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.
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
- 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.
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).
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.
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.