Review: Silver Efex Pro 2.0

Rating: 
Body: 

Pros: Fantasic new tools for global adjustments; nik's uPoint technology for selective adjustments; update provides some much-needed features like a histogram, and the ability to apply borders
Cons: I didn't find any, and I looked hard for downsides.
Rating: 10 out of 10

One reason black and white photography is such an expressive medium is that there's no objective relationship between a color and any particular shade of gray. If you shoot in color and then convert to black and white using software, you can choose to represent, say, a deep blue sky as either a very light gray, a very dark gray, or somewhere in between. Different choices result in very different images. For this reason, when you convert a color image to black and white (or, technically, grayscale) you want as much control as possible over mapping different colors to the grayscale tones you want. And there's no better tool for this process than nik software's Silver Efex Pro, recently upgraded to version 2.

As in version 1, Silver Efex 2 has excellent global tools for controlling grayscale conversion, along with exceptional uPoint controls for localized correction. Film-stock simulation is also included, and it's among the best that you'll find. But with the $199 version 2 ($99 for version 1 owners), Silver Efex has dramatically improved its ability to target specific tonal ranges when you apply global edits. These improvements, along with several interface updates, make the upgrade a must-have for current Silver Efex users and for anyone else interested in black and white photography.

The Basics
Silver Efex Pro is a plug-in for Photoshop CS3 through CS5, Photoshop Elements 6 through 9, Lightroom 2.6 through 3, and Apple Aperture 2.1.4 through 3.

Its interface is largely unchanged from previous versions, offering a well-organized single window that provides a large preview, plus several scrolling panes of options (Figure 1). As with previous versions, you can split the preview pane to show before/after views.

Figure 1. Silver Efex's interface remains largely unchanged, though there are important additions scattered throughout the program. Click the figure to see a larger version.

Experienced Silver Efex users will find two important interface additions as they browse the new version. In the upper-left corner, a new history palette lets you work backward through all adjustments you've made within the plug-in.

In the lower-right corner, you can toggle the Loupe control to show a new histogram instead. For a program dedicated to grayscale conversion, a histogram is essential, so this is a very welcome addition.

The presets panel now offers category buttons that group presets into photographic categories--Modern, Classic, and Vintage--which make it easier to sort through the software's huge presets library.

Nik rewrote the application's core to take advantage of your video card's GPU (if it has one), and the result is an update that is noticeably peppier than its predecessor.

Global Edits
SilverEfex's default conversions usually look pretty good. As with most grayscale conversion routines, though, you'll want to do a little tweaking, both of the contrast and to map specific colors to specific tones. Typically, you'll start by making global adjustments to the entire image, and then refine using local adjustment tools.

Silver Efex's global adjustment tools consist of Brightness, Contrast, and Structure sliders. In version 2, you can open these sliders to reveal powerful new tools.

In addition to a global brightness slider, there are also separate sliders for Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows. A new Dynamic Brightness slider (Figure 2) offers a perceptual brightness control, which attempts to brighten only shadow areas in the image. This is akin to the Shadows/Highlights control in Photoshop and the Fill Light slider in Camera Raw and Lightroom.

Figure 2. The new Dynamic Brightness slider gives you a control for brightening only the shadows in an image. This is just the first of Silver Efex 2's new selective adjustment tools.

The Contrast slider opens up to reveal three new controls. Amplify Blacks and Amplify Whites increase the "presence" of blacks and whites in your image. I put that in quotes because it's a subtle effect. For example, Amplify Whites doesn't simply adjust the white point in your image--brightening it overall--but also makes lighter tones in your image a little brighter. This brightening is ramped off into intermediate tones throughout your image. The result is that the lighter tones simply have more oomph.

Unlike changing white point (as you would with a Levels adjustment), Amplify Whites changes the overall tonal relationships in your image. The practical upshot: You increase contrast while preserving midtones. Amplify Blacks does the same things for an image's dark tones.

Figure 3. Before (left) and after (right) amplifying the whites in this image. Note the lighter details on the walls in the background. They have a little more presence now, even though other midtones are untouched. Click the figure to see a larger version.

The new Soft Contrast slider seems to combine both Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks to create an adaptive contrast control that does a very good job of increasing contrast while protecting areas that shouldn't receive a lot of adjustment; for instance, soft skin tones remain soft (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Increasing the Soft Contrast slider amped up the contrast in this image, but it largely ignored the girl's face. Click the figure to see a larger version.

Silver Efex 1.0 introduced the Structure slider, which increases detail by performing many tiny contrast adjustments throughout your image. It's essentially a smart sharpening algorithm, and in version 2, it's gotten a little smarter thanks to the addition of a new Fine Structure slider that affects extremely fine detail in your image without oversharpening (Figure 5).

Figure 5. A before (left) and after (right) view of clouds that have been hit with a Fine Structure command.

Ultimately, black and white photography is all about contrast, and contrast is all about the blackest and whitest elements of an image. Silver Efex 2 not only zeroes in on very precise areas of tonal range, but you can adjust tones with extraordinary precision.

Selective Adjustments
As with Silver Efex 1, version 2 has the same uPoint technology that nik includes in Viveza, Capture NX 2, and other programs. If you've ever suffered through painting a difficult mask in any image editor, you'll love uPoint controls, which do a spectacular job of interactively building masks for you. Once you click to set a uPoint control, Silver Efex automatically builds a mask to constrain your edits. By analyzing the color that you clicked on, and by doing some clever blending and feathering, Silver Efex manages to make incredibly accurate masks around even the most difficult subject matter. See my review of Silver Efex 1.0 for a more detailed look at Control Points.

Control Points remain the same in version 2, with one addition. You can now use Control Points to selectively color an area in your image. Click on a color you want to maintain and drag the Control Point slider to define a radius for the mask. Silver Efex will automatically create a mask that protects that color from conversion (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Using a Selective Color Control Point, I was able to restore color to the strawberry in this picture.

However, the Selective Color control point creates a much more refined mask than you'd create on your own. For example, in Figure 6, notice that the strawberry is red, but the bubbles on the strawberry are still grayscale. This is because ONLY the red tones are masked. If you had simply painted over the strawberry with a normal masking tool, then the bubbles would have the original the yellow hue of the champagne they're formed from. When nik says "selective color," it means really selective color.

Finishing
Silver Efex 2's excellent film-stock simulations let you select a specific film stock, or dial in your own grain and contrast adjustments. In blind jury tests I've conducted, Silver Efex is routinely more accurate than other stock simulations.

Version 2 offers a new Image Borders feature that creates film edges for realistic-looking photo borders. The feature doesn't simply slap on scans of actual film borders. Instead, they're created algorithmically, which means you have a fine degree of control for altering them. More importantly, it means you won't have the exact same border on every image.

This feature was sorely missing on the first version and nik has done a fantastic job of implementing it. It's good enough that you won't have to shell out for a separate photo edges package.

Better and Cheaper than New Gear
If it isn't already obvious, I love this software. Version 1 was one of those products that was so good, it was difficult to imagine what could be improved. But version 2 implements so many important new features that now it would be very hard to go back to the original.

It's not just the results of the edits that are impressive, but how easy they are to achieve. As with most nik plug-ins, Silver Efex wraps an amazing amount of image-editing power in an interface that's incredibly easy to use.

While some people might think the price is too high, investing $199 in Silver Efex 2.0 will probably improve your black and white photography more than a new lens or camera. Download the 15-day trial and see for yourself.

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