DxO Silver Efex Pro 3 verdict
Silver Efex Pro 3 is still the best black and white plug-in there is. It creates rich, dense black and white images that echo classic analog films and darkroom techniques in the digital age. Version 3, part of the Nik Collection 4, adds DxO ClearView tech and chrominance and luminance masking to its unique Control Point local adjustments. The adjustment sliders have moved from the control points themselves to the sidebar, though – is that really an improvement? – and although Silver Efex Pro should work as a standalone app as well as a plug-in, it can be a bit glitchy.
What is Silver Efex Pro?
Silver Efex Pro is a dedicated black and white photography plug-in that’s one of the key creative tools in the Nik Collection. Regarded by many as the best black and white tool on the market, even years after its introduction.
You don’t need to get your hands dirty with sliders and checkboxes if you don’t want to, but if you do then Silver Efex reveals its true power.
This is the black and white conversion plug-in against which all others should be judged. It aims to replicate the look, feel and depth of classic black and white films and darkroom techniques and, unlike many of its rivals, it succeeds.
How it works
Silver Efex Pro 3 is one of two plug-ins updated heavily for the DxO Nik Collection 4 release (the other is Viveza 3). It still uses the regular Nik Collection screen setup, with a big selection of ready-to-go presets in a panel on the left, backed up by comprehensive manual adjustments on the right, but there have been some changes – more on this shortly.
There are now around 50 presets in all, including new “En Vogue” presets added back in the DxO Nik Collection 2. It’s not a huge number, but they cover a very wide range of styles – and these presets are also organised into categories such as Modern, Classic and Vintage, to help you find them more easily. The presets panel uses the image you’re working on to produce a live thumbnail preview, so there’s no need for any click-it-and-see trial and error.
Each of these presets is created with a specific combination of tools and setting, which you can see in the tools panel on the right. This means you can quickly select a preset that’s close to the final effect you’re looking for and then tweak a couple of the controls to apply the finishing touches. Once you’ve created an effect you think you might want to use again in the future, you can save it as a new, custom preset.
A trawl through the manual tools reveals the depth of control you have over your images. There is a Brightness slider, for example, but below that there are subsidiary sliders for Highlights, Midtones and Dynamic Brightness, which applies an adaptive adjustment to produce a low-key or high-key effect without tonal compression or lowered contrast.
Talking of contrast, you get a regular global contrast slider, but you can also Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks and apply a more diffuse Soft Contrast effect, which also has the effect of brightening shadows and darkening light tones – which can be helpful for high-contrast scenes.
This depth carries on all the way through the toolset. You can add definition and ‘punch’ with a Structure slider, you can apply black and white ‘contrast’ filters by clicking a button or adjusting the hue and strength precisely, and you can simulate a wide range of traditional black and white films, with optional control over the spectral response, grain (and grain characteristics) and tone curve. Silver Efex Pro 3 now has no fewer than 39 new “ultra realistic” grain effects.
And you can finish off with toning effects, edge burning, vignettes and borders.
No black and white image is complete without a little dodging and burning, of course, and for this you’ve got the control points you’ll find throughout the Nik Collection. Here you can use them to darken or lighten specific areas, increase or reduce the contrast, boost the structure and even apply selective colourisation, re-introducing a hint of colour into your monochromatic images.
This is where Silver Efex Pro is a fairly radical departure from previous versions, which had been relatively unchanged for years. Previously, when you added a Control Point to make a local adjustment, the adjustment sliders would pop out of the control point itself. Now, however, the adjustments have moved to the sidebar, under the global adjustments.
DxO clearly thinks this is a better way to do it, but I’ve been using Silver Efex Pro and the other Nik plug-ins for so long that I don’t much like it. The end results are just as good, but I’d rather have the adjustment sliders attached to the control points. But what do I know?
What DxO has done, though, is enhance the Control Points in two key respects. First, you can adjust the Control Point masking by targeting Luminance and Chrominance values to make the masking fit the tones you want to adjust more precisely. The Chrominance slider makes limited sense in black and white images (I think it works on the original color data, though), but it makes more sense in Viveza 3, the other updated plug-in in Nik Collection 4.
Second, Control Points can now be saved with presets, so even though you might need to move the Control Point around for different images, if you have a favorite local adjustment that’s part of your style or suits a particular set of images, this is a way to make it accessible for repeated edits.
There’s one more thing. Silver Efex Pro now has DxO’s ClearView tool, as used in DxO PhotoLab. This is a great way to boost local contrast it flat-looking images. It’s not unlike Lightroom’s Dehaze tool but with a bit more finesse and less digital noise exaggeration.
Is Silver Efex Pro 3 any good?
It’s not just the range of tools that makes Silver Efex Pro 3 a great black and white plug-in, it’s also their effectiveness at recreating the drama, depth and boldness of classic black and white photography.
One thing worth pointing out, though, is that it’s not the only black and white tool in the Nik Collection. Analog Efex Pro has some great black and white tools which are geared more towards camera and lens effects and more antique/distressed looks, while Color Efex Pro has a great Old Photo filter for recreating the look of early prints.
If you’ve spent years using the ‘old’ Silver Efex Pro you might find the repositioning of the Control Point sliders in Silver Efex Pro 3 an unnecessary nuisance, but the addition of ClearView tech and enhanced Control Point masking should make up for that.
There is a peculiar glitch in its standalone operation, however. You can use Silver Efex Pro 3 as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop without any issues, but I found that when I tried to use it as a standalone app it still behaved as if it was working on an image sent from Lightroom, so that there was no way to open and save files. The only way to make it work was to quit Lightroom to make sure it wasn’t running before starting Silver Efex Pr 3, which is odd. I also found that while I could launch Silver Efex Pro 3 as an external editor from Capture One and click the ‘Apply’ button to apply the finished effect, Silver Efex Pro would close, but the image was not updated. No doubt DxO will fix this behaviour in due course, but it’s going to be an annoyance in the meantime.