Review: Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2

Black and White Conversion Plug-In for photo editing. (April 28th, 2011)

Silver Efex Pro 2 offers detailed editing options for black and white photographic buffs. With automated conversion tools and an unlimited number of individual controls, you can create impressive results. This plug-in installs into Adobe Photoshop, Elements, and Lightroom, or Apple Aperture.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Nik Software, Inc.

Price: $199.95 US

The Good

  • Comprehensive conversion and editing tool.
  • Excellent control granularity.
  • Control Points can be managed as groups.
  • Good selective colorization.
  • Localized brightness and contrast algorithms.

The Bad

  • Documentation assumes prior experience with product.
  • Documentation needs to be more comprehensive.
  • No easy way to save border frame styles.
  • Installer did not allow installation into only one compatible program.
  • Preferences dialog uses nonstandard controls (for Mac).

Nik Software, Inc. develops software for the digital imaging market. Their sweet spot is the serious amateur or professional photographer who wants to create dramatic effects beyond what is offered by photo editing software. Their plug-in solutions work with image editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, and Apple Aperture.

One of their more popular products, Silver Efex Pro received an update to version 2 in February. It is a plug-in for black and white photo conversion and editing. It offers multiple ways to enhance an image and provides functionality beyond that which is found in expensive photo editing software, plus gives you extensive control over your image. While amateur photographers might think this program is above your needs, you should take a closer look. The stunning results you can achieve are well worth the high price of admission, especially because it works with Adobe Photoshop Elements.

The new features include Dynamic Brightness, Soft Contrast, white and black amplification, and Fine Structure controls. The new bells and whistles include a History Browser, Selective Colorization, Image Borders, and speed improvements. The tools give you darkroom-like results that you can achieve faster and better then with the photo editing applications into which Silver Efex Pro 2 installs.

When you first open Silver Efex Pro 2, you see the screen divided into three basic parts: The Preset Categories and Show History Browser button are on the left, your photo already converted to black and white is in the center, and the Adjustments panel on the right. Many adjustment controls are packed into this plug-in and your editing possibilities are endless. I am not happy they removed the ability to view your original color photograph next to the converted photo, but there rests my only complaint with how the updated software functions.

Main Screen

Main Screen (Adobe Photoshop CS 5)

Preset Categories

Presets include a variety of effects the work on your whole image - unique combinations of contrast, brightness, film emulation, and color you apply to your image. Each effect shows a thumbnail preview. Nik added three categories: Classic, Vintage and Modern to help you find the kind of effect you want. You can add any of these or your own customized preferences to a Favorites sub-category. Presets are an evolving library and more combinations created by its developers or uploaded by photographers are available to download free on their site. It is easy to scroll through the thumbnails of the Presets, select the one you want, and see it instantly compared with your original black and white rendition. This gives you a good head start on the treatment of your image. Nik recommends you start with a preset and then work with the adjustment controls.

Presets

Preset adjustment in Adobe Photoshop CS 5 (Original on Left)

Adjustment Controls

Silver Efex Pro 2 also has expanded brightness adjustment controls. In addition to the traditional general, highlights, midtones, and shadows adjustments, Nik has added a Dynamic Brightness slider. Using this control you can let Silver Efex Pro 2's algorithms assess sections of your image individually and automatically adjust the brightness in these areas as needed. Dynamic Brightness performs as claimed and you will find it an extremely helpful tool and a timesaver.

Main Screen

Before and After-Dynamic Brightness Applied in Photoshop Elements 9 (Partial Screen)


Nik has augmented the way the plug-in handles contrast, which is a "game changer" in image editing. Instead of intensifying dark areas while muting light areas or visa versa, Silver Efex Pro 2 actually enables you to handle the whites and blacks separately. These two new sliders, Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks, create more dramatic results in your images. The differentiator is a control called Soft Contrast, in which you increase the contrast selectively rather than uniformly throughout an image, without experiencing the normal harshness or increase in granularity. This control works well to add depth and dimension to your image.

Main Screen

Soft Contrast in Photoshop Elements 9 (Partial Screen)


Silver Efex Pro 2 also now gives you control over textures and patterns. You can use the Structure controls, under the Global Adjustments, to smooth surfaces such as skin or highlight patterns. Nik has also added a Fine Structure control to manipulate very small or detailed objects such as leaf vein or an etched line.

Structure Controls

Structure Controls


As you can see in the screen shot above, each control includes a disclosure triangle that reveals more slider adjustment options. Nik refers to these triangles as flyout arrows in their documentation.

Nik has also improved how you can use its U Point technology Control Points. A Control Point is a selective editing tool, which acts as a sphere of influence. You can designate the epicenter of the Control Point and its size. Within this sphere you can isolate actions such as brightness, contrast, and structure. You can also selectively apply some of Silver Efex Pro 2's new features including Amplify White and Black and Fine Structure. Nik has also added the ability to group multiple Control Points together and manage them in unison. This grouping is a big time-saver. For example, if you have a sky divided by a series of mountain peaks, you can create Control Points for each area of the sky, group them, and adjust them all at once to bring out the clouds.

Color Your World

Colorization is another new addition to Silver Efex Pro 2. Using Control Points you can selectively reintroduce color from your original color image into your black and white rendition. This smart Nix algorithm works on the pixel level. It is not perfect though. You may, have to create an additional Control Point to deal with reconstituted color in a place away from the original Control Point's operational area. Also, as is common to many programs, it is a challenge to recolor objects with intricate edges, such as a dandelion pod. Despite these idiosyncrasies, Silver Efex Pro 2 performs better to create hybrid black and white with color images than do the other editing programs. For example, if you want to add color back to a river and there is a branch in front of it, the plug-in fills in the river's colors behind the branch while it leaves the branch itself untouched.

Color and Controls

Colorization with 7 Control Points in Adobe Lightroom 3

Border Tool

To help finish your image, Silver Efex Pro 2 now includes a border tool. You can start with a basic border design and change the width of the border as well as the thickness and pattern of the border's inner edge. To create unique borders, you can randomize the edge's appearance so that every border is different. You can create some interesting darkroom-like results, however, these borders work from the outside of your image inward, which takes away anything that might be of interest along the edge. You might have to write down the number of the border you use, because unfortunately, Nik identifies them only by number (Type 1, Type 2, etc.). Also, it would be helpful if you could save your customized border and apply it to another image, but you cannot.

Borders

Borders in Adobe Photoshop Elements 9

History Browser

Silver Efex Pro 2 tracks all your edits and adjustments to an image. The History Browser lists all your actions. You can undo or adjust any change you make along the way to experiment with different scenarios. Nik calls the History Browser "intuitive," but in reality, it may take a bit of practice to use it effectively. It does not help that initially it is hidden behind the Preset Browser frame. It would also be useful if Nik explained how to use it better in the User Guide, which only refers to it as a new feature. Browser history is not retained once an image is closed, so Nix suggests you save the final state as a preset in order to create the image effect again.

 history

History Browser in Adobe Lightroom 3

Speed

One of the improvements under the hood of Silver Efex Pro 2 is tighter integration with your video card processor. The plug-in can leverage the processing power of your GPU instead of taxing your CPU. This adds speed improvements, but more importantly, it smoothes transitions between showing and hiding panels and enables auto scrolling.

Help

If there is any deficiency with Silver Efex Pro 2, it lies not with the plug-in, but with its documentation. When you click the Help icon, your browser opens to the program's Getting Started web page, which contains installation instructions. You don't need these because you've already installed it to get to this help page, but you can download the Quick Start Guide from that page also. The Guide includes 5 lessons how to use the new features of version 2, but it presupposes prior familiarity with Silver Efex Pro's functionality and the earlier version of the product. Film type emulation and color filtering are not mentioned at all.

Under the Learn tab on Nik's site reside online video tutorials for Silver Efex Pro 2, but the library needs expansion. In addition, you can sign up for free webinars that cover their products. Ilene has attended a number of them, and finds them extremely useful, not only for learning about Silver Efex Pro 2, but for shooting tips and tricks also.

Conclusions

Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro 2 is a sophisticated plug-in. We tested it in Photoshop Elements, Photoshop, and Lightroom, and while the program works the same, how you open it differs from program to program. The Brush tool isn't available in Lightroom. One problem encountered rested in the install screen. It is supposed to let you choose which application(s) in which you want the plug-in installed and that didn't work correctly - it was all (PS Elements, Photoshop, and Lightroom) or none.

It is not for the casual photo editor who wants to create simple black and white versions of a color photo. It is for those who want to create dramatic images from color originals. The latest version offers you significant advancements over the previous version, especially in ease of use and precision to adjust a finer level of detail. These new features work quite well and neither of us experienced any problems with Silver Efex Pro 2. The challenge is to understand how you can leverage them to their fullest. Better documentation would be of significant help. If black and white is your game, then Silver Efex Pro 2 is the plug-in for you in Windows or Macintosh.

You need an Intel based Macintosh with Mac OS X 10.5.8 or later or Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. In addition it is a 32-bit and 64-bit compatible. Silver Efex Pro is compatible with the following versions through the current versions of Adobe Photoshop CS3, Adobe Elements 9, Photoshop Lightroom 2.6, and Apple Aperture. 2.1.4. You can download a 15-day trial from the site.

Related Reviews:

Silver Efex Pro (October, 2008)

Photos used in Photoshop and Lightroom examples ©ilene hoffman. Photos used in Adobe Elements examples ©Barry Michelson

by Barry Michelson and Ilene Hoffman


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