Editor's note: This month only – Use the code july5 at checkout to buy the 5 Steps to Better Black & White Photography and 5 Steps to Better Exposure ebooks for just $5! Click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
Before I bought Silver Efex Pro 2 my main questions were ‘What can this plug-in do that I can’t do already in Photoshop or Lightroom?’ and ‘Is it worth the money?’ I will answer these for you in this article.
What is Silver Efex Pro 2?
Silver Efex Pro 2 is a plugin that converts color photos to black and white. It extends the capabilities of Lightroom and Photoshop by giving you tools to emphasize texture, emulate film, apply toning effects and add borders.
It comes as part of a suite of seven plugins that work with Photoshop Elements, Photoshop CC and Lightroom. It’s both Mac and Windows compatible.
The history of Silver Efex Pro
The original version of Silver Efex Pro was created by a company called Nik Software and retailed at $149. You could also buy it as part of the Nik Collection (a suite of six plugins) for around $500.
In 2012 Google bought out Nik Software to acquire Snapseed, a photo editing app for iOS and Android. Google dropped the price of the Nik Collection to $149 and then, after announcing that it was no longer going to develop the software, made it free.
In 2017 DxO bought the rights to the Nik Collection from Google and continued to let photographers download the software without paying. In June 2018 DxO announced it had completed an overhaul of the Nik Collection and released it for sale at $69 (or $49 if you buy it in June 2018).
There are no new features in the latest version of the Nik Collection, but DxO has updated all the plugins so they work with the latest versions of Lightroom, Photoshop CC and Photoshop Elements, and in the latest Windows and Mac operating systems.
The Nik Collection trial
You can download the Nik Collection 2018 30 day trial from the DxO website. A word of warning – when you install it the trial overwrites any previous versions of the plugins installed on your computer. It’s a good idea to either need to backup the older versions first (in case you don’t go ahead and buy Nik Collection 2018) or be certain that you intend to buy the newest version.
Who is Silver Efex Pro 2 for?
Silver Efex Pro 2 is for the professional or advanced hobbyist photographer who wants to take black and white processing to the ultimate level. If you are serious about black and white photography, you’ll love this plugin.
But if you haven’t learned how to get the best out of Lightroom yet, then I recommend you take the time to do that first. That knowledge will help you make the most out of Silver Efex Pro 2.
Silver Efex Pro 2 in action
Here are two versions of the same photo – one created in Lightroom and the other in Silver Efex Pro 2 (using the Antique Plate I preset as a starting point).
I could probably create something close to the version created in Silver Efex Pro 2 in Lightroom. But it was quicker and easier in Silver Efex Pro 2.
What are the advantages of using Silver Efex Pro?
It’s time to take a detailed look at some of the benefits of using Silver Efex Pro 2.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has built-in presets
Silver Efex Pro 2 has 38 presets that you can use as starting points for your processing work, including vintage looks as well as modern ones.
Not all photographers like using presets. For that reason Silver Efex Pro 2 applies a neutral preset when you open up your image for the first time. This applies a straight conversion, the same as setting Treatment to Black and White in Lightroom.
It’s up to you whether you want to work with the neutral preset or one of the more creative presets in Silver Efex Pro 2. You can also create your own presets and save them to speed up the editing process.
Here are some examples of Silver Efex Pro 2’s presets.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has more tools for emphasizing texture
One of the elements that makes black and white photos so effective is texture. The Clarity slider is my favorite tool for enhancing texture in Lightroom, but Silver Efex Pro 2 takes the idea several steps further with its Structure sliders.
The Structure sliders are similar to Clarity in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. But Silver Efex Pro 2 gives you more control by letting you adjust Structure in the shadows, midtones and highlights as well as globally. There is also a Fine Structure slider for increasing mid-tone contrast in areas of fine detail (see below).
Here’s a practical example. With this photo I added lots of Structure to the midtones, less to the highlights and negative structure to the shadows to emphasize the softness of the dark background with the textures of the clay cups.
These are the settings used.
Silver Efex Pro 2 gives you good control over tones
You get more much more control over global tonal adjustments in Silver Efex Pro 2 than you do with Lightroom. There are some proprietary sliders only found in Nik software.
• The Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks sliders are useful for making highlights brighter and shadows darker. The effect seems to be more subtle than using Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders.
• The Soft Contrast slider increases contrast but in a more gentle way than using the contrast adjustment in Photoshop or Lightroom. It’s almost as if there is a subtle soft focus layer over the top. The screenshot below demonstrates the effect (soft contrast applied to the right-hand side).
Silver Efex Pro 2 uses control points for local adjustments
Local adjustments are where Silver Efex Pro 2 really stands out. If you use Photoshop, you use selections and masks to make local adjustments. In Lightroom, you use tools such as the adjustment brush, radial filter and graduated filter. In Silver Efex Pro 2 you use control points, part of Nik Software’s proprietary U Point Technology.
A control point is the centre of a circle within which you can make tonal adjustments. The clever bit is that the adjustment only affects tones similar in brightness and color to the pixels underneath the control point itself. If you place a control point over a dark tone, then increase the brightness, only the dark tones within the circle are adjusted. Light tones remain untouched.
Here’s what control points look like. On the left are the adjustment options, and on the right the circle shows the area covered by the control point.
It may sound complicated but it only takes a little practice to understand how it works. You can use as many control points as you want in an image, and group them together to cover areas that don’t conform easily to a circular shape.
It’s debatable whether control points are better than Lightroom’s local adjustment tools, and a lot comes down to personal preference. If you’re new to Silver Efex Pro 2 it takes time to get used to this way of working.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has a good workflow
Silver Efex Pro 2 has a detailed history panel that lists every adjustment you make to your image. You can jump back to any point in the history panel and revert to it. Silver Efex Pro 2 remembers your subsequent settings so you can go forward again if you want.
You can compare the current edit with the photo how it looked at any stage during its history. These are simple ideas, but good ones, that help a lot with the developing process.
Silver Efex Pro has the standard before and after preview, which you can see above. But it also has a split view that I rather like. You can move the dividing line to see more of one version or the other.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has film emulation
If you like to emulate black and white film Silver Efex Pro 2 has you covered. There are 18 types of black and white film to choose from. If you’re feeling nostalgic and hankering after the grainy look of Ilford’s Delta 400 (or at least Silver Efex Pro’s version of it), it’s just a click of the button away.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has borders
It’s not difficult to add black borders in Photoshop but Silver Efex Pro 2 makes it even easier. There are 14 borders to choose from and you can adjust the size, spread and roughness of each.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has split toning presets
Silver Efex Pro 2 has 23 split toning presets which you can use as starting points, or you can create your own.
Silver Efex 2 uses the zone system
Finally, there’s an interesting feature that will be of interest to zone system fans. Underneath the Loupe/Histogram display there are 11 number squares in greyscale sequence. These correspond to zones zero to 11 in Ansel Adam’s zone system. Hover over the square and Silver Efex Pro 2 highlights the corresponding tones in the image.
The screenshot below shows the tones that fall into zone two. The practical application is that you can see whether you have true blacks or whites in your image, and adjust the black or white points accordingly.
I hope that’s give you a good overview of some of the features in Silver Efex Pro 2. I recommend it to anybody who likes to work in black and white. The best way to tell whether the software is for you is to download the trial and test it out.
Some photographers may be annoyed that a suite of software that used to be free now costs $69 and doesn’t have any extra features. But bear in mind that DxO have updated the code so that the plugins work with the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop, and the latest operating systems, without any problems.
As for the question of value for money, it’s hard to argue with the price considering you get seven plugins altogether. If you’re into black and white photography and end up using Silver Efex Pro 2 a lot, I’m sure you’ll consider it money well spent.
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