Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2: A Review

I've been using Nik Software for some time now, and I've been thoroughly impressed with its black-and-white conversion software, Silver Efex Pro 2.  So, some questions then:

1. Why use Silver Efex Pro 2? I have a perfectly good B+W Conversion button in Lightroom/Aperture/Photoshop.  

Yes, there are programs that can do B+W conversions, and that do them quite well, but let's look at why SEP2 is the industry standard.  When you convert a colour photograph to black and white, several things happen.  In Aperture, for instance, the image is taken as a gray-scale shot and then you can adjust the effect of colour "filters" that are red, blue and green.  To me, this is fairly ham-fisted.  Photoshop and lightroom at least provide the user with a colour sensitivity option, much more useful than Aperture.

But none of them really compare to SEP2's awesome conversion process.  To start, you have control of the various basic controls like brightness, contrast and structure.  The additional "Control Point" options  mean that you can selectively increase or decrease all of those controls based on the original colours.  Let me show you with an example:

Now, let's open the photo in Silver Efex Pro 2:

Yes it really is that easy.  Here's the interface:

You're given a few viewing options, including Single Image View, Side by Side preview, or a Split Preview.  You have two panels, one on the left for presets, and one on the right for adjustments.  Both can be hidden for your viewing pleasure.

It's very simple to adjust some global things like brightness, contrast, structure etc.  It gets better than that as well! You can take each of those adjustments and expand them to reveal individual controls for shadows, mid-tones and highlights for each, as well as some other goodies.

But what I'm seeing is that Meghan's face is a little darker than I'd prefer it to be.  I simply grab a control point, drop it on her face and make my adjustment.  

So at this point, you can play around with various features such as the contrast, structure etc. You can amplify whites, amplify the blacks, and even increase the fine structure of the shot.  Sweet!

2.  Can Silver Efex Pro 2 do Selective Colouring as well? 

It can.  But you shouldn't.

3. Can you adjust the Shadows and Highlights?

You bet!  The only thing is that I don't think these sliders are really powerful enough.  You can't really recover the shadowed areas very well and unfortunately, using the highlight slider simply makes your black and white photo look like it's been dunked in wallpaper paste.  It's very grayish when you've finished.  You'll be more likely to get a better result using the sub-controls for the Brightness, Contrast and Structure faders combined with control point based adjustments than you are

4.  Can you put coloured filters on the photo, like you could back in the film days?

As it happens, you can!  In fact, you can select the basic filter colour and let the software apply it, or you can select the hue of the filter you'd use, then decide how intense it should be.

By applying a red filter, I was able to smooth Meghan's skin quite a bit, remove some shadowing under her eyes, even though the effect isn't very pronounced above.  When you toggle the effect on and off, you really see the change.   For landscapes, you can select the hue and strength that really makes leaves pop, or makes the sky go pitch black.  It's almost like you've been given supernatural powers!

5.  What about film?  Can I shoot digital, then make it look like film?

This is where Silver Efex Pro 2 really shines.  Not only can I choose from a variety of film stocks to emulate, but I can also make up my own.  There is one small problem, however.  If you have taken the time and got your black and white conversion just the way you wanted it to be and then you select a film to emulate, you wind up with some very dramatic results.  For example, with Ilford's HP5+ 400 speed film, the shot becomes this:

This may or may not be desirable.  Generally, with the Ilford and Kodak film emulations, your photo gets very contrasty very fast.  Here's what happens when I tried Kodak TMAX:

Perhaps you're wondering: What's the difference?

Besides the grain structure, and brightness, there's the contrast.  Silver Efex Pro has a brilliant feature in the bottom right corner.  You hover the cursor over the smalle loupe area, and numbers appear.  Hover over the numbers, and the corresponding light-shadow area will light up with coloured lines to indicate how bright it is.  By clicking on the number, the lines will stay on so you can continue to make adjustments!  In the case of the TMax film, Here are all the completely shadowed areas (non recoverable):

What I'm getting at is this: If you're going to use the film emulations, select your film first, then play with the global adjustments to taste.  I've found that the Kodak and Ilford films are generally very contrasty, while the Agfa and Fuji films are more neutral.  You can correct the look of the film a bit using the curves adjustment, or by going back and adjusting the brightness and contrast sliders in the Global Adjustments panel.  The histogram is a great feature for this situation.

6. What kind of other things can I do with the software?  Can I add a vignette?

You can do quite a few finishing adjustments to the photo with Silver Efex, including Silver Toning,  Paper Toning, Vignettes with placeable centers, and even Edge burning.  you can also do photo borders, so that your photo looks like it was scanned from the 35mm roll!  My experience with these features is that less is more.  A bit of a vignette with the right central point can be a beautiful thing, while adding toning, edge borders and all that other stuff will look a bit instagram-ish.  You can do a simple black or white border as well, and this can look quite nice.

7. Would you recommend Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to your friends?  What about other photographers?

If you're willing to shell out $150, you can get the entire Suite of Nik Plug-ins, including Silver Efex Pro 2.  That may seem like a lot, about the same you might pay for Adobe Lightroom, for instance, but you get a lot of power in those plug-ins.  I think the thing that I like best is that if you like dabbling with editing tools and playing with advanced features, they're there for you.  If, however, you have less patience and time for fooling around, you can build a preset once, and use it over and over again.  There really is something here for just about everyone.

This is very serious software.  If you are serious about shooting in Black and White and you want your images to look their absolute best, you owe it to yourself to go check out and give them your email address for a free trial.  I will warn you: once you convert black and white images with Silver Efex Pro 2, you likely won't want to do them with anything else.