You can convert colour photos to black and white in Photoshop and Lightroom (or your Raw conversion software of choice). But the last few years have also seen an increase in the number of plug-ins built to do nothing else, other than convert photos to monochrome.
Today I’m going to look at what many people consider to be the best black and white plug-in around – Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2. Rather than provide a comprehensive review of the software, I’m going to look at some of the things you can do with it that you can’t (or would be much more difficult) in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has 38 presets that you can use as starting points for your processing work, including vintage looks as well as modern ones. This places the plug-in ahead of Photoshop, and probably ahead of Lightroom too. You can buy Develop Presets for Lightroom, but it will be difficult to find some that give you as many options as those in Silver Efex Pro 2.
Here’s a sample of some of the presets. The original colour photo is shown top left.
2. There are more tools for enhancing texture
One of the elements that makes black and white photos so effective is texture. You can enhance texture in both Photoshop and Lightroom (the Contrast and Clarity sliders are my favourite tools for this) but Silver Efex Pro 2 takes it several steps further.
The Contrast sliders
Silver Efex Pro 2 has four sliders for adjusting contrast. The Contrast slider is the same as the one in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. The Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks sliders let you increase Contrast in the highlights and shadows respectively. There’s also a Soft Contrast slider that increases contrast but in a less aggressive way, almost as if there is an overlay of gaussian blur. This slider is very useful for portraits.
If you get carried away with the Contrast sliders you can lose detail in the highlights and shadows. So, in addition to the four sliders already mentioned, there are two Tonality Protection sliders used to bring back detail in clipped areas.
The Structure sliders
Structure slider is similar to Clarity in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. But while in those programs the Clarity slider affects all the tones in the selected area, in Silver Efex Pro 2 you can choose to adjust Structure independently in the shadows, midtones and highlights. There is also a Fine Structure slider for increasing mid-tone contrast in areas of fine detail.
The above photo shows three close-ups of the same portrait used earlier.
Top: A neutral black and white conversion, with no increase in Clarity.
Middle: This is what happens when you increase Clarity to 100% in Lightroom (note that you wouldn’t normally push it that far for a portrait, I did it here to show you the effect). Clarity is increased uniformly across the frame, affecting the skin tones as well as the hair.
Bottom: Shadows Structure set to 100% in Silver Efex Pro 2. Only the shadows are affected, leaving the midtones and highlights alone. This brought out the detail in the model’s hair and eyes, but left her skin untouched. You would have to use a selection or a mask in Photoshop or the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom to achieve the same effect.
3. Control Points make local adjustments easy
Just like in Photoshop and Lightroom you can apply adjustments locally as well as globally, using a system called Control Points.
A Control Point is the centre of a circle within which you can make tonal adjustments. The adjustment is applied to tones similar in brightness and colour to the pixels underneath the Control Point itself. For example, if you place a Control Point over a dark tone, then increase the brightness, only the dark tones within the circle are adjusted. Light tones remain untouched.
It may sound complicated but it only takes a little practice to understand how it works. You can use as many Control Points as you want in an image, and group them together to cover areas that don’t conform easily to a circular shape.
4. Selective colouring is easy
Selective colouring is the technique of converting an image to black and white while leaving part of it in colour. This is easy with Silver Efex Pro 2 as all you have to do is place a Control Point over the area where you want to retain colour.
I used two Control Points in the following example, one on each coloured shutter:
5. The History panel is excellent
Silver Efex Pro 2 has the best History panel I’ve seen in any software. Every adjustment you make to your photo is listed.
6. The Zone System
Silver Efex Pro 2 can show you where the tones in your photo fall within the eleven zones of the Zone System. One useful application of this is that you can use it to see which areas of your photo may block up in print because they are too dark or too light.
This screenshot shows the tones which fall into zone 3. They are indicated by the brown diagonal lines.
7. Black and White film emulation
The Film Types panel gives you a choice of 18 different black and white films. When you choose one the plug-in emulates the tonality and grain structure of the selected film. It’s an easy way to get the film look without having to shoot, develop, and scan black and white film.
8. Silver Efex Pro 2 comes bundled with other software
Silver Efex Pro 2 is part of the Nik Collection, which includes seven applications and costs $149. That works out to less than $25 a plug-in.
Note: If you’re on a tight budget, the standalone version of OnOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite 8 represents even better value at $79. Click the link to learn more.
You can learn more about Silver Efex Pro 2 at these links:
What software do you use for black and white conversions? Do you prefer Photoshop, Lightroom, another Raw conversion program or a plug-in? Let us know in the comments – what would you recommend to other readers?
Mastering Lightroom: Books One, Two and Three
My Mastering Lightroom ebooks are a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules. Written for Lightroom 4 & 5 books One and Two take you through every panel in both modules and show you how to import and organise your images, use Collections and creatively edit your photos. Book Three shows you how to create stunning black and white images in Lightroom.