Image © Kevin Carter.
In the three years or so that Silver Efex Pro has been available, it has become practically the industry standard for black-and-white conversions. As I reported in early 2009 (BJP #7727) in a round-up of the various monochrome solutions available to photographers, it not only offered an extensive range of convincing presets for the time-pressured, but also an assortment of tools with practically limitless control for bespoke conversions.
Doing away with the need for masks, this included the innovative and easy-to-use U-Point localised adjustment option, something that was lacking with raw workflow utilities at the time. It wasn’t so much the features that impressed, but how well Silver Efex worked, delivering exceptional results.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, however and, while the developers, Nik Software, added plug-in functionality for Aperture and then Lightroom, both have since gained improved control of black-and-white conversions as well as a number of useful presets. Together, their ability to offer a number of virtual copies or versions with no real processing overhead or additional space required on the hard disk (as a plug-in Efex Pro requires files to be duplicated when handed off, ideally as 16-bit TIFFs), it’s tempting to stay within the raw workflow software if time is pressing. When working on individual files in Photoshop, however, it’s not really an issue.
Before version 2 arrived Silver Efex Pro had already been offered as a 64-bit version on both Mac and PC machines, an important consideration performance-wise, especially when working with large multilayer image files. Equally significant is how well applications make use of multi-core processors, and Silver Efex Pro 2 does well, utilising all eight virtual cores of my iMac, albeit at around 50-60 percent, when processing, saving and handing back to Lightroom or Aperture.
Version 2 opens in the same familiar workspace as the original, although it now looks a little busier, due in the main to a substantial increase in the number of thumbnail previews of the presets. Unsurprisingly, there are more tools arrayed on the right-hand side too but, like the original, these options are hidden under dropdown menus.
The presets now number close to 40, and the majority are far from being gimmicky additions. You’re either going to like those few that have frames, or dislike them. The range and quality of the new presets is a significant improvement. Looking back at the presets offered in the original version, they now appear rather weak. Like the earlier iteration, these are offered as a starting point, but once tweaked using the tools, obviously with some care, the adjustments can be saved as a new preset or even offered for sharing among the online community, not unlike rivals.
The performance boost is palpable, so the fact that version 2 can now handle multiple images from Aperture or Lightroom comes as little surprise. While it’s true there is a slight few seconds pause moving between images, there was little difference working through six 130MB files as there was with one or two. I performed a simple comparison of the “save” times between the 64-bit version of Silver Efex Pro 2 with an earlier 32-bit copy of Pro in Aperture. It was no contest. Up to that stage edits in either version of Silver Efex Pro are non-destructive, with all image-processing tasks taking place during saving. Timings for 130MB 16-bit TIFFs (originally from Nikon D3x raw files) were halved from around 21 seconds in Silver Efex Pro to less than 11 seconds in Pro 2.
"A new soft contrast option is one of my favourite new features," says Kevin Carter. "Lowering the contrast and softening at the same times works very well with animal portraits."
A change to the interface includes a hugely powerful feature; the new history browser. You could easily miss it at first as it’s an option between that and the thumbnail browser, but the implementation is logical enough. If displaying a side-by-side preview with the original image alongside the edited version, a nice touch is the ability to update the original to any of the edited steps. If you’ve made a mistake or changed your mind about a particular setting, for instance, this simple yet outstanding feature allows you to precisely gauge the effect repeatedly between the two images for each state, and all non-destructively too.
Although a basic operation, the clunky zoom control button of the original has been improved too. Even though Version 2 features GPU acceleration, you can’t scroll back and forth, but you can quickly toggle between a preset magnification and the full-image, which is far less niggly than before.
A new version wouldn’t be considered as such without the addition of new tools, and there are several. Dynamic Brightness control is a clever new feature. Rather than adjusting brightness globally this slider adjusts the levels based on the tonal values, lightening shadow areas without effecting highlights and vice versa. It’s this control that’s underlying the majority of the presets and it’s incredibly easy to use.
The same can be said of new Amplify Blacks and Amplify Whites controls, which can be likened to Lightroom’s Fill Light and Blacks sliders, but offer a finer, more subtle level of control. Also located under the Contrast dropdown menu is a new adaptive Soft Contrast option with a ±100 adjustment range. Ramping upwards, the increase in contrast can, at times, make it difficult to see the softening, but dropping down heavily can produce the most enchanting effect.
It’s one of the hidden gems, but another, working at a tangent, is the Fine Structure mode. In addition to the local contrast enhancement or Structure mode of the original, the Fine Structure option adds more precise control over contrast of the smallest details, while lessening the sharpening halos that you might see if overdoing the original Structure mode. This and the Amplify options convey global adjustments, but the developer has added these to the U-Point selective adjustment tool, adding localised control to the mix. They’re not shown by default, perhaps with the intent that users first get to grips with the globalised adjustments, but experienced users will find little trouble working with the tools.
A fourth option offers selective colour toning, allowing colour to be returned rather than adding a new tone. Some skill is required adding duplicate control points as well as others to remove some of the overspill as the U-Point tools inevitably don’t have the precession required. But to the developer’s credit, they’ve largely resisted gimmicky features.
I’ve already mentioned borders as part of the preset options, but you can choose from 14 types and alter the size, spread and the smoothness of the finish. It goes a little way to offset the price (around €200), and while by no means as wide-ranging as some, the borders are well done and complement the other toning, vignetting and edge-burning finishing tools. While it has taken a long time to see Silver Efex Pro make it to version 2, the result is the most capable and convincing black-and-white conversion application currently available. There’s little in the way of a learning curve: indeed, its ease of use easily matches the options offered in the best raw conversion utilities and yet none of those can equal the sheer power, versatility and control of Silver Efex Pro 2. If you regularly require the highest quality black-and-white conversions, you really need look no further than Silver Efex Pro 2.
Most Popular Articles
Updating your subscription status
We have a vacancy for a Key Account Manager working on The British Journal of Photography
Magnet Harlequin, one of the UK's leading Creative Production Agencies is seeking a new Head of Photography.
We have opportunities for two experienced photographic, audio or video technicians.