I’ve been an advocate of Nik Software’s original black & white conversion plug-in, Silver Efex Pro (SEP), since it was released a few years ago. Recently, Nik Software released a major revision, Silver Efex Pro 2 (SEP2). In this review, I’ll take a look at what’s new in SEP2 and compare its features to the original version of SEP.
Monochrome made easy
Many people ask me if they “need” Silver Efex Pro to get the best monochrome image conversions. Of course need is a relative term, but Silver Efex Pro offers users some distinct advantages over other black and white conversion tools. The fundamental strengths of SEP (and SEP2) have always been:
- Conversion Quality
- Tool set and effects options
- Local Adjustments using RGB color data
- Workflow options
Silver Efex Pro 2 refines and improves many of these features from the original Silver Efex Pro plug-in. I’ll examine these features in more detail after the jump.
The original Silver Efex Pro delivered outstanding conversions to black and white, and SEP2 is no different. The processing algorithms have been refined (more on this later) and SEP2 delivers clean images right out of the box. Images processed through SEP2 have smooth tone ramps and I was unable to detect any artifacts in my images. With SEP2, however, you can get even better images than you did with SEP1, and it’s because the new processing algorithms are implemented in new, refined tools that give the user complete control over their monochrome image in ways that are impossible in SEP1 and other software plug-ins.
Tools and Controls
To anyone who has used SEP in the past, the SEP2 controls will look very familiar. There are adjustment panels on the right side of the interface window, right where you expect them to be. At first glance, the tools themselves look to be identical. You have Global Adjustments (Brightness/Contrast/Structure), Selective Adjustments (Control Points), Color Filters, Film Types (grain, curves, sensitivity), and Finishing Adjustments (Special effects). The Loupe/Histogram window also contains the Zone Tool indicator, which allows you to examine the tonal range of your photos. Unlike SEP1, what’s underneath these tools is a major improvement in processing features.
Refined Global Adjustments
The three major tools in the Global Adjustments (Brightness, Contrast, and Structure sliders) now all have refined control sliders when you expand their individual control panel. You can now make brightness and contrast adjustments to shadows, midtones and highlights individually. There is a new “dynamic brightness” slider control that works unlike any traditional brightness slider seen before. With dynamic brightness, you won’t clip shadows or highlights in your image, as is the case with the traditional brightness slider.
The contrast controls also expand to allow you to make adjustments to highlights (Amplify Whites slider) and shadows (Amplify Blacks slider) independently. There is also a new tool, called “Soft Contrast” which like the dynamic brightness slider is unique to SEP2. The Soft Contrast slider is hard to explain using mere words, but I liken its effect to a “spotlight.” This slider increases or decreases contrast in ways that tend to emphasize your subject as though a soft spotlight was placed on it. It’s a nice look for times where you want to emphasize bright objects without blowing them out or clipping shadows completely.
The Structure slider, a tool that was first introduced in the original SEP, has been refined as well. I’ve always liked the Structure tool because it allowed me to globally add or remove a “clarity” effect to my images. Landscapes work well with strong structure, while portraits can be softened by dialing the slider back. In SEP2, you now can control the structure effect across shadows, midtones, and highlights independently of each other. Moreover, SEP2 adds a “Fine Structure” slider, which can be used to enhance or mute small details in your image. Think of the traditional Structure tool as a large radius high-pass sharpener and the Fine Structure tool as a small radius high-pass effect. Of course, unlike traditional high-pass filter effects, the Structure tools can also be used to soften the image.
Selective Adjustments with Control Points
The hallmark of Nik’s plug-ins have always been their use of U point technology in the form of Control Points. SEP2, like SEP before it, makes use of this technology to allow the user to make selective adjustments on their images. What makes this feature so compelling with both SEP and SEP2 is that the selections are based on the original color (RGB) image data. This means that you can make distinct selections in your images on objects that may be rendered in the same shade of gray when converted to monochrome. This point cannot be overstated; by making smart selections based on the underlying RGB color data, photographers are able to control local tonality with tremendous precision. For example, you may have a sky and foreground that are rendered in very similar shades of gray. With traditional selection tools, it would be nearly impossible to select only the sky. Because the Control Points in SEP/SEP2 “see” the underlying color (blue), they can make a precise selection of just the sky, which allows you to control its tone precisely. In SEP2, the Control Points offer the same controls as found in the Global Adjustments panel, including the Amplify Whites/Blacks sliders and Fine Structure. New to SEP2 is a Selective Color slider, which allows you to use a Control Point to define a selection and add color back into your image from the original. This is a great new addition to SEP2 that will make selective color effects even easier to produce.
I’ll be honest, the one feature I don’t use very often in SEP is the Film presets. However, if you want to match the look of Ilford Delta 400 pro or Kodak Plus-X 125, you can do it in SEP2, just like you could in the original SEP. Not much has changed in the Film Types panel, and you get the same quality grain tool that you had in SEP. You’ll also find the Levels and Curves tool here, but I find myself using it less than before due to the fantastic brightness/contrast sliders that were added in the Global Adjustments panel.
As with its predecessor, SEP2 offers users the ability to apply special “Finishing Adjustments” to their images. In addition to the split-toning and vignette controls that were found in SEP, SEP2 lets you add borders to your photos. There are 14 border presets, and each can be modified to produce a variety of border effects. I’m not big on borders, but it’s still a nice addition to the software.
Silver Efex Pro 2, like most Nik Software products, includes a suite of pre-defined presets that let you process your images with a single click. Most of the time I find these presets to be a little overdone, but nevertheless they can be a good way for users to explore the software controls. You can also create your own presets in SEP2 and share them with your colleagues. If there is one feature missing from SEP2 (and other Nik plug-ins) that I’d like to see in the future, it’s the fact that settings presets always save all the sliders in every control panel. I’d like to have separate settings for things like grain effects that I can apply to my images after I’ve adjusted other parameters. Right now, any custom setting will overwrite ALL the adjustments in my image. Hopefully this is something that can be addressed in future versions of Nik Software plug-ins.
The final new addition to SEP2 is the History Browser, and it’s something that photographers are going to find very useful. When you expand the History Browser, you’ll see each adjustment that you applied to your image, starting with the original. Not only does the History Browser give you the ability to “undo” your adjustments, but you can also use it in conjunction with the Compare tool to compare your image adjustments at different states. For example, you could compare the image before and after you added a particular effect, or you could even use this tool to compare slightly different variations of an effect and then choose the one you want to apply.
You can launch Silver Efex Pro 2 from a variety of host applications:
- Apple Aperture 2.1.4 and later
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 and later
- Adobe Photoshop CS3 and later
- Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and later
You can also set Silver Efex Pro for Lightroom as your “Open With” application in Nikon’s Capture NX2 and use it as a stand-alone program on TIFF files (SEP2 cannot open RAW files directly). Regardless of your host application, the SEP2 interface is conserved. The only major differences that arise from using different host programs is with regard to workflow.
If you use SEP2 directly from Aperture or Lightroom (or as a stand-alone program from Capture NX2), your image will be saved as a flattened TIFF file. If you use Adobe Photoshop CS, however, you can use SEP as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object layer. With Smart Filters, you can go back and re-edit your SEP2 adjustments without having to start over from scratch. Because Photoshop can apply SEP2 in a layer, it is also the only way for users to use layer masks/brushes to create complex selective effects. SEP2 includes a simplified brush tool for Photoshop users that allows you to selectively paint your effects in or out of your image. If you are serious about black and white and want to use SEP2 in a truly non-destructive workflow, then you’ll definitely want to be using it in Photoshop. On the other hand, if you are a casual user and don’t want to spend the big dollars on Photoshop CS5, you’ll get the same fantastic results using SEP2 directly from Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop Elements.
At first glance, Silver Efex Pro 2 doesn’t seem to be all that different from the original SEP product. However, there are improvements all the way around in SEP2 that make it stand out. The added degree of control over tonal adjustments that SEP2 provides photographers makes it deliver results that are absolutely stunning. While the new controls don’t seem like much, you have to see the results to believe them. Of course, the Nik engineers also know that you shouldn’t mess with a good thing; the fundamental controls that were the main reason for SEP’s success have been retained and simply made better. While “new and improved” algorithms might not sound impressive, what it really means is that you get better control and better output from SEP2 to implement your creative vision. After seeing what I can do in SEP2, I’ve officially retired my original version of Silver Efex Pro and now work exclusively with version 2. Silver Efex Pro is available from Nik Software at a list price of $199.95 (full) or for $99.95 as an upgrade from SEP 1.0. Individuals who purchased SEP 1.0 after Dec. 6, 2010 are eligible for a free upgrade to SEP2. As with all Nik Software products, you can download a fully functional trial version and use it for 15 days without registering it.
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