8 Reasons to Use Silver Efex Pro 2 for Your Black and White Conversions


Silver Efex Pro 2 review

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.

1. Presets

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

2. There are more tools for enhancing texture

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

The full set of Contrast and Structure sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2.

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

These portraits show the difference between Contrast and Soft Contrast. Soft Contrast is ideal for portraits, while Contrast is better for subjects like architecture and the landscape.

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

The yellow and black dot marks the Control Point. Adjustments are made to pixels matching the colour and brightness of the pixels underneath it. There are seven sliders you can adjust: Brightness (Br), Contrast (Co), Structure (St), Amplify Whites (AW), Amplify Blacks (AB), Fine Structure (FS) and Selective Colorization (SC).

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:

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

The History panel works together with the Compare view. The yellow tab on the left indicates the photo used for the Before view, and the entry used for the After view is displayed in yellow text. This simple method lets you compare any two entries in the History panel.

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.

Silver Efex Pro 2 review

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.

Further resources

You can learn more about Silver Efex Pro 2 at these links:

Your turn

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?

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  • PTDavis

    I have found TopazLabs B&W Effects to be a solid tool for conversion, and even less expensive than OnOne for those really budget conscious.

    I own both SFx and TL, and tend to do more conversion work in TL tool due to the results I can obtain.

  • Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2 is another great plug-in. A nice feature is the presets that emulate old processes such as cyanotypes and platinum prints.

  • Great post! Helped me to better understand the effects of those sliders I’ve been pushing around in a bit of a trial-and-error approach.

  • Glad it helped.

  • jt

    Great tutorial, thanks for sharing. NIK has become my go to for B&W conversation. I used LR for a long time and got very good results with it and then one decided to do two of the same file, the 2nd with NIK. No contest!

  • You’re welcome. You’re right, that’s the best way to compare two programs. I’m nearly always happier with files converted in Silver Efex Pro 2.

  • Great article and showcase of the SilverEfex features. I’ve been using it exclusively for all my black and white for about a year and love the capabilities. I suggested an article on this after reading one of Tim Gilbreath’s posts a few weeks ago – well done!

  • ziplock9000

    In a practical way I see no (or very few) results that can’t be achieved with just Lightroom.

  • One of the things I like about Siver Efex Pro is that it has a lot of very nice presets. It’s great to be able to quickly try out different presets and then when I find one that works well I can tweak the sliders to get exactly the effect I want.

  • The effects of the Structure and Soft Contrast sliders can’t be replicated in Lightroom, for one. The best way to see if you are interested is to download the trial and see if you like it.

  • Yes, the presets are great. You can also make your own which can save you time processing photos.

  • Thanks, glad you like it.

  • Regislea

    I’m unable to do the selective colouring. For example, I have a BW shot (RAW opened and converted in Elements), and I want to retain the colour of a piece of jewellery in the shot. So I open up Efex within Elements.

    When I click the control point on the jewellery, I only get Br, Co and St – not the other ones in the illustration in the article.

    The manual doesn’t help – I find it very hard to understand.

    Does anyone please have any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong?

  • There’s a small black arrow underneath the three sliders you’re seeing. Click on that and the other three sliders will appear. The one at the bottom (Sc) is the one you need.

    There’s another slider at the top that controls the size of the Control Point. You may need to adjust that one as well to get the required effect.

    Hope that helps, let us know how you get on.

  • Regislea

    Thanks for the prompt response. I had found the “small black arrow” – hence the edited post.

    I’l try the second recommendation – not today, I have to work! – and let you know how I get on.

  • ziplock9000

    Can you explain the difference between Structure / soft contrast and LR’s clarity?

  • ziplock9000

    This is also true for LR.

  • Structure is similar to Clarity, except that Silver Efex Pro 2 gives you a lot more control. There are four Structure sliders, allowing you to apply it to the highlights, shadows or midtones and a Fine Structure slider for emphasising fine detail.

    Soft contrast is like contrast but less aggressive. It’s less harsh on skin tones and ideal for portraits.

    Hope that helps. There are some examples in the article.

  • Mikki

    I’ve become overwhelmed with software and software plugin choices. I own, Topaz Labs, Nix Collections, OnOne, another one or two small programs, various actions, in addition, to LR5 and PSCC. Whew!!! I’ve seen what Silver Efex Pro can do and that’s why I bought the whole Nix Collection. The LR presets do not compare to any of the aforementioned programs. I use LR at the beginning and at the end of photo processing. PS is way over my head, even after using it for 5 years, but I use it to finish what Topaz, Nix or OnOne plugins start. And, usually end up doing some small adjustments in LR, after everything is said and done such as dodging and burning and adding a vignette.

  • lea

    Thanks for this informative article! I am very happy with Silver Efex Pro…as well as Color Efex.

  • So, what you’re saying is the LR beats them all after all? I’ve become overwhelmed with so many editing programs out there as well but I only own LR for now, it’s kind of scary to find out how many editing software are in the market that I don’t even dare to look at the articles any more.

  • Terry Thomas Photos

    “Nix” or “Nik”?

  • Homiejuice

    I’m seeking opinion on Silver Efex Pro (which I have) vs. Silver Efex Pro 2 (its successor.)

    Any difference, folks?

  • Julije Jelaska

    Very nice. NIK Collection tools are great ! I use it all! Also nice working with PHOTOSHOP CC 2015.NIK SOFTWARE is PLUG IN, and layed down in the top nav bar as FILTERS -NIK COLLECTION >SILVER EFEX PRO. You can even TRY it for a one month FREE with a wide range of yours clear presented pictures without watermarks ! https://www.google.com/nikcollection/

  • Julije Jelaska
  • And now it’s free!

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Now that the Nik Collection is free I can almost afford it.

  • SASMAN52

    If it hasn’t been mentioned already, Google now offer the NIK Collection for FREE and anyone who purchased it during 2016 – before the price change – Will be refunded.

    Unfortunately purchases before 2016 won’t be.

    I thought that was worth adding to your article.

  • Gina145

    I’ve recently started using Silver Efex Pro and I’m loving it. You’ve taught me a few features I hadn’t yet discovered. Thank you.

  • Bruce Harding

    Can’t beat BW film simulations from RNI. If you’re an LR user of course.

  • Paul Moertl

    Please change this page to show that Nik software is free. And also no longer supported.

  • David R Banta

    I met with a fellow photographer recently who told me that Silver Efex Pro 2 will no longer be compatible with Mac as Google is not developing it. This freaks me out as I am a SFX devotee and have found nothing that compares with its incredibly localized controls. I update my Mac religiously and have the latest OS-X version as of 11/3/17…SFX still works fine. Is my friend wrong?

  • David R Banta

    Delighted to discover today (11/3/17) that Nik Collection with SFX has been been sold by Google and a new 2018 edition will be offered…yay!!!

  • Never realized you could open up that Structure slider! (and the others) Just shows that once in a while you must take a step back and really look at all the furniture that’s in front of you…

  • rthrum

    I used silver efex years ago and it had a superb preset called solarize. This is gone with Silver Efex pro 2… Why?

  • rthrum

    I used Silver Efex years ago and it had a superb preset called solarize. This one is gone with Silver Efex Pro 2…Why?

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