Review: Nik Software Silver Efex 2

Review: Nik Software Silver Efex 2.
By Adam Hanlon.

Most pro photographers use different techniques, software or workflows to meet their creative objectives. However, when talking about black and white or mono conversions, there seems to be a degree of unanimity. Although most image processing software has mono options, if you pick most of the mono images you see around and ask how they were processed, the majority of answers will include reference to Nik Software Silver Efex Pro.

Silver Efex Pro is a plug-in that sits within Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop or Apple Aperture. Once opened from within these it opens into a stand-alone application. Silver Efex Pro uses Nik’s U Point technology, similar to that used in Nikon Capture NX2. I find this a very intuitive method of applying local corrections. The software aims to give an all-in-one mono workflow, with overall image improvements, image presets, smart filters, a grain engine and film emulations.

The recent release of Silver Efex Pro version 2 has prompted a review of its new features and performance. Key differences between it and version 1 are:

Intuitive History Browser.

The history browser allows the user to move forwards and backwards through various adjustments.

Structure and Fine Structure.

Typical contrast adjustments enhance lights and darks along edges. Structure control works more precisely “between” the edges to enhance images, working in concert with contrast. Silver Efex Pro 2 has a Fine Structure control that brings out more visible detail in the smallest structures, details, and textures of an image without creating an over-sharpened look.

Soft Contrast.

Soft Contrast adds contrast to an image by applying contrast to different areas of the image in a dynamic way.

GPU Processing.

Silver Efex Pro 2 has multi-threaded 64-bit GPU processing.

Dynamic Brightness.

Dynamic Brightness ensures that different areas of the image receive different brightening adjustments, based on tonal values of each area. By moving one slider, dark areas get brighter all without affecting lighter objects in your image and vice-versa.

Natural Image Borders.

Silver Efex Pro 2 has a new set of intelligent algorithms that incorporate organic elements to create unique, natural, and random image borders. These are fully customizable.

Specially Developed Algorithms.

The software has been developed so that each part works intelligently together with others for the best results possible. Rather than algorithms working in isolation, each algorithm intelligently changes contrast relationships between colors and other related algorithms as they are adjusted.

Amplify Blacks and Whites.

Accentuates blacks and whites for greater impact by increasing their presence.

Selective Color.

The selective color tool enables the addition of color elements back into images. It utilizes U Point technology to select objects without creating complicated selections or layer masks.

I installed the trial version of Silver Efex Pro 2 onto my 15” Macbook Pro and my Mac Pro. I have utilized the option to integrate it into Lightroom, as this is the program I use for image editing more than any other, although I also also installed it into Photoshop and Aperture for comparison purposes. I have used Silver Efex Pro 1 on both machines in the past.

Installation is, predictably, easy and the user interface integrates smoothly with the parent software applications. In Lightroom, Silver Efex 2 is selected via the drop down menu accessed by control/right clicking on the image/s.

Lightroom menu give access to Silver Efex Pro 2.

This then open the image within the Silver Efex Pro 2 interface:

The Silver Efex Pro 2 interface.

The interface opens with the image in mono in a neutral preset, and good starting point is to scroll through the 38 (compared with 29 in Version 1) supplied presets to see if they match the desired creative outcome. There is also the option of creating new presets via the custom button, importing presets, or adding custom settings as new preset.

Once I have a preset that I am comfortable with, I can adjust individual image settings via the left hand panel. These initially adjust general brightness, contrast and structure, before moving into localised adjustments using control points on the image.

Preset, history and adjustment menu tabs.

Adding a control point allows for adjustment of brightness, contrast and structure within a limited area of the image. New in Silver Efex Pro 2 is the ability to add control points to:

  1. Amplify Whites. This increases the highlights in the area selected.
  2. Amplify Blacks. This increases the shadows in the area selected.
  3. Fine Structure. This increases the fine details in the area selected.
  4. Selective Colorization. This returns the colors in the area or selected object to their original tone.

Control point selector and menu.

Moving on through the adjustment tab is the ability to add a color filter and then the film types panel. This gives the ability to add grain, adjustable for size and hardness, and to adjust color sensitivity, levels and curves.

Lastly is the finishing adjustments tab. Image tone, edge burning and vignette are all controllable here, as is the new add borders feature. This gives access to 14 different border types, all co-ordinated with the previous settings in terms of tone and color.

The tab also has a loupe or histogram that can be toggled. The main window also offers differing viewing options including with only one tab open:

Or as a split screen comparison view among others:

In use, I find the Silver Efex Pro interface intuitive and relatively simple to use. It is very feature-rich and has enough control and adjustment to satisfy the most demanding of users. Alternatively, and I must admit I fall into this category, it allows for a quick and easy workflow to get great results in mono quickly. In the era of film photography, color filters were used extensively to get pleasing mono effects, and in my experience, Silver Efex Pro is currently the only package that replicates those effects. Despite the relative ease of conversion from color to mono in the digital era, to get excellent results, a straightforward conversion is rarely satisfying.

Version 2 of the software takes this level of control to another level. Selective color in particular can give a eye-catching visual effect. The interface is definitely improved with the addition of a history panel. Many of the other new features are “under the hood” and it may be that their benefits will become more obviously valuable in time. It is also a factor that with so many adjustments, it is likely that the user may use many of them very seldom, although, of course, when you do its effect will be dramatic.

With my computers, I did not find Version 2 to be significantly faster than version 1. Both operate at a very good speed, even with large .tiff files.

There is no doubt in my mind that Silver Efex Pro 2 will give mono effects unlike any other current software solution. If you enjoy black and white images then this is an elegant and sophisticated program that achieves great results.

If you already own Silver Efex Pro 1, the decision of whether to upgrade or not is more difficult. I think this is probably best decided by assessing whether you need the additional creative features in it or not. In my case, the ability to add selective color for creative effect has ensured that I will be upgrading.

Silver Efex Pro version 2 is available as a download or boxed product from Nik Software at $199.95 for the full program or $99.95 as an upgrade from version 1. There is a 15 day fully-featured trial available. The software is also available from re-sellers worldwide. This review was carried out on the demo version.