Nik Silver Efex Pro 2: Review and Basic Workflow

by David Saffir

Whether you’re considering using SEP2 for the first time, or upgrading, you’ll find that the software is well-designed – it has an intuitive interface, good balance between presets and customization, improved editing options, runs faster, and produces excellent image quality.

Some might say that the presets and other tools available in programs like Lightroom or Aperture are sufficient to create good black and white images – but I can’t agree that they are the best choice.

The high level of control and customization available in Silver Efex Pro 2 (SEP2) make this an excellent tool for serious photographers. And even if you’re only occasionally converting a color image to black and white, you’ll find the software to be well worth the investment in time and money.

Here’s the original color image that I worked on for this article:

Highlights

The opening screen, launched from CS5. Note that SEP2 always starts out applying the default “Normal” preset (outlined in orange) – and in this case the image looks a bit dark to me. That’s going to change, of course. (click on any screen shot to enlarge)

Silver Efex Pro 2 has a great lineup of pre-sets – one click on a pre-set converts your image into your selected black and white “look”. (left side of screen shot).

There are some new ones, and all have been organized into categories for easy reference. You can use presets for a one-click conversion, as a starting point for further edits and adjustments. You can also save your own adjustments in a custom preset.

Brightness – previously had one slider adjustment. Brightness can now be adjusted in highlights, midtones, and shadows. A “dynamic brightness” adjustment has been added (the Dynamic Brightness slider automatically adapts the brightness applied to each area differently – more detail later in this review).

Contrast – Now provides three sliders: Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks, and Soft Contrast.

Structure adjustment (quoting Nik Software: “Increasing contrast within the objects without affecting the edges of each object. The result is the increase of apparent detail throughout the image without unwanted artifacts”.): This has been expanded/upgraded – adjustments can be made highlights, midtones, and shadows. There’s also a new adjustment for “fine structure”.

Selective adjustments: uses Control Points to make local changes to brightness, contrast, structure, amplify whites, amplify blacks, fine structure, and selective colorization.

Color Filters – you can apply color filters to the image, which are the digital equivalent of using a similar filter on-camera.

Film Types: provides 18 presets for applying the “look” of a particular black and white film. There are also adjustments for grain, color sensitivity, and a levels and curves adjustment.

Finishing Adjustments: toning/split toning, vignette, image borders, and burn edges. The toning tool set is particularly sophisticated, and even includes controls for things like silver toning.

Loupe, Histogram, and Zone System tools - more on these later, including the Zone System.

History Browser – records all of your adjustments, step by step. Similar to Photoshop. You can roll back and forth between steps. Very useful tool and a great improvement.

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Workflow

This section provides a more detailed review of features, and an example of workflow, using SEP2. There’s more than one way to approach image editing – its relatively easy to work through your options and get the best result.

Most reviewers jump right into using the software, but I’d like to suggest a different starting point: convert your first layer in Photoshop into a Smart Object. Smart Objects “remember” your adjustments in SEP2.

Once you convert the layer, you can adjust via SEP2, close it, and later click on the Smart Object – this will re-open SEP2 where you left off, and remember all adjustments from your earlier session. Very efficient and powerful.

Here’s how you convert a layer to a Smart Object in Photoshop: Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object:

Note: I’ve inserted a second layers palette into this illustration. The palette marked “1” shows a standard background layer. The palette marked “2” shows a background layer converted to a normal layer, and then to a Smart Object. A Smart Object is identified by the square icon lower right in the layer thumbnail (see arrow).

To launch SEP2 from Photoshop (assuming you’ve installed it), go Filter>Nik Software>Silver Efex Pro 2.
Here’s the opening screen again.

(click on any screen shot to enlarge)

The opening screen is organized into three columns. On the left, the column shows the presets I mentioned earlier in this article. The red rectangle includes a toggle button to hide the presets column, and a second button to reveal it.

There are many presets. They range from “normal” to some impressive special effects. A single click on any preview thumbnail temporarily applies the pre-set adjustments to the image. They are not finalized until you click OK at bottom right.

I frequently test a few presets at the beginning of an editing session to see if I can shorten my work cycle to a finished image, or at least get to a starting point for customized adjustments. Inside the green rectangle, the first button shows a single image view. The second button displays a red line down the middle to show “before” on the left and “after” on the right as a split preview.

You can move the line where you wish, or change the orientation of the two previews. The third button creates two smaller images showing a “before” and “after” side-by-side. In my own workflow, I usually use the line tool. It’s also possible to zoom in and out for closer inspection.

The third column, on the right, has a wide range of image adjustment and editing tools.

Global Adjustments

I generally make global, or image-wide adjustments first, and work on details second.

I may go to the Color Filter or the Film Types first. These are similar to on-camera filters we are all familiar with. For example, the red filter is a good choice with this model’s skin tones. Note that the filter can be adjusted for intensity and hue – click on the Details triangle icon and the submenus will appear:

Red filter applied, before/after view.

These are non-destructive edits – they are not applied to the image until I press the “OK button. If I find that they are not fitting into the workflow at the beginning, I’ll probably return to them later on.

Film types

Another global adjustment. The film types tool provides 18 different black and white film types that do a remarkable job of emulating some of the more popular black and white films. If you mouse over them you’ll see a preview of its effects.

You have a couple of options here. Like the presets provided in the left hand column of the software screen, you can use these as a quick path to a finished, or nearly finished image. In my workflow, I usually use them as a starting point for further editing.

Note the Grain adjustment panel, right under the film type drop-down. This is a highly flexible adjustment, and it does an excellent job of emulating actual film grain – it is very natural in appearance. Left side shows “before”. I’ve used a fairly intense setting for demo purposes – you have complete control on-screen.

If you select a film type, you’ll see changes in both the Sensitivity and Levels/Curves panels. These are adjustments in the response of the “film” to the color in the underlying, original image. (Also note the change in the grain adjustments, which are part of the “look” of the film selected.)

Both of these can be adjusted further to suit your needs. One can adjust Curves and Levels as well – in fact, one could say that there is rarely a reason to leave SEP2 and return to Photoshop for adjustments.

I usually move through the next part of workflow in the order provided in the global adjustments panels.
Brightness/Contrast/Structure adjustments. Note that each adjustment slider can be expanded by clicking on the triangle next to each tool name:

This division is a welcome improvement. For each segment:

Brightness

Divided into highlights, midtones, and shadows. This is more or less self-explanatory. There is a fourth adjustment, Dynamic Brightness. Quoting Nik Software “intelligently applying different brightness values to different areas of the image. Moving the slider to the left will darken the image overall, while keeping highlight detail. Moving the slider to the right will brighten the image overall, while keeping shadow detail”.

Contrast

Amplify Whites and Blacks – moving the whites slider to the right selectively increases tonal values of brighter areas, which can be adjusted without blowing out highlights. Moving the blacks slider does the same for tonal values in darker areas.

The Soft Contrast tool is one of my favorites. It quickly applies a “softer” look to the image – when I see the change, I think “smooth” – in terms of overall contrast and transition areas. In this case, I’ve applied a Soft Contrast adjustment at 25%. “Before” view to the left of the red line.

Structure

The structure adjustment is a pretty unique tool. Quoting Nik: “(Increases) contrast within the objects without affecting the edges of each object. The result is the increase of apparent detail throughout the image without unwanted artifacts”. An example of a structure adjustment in the shadows area (I made a modest adjustment. Note the structure slider. “Before” view is to the left. You can click on  screen shot to enlarge)

Fine Structure is pretty self-explanatory – it works on the smaller details in the image.

History Browser

This is a good time to introduce you to the new History Browser. Move the slider up and down your editing steps to either change your workflow, or review the impact of changes step-by-step. This tool is toggled on and off using the third button from the left in the panel (button outlined in red, arrow points to slider):

Note that unlike Photoshop you can’t delete an individual step from the middle of an editing stream and leave the remainder intact.

Selective Adjustments

Nik Software created the Control Point (they also refer to this as U-Point technology). Control points are highly adjustable tools that provide brightness, contrast, structure, amplify white, amplify black, fine structure, and selective colorization.

One creates a control point by first clicking on the “Add Control Point” icon. Then, you click again on the part of the image you want to adjust.

The size of the adjustment, or “area of influence”, is provided in the first slider on the control point:

Note that the Control Point is a very smart tool: it analyzes the area it is controlling, using the place where you first clicked (orange dot) as its reference. Adjustments made to the control point will generally affect only similar tones, textures, etc within the circle of influence. Adjustments made here would have minimal effect on the model’s hair.

Control points can be placed at will in the image. You can also place multiple control points – these can be controlled individually, or they can be grouped. When grouped, an adjustment made to one affects all in the group. They can also be adjusted from the right hand control panel, turned on and off, and more.

Control points are very sophisticated tools. There are many more ways to mix and match them.
_________________________

Finishing Adjustments

Nik provides a number of tools for enhancing and finishing your image.

These include:

Toning/Split Toning
Silver Toning
Paper Toning
Vignette
Burn Edges
Image Borders

One of my favorites among these are the toning tools.

If you click on the toning drop down you’ll see something like the screen shot below. When you move your mouse pointer over each one you’ll see a live preview on screen.

Note that I’ve selected sepia toning; there are many others to choose from. Note the inclusion of cyanotype and ambrotype adjustments. The strength of the toning is adjustable.

If you choose silver toning, you’ll see color in parts of the image that would, if this were a darkroom print, have silver on them. White areas obviously do not. It’s a different look: (remember – you can enlarge any screen shot by clicking on it)

Paper hue and toning are more or less self-explanatory.

The vignette tool is very flexible. There are presets available through the drop down, you can control the intensity via a slider control, you can adapt the vignette from a circle to a rectangle, and adjust its size.

A burn edges tool is provided. There are presets available, you can apply the effect to 1, 2, 3, or all four edges, control the amount, shape, and size.

(click on any screen shot to enlarge)
detail of the breakout box:

The image borders tool is one of my favorites. Presets are provided in the drop down menu, and you can adjust size, spread, and whether the effect is “clean” or “rough”. There’s also a “vary border” tool which provides nearly random variations on a set of adjustments.

I’ve provided a split-screen view here so you can see one pair of options. (I previously applied one effect). The right side of the screen shows an image border resulting from maxing out the sliders to the right.

Last but not least is the part of the palette column that provides a loupe viewer, a histogram, and a zone map, or zone system- based selector.

The first two are pretty basic, so I’ll move on to the zone system selector. If you mouse over a particular step (here I’ve hovered over step 3) the corresponding areas in the image will be highlighted by red shading. (see the zone boxes in the red outline lower right)  You can also click on these and mark more than one zone.

This is useful if you want a particular area of your image to be in a particular zone – identify the zone, and make global or Selective Adjustments to suit.

Wrap-Up

When I drafted this article in Word, it stretched to almost 20 pages. That’s pretty unusual – I still feel like I scratched the surface and a bit more – and you have to ask, how could that be?

Silver Efex Pro 2 is NOT a complicated application – but it is truly fully-featured. It incorporates the best of both worlds – darkroom and digital – and the results can be outstanding. The folks at Nik come from a variety of backgrounds, including film and darkroom processing, hard-core digital, world-class lighting, and more. The variety of tools available, and their accessibility, make it a “must have” for those of us who are interested in digital black and white photography.

The results you can get from this application will speak for themselves. Get the free trial, and put it through your toughest challenges.

For more info, go to Nik Silver Efex Pro.

DISCOUNT: If you decide to purchase Nik Silver Efex Pro2 or any Nik software product, including upgrades, use this code on the order page: DSAFFIR. You’ll get a 15% discount.

For updates on my workshops use this link.

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Disclosure: I have been a beta tester for Nik Software. I did not receive compensation for this article.

18 thoughts on “Nik Silver Efex Pro 2: Review and Basic Workflow

  1. Pingback: David Saffir :: New Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 – Review and Basic Workflow at Imaging Insider

  2. David: Excellent, detailed review. Perhaps I missed it but you didn’t talk about how unbelievably slow SEP2 is, especially compared to the original version and other Nik software. I run a machine with 12GB RAM and it is ‘blink’ fast for most operations. But Nik SEP2 is brutally slow. That was (is) a huge disappointment with this plug-in.

      • I have not found SEP2 slow — I have not noticed a difference between 1 and 2, I should say. It is not blink fast, but the speed is not a hinderance; however, I cannot say the same about Viveza 2, which is the slowest software I have ever used. You mention other Nik software and I wondered if you experienced speed issues with any other software titles or maybe our systems just don’t like these particular titles. I own all Nik’s titles and find them all amazing, despite this one issue.

    • Marshall: I’m not experiencing slowness with SEP2. I have a 2011 Macbook Pro with 8gb RAM, running in 64 bit mode, and SEP2 zips right along. Just ran it on an image from Lightroom — a Canon RAW file from a 5D Mk II — and responses to sliders were instantaneous; saving the file was about 2 blinks.

      David: Great review that actually explained to me a couple of things that I hadn’t quite figured out yet. One feature I’d like to see in the next version, though: selecting a zone would mean that all adjustments made with the sliders affected only the zone. That would be a lot faster than generating a dozen different control points to cover the zone!

  3. As someone that doesn’t really “see in B&W” it’s something I’ve meant to try out. Will install the demo/trial when I have free time…..
    I like the fact that you used a portrait as an example as so many others tend to go for landscapes while I shoot mostly portraits.

    Some more examples would have been nice but sure I could try to source these elsewhere.

    • there are quite a few examples of both portraits and landscape on the Nik web site.

      if you do decide to buy from them, I have a discount code for you that will save you 15%: use DSAFFIR in the checkout dialogue – this will work for any Nik product, far as I know.

      have fun!

      David

    • generally retouching is completed after color correction and other adjustments, and before conversion to black and white. I use Photoshop for portrait retouching; additionally, I sometimes use the other Nik plugins.

  4. Thank you for an excellent and useful review. Your discussion of workflow is most useful as it helps us newbies get organized when working with SEP and its myriad of features.
    Enrique

  5. SEP2 for me does not always have immediate response but its lag is not that bad . Once I have SEP 2 open and a running a minute or so it responds fairly quickly.. and as for the quality of what I can accomplish it is amazing . My black and white conversions are so much better than what I was able to accomplish with just photoshop . IT is much quicker and easier to achieve a great result . I use this all the time .

  6. I’m not really sure I understand your question. “I.E” refers to internet explorer or something else? Silver Efex Pro 2 – looks as if the soft proof was not applied – are you sure you’re not seeing an effect from an automatically applied preset? because I personally don’t see the bright/contrasty issue you are referring to.

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