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Black and White with SilverEfex Pro 2

Hi all, welcome to the final tutorial in my Black & White Photography series. This final section is more of a confession. I’m sorry to say that I very infrequently use any of the techniques that we have discussed since I started using a plug-in for my conversions. That plug in is SilverEfex Pro from Nik Software. This is not a sales pitch for that piece of software, its not a cheap piece of software, but I will go through how to use it and explain why I tend to use it over other methods.

I currently use SilverEfex Pro, although Nik have released a SilverEfex Pro 2 which I’ve downloaded a trial of for the purposes of this tutorial. I’m still undecided whether to upgrade to the new version, but hopefully by the time I’m finished writing Ii’ll have made my mind up if I need to put my money down.


This is where you start

When you open an image up from Photoshop, Lightroom, Photoshop Elements, Nikon Capture NX2 or Aperture you are presented with a neutral conversion that is the base from which begin to work.

The right hand panel is where all the grunt work is done (the panel can be hidden via the tab key or the button to its top left on the middle tool bar and each panel can be minimized or expanded via the triangles by their names, unchecking the check boxes turns off the effect of the panel), The three main conversion slider are in the Global Adjustments panel and they are brightness, contrast and structure. image-2_2Where the work is done
image-3 The first two of these sliders are pretty self explanatory and they are where you will control the overall look of the image. The structure slider is where SilverEfex really shows it’s class. The structure slider could be called Pimp My Details as it increase the texture and detail of an image and it does this without increasing noise or affecting the tonality of the image. I love this slider. A lot.

Beneath the three main sliders are the Tonality Protection controls and to be honest I never use them but their role is to protect highlights or shadows (on a sliding scale) from the effects of the brightness, contrast and structure sliders.

With the original version of SilverEfex the control panel finished there, with the new version they have added drop down menus to all three controls for finer control of the conversion.

With the new version Nik have added controls over highlights, midtones and shadows to all three controls plus an extra tweaking slider to specific to each. Brightness has a Dynamic Brightness control which seems to work like the brightness slider in Lightroom, effecting the mid-range values mainly while having a a slightly less dramatic effect of the extreme points on the tonal range. Contrast has a soft Contrast slider which has similar effect as the Dynamic Brightness slider but on contrast (if that makes any sort of sense). Finally, the Structure control has a Fine Structure slider which enhance or reduces small details, push it to its maximum and it looks like you are adding film grain to the image.

My general advice (and what seems to be Nik’s opinion to as they don’t show these fine controls be default) is that basic controls are enough for most users; people were producing great black & white photographs with the previous version of the software and if you start playing with the fine controls too much you are getting away from one of SilverEfex’s best feature, its simplicity of use.

Now we move onto Control Points (gulp, deep breath). If you have experience of control points from other Nik products please move on, if you haven’t, bear with me as I try to explain them to you.

image-4The Expanded Control Panel in All Its Glory
image-5Click here to add a control point Control points allow you to target parts of an image by placing a point on the image (which is circular) that allows you control of the brightness, contrast and structure of the part image within the circle of the control point. To add a control point click on the Add control point button in the right hand panel and then click on the image where you wish the centre of the circle to be. The placing of the control point is important as this sets the colour range (I know its a black & white image but SilverEfex appears to use the underlying colour values) that will be affected by the control points sliders. Please note the strength of the changes made by the control point are graduated and fall off towards the edge of the circle.

image-6A control point in position with the sliders visible

The size of the circle can be controlled by the top “grab handle” that’s accessed by clicking on the control point on the image; the tonal controls are underneath the size control. To see what part of the image is affected by the control point, open the control point dropdown and click on the far right check box, then mouse over the image. image-7

image-8 Showing which parts of the image are affected by the control point

Did that make any sense? Probably not, but this may. I don’t think the control points work very well in SilverEfex and never use them!

image-9 Next on the list are the Colour Filters. We have used adjustments like these in previous tutorials, the different colours affecting the final image by “altering” the base colour of the image the black & white image is created from. SilverEfex has fine controls that allow you to tweak the hue of the filter and its strength. I really like this feature and use it a lot.

Next we come to the Film Types, these options are “recreations” of some classic black & white films and seek to imitate the contrast, colour sensitivity and grain of the originals. these are great starting points if you are trying to find a look for your images. image-10The Film Types Available
The dropdown offers customization options for grain, colour sensitivity and contrast


The expanded film panel

image-12 The Finishing Adjustments panel is a wonderful treasure trove of effects. The Toning section has a vast array of presets to start you off and the controls allow you tweak the results to suit. The panel works in a similar way to Lightroom’s toning panel, except the controls effect the Silver (the image layer) and the Paper (the base layer). You can select the hue of the tone , its strength and the balance between the two layers. If you don’t have Lightroom the toning panel is a compelling reason to get get SilverEfex
The Vignette panel works as you would expect allowing you put a uniform light or dark edge on the image. The Burn panel is similar but different. The Burn panel only allows you to darken the edges but each edge is independent of the others and can be varied by Strength (how dark the effect will be, Size (how wide) and Transition (the softness of the effect). Both panels offer presets. image-14
image-15 The final Finishing Adjustment are new to SilverEfex 2 and these are Image Borders. What these do is add a white and black trim around a photograph (if you have OnOne’s PhotoFrame you will have a fair idea of what to expect) , and effect that used to be achieved in the darkroom by filling out the edges of the negative carrier. As I’ve only just got the new version of SilverEfex I haven’t had much chance to play with these yet but there seems to be a fair set of controls to nuance the edges and I think they work pretty well but the Borders will cover the edges of you photographs; you could overcome this by adding an empty edge around you image in Photoshop before adding the border but its a bit of a faff.
Finally, at the bottom of the panel is the Loupe & Histogram. As users of another imaging program I’m sure you know what these are. I don’t like the way this panel is stuck to the foot of the right-hand side, I would prefer it at the top with the ability to extend it down. image-16

If you mouse over the Loupe some a numbered scale appears beneath it and if you mouse over the numbers parts of your image may be overlaid by stripes of different colours. This scale is the Zone System a method of altering the exposure of black & white film so that the different tones of an image could be made lighter or darker.

image-17The Zone System in operation

The Zone System was developed by Ansel Adams and it would take a book to explain properly (there are plenty out there). I can see Scale’s usefulness in SilverEfex but only if you understand the system and even then its quite an abstract tool to use here. Nik have obviously spent time developing this part of the software but why then hide it away at the bottom of the panel?

That’s the processing side covered, the left-hand panels contain presets both those from Nik and ones of you own creation. Good starting points if you are stuck for creative ideas. I’ve gone on too long as it is so I won’t go into that side of the window.

image-18The other side of the window

There all the usual viewing options, preferences, zooms etc. littered around the window but you can discover them for yourselves.

So we come to the end of this series, I hope you enjoyed it, found it useful and that it didn’t irritate you too much. I do use all of the black & white conversion techniques we have discussed but I do tend to go to SilverEfex first because its quick and its very good at what it does. Is it worth getting? Possibly, if you do a lot of black &whites. Would I get the upgrade? Still undecided.

About Richard Hales (35 Articles)
Richard’s first foray into was photography was as an apprentice photographer for Oxford University over 20 years ago. From there Richard went on to study photography at University somehow gaining a BA & MA, he still is rather confused how he managed to do this. After University and an unfinished (and un-started) PhD Richard “retired” from photography for a few years to pursue a career in wine and, oddly, scrap metal before returning to photography and setting up a wedding and portrait photography business in Worcestershire. As well as running his photography business Richard is currently working on a bread & jam making book. He is the average height for a Nut.

4 Comments on Black and White with SilverEfex Pro 2

  1. Hi Richard – This was a really nice walk-through of the Silver Efex Pro 2 features and their value to photographers. Great selection of screenshots to accompany the text.

    One thing that puzzles me however was your comment that “Control Points don’t work very well” in Silver Efex Pro 2.

    This has been one of our most popular and core features of both versions of the product. Admittedly I’m biased, but I can’t imagine selectively lightening or darkening objects in my images w/o using them! What didn’t work for you?

    Thanks – again, a fine post overall and much appreciated!

    Kevin (from Nik Software)

  2. Hi Kevin

    Second go at answering your comments, last one seemed to disappear into the ether.

    Thanks very much for the compliments on the tutorial, very nice to hear that Nik saw it and liked it.

    Ah, control points. My, possible overly glib, comments have excited quite a few comments and maybe i should have qualified them a little. Quite a lot of the work I do in SEP is on images with a lot of similar colours (SEP works on the base colours of the image?) and the control points are a little too imprecise and tend to spill over onto areas I don’t want altered. This could be my lack of practice with them in SEP and that am more comfortable with other methods through habit. Maybe if there was a way to “trim” the area affected (a brush type eraser?) I may use them more; of course I could do this through a layer mask or your brush feature.

    However i do like control points in Viveza and ColorEfex, and fellow Nut Richard Harrington extols their virtues in your HDR software,


  3. Ahhh… I see. The best way to “trim” as you say is to add additional, constraining Control Points to the areas that you don’t want affected by the original CP. The Control Points “talk” to one another and in many cases you’ll be able to achieve your enhancement that way. See if that works, even with similar colors.

    Cheers, Kevin (from Nik Software)

  4. As much as I hate plugins, I’m sort of a pure Photoshop guy, SilverEfex is truly an amazing piece of software. It just makes it so easy to balance the tones and add mood to the photographs. And because it’s so easy, it translates to the speed of use.

    One thing I like doing is rebalancing the tones with SilverEfex and dropping the black and white layer onto the colour image in luminosity blending mode. It can create a really dramatic effect.

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