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While Lightroom and Photoshop are sophisticated, advanced Raw converters and image editing programs, there are still many things that they don’t do as well as third party applications. One of these is converting photos to black and white. But, there are so many plug-ins available that it can be difficult to know which one to buy. This guide will help you decide.
A common theme with black and white plug-ins is that they contain many more ways to emphasize texture than Lightroom and Photoshop. This is important with black and white, as texture is an important part of the composition. In Lightroom and ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) you can use the Clarity slider to emphasize texture, but it’s a blunt instrument compared to the options available in these plug-ins.
Another feature of most of these plug-ins is that they come with an extensive set of presets that you can use as a starting point for your black and white conversion. Just browsing through the presets and seeing what you can do to your photos will inspire you.
Some presets imitate old printing processes such as cyanotypes and wet plate photography. Others emulate black and white films, some of which are no longer available.
Silver Efex Pro 2 is made by Nik software and regarded by many photographers as the ultimate black and white conversion plug-in. You can buy Silver Efex Pro 2 along with the other applications in the Nik Software range in a bundle for $149. While you can’t buy Silver Efex Pro 2 as a stand-alone application, it also means that you get the rest of Nik software range included with it.
Silver Efex Pro 2 is for the professional, or advanced hobbyist photographer, who wants to take black and white processing to the ultimate level. If you are serious about black and white photography, you will love this plug-in.
Exposure by Alien Skin Software is a plug-in designed to give your digital photos an analog look. It comes with hundreds of black and white and colour presets that imitate the look of film and antique processes. Alien Skin Software are not merely imitating though – a lot of research has gone into replicating the grain structures of all the film types featured in their software. Where the film wasn’t available, they used photo archives.
Just like Silver Efex Pro 2, the presets are a starting point, and tools are provided to make adjustments, including an Intensity slider that lets you fade the effects created by the plug-in. You can create and save your own presets for future use.
Exposure is for photographers who want to mix the look of analog photography, with the speed and convenience of digital. If you yearn to make your photos look like they were shot with film rather than a digital camera, then this is a good plug-in to use.
Exposure is used by a lot of photographers to create effects that you can’t create in Lightroom, or would take a long time in Photoshop. While it seems mainly pitched at portrait, fashion and wedding photographers, you can apply the filters to virtually any type of photo. It’s a lot of fun to use.
Another benefit of Perfect Photo Suite is that it comes with built-in layers. When you convert a photo to black and white it is placed on a layer with an Opacity slider that lets you merge it with the original colour image. While this feature is of limited use for black and white conversions, it may come in handy with the other programs included in the suite.
This software is ideal for the photographer who wants to experiment with black and white photography and take advantage of the other programs that come with the suite. You will only appreciate the power and potential of this software by using it and experimenting with all the tools.
B&W Effects 2 is a Lightroom plug-in made by Topaz Labs. The main strength of this plug-in is its strong collection of presets, many of which imitate old processes. There are over 200 to choose from, and many of them have an interesting look which you don’t get from the presets in the other plug-ins mentioned here.
B&W Effects 2 is for photographers who want to take advantage of its extensive preset range as a basis for creative black and white conversions. The Snapshots feature gives you a history function that most of the other plug-ins lack, albeit one that you have to activate yourself by taking Snapshots at important points in the processing stage. B&W Effects 2 is also good at increasing detail in mid-tone areas and bringing out texture, an important part of a good black and white conversion.
All the plug-ins we’ve looked at so far include some sort of film simulation, but DxO have taken it a step further with their FilmPack plug-in. According to their website, DxO FilmPack lets you, “Perfectly reproduce the quality, style, colours, and grain of the most famous analog films.”
Like Exposure, DxO FilmPack works in both colour and black and white.
DxO FilmPack is for photographers who want to process their digital images so that they look as if they were taken on film. But it goes further than that, and offers a variety of creative effects that you will find useful in creating emotive monochrome images.
MacPhun is a company that makes plug-ins for Apple Mac computers (sorry Windows users!). Tonality Pro is a relatively recent addition to its stable of software and even though it will only be of interest to some of our readers I’ve included it here because it is a very good piece of software.
MacPhun’s aim with Tonality Pro was to create the best black and white plug-in available. I’ll leave it up to others to decided whether they have achieved that, but there’s no doubt it’s a powerful application with lots of useful tools for converting your photos to monochrome.
For me, one of the best things about plug-ins is that they give you a chance to play. They open up new ways of processing that you may not have considered before. Above all they are fun, give you chance to get creative, and find new ways of expressing yourself.
So, here’s a challenge. Download the trial version of one of these plug-ins. Then have a play with some of your favourite images and see what you can do with them. Does the new software give you some creative options that you had never considered before? Let us know how you get on in the comments.
Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White
My ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White goes into the topic of black and white in depth. It explains everything you need to know to make dramatic and beautiful monochrome conversions in Lightroom, including how to use the most popular black and white plug-ins. Click the link to visit my website and learn more.