Black & White: Silver Efex Pro vs. Capture NX 2


Did I use Silver Efex Pro or Capture NX 2 to convert this image to b&w? Does it matter?

Since the release of Black & White with Capture NX 2, I’ve been peppered with questions as to which application is better for black and white digital images. If you are familiar with my other reviews, you’ll know that the answer is rarely “black & white.” That being said, I’ll try to quickly take a look at the major differences in black and white digital conversion with these two applications.

First off, I should point out that Silver Efex Pro (and the upcoming SEP 2.0) are not available as native plug-ins to Nikon’s Capture NX 2. Capture NX 2 users, however, can set the Lightroom version of SEP as their “Open With” application and send it TIFF files directly from CNX2. With that out of the way, there are two things to consider when using any image editor, with or without plug-ins: Tools/Features and Workflow implications.

Comparison of Tools and Effects

The obvious comparison is to look at the respective tool sets available within Silver Efex Pro and Capture NX2. Both applications offer:

  • Color Filter Effects
  • Levels/Curves Adjustment
  • Global Brightness/Contrast
  • Control Points for Local Adjustment
  • Film Grain Effects

These tools all work in a similar manner across both applications, but the implementation is definitely easier within the SEP interface. One big thing about Silver Efex Pro is that it uses the original color image data to assist with the creation of smart selections with Control Points. If you know how to add Color Control Points in Capture NX 2, you can do the same thing (Tip: add them before you convert to b&w).

At first glance, Silver Efex Pro also offers some distinct tools for effects that are not available in Capture NX 2:

  • Film Type Emulation
  • Silver/Paper toning
  • Vignette/Border Effects
  • Structure Tool (Global and in Control Points)

These features are a definite plus in the SEP column, but if you dig a little deeper, or have already read my eBook on the subject, you’ll discover that many of these effects can indeed be created by the Capture NX 2 on-board tools–the difference being that in CNX2 you have to create the effects yourself, rather than use a dedicated set of controls. In this respect, we then need to look at the subtle nuances of the tools themselves. The dedicated controls for silver/paper toning, for example, are far more refined in SEP than what you can do in CNX2. However, the differences are really quite small for most practical uses. Vignette effects are easier to apply in SEP, but you can’t create your own mask shapes like you can when you make the effect manually in CNX2. The one area where SEP wins, hands-down, is its film grain emulation and Film Types controls. The default grain tool in Capture NX 2 is fairly crude, and should only be used for subtle grain effects. If you want to dial up a no-kidding representation of Kodak Tri-X Pan, then Silver Efex Pro wins without question. The other tool that SEP has that CNX2 does not is the Structure slider. This tool allows you to control image clarity, both globally and locally (when used with a Control Point). There is no direct way to emulate Structure in Capture NX 2, but you can get pretty close with some strategic use of the High-Pass effect. Even with that option, Structure in SEP can be used to both increase and decrease clarity, something you just can’t do in CNX2 with traditional tools.

The Silver Efex Pro interface is clearly easier to use than Capture NX's

Side-Note: Color Efex Pro 3.0 for Capture NX 2

It would not be a complete comparison to not at least acknowledge the fact that Nik Software does offer its Color Efex Pro 3.0 plug-in suite for Capture NX 2. If you have CEP 3 installed into Capture NX 2, then you suddenly get access to some great filters, including:

  • Film Grain
  • Vignette
  • Paper Toning
  • Tonal Contrast
  • Infrared Film Effects

If you properly apply these filters, you can emulate almost all of SEP within Capture NX 2. You’ll still get better paper toning controls, but you can use Tonal Contrast to get a Structure control that is in some ways, superior to SEP (SEP 2 will improve it’s Structure Control). Correctly used, you can use Capture NX 2 to apply global and local Structure effects using CEP3 Tonal Contrast. Again, the process is more complex in CNX2 than in SEP, but that’s the subject of the next section in my review.

Workflow Considerations

The other aspect you have to consider when reviewing imaging software is how it fits into your workflow. Silver Efex Pro is an awesome application (and SEP 2 is even better). That’s because it’s a dedicated set of controls just for black and white/film effects. The controls are fairly straightforward, although if you don’t know where to look, some tools are hidden in sub-menus. Capture NX 2 does not have the benefit of a “black & white panel” for performing conversion from color. This means that the SEP conversion will almost always be more straightforward, control-wise, than using Capture NX 2. However, as I pointed out, most of the SEP controls can be replicated in Capture NX 2, but you’ll need to put them into your Edit List in the correct order to gain maximum flexibility. If you’re CNX-saavy, you’ll create a series of settings files for Capture NX 2 to save time (or, you can just use mine and save yourself the hassle).

Selenium Tone effect using custom action for Capture NX 2
Selenium toning with Silver Efex Pro

The real difference in workflow is not from the ease of use of the controls and tools, but the actual way you use these tools in your imaging workflow. Silver Efex Pro works on RGB images (TIFF/JPEG) only. Capture NX 2 can work on TIFFs, JPEGs, and Nikon RAW (NEF/NRW) files, non-destructively. Aye, there’s the rub. If you use Silver Efex Pro with Lightroom or Aperture, you’ll get a flattened TIFF that can be “round-tripped” back into your catalog after you’ve finished editing it in SEP. This is a copy of your original file, but you can not open this image in SEP and edit it non-destructively. So now, you’ve got two images (original RAW and b/w TIFF) in your catalog, and if you decide you want to tweak the grain pattern in the b/w, you need to start over from scratch. You also don’t have access to selective application of the effects when you use SEP from Lightroom or Aperture (SEP 2.0 does add a selective color tool that’s quite cool).

If you use Photoshop CS2 or later, you can open your RAW file as a Smart Object and apply SEP as a Smart Filter. The advantage of this method is that with a Smart Filter, you can go back and re-edit your SEP settings at any time. The downside of this method is that you need to have the full version of Photoshop at your disposal to access the feature.

If you use Capture NX 2 for your black and white work, you get two potential advantages over SEP. The first advantage should be fairly obvious to anyone who uses Capture NX 2 for editing Nikon RAW files, and that’s the ability to make changes directly in the NEF/NRW file without having to create a TIFF or JPEG copy of the image. You can simply use the “Versions” option in Capture NX 2 to save your b&w image variant within the NEF container. This gives you a completely non-destructive editing workflow and no requirement to own Photoshop CS. The other advantage has to do with selective editing and the Edit List. Selective b&w effects are much easier to apply in Capture NX 2 than they are in SEP (something that requires Photoshop). Although applying each separate effect in a separate Edit Step can seem tedious, you get the ability to control the application of each effect separately. For example, let’s say that you want to paint out the b&w effect in part of your image, but also apply a film grain effect. If you use a layer mask with SEP in Photoshop, you’ll be painting out both the b&w and the grain. In Capture NX 2, you can apply brush effects (or use Selection Control Points) to each effect separately. I should note that there are work-arounds for this in Photoshop, namely, adding additional SEP effects layers (something I describe in The Photographer’s Guide to Silver Efex Pro), but you still need to be good with mask tools, and there are no Selection Control Points for masks in Photoshop.

Selective black & white with Capture NX 2 is super-easy when you use Selection Control Points.

Conclusion: I love the smell of Dektol in the morning

I have tested the black and white output of Silver Efex Pro and Capture NX 2. Both produce excellent results. If you use Capture NX 2, you have two options at your disposal: use SEP as a plug-in to edit TIFFs, or use Capture NX 2 with or without Color Efex Pro 3.0. From a quality perspective, if you are a die-hard about emulating classic black & white emulsions, or want to make complex silver/paper toning effects, then SEP is the way to go. I would also recommend SEP to any photographer who likes the straightforward Nik interface and tool set. From a workflow perspective, however, my opinion is that you can, with practice, emulate about 95% of SEP in Capture NX 2, especially if you’ve added Color Efex Pro 3, and do so non-destructively. The huge benefit of being able to store all your edits within the NEF container has the potential to outweigh the strengths of SEP, namely its film effects and general ease of use.

If you don’t use Capture NX 2 to edit your images, then go out and get a copy of Silver Efex Pro; it’s just that good. If you order it now, you’ll get a free upgrade to version 2.0 when it ships. It’s better than any of the on-board black and white tools in Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture, and it gives you the ability to use Control Points to make smart selections from the original color image data. If you use my coupon code, JODELL, you’ll also save 15% off your purchase of SEP or CEP3 for Capture NX 2.

15 thoughts on “Black & White: Silver Efex Pro vs. Capture NX 2”

  1. Jason, you have written a very good and honest comparison. I thank-you for continuing to help those of us who are NX2 users. Although I continues to predominately work in NX2, I did buy the NIK Complete filter set over Christmas as they had a very good promotion. A tip to assist the workflow for those who are NX2 users and NIK aficionados working on MACs. Create a folder and place aliases for the various NIK apps in the folder. Drag the folder to the right side of the Dock. All the filters can then be launched conveniently from the Dock whenever they are needed. And with the exception of HDR Efex, the files can be dragged and dropped onto the applications icon.

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for the great tip on using the SEP with CNX2. I used the trial version and it worked just great. Was able to go back and play with some old images. Will look forward to more of your podcasts and browsing your ebooks.

    Thank you again

  3. Jason, thanks for this really useful piece. I use NX2 wih Color Efex 3 as my main editor with Silver Efex Pro 2 for b&w images – just bought SEP2 and I love it! I use Elements 7 as my SEP launchpad. As I prefer NX2 for editing I don’t see the need to upgrade to Elements 9 or Lightropom 3. Am I an idiot?

  4. The Images look great.

    I am thinking about purchasing NX2 just for the control points feature.

    Looks like great software.

  5. simple question which system is the better: capture nx2 or silver fx pro 2?
    why no e book on capture?

    thank you

    Marc

  6. Marc-
    I have multiple education products on Capture NX2… including one dedicated to black & white: Black and White with Capture NX2.
    The short answer is that if you do a lot of B&W work and are serious about it, the tools in SEP2 are significantly better than what you can do with CNX2 alone, or even SEP1. I could emulate about 90% of SEP1 in CNX2; that’s not the case with SEP2.

    The biggest difference is workflow. If you convert to B&W within CNX2, you’re still making edits within the RAW file. This is not the case for SEP2, which requires TIFF output first. To get non-destructive (reversible) edits with SEP2, you need to use it on a Smart Object Layer in Photoshop CS3 or later.

  7. Doctor Odell, Thank you for the reply, I am an old b&w photog who used to do all the lab work and printing myself.
    Now I find myself in the digital age. It seems impossible to set up a dark room then I learned about the 2 programs and your site.
    I just bot an F-3 w/MD and a few lenses. I send my film to Walmart for processing (colour and B&W)
    I have used the basic color printing shop that came with the Cybershot I purchased a few years ago before I decided I wanted to get “artistic” again.

    I have heard about film scanners but not sure how to apply.

    Can I shoot film and still use silver pro 2 or Capture?
    If so, would you suggest SP FX pro2 ?

    Best regards,

    Marc

  8. You can, but the effect would be limited by the dynamic range of the film.
    The whole point of Silver Efex is to give digital images the look and feel of traditional silver halide films. If you’re shooting the real thing, there is not much need for such effects.

    The digital tools I describe are best suited for people with DSLRs shooting RAW, although some of the principles could apply to scanned film.
    Your best bet would be to scan the negatives rather than prints.

  9. Thks for the comparison. I am currently using Capture NX2. I wonder if it is also possible to use SEP as a stand alone application without Capture NX2? I am not using Photoshop or Lightroom.
    Thks a lot for the help and advice
    Sujoy

  10. You can use SEP/SEP2 as a stand-alone application, but you need a helper application to load in a TIFF file (or JPEG).
    The LR version of SEP does not have a File–>Open dialog, so you can’t run it by itself. You can set Capture NX2’s “Open With” application function to do this for you, as I have described in other posts here.

  11. thanks very much for this – been happy using Capture NX2 for a while and seems like I’ll not be adding to my Nik software collection.

    Really great article.

    pete

  12. Dear Jason, thank you for excellent review. I am at the point of deciding, what software to use to work on my photography. I shoot with Nikon D7000, B&W, nature, long exposition, portraits….whatever talking to me… and I use the NX2 currently, but it is not sufficient, and would like to upgrade. I am thinking about two: CNX2 or Lightroom (Silver Efex Pro to add than if needed). I get many advices for Lightroom, but not so much about CNX2….and instead I wouldnt like to go for “fashion” decission.

    If I would ask for the reason, why did you decide for CNX2 instead of Lightroom, what would it be? What are the main differencies in betwen them? And what would you recommend to me, as an amateur photographer, who would but love to have profi pictures, and doesnt hesitate to invest into good software, Eizo monitor and sond?

    Thank you for your answer!
    Regards
    Dusan

  13. Dusan-
    Your question is valid, but a bit beyond the scope of this blog to answer. Fundamentally, you have three phases of imaging workflow inside your computer:

    Image Management (file storage, keywording, etc.)
    Image Editing (processing)
    Image Output (prints, web, etc.)

    Capture NX2 is a solution for the second step: it’s an image editor. I like it because it is always updated to support new Nikon cameras (like the D4), and delivers a very good set of single-image editing tools (control points, etc.). However, it is not an image management tool in the least. To use Capture NX2, you need to integrate another product (or products) for file management. View NX2 and Photo Mechanic are good choices, but neither are catalog based (database).

    Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom are image management programs, and also good RAW converters. They offer a good “all in one” solution for both image management, output and editing. However, I’d say that the image editing side of the equation is probably the weakest aspect of these products (I’m not saying they aren’t good–just somewhat limited for certain things). If you do lots of retouching, for example, you’ll want a copy of Photoshop around. Capture NX2 can do some retouching, but nothing comes close to the tools you can get in PS. If you like using Control Points directly on your NEFs, then Capture NX2 offers that option. However CNX2 is not going to manage your files, add watermarks, or give the excellent print options that LR does. I always recommend that CNX2 users have a copy of Photoshop Elements around for doing layers and retouching.

  14. Thank you for your answer, I think I go for CNX2. I shoot always in RAW, to keep the possibilities of editing opened, but dont do too much of hard rework in pictures, so the gun like PS-CS6 lets say, would be for me too complex I think.

    I use the View NX, and in case I would go for CNX2 so I have it integrated well, would I still need like Photo Mechanic and Photoshop Elements to cover the spectrum, and file management? If I understood propperly…

    What about Silver Efex Pro, do I need one if I would use CNX2?

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