Silver Efex Pro is one of the best-known plug ins in the Nik Collection and widely regarded as the premier tools for fans of black and white photography. There are lots of really good ways to create black and white images in all sorts of software, but even now Silver Efex Pro has a magic ‘x’ factor that makes it stand out.
So to co-incide with the launch of DxO Nik Collection 3, here’s a getting started guide to Silver Efex Pro. It hasn’t changed since the previous version of the Nik Collection, but there are probably still quite a few photographers who haven tried it yet and who might be tempted to download the Nik Collection 3 trial version to see what all the fuss is about.
The annotated screenshot above shows all the key tools in the Silver Efex Pro interface, and the key below shows what they do and what you need to know about them.
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1. Preset Library: Click a category to see collections of preset effects in different styles
On the left side of the screen you’ll find all the Silver Efex Pro presets. These give you an instant ‘look’ with a single mouse-click. There are quite a few, so they are organised into categories – just click on a category to see its presets in the vertical toolbar below.
2. Presets: Preview presets and click any preset to apply it
When you select a preset category in the list above, you’ll see all its preset effects applied to a thumbnail version of your image in this vertical strip. By default, the 000 Neutral preset is applied, but you can click on any other and it will be applied straight away to your photo in the main window.
3. Custom & Imported Presets: Presets you add yourself or get from other users
Clicking on the Custom panel expands that panel to display any Silver Efex Pro presets you’ve created yourself. You can also import presets created and shared by other users, and they will show up in the Imported panel.
4. Zoom setting: Change the magnification in the main window
By default, Silver Efex Pro will fit your photo the screen, but you can use the Zoom button to view the picture larger, at 100% magnification – other magnifications are available via the drop-down icon to the right. The ‘lightbulb’ icon cycles the background color between gray, black and white. (I think the default gray works best.)
5. Global Adjustments: Basic brightness and contrast
Over on the right side of the screen is the tools panel, where all the detailed adjustment work is done. The presets on the left side are all made with a combination of tools and settings from this panel. If you choose the 000 Neutral preset, all the sliders in this panel will be set to zero. If you choose a different preset, you’ll find many of the sliders have been adjusted to create that effect. You can take over and add your own adjustments.
The first panel is the Global Adjustments panel, which you can see highlighted and blown up in this screenshot. There are too many adjustments to go through in detail here, but they fall into three expanding sections: Brightness, Contrast and Structure.
Brightness and Contrast speak for themselves – though they have a lot more depth and subtlety than brightness and contrast tools in regular software. Structure is used to add ‘bite’ to fine details, and in Silver Efex Pro you can apply it separately to Highlights, Midtones and Shadows.
6. Selective Adjustments: Easy dodging and burning with automatic masking
All of the panels in this toolbar can be collapsed and expanded as needed. You can leave them all open if your screen is big enough, or open them as and when you need them.
The second panel is for Selective Adjustments, which is where it gets interesting. You add selective (or ‘local’) adjustments using the Control Points for which the Nik Plug-ins have become famous.
Each Control Point operates over a circular radius (you can adjust the size of the circle), but the effect is also masked automatically, so that it applies only to tones similar to those where you placed the Control Point and within its circular radius.
In this screenshot, the Selective Adjustments panel has been highlighted and blown up. It shows two Control Points on this image. One has been used to lighten the shadows in the base of the building, while a second – currently selected – has been used to darken the right side of the sky.
7. Color Filter: Like the color filters used in analog black and white photography
When you convert a color image into black and white, you can choose how the colors are converted into shades of gray. This is the principle of color filters in black and white photography (sometimes called ‘contrast filters’), and Silver Efex Pro offers a digital version of this where you can control the brightness of different colors. So here I’ve clicked on the red filter to darken the blue sky in this picture.
You can select a filter color by clicking on it, or you can click on the Details section to display extra tools, where you can choose the filter Hue precisely and also adjust the strength.
8. Film Types: This panel replicates the look of classic analog black and white films
The Film Types panel is important because this is where you’ll find Silver Efex Pro’s film simulations, via the drop-down menu at the top (it’s a long list!).
You can expand the Grain section to adjust the appearance of film grain, and the Sensitivity panel to change the color response of the ‘film’. This does a similar job to the Color Filter panel.
At the bottom is an expandable Levels and Curves panel, which is useful for all sorts of global image adjustments, regardless of whether you use the other tools in the Film Types panel.
9. Finishing Adjustments: Toning, vignettes, edge burning and borders
This is the last adjustments panel, but it covers a lot of things, not just the finishing touches.
The Toning section offers a large range of preset toning effects, from Sepia to Selenium and many more. You can also adjust the ‘paper hue’ and ‘silver hue’ separately to create split toning effects.
The Vignette panel offers a range of preset corner darkening or lightening effects, but you can also control these manually. Vignettes can effectively simulate the appearance of old lenses, negatives or prints.
You can achieve more controlled and creative ‘dodging and burning’ using the Burn Edges section. You can darken (burn) the top and bottom and left and right edges individually or all together. Burning the top edge is a great way to add a sky darkening effect, and burning the base is a great way to balance up the composition if you do. It’s not unlike using the graduated filters you get in some other programs.
The Image Borders section has a range of plain, film like or rough edged print border effects which you can choose from the drop-down menu and adjust with the sliders. It’s best to apply borders only when you’ve settled on the final picture size and aspect ratio since you won’t be able to crop the picture later without losing some of the border.
10. Loupe & Histogram: Check the details or the image histogram
This panel serves two purposes, depending on which button you press. In Loupe mode it shows a blown-up section of the image, which can be useful for checking details and sharpness, but Histogram mode is probably more useful to make sure your adjustments aren’t clipping any shadow or highlight detail.
11. Save options: Save a regular image or a new ‘non-destructive’ file
When you’ve finished making all your adjustments, you can click the Save button to process your photo and save it back to the software you used to launch the plug-in. (If you’re using Silver Efex Pro as a standalone program, clicking Save will overwrite the original photo, so make sure you duplicate it first.)
There is an important new checkbox in this new version of Silver Efex Pro, but it’s small and easily missed. If you check the ‘Save and edit later (larger files)’ box, Silver Efex Pro will save a special ‘multipage’ TIFF file which contains the original image, the processed version and all the processing instructions. These files are much larger than normal but they do let you go back later and change your adjustments.