were to see it. It’d be really dark, the color would be quite weird (since sensors have a default color sensitivity which needs to be white balanced), there’d be only one color per pixel, and it’d be a bit soft (since there’s quite often an anti-alias filter on top of the sensor to prevent moire, which RAW converts try to address via a sharpening filter in the RAW conversion process). So looking at a RAW file is pretty much a non-starter.

    From a processing perspective, there are three basic enhancements that are done to the RAW data: debayering (the process of turning the array of alternating R, G, and B pixels into an image with three full channels for each color), white balancing (which includes applying a gain effect to the red and blue channels, clipping away the overhead at a value normalized with the green channel, and any amount of highlight recovery (which happens by bringing down the highlight values from the clipped red and blue channels while reconstituting the green channel via color interpolation).

    After that, pretty much everything else happens at the 16-bit three channel image stage (such as gamma correction, sharpening, noise reduction, etc.). Sure, some different raw converters will take different steps along the way, and there is some that may apply noise reduction prior to debayering (although that results in some pretty odd artifacts), but this is pretty much a general rule.

    From that perspective, most of the things that we think of being done by our RAW converter is being done on what could be argued as not a RAW file.

    The overhead and content of a 16-bit TIFF file is actually quite large and in reality contains all of the usable data from the RAW file. Furthermore, attempting to do any type of image processing on the real RAW data not only creates a lot of additional processing overhead (since we don’t want to look at a RAW file data, we’d have to do RAW conversion on the fly), it’d also result in both a different end result (since the plug-in couldn’t get exactly the same result as LR) as well as weird artifacts (applying image processing algorithms on one plane, alternating color channels would affect and impact the debayering and other processes that happen in that RAW conversion pipeline).

    So, to summarize, you wouldn’t want to apply Silver Efex Pro on the RAW data, and you lose nothing by doing it on the 16-bit data.

    If you really want to maintain a full RAW non-destructive pipeline, open your RAW file into Photoshop as a Smart Object and apply Silver Efex Pro as a Smart Filter–this will result in your ability to adjust the original RAW processing at anytime as well as the ability to tweak the Silver Efex Pro filter settings as well.

    HTH :)

    -Josh
    Product Manager
    Google+ Photos (formerly from Nik Software)

    • says

      Thanks so much Josh for the very detailed explanation. I just love that Google is so dedicated to the photo community through people like you who take the time to share such valuable information. Cheers!

  18. Frank Batting says

    If you are like me, one who loved working in the darkroom, NIK are the best and most intuitive filters you can get. I simply love. Its very expensive to work in a real darkroom these days. But it would be nice, to be able to change the circles, to other shapes.I always shot in RAW.

  19. Tim says

    Hello,
    Will SEP2 allow you to modify the presets? I like the selenium tone to an image where the shot has an overall cool look with a touch of purple to deepen the blacks and enrich the midtones. Most of the selenium tones I have looked at either have too much purple in them or tend towards a warmer image. PS has some presets that allow the different colors to be adjusted using a curve or inputing specific numbers to render the tone you want. Does SEP2 have a curve for each color of a duotone, tritone or quadtone to allow these adjustments? Thank you.

    Tim

  20. Josh Haftel says

    Hi Tim!

    I think you’re referring to the toning presets in SEP 2, that is, the options found in the toning pull-down menu within the Finishing section. While there isn’t a way to update the contents of the pull-down menu, you can create presets that will be found in the left-hand panel. Those presets will contain all of the settings found on the right side though–there isn’t yet a way to create a preset for only a small sub-section of the adjustment stack.

  21. says

    Nik Silver Efex 2 is amazing. I use it a lot and most of my black & white photographs that I end up sharing go through the plugin. However, sometimes I just want to convert to black & white and add a bit of film grain directly inside Aperture. For that after a lot of trial and error, I created a grain preset that lets me do that without needing to go through a plugin and create an additional file. It obviously doesn’t replace Silver Efex, but it’s a quick and easy way to add some grain to make the photos look more film-like.

  22. Frank Baudino says

    One of the tutorial videos I saw re Silver Efex emphasized the importance of a calibrated monitor when using SE2. Can you comment on this?

    Also, could you recommend an affordable monitor calibration device for those of us using MAC OS X 10.8 with a retina display?

  23. Jean pierre dagenais says

    Hi,
    It is probably a typo but 126$ instead of a regular price of 149$, is 15% and not 75%.

    Otherwise SEP 2 would be at only38$ !

    Good day

    JPD

  24. Minto Thorsen says

    Could someone suggest the best ways to save images processed through Lightroom and then the Nik collection (I know in Photoshop I can s”save as”) as smaller image files when they are going to customers (large number of files, say for a wedding shoot.) I am no doubt doing something that could be done more efficiently/differently, but I find that using these plugs-ins as often as I do just eats my drive space up incredibly fast, and makes emailing the photos, even as jpegs almost impossible. I always keep the original files on an external drive and only the Nik end result tiffs in my Lightroom folder–at least until the project is delivered. I hate these gaping holes in my knowledge. Help, please, photo community!

  25. Claudia says

    Can Nik Silver Efex be used directly through Lightroom, or do I have to open with Photoshop? I use Photoshop Elements and Lightroom 4.4.

    • says

      claudia, you can use Silver Efex Pro from within Lightroom without opening Photoshop. After installing to your computer, an entry is added to the Lightroom Edit In menu found under the Photo menu (while in the Develope module).

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