Software Review: Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2

Silver Efex Pro 2 is the newest monochrome conversion tool from Nik Software (click to enlarge).

I’ve been an advocate of Nik Software’s original black & white conversion plug-in, Silver Efex Pro (SEP), since it was released a few years ago. Recently, Nik Software released a major revision, Silver Efex Pro 2 (SEP2). In this review, I’ll take a look at what’s new in SEP2 and compare its features to the original version of SEP.

Monochrome made easy

Many people ask me if they “need” Silver Efex Pro to get the best monochrome image conversions. Of course need is a relative term, but Silver Efex Pro offers users some distinct advantages over other black and white conversion tools. The fundamental strengths of SEP (and SEP2) have always been:

  • Conversion Quality
  • Tool set and effects options
  • Local Adjustments using RGB color data
  • Workflow options

Silver Efex Pro 2 refines and improves many of these features from the original Silver Efex Pro plug-in.  I’ll examine these features in more detail after the jump.

Conversion Quality

The original Silver Efex Pro delivered outstanding conversions to black and white, and SEP2 is no different. The processing algorithms have been refined (more on this later) and SEP2 delivers clean images right out of the box. Images processed through SEP2 have smooth tone ramps and I was unable to detect any artifacts in my images. With SEP2, however, you can get even better images than you did with SEP1, and it’s because the new processing algorithms are implemented in new, refined tools that give the user complete control over their monochrome image in ways that are impossible in SEP1 and other software plug-ins.

Tools and Controls

To anyone who has used SEP in the past, the SEP2 controls will look very familiar. There are adjustment panels on the right side of the interface window, right where you expect them to be. At first glance, the tools themselves look to be identical. You have Global Adjustments (Brightness/Contrast/Structure), Selective Adjustments (Control Points), Color Filters, Film Types (grain, curves, sensitivity), and Finishing Adjustments (Special effects). The Loupe/Histogram window also contains the Zone Tool indicator, which allows you to examine the tonal range of your photos. Unlike SEP1, what’s underneath these tools is a major improvement in processing features.

Refined Global Adjustments

The Global Adjustments in SEP2 offer users tremendous control over image tones.

The three major tools in the Global Adjustments (Brightness, Contrast, and Structure sliders) now all have refined control sliders when you expand their individual control panel. You can now make brightness and contrast adjustments to shadows, midtones and highlights individually. There is a new “dynamic brightness” slider control that works unlike any traditional brightness slider seen before. With dynamic brightness, you won’t clip shadows or highlights in your image, as is the case with the traditional brightness slider.

The contrast controls also expand to allow you to make adjustments to highlights (Amplify Whites slider) and shadows (Amplify Blacks slider) independently. There is also a new tool, called “Soft Contrast” which like the dynamic brightness slider is unique to SEP2. The Soft Contrast slider is hard to explain using mere words, but I liken its effect to a “spotlight.” This slider increases or decreases contrast in ways that tend to emphasize your subject as though a soft spotlight was placed on it. It’s a nice look for times where you want to emphasize bright objects without blowing them out or clipping shadows completely.

The Structure slider, a tool that was first introduced in the original SEP, has been refined as well. I’ve always liked the Structure tool because it allowed me to globally add or remove a “clarity” effect to my images. Landscapes work well with strong structure, while portraits can be softened by dialing the slider back. In SEP2, you now can control the structure effect across shadows, midtones, and highlights independently of each other. Moreover, SEP2 adds a “Fine Structure” slider, which can be used to enhance or mute small details in your image. Think of the traditional Structure tool as a large radius high-pass sharpener and the Fine Structure tool as a small radius high-pass effect. Of course, unlike traditional high-pass filter effects, the Structure tools can also be used to soften the image.

With Dynamic Brightness, you won't burn highlights or clip shadows.
The Soft Contrast slider creates a unique "spotlight" effect.

 

Selective Adjustments with Control Points

The hallmark of Nik’s plug-ins have always been their use of U point technology in the form of Control Points. SEP2, like SEP before it, makes use of this technology to allow the user to make selective adjustments on their images. What makes this feature so compelling with both SEP and SEP2 is that the selections are based on the original color (RGB) image data. This means that you can make distinct selections in your images on objects that may be rendered in the same shade of gray when converted to monochrome. This point cannot be overstated; by making smart selections based on the underlying RGB color data, photographers are able to control local tonality with tremendous precision. For example, you may have a sky and foreground that are rendered in very similar shades of gray. With traditional selection tools, it would be nearly impossible to select only the sky. Because the Control Points in SEP/SEP2 “see” the underlying color (blue), they can make a precise selection of just the sky, which allows you to control its tone precisely. In SEP2, the Control Points offer the same controls as found in the Global Adjustments panel, including the Amplify Whites/Blacks sliders and Fine Structure. New to SEP2 is a Selective Color slider, which allows you to use a Control Point to define a selection and add color back into your image from the original. This is a great new addition to SEP2 that will make selective color effects even easier to produce.

The Control Points in SEP2 use the underlying RGB color data to make smart selections in your images.
You can now add selective color effects using Control Points in SEP2.
The Structure slider can be used to add or remove clarity from your images.
The Fine Structure slider is new to SEP2 and brings out or smooths fine details.

 

Film Emulation

I’ll be honest, the one feature I don’t use very often in SEP is the Film presets. However, if you want to match the look of Ilford Delta 400 pro or Kodak Plus-X 125, you can do it in SEP2, just like you could in the original SEP. Not much has changed in the Film Types panel, and you get the same quality grain tool that you had in SEP. You’ll also find the Levels and Curves tool here, but I find myself using it less than before due to the fantastic brightness/contrast sliders that were added in the Global Adjustments panel.

Special Effects

As with its predecessor, SEP2 offers users the ability to apply special “Finishing Adjustments” to their images. In addition to the split-toning and vignette controls that were found in SEP, SEP2 lets you add borders to your photos. There are 14 border presets, and each can be modified to produce a variety of border effects. I’m not big on borders, but it’s still a nice addition to the software.

The Finishing Adjustments panel lets you apply toning, vignette, and image borders.

Settings Presets

Silver Efex Pro 2, like most Nik Software products, includes a suite of pre-defined presets that let you process your images with a single click. Most of the time I find these presets to be a little overdone, but nevertheless they can be a good way for users to explore the software controls. You can also create your own presets in SEP2 and share them with your colleagues. If there is one feature missing from SEP2 (and other Nik plug-ins) that I’d like to see in the future, it’s the fact that settings presets always save all the sliders in every control panel. I’d like to have separate settings for things like grain effects that I can apply to my images after I’ve adjusted other parameters. Right now, any custom setting will overwrite ALL the adjustments in my image. Hopefully this is something that can be addressed in future versions of Nik Software plug-ins.

History Browser

The final new addition to SEP2 is the History Browser, and it’s something that photographers are going to find very useful. When you expand the History Browser, you’ll see each adjustment that you applied to your image, starting with the original. Not only does the History Browser give you the ability to “undo” your adjustments, but you can also use it in conjunction with the Compare tool to compare your image adjustments at different states. For example, you could compare the image before and after you added a particular effect, or you could even use this tool to compare slightly different variations of an effect and then choose the one you want to apply.

The History Browser lets you compare image states and undo your steps.

Workflow considerations

You can launch Silver Efex Pro 2 from a variety of host applications:

  • Apple Aperture 2.1.4 and later
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 and later
  • Adobe Photoshop CS3 and later
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and later

You can also set Silver Efex Pro for Lightroom as your “Open With” application in Nikon’s Capture NX2 and use it as a stand-alone program on TIFF files (SEP2 cannot open RAW files directly). Regardless of your host application, the SEP2 interface is conserved. The only major differences that arise from using different host programs is with regard to workflow.

If you use SEP2 directly from Aperture or Lightroom (or as a stand-alone program from Capture NX2), your image will be saved as a flattened TIFF file. If you use Adobe Photoshop CS, however,  you can use SEP as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object layer. With Smart Filters, you can go back and re-edit your SEP2 adjustments without having to start over from scratch. Because Photoshop can apply SEP2 in a layer, it is also the only way for users to use layer masks/brushes to create complex selective effects. SEP2 includes a simplified brush tool for Photoshop users that allows you to selectively paint your effects in or out of your image. If you are serious about black and white and want to use SEP2 in a truly non-destructive workflow, then you’ll definitely want to be using it in Photoshop. On the other hand, if you are a casual user and don’t want to spend the big dollars on Photoshop CS5, you’ll get the same fantastic results using SEP2 directly from Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop Elements.

Conclusions

At first glance, Silver Efex Pro 2 doesn’t seem to be all that different from the original SEP product. However, there are improvements all the way around in SEP2 that make it stand out. The added degree of control over tonal adjustments that SEP2 provides photographers makes it deliver results that are absolutely stunning. While the new controls don’t seem like much, you have to see the results to believe them. Of course, the Nik engineers also know that you shouldn’t mess with a good thing; the fundamental controls that were the main reason for SEP’s success have been retained and simply made better. While “new and improved” algorithms might not sound impressive, what it really means is that you get better control and better output from SEP2 to implement your creative vision. After seeing what I can do in SEP2, I’ve officially retired my original version of Silver Efex Pro and now work exclusively with version 2. Silver Efex Pro is available from Nik Software at a list price of $199.95 (full) or for $99.95 as an upgrade from SEP 1.0. Individuals who purchased SEP 1.0 after Dec. 6, 2010 are eligible for a free upgrade to SEP2. As with all Nik Software products, you can download a fully functional trial version and use it for 15 days without registering it.

If you are going to purchase SEP2, why not save 15%? That’s $30 off the list price of a full license, or $15 off an upgrade. Just click here and you’ll get an automatic discount applied to your shopping cart.

The Photographer’s Guide to Silver Efex Pro 2 is now available for download from Luminescence of Nature Press!

11 thoughts on “Software Review: Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2”

  1. Thanks for providing a thorough review of SEP2. Your explanation of the new features such as Dynamic Brightness and Soft Contrast is much clearer than what Nik provides in their info.

  2. Excellent read through of your review. Can you please clarify one point for me? I am a Photoshop CS3 user and have hesitated to buy Silver Efex 2 as the Nik website suggests that it requires CS4 as a minimum, your review suggests that CS3 is suitable.

  3. When I viewed the Nik website, it lists CS3 and higher as required.
    http://www.niksoftware.com/silverefexpro/usa/entry.php#

    You can always download the free trial and give it a whirl on your machine.

  4. I just purchased SEP2 to use primarily with Aperture 3.0 and PSE 8 as well. So far I like the program but I’m not sure it offers significant advantages over Aperture alone except maybe in time saving/workflow.

    Areas that SEP2 seems to have an advantage include the Structure settings which seem to have a more pleasing effect than the Definition setting in Aperture, and is more refineable in areas of different tonality. Likewise, the Soft Contrast and Dynamic Brightness are not readily achievable in Aperture.

    To me, the U-point system is a mixed bag. It is very handy that you can make multiple setting changes within any given U-point. However, with U-points you are dependent on SEP2′s algorithm as to the extent of the selection it effects within the radius you chose. With Aperture’s brushes you can make similar effects but have more precise control of where your selection is, how it responds to edges and how soft the edges of the selection are. The ability to group and combine U-points is nice and I don’t think there is anything comparable in Aperture.

    I also think Aperture gives a much better implementation of color control, first with the RGB sliders under the B&W conversion tool and then within the Colors tool where you can change saturation, hue, luminance and range of six or seven colors. This gives an almost unlimited variety of adjustments that affect the tone of the B&W conversion with great precision. In SEP2 you have the Filter controls but this only allows you to select one hue. Within the Film Types controls there are color sliders but they do not seem to work as predictably or as precisely as those in Aperture. That could be due to my lack of experience with them however.

    In the end it comes down to whether SEP2 is worth the MSRP. For a low volume amatuer like myself, the time and workflow savings are not that meanigful. For a busy pro I think it would be different. The Structure, Brightness and Contrast settings and the ability to fine tune them are definitely worth it. For me, the jury is still out on U-points. I think as I get more experience and develop better sense of how they make selections, I will find them more valuable. For $200 I’m ambivalent. That is the same as Aperture 3.0 itself and more (I think) than PSE 8. I purchased SEP2 during the summer sale for $100 and at that price I am very pleased and expect to develop an even more positive view of the plug-in as I get more aquanited with it.

    George Barron

  5. George-
    I think that once you understand how Control Points make selections, you’ll find that they’re better than brushes in many situations. Ideally, I’d like to have both tools.
    -Jason

  6. I’m just curious what the difference is in the Aperture version vs. the Photoshop version? They have the Aperture Combo package on sale for $199 and to include Photoshop it’s an extra $200. Is it worth it?

  7. As far as the plug-ins go, there is no difference. As far as workflow goes, the difference is that Photoshop filters can be applied in Layers with brushes/masks and different blending modes. With layers, its easier to combine multiple plug-in effects on the same image while controlling each effect separately.

    The Photoshop version supports Smart Objects, so you can have a non-destructive effect. With a Smart Object, you can go back and re-edit your Control Points, etc. after the fact.

    With the Aperture/LR versions, the output is always a flattened TIFF, meaning that to change anything, you have to start over from scratch each time.

  8. Jason,

    Thanks for the quick reply! I think right now do to budget factors and Nik’s black Friday sale ending I’m going to go with the Aperture plug-in and in the future upgrade to the photoshop version. Thanks for the help and the excellent review! Have you written any reviews on their other software?

  9. You can find my review of HDR Efex Pro in this blog as well; just use the search function. I have authored detailed, practical user guides on both HDR Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro 2.

  10. jason im new to the software game and i was wondering, if i wanted to do film noir type photos would silver efex pro 2 work by itself of would i need photoshop. thanks ed

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