Create Stunning Black and White Digital Photos
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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.
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.
The workspace is divided into 3 basic parts:
- The Presets
- The Image Preview
- The Adjustment Panel or Tools
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE: The Nik Collection is now free. Learn more
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
- 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*
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
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.