Product Review: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

May 4, 2011

By Dan Havlik

While testing Nik’s superb new Silver Efex Pro 2 black-and-white conversion software, I couldn’t help but wonder what a diehard film user would think of the program. And please excuse me for automatically equating “film user” with “black-and-white devotee.” There are certainly many color film photographers still out there even if their numbers have dwindled.

It’s just that I’ve always thought of photographers who specialize in black and white as the most loyal film holdouts. Sure, there’s tons of software designed to give your digital images a black-and-white look but it hardly compares to actually shooting with Kodak TMAX, Ilford Delta, Fuji Neopan, etc.

The only program that’s helped me produce black-and-white images on par to what I get from film was the original Silver Efex Pro, which was released back in 2008. Though that program has had some incremental updates over the years, Silver Efex Pro 2, which operates as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or Apple Aperture, takes it all to the next level.

It’s only in the last few months while using the new software that I’ve realized my comparison to shooting with black-and-white film was specious, at best. Silver Efex Pro 2 is not like using film at all. With the massive amount of control and adjustment available in the program, it’s more like painting the world using a silver halide palette; a dab of shadow here, a scooch of gray there, some grain over there, a little white for contrast and voilà: you’ve created a monochrome masterpiece.

In the end, I’m not sure film photographers will be as interested in Silver Efex Pro 2 as I originally thought. Having this much power over your black-and-white photography sort of defeats the purpose of something as simple and serendipitous as film. But for the rest of us who obsess over the smallest flakes of simulated grain in our black-and-white work and enjoy spending hours trying out different classic looks, this plug-in is nothing short of a revelation.

The design of the original Silver Efex Pro was a good one, offering a straightforward and highly functional interface that reminded me of Adobe Lightroom. The new design looks similar but there are some helpful updates.

For one, the preset filters on the left panel, which let you do quick black-and-white conversions on your color images with one click, are better organized. There are also quite a few new styles including a dark and moody Film Noir look, an artful Silhouette, Cool Tones, Sepia, and many others. One of the best things about the program is running your photos through the presets and seeing the changes happen in real time.

In Silver Efex Pro 2, you can scroll through the nearly 40 built-in presets using the wheel of your mouse, a function that was not available in the previous version. Presets are also split into categories now: Classic, Modern, Vintage and a user-defined Favorites section. There’s also a section for imported presets you can get from other photographers or via Nik’s Web site. (Silver Efex Pro users are a “sharing and caring” lot and black-and-white “recipes” abound on the Internet.)

One of my favorite new additions to Silver Efex Pro 2 is the History Browser on the top left of the interface. In my review of the original program, I noted that there’s so much adjustability in Silver Efex Pro, it’s easy to forget exactly what you’ve done to an image. In the new version, just go to the History Browser and it opens a tab that will show you a rundown of all the tweaks you’ve made. If you want to see a particular effect again and compare it to your current shot, click on the split preview or side-by-side buttons and then drag the state selector to see each of the edits. Warning: This is highly addictive.

Nik has also redesigned the program to get the most out of the latest graphics processing units (GPUs) in computers, and it shows. Where the older version sometimes took a few seconds to render images or got hung up when you scrolled through presets too quickly, Silver Efex Pro 2 positively flew on my MacBook Pro. This is great because, if you’re like me, you’ll want to explore all of the software’s functionality.

Nik’s done a great job of adding more granular editing control to Silver Efex Pro 2. Under the Brightness slider, you now have control over highlights, midtones, and shadows for precision tweaking. Even better is the new adaptive Dynamic Brightness slider, which lets you darken a shot without affecting the highlights; or brighten an image without destroying shadows.

Meanwhile, the Contrast section has added slider controls to amplify whites, amplify blacks, and adjust soft contrast, which is great for giving your images some extra depth. If there’s a word to describe the image quality controls and improvements in Silver Efex Pro 2, I’d say “depth” nails it. Much of the functionality in the program is based around making transitions between dark and light areas seem subtler, giving your images a natural and more three-dimensional look.

Images I shot of “Omaha” beach in Normandy with a rivulet of water running out into the sea, looked stunning when I ran them through Silver Efex Pro 2. Though I captured the scene in color, the moody black-and-white look and added depth, which sweeps the viewer into horizon, was more evocative of what I felt when I shot the image.

Nik says it has changed the algorithm in the software so that color images converted to black and white more closely resemble true silver halide black-and-white photos. I don’t know if I’d go that far in describing the effect but I will say that the shadow transitions in the midtones do look much improved with Silver Efex Pro 2. And that’s a big accomplishment. A common criticism of color images that are converted into black and white via software is that the shift from shadows to whites is too harsh and abrupt. With this new program, that’s less of an issue.

In the Structure adjustment, which is a detailing effect, there’s now control over highlights, midtones, and shadows as well as a fine structure slider for 
really bringing out the detail. Nik’s ubiquitous “Control Points” technology, which lets you selectively edit a section of an image, remains in Silver Efex Pro but there are now ways to group, duplicate and delete control points. There’s also a way to add selective colorization to a shot if you like the effect of having a flower or a dress in color while the rest of the image remains in black and white. (I don’t.)

One of the features in the first version of Silver Efex Pro that generated much interest were the 18 film presets, which were designed to give your images a look like classic film types. Those 18 films, which included everything from Kodak ISO 32 Panatomic X to Ilford FP4 Plus 125 to Kodak P3200 TMAX Pro, are all back and they’re as fun as they were the first time. The only downside is that no new film types were added to the list. (I was really hoping I’d see an Agfa Scala preset this time around.)

According to Nik, the reason the company didn’t add any films is because many black-and-white stocks no longer exist so there was nothing to base a new preset on. So rather than just add one for the sake of adding one, the company decided to cap the list at the original 18. Hopefully, there are photographers out there who have hoarded near extinct black-and-white films and might be able to share their own classic presets with Silver Efex Pro 2 users. (Scala? Scala? Anyone? Scala?)

In the finishing adjustments, Nik’s added a few more options under Toning including Ambrotype and Cyanotype. There are also adjustments for adding several types of vignettes and ways to create simulated burnt edges. Best of all though are the new image borders. Along with offering 14 types of preset borders, you can adjust the size and change the spread of the border to make it larger or smaller, cleaner or rougher. If you want to avoid having a simulated “sloppy” border that looks exactly like everyone else’s “sloppy” borders, Nik has come up with a clever tool called Vary Border that randomly changes fine details so no two borders will look alike. Now that’s what I call progress.

If you miss shooting black-and-white film and really wish a company would come up with some dynamite conversion software to give your digital images a classic look, look no further than Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. While the first version of the plug-in from a few years ago was pretty darn good, this latest revamp is a revelation. In fact, there’s so much control in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, you’re liable to spend hours tweaking your shots to get the ideal black-and-white look. Though that sounds time-consuming, you’ll be having so much fun making your flat digital images look like stylish silver halide photos, you probably won’t notice.

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Pros: Revamped interface is easier to use with more control; faster performance overall; improved image quality thanks to new black-and-white conversion algorithm; new image borders with edge randomization are a blast.

Cons: No new simulated film types; might offer more control than you can handle.

Price: $199.95; $99.95 for an upgrade