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, introduced with the Nik Collection 4, added DxO ClearView tech and chrominance and luminance masking to its unique Control Point local adjustments. This latest version, updated for Nik Collection 6, adds new Control Line and Diffusion masking tools, and DxO has relented on its previous decision to move control point adjustments to the sidebar – now you can adjust them on the image in the old way again.
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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 Pro 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 has been updated and improved for the latest DxO Nik Collection 6 release. 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 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 you’ll see the biggest changes in the Nik Collection 6 version. Silver Efex Pro 3 was 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. With version 3, however, the adjustments moved to the sidebar, under the global adjustments.
DxO clearly thought this was a better way to do it, but I’d 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. Evidently I wasn’t the only one, because DxO has now relented and offers both – you can adjust control point settings both in the sidebar and directly on the image in the old way.
It’s the control point tools where DxO has done the most work. You could already adjust the Control Point masking by targeting Luminance and Chrominance values to make the masking fit the tones you want to adjust more precisely. With the Nik Collection 6, however, DxO has added two new features: a new Control Line tool first seen in DxO PhotoLab and an additional ‘Diffusion’ slider for Control Points, which seems to adjust how aggressive the masking is and hence makes them less or more ‘selective’ (my words not DxO’s).
Control Points can be saved with presets, by the way, 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 was unnecessary nuisance, but now they are back where they were!
Silver Efex Pro 3 is still the best black and white photography plug in of all, though it does have pretty stiff competition from ON1 Photo RAW and Exposure X – and if you don’t dig much deeper than Silver Efex Pro’s presets, you might wonder if you can’t achieve similar results in Lightroom or Capture One, say.
It’s when you dig deeper that you discover Silver Efex Pro’s real strength. Its adjustment tools are a lot closer to the feel of old-school darkroom work than most, its toning options, film simulations and soft contrast feature also deserve special mention, and little features like the selective colorisation in the control point adjustments give many opportunities for experimentation and expression.
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