Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 Review

Black and white photography experiences a resurgence from time to time but in the past few years it has maintained its popularity among photographers thanks, in part, to the availability of increasingly capable and sophisticated conversion software. Creating monochrome images from color photos that rival Ansel Adams’ black and white images has never been easier.

This simple-to-use plug-in not only converts color images to monochrome, but is equipped with Nik’s U Point technology for targeted corrections. Preset black and white styles, black and white film emulations, and a broad range of adjustment options are part of its extensive feature set and, in Adobe Photoshop or Elements, effects can also be “brushed” on using a Selective Tool.

I never get tired of writing about Nik software, especially Silver Efex Pro. Just like the original version, it’s my go-to application for black and white conversion. The original Silver Efex Pro was impressive (read my review of Silver Efex Pro here) and, as expected, Nik has made it even better in version 2.0. Naturally, there are many similarities between the original and the new versions, so I suggest you read my review of Silver Efex Pro for a solid overview of the application. I’ll be concentrating on Silver Efex Pro 2’s new features in this review.

With Silver Efex Pro 2, Nik has made revisions and additions that address a couple of my version 1.0 complaints. New and expanded features have expanded the application’s functionality; there are also under-the-hood improvements like fresh algorithms and the ability to take advantage of multi-threaded, 64-bit GPU processing. I have to admit, though, that I hold Nik to pretty high standards and while I appreciate their efforts in version 2.0, I have suggestions for further improvements outlined in the body of this review

I tested the plug-in in Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended on a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro running OS X v. 10.6.6 with 4GB of RAM. Silver Efex Pro 2 is also compatible with several versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture. See below for detailed compatibility information and system requirements.

Where to Buy

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 is available from Photo.net’s partners. Their prices are fair and you help to support Photo.net.

What’s New?

The Browser and Presets

Silver Efex Pro 2’s Browser has undergone some major changes, including the way presets are organized and the introduction of a History Browser function. The enhanced browser is one of the stars of this upgrade. Of course, there’s still room for further improvement but

One of my complaints about the version 1.0’ browser was that the preset thumbnails were large and you had to scroll up and down a long list to find and choose a preset. Preset thumbnails are smaller and when a vertical photo is opened, there are two rows of preset thumbnails so it’s much easier to navigate the list. When a horizontal image is opened, there’s a single row of presets but the smaller thumbnail size helps speed up navigation as well, although to a lesser extent.

In addition to “All” and “Favorites,” presets have now been broken down into several other categories: Modern, Classic and Vintage. There’s also a separate Custom option, where presets that you create and save as well as presets you import from the Nik website are stored. Having several labeled categories makes it easier to find the type of preset you’re looking for.

If you’re stepping up from Silver Efex Pro version 1.o, unfortunately you can’t bring over any of the presets. I assume that may have something to do with the new algorithms but, in any case, Silver Efex Pro 2 comes with 38 presets, of which a handful are the same (or at least have the same names) as the 29 presets that came in the original Silver Efex Pro.

You can—and we suggest you do—download and import a zip file containing 42 presets (including those from version 1.0) from the Nik website. As Silver Efex Pro users upgrade and new photographers download Silver Efex Pro 2, we assume the number of available presets will increase as people start sharing presets they’ve developed on their own. (It’s really easy to create a custom preset—just make some adjustments, click the “Add Preset” button at the bottom of the browser, type in a name and click OK.")

Keep in mind that when you download and import presets from the Nik site (or when you make your own), they end up in the Custom category of the browser. Unfortunately, you can’t move them to any other category—not even the Favorites group. It would be nice, of course, to be able to create your own category titles and assign any presets of your choosing to one or more categories.

One of the frustrations of using the original Silver Efex Pro was that there was no way of knowing what preset or adjustments had been made to an image. But now with the new History Browser you can see a chronological list of all the edits you’ve done singe the image was opened. Better yet, using the Compare function (a new button at the top of the browser that replaces the Preview checkbox of version 1.0), you can evaluate what your image looked like at each step of editing vis-à-vis the final version. If you set the State Selector (the moveable bar used to move from one step to another) to Original, you can then compare your finished photo to the original, color image. If you click on one of the adjustments on the list, all the changes made after that step will be turned off (click it again, and the adjustments they’re turned on).

I think the History Browser is incredibly useful and a great improvement but I would love to see Nik take it to the next level. The ideal would be if we could click on an individual edit (or preset) listed in the History Browser and turn each off/on individually rather than just from a single point forward. I’m not a software engineer so I don’t know if that’s even possible but it certainly would make the History Browser even more valuable.

Image Adjustments

At first glance, the image adjustments panels in Silver Efex Pro 2 don’t look much different than the previous version but use the drop down arrows to open up the panels and you’ll notice quite a few changes.

Under Global Adjustments, Nik has extended the controls for Brightness, Contrast and Structure. Before, each parameter was adjusted via a single slider. In Silver Efex Pro 2, individual sliders are still available for overall edits but additional controls have been added for more focused adjustments.

For Brightness, you can now fine-tune levels in highlights, midtones and shadows separately. A new Dynamic Brightness slider is designed to darken the image while retaining brightness levels in midtones and highlights based on the image’s tonal values. It works pretty well on most images; changes can be subtle, as they should be.

Silver Efex Pro 2’s extended Contrast adjustments allow you to “amplify whites” and “amplify blacks.” Since they’re strengthened individually, you generally don’t get blown out highlights when you adjust the blacks; nor blocked up shadows when you amplify the whites. There’s some overlap into midtones when you adjust one or the other but this feature is quite effective. There’s also a Soft Contrast option that’s actually quite nice. Nik describes it as adding “depth” to the image by defining the foreground, mid ground and background and I can’t come up with a more accurate description than that.

Structure has three additional sliders, which allow you to make adjustments specifically targeting highlights, midtones, and shadows. More interestingly, there’s a Fine Structure option that allows you to gently tweak the contrast and texture of finer details. Like Dynamic Brightness, the application of Silver Efex Pro 2’s Fine Structure can—and should be—subtle. Even if you take it to the extreme, it’s unlikely to produce that crunchy, oversharpened look.

The Protect Highlights/Protect Shadows function is still part of the Global Adjustments panel, but the histogram has been improved and moved to the bottom of the adjustments panel where it shares space with the Loupe. A simple click of the mouse allows you to toggle back and forth between the histogram and the Loupe.

Next up is the Selective Adjustments section with Nik’s excellent U-Point-driven Control Points. Basic functionality remains the same but Silver Efex Pro 2 offers some functional and creative additions. In addition to the standard, Brightness, Contrast and Structure, the control points now offer control over Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks, Fine Structure and the brand new Selective Colorization. The latter allows you to bring back the original image’s color via the Control Point’s “SC” slider. When I was writing this review, a friend posted a selectively colored black and white image—using masks. The image looked great but I can only imagine how much time it took him to achieve what I was able to do in a couple of minutes with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2’s Control Points. Selective Coloring falls in and out of favor with photographers and artists due to overuse, but I happen to like the effect, when used in moderation and with the right images. Of course, all the edits you make to an image will affect how the colors look and I’ve found that using the Neutral preset results in the most natural colors.

Users can now group and ungroup control points, which makes it so much easier to apply the same adjustments across different areas.

Color Filter and Film Types remain essentially the same although Nik has added Levels to the Curves adjustment section under Film Types.

The Stylizing panel has been renamed Finishing Adjustments in Silver Efex Pro 2. Ambrotype and Cyanotype have been added to the toning choices. Presets are now available for Vignettes and Burn Edges, which are useful for when you’re in a hurry or have a creative block. Of course, you can create your own vignettes and edges from the available controls.

Silver Efex Pro 2 also has an innovative new Image Borders feature. There are 14 borders, which you can preview by rolling your mouse down the list. Once you’ve selected a border, you can change the size, spread and smoothness/roughness of the edges. What’s very cool is the Vary Border option (available for 12 out of the 14 borders), which uses a set of intelligent algorithms to create what appears to be an infinite number of borders. I love the randomness and creativity of these variations. However, because I like to browse before I make a commitment, it’s a little frustrating to use Vary Border since there’s no way to go back to a border that you like, even though each one has a numerical ID. While the random button is very cool, I think I’d like more control and maybe additional presets.

Miscellaneous

There are a few changes to the interface but nothing that changes the usability of this speedy, intuitive program. Perhaps the most notable UI change between the original Silver Efex Pro and version 2 is the choice of background colors. Where the original software offered three shades of gray, Silver Efex Pro 2’s options are black, white and gray. The latter is neutral while the former two make an image pop more.

Although Silver Efex Pro was fast, version 2 seems a little faster. Whether this is real or imagined is hard to tell, though. But edits are made in real time and are rendered quickly.

Tutorial: How to Selectively Color a Black and White Image

1. Open image in Photoshop

2. Go to Filter>Nik Software>Silver Efex Pro 2

3. Choose a style from the Preset Browser or create your own. For this selective color project I used the default Neutral black and white conversion since it renders colors more naturally than some of the other style options. You can also change presets after colorization has been implemented to see if another style works better

4. Open the Selective Adjustments panel on the right hand side by clicking on the expand arrow.

5. Click on “Add Control Point” and place it on the object or area that you want colored. Click on the expand arrow at the bottom of the control point until you see the “SC” (selective colorization) slider. Use the top slider to increase/decrease the area that the control point adjustments will cover.

6. Move the SC slider to the right until you find the color intensity you want.

7. Make sure Control Point 1 is selected in the panel (the small box next to “Control Point 1” should be automatically checked).

8. Click on the duplicate icon (it’s the third icon to the right at the bottom of the Control Point panel) and place another control point, adjusting the SC slider if necessary. Repeat as needed.

9. If you have multiple Control Points, make sure they are all selected (checked) in the Control Points panel. Click on the first icon at the bottom of the panel to group all the control points together. Fine tune your adjustments (the adjustments will be applied to all the control point areas).

10. Click OK, return to Photoshop and go to Layer>Flatten image.

11. Go to File>Save As and give your image a different name from the original and you’re done!

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Conclusion

I’ve been a huge fan of Silver Efex Pro from the beginning and appreciate all the updates and enhancements that Nik has made in Silver Efex Pro 2—Nik really has moved forward with version 2.0, from under-the-hood to the wide-ranging feature additions. The plug-in remains intuitively easy to use, even though some terms and adjustment options might require experimentation for first-time users to gain a full understanding of what each one does.

Even though I’m probably one of Nik’s—and Silver Efex Pro 2’s—biggest fans, there’s still room for improvement. Yes, I may be a little fussy about some of the program’s features but it’s evident that the Nik team has the talent to continue to move a great program like Silver Efex Pro 2 even closer to perfection.

Pros: Extremely versatile plug-in, excellent selection of presets, preset categories, preset history browser, extensive fine-tuning controls, selective colorization, 64-bit compatible

Cons: inability to turn single edits on/off in history browser, can’t place custom and imported presets into categories or mark as favorites

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners have Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

System Requirements

  • Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit compatible)
  • AMD or Intel processor
  • 1 GB RAM (2GB or more Recommended)
  • Adobe Photoshop CS2 through CS5 in 32-bit
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 through 8
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.3 or later
  • Mac OS 10.4 and later
  • PowerPC or Intel processor
  • 1 GB RAM (2 GB or more Recommended)
  • Adobe Photoshop CS2 through CS5 in 32-bit
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and 8
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.3 or later (Lightroom 3 was just announced and Nik has no immediate information on compatibility with the new version)
  • Apple Aperture 2.1.x and Aperture 3 in 32-bit

Please note: Silver Efex Pro will not work on images in the grayscale color mode.

More

Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 15 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how to” articles and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and on Websites including American Photo, CNET.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, Digital Photographer, First Glimpse, Imaging-Resource.com, macHOME, PCPhoto, PC How to Digital Photography Buyer’s Guide, Photo District News, PopPhoto.com, and Popular Science. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.

Original text and images ©2011 Theano Nikitas.

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    • This is amazing software given its capabilities and potentials, well reviewed in your piece. But I have one big complain about SE-2 or perhaps I am missing something.

      (1) Take a situation, as in your example, that the third portrait (selective B&W and color) is the one, you liked and saved and closed the program.

      Next time, you want to make some changes in 1 (say just to add border in the portrait, as SE provides that option). But when you open SE next time, it will start from scratch with the default (i.e your second portrait). Your all previous work is lost.

      I did not find any option to start not with default, but rather with my previous saved work (1). And then, just add the border to selective B/W & color portrait.

      I will appreciate your comment and suggestion. Thanks.

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    • You've made an interesting point. Unfortunately, I haven't (yet) found a way to retain the selective color portion of the image when opening it for a second time in SEP and I'm not sure that there is one.

      However, if you're working on an image that you think you'll go back to (e.g., to add a border, etc.), save it as a custom preset before you exit SEP. Then, next time you bring that image into SEP, just click on the custom preset you created from that image to apply all the adjustments (except the selective color).

      Hope this helps!

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    • Theano Nikitas: Great suggestion. In order to make further changes on the same photo in SE, open the original, then apply your custom preset.

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