Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro is the most exciting Photoshop plugin I’ve used in a long time. I first heard about it on the Image Doctors Nikonians podcast and later looked up some reviews via Google. Although I’d become relatively proficient at doing my own B&W conversions and enhancements using straight Photoshop CS3, I decided to download the fifteen-day trial version of the software to see what it could do that I couldn’t already do myself.
It blew me away. Sure, what it does you can do in Photoshop if you have enough skill and enough time, but you’d have to be very skilled indeed to match the results. Not to mention having a lot of time on your hands. With Silver Efex Pro things that could take hours of laborious work in Photoshop happen with a single click.
Single click? The magic here is the fantastic set of presets the plugin provides. The presets on the left side of the plugin take a colour image and present it in a variety of ready-made templates that are very familiar to someone with a B&W film background: Neutral, Underexposure EV-1, Overexposure EV+1, High Structure, Pull Process N -1, Push Process N +1 (+2, +3), High Contrast Red Filter (and Orange, Yellow, Green), Dark Sepia, Soft Sepia, Ambrotype, Cyanotype, Tin Type, Infrared Film Normal (and Soft), and some fun ones such as Soft Skin, Wet Rocks, Darken Contrast Vignette, Antique Plate I & II, Holga and Pinhole.
Whew. And that’s just the left hand side. On the right are things like simulated B&W film types such as Panatomic X, Pan F, ACROS 100, Delta 100, Plus X, FP4, HP5, Tri-X, TMax 3200, to name just some of them. These create a tonal response and grain structure similar to the films.
On the right as well are the tools of the plugin. You can create any kind of B&W look you want with these tools — in fact all the presets are simply templates made from the tools. You can add your own styles to the mix if you like, and increase or decrease any of the preset effects, from vignetting and toning to grain structure and contrast. The plugin contains Nik’s well-known Control Point for making local changes in brightness and contrast, the same as in its Nikon Capture NX2 product.
I use the plugin from within Photoshop CS3. I first bring in an image and do any cropping and adjusting I would do for a colour image, such as straightening a horizon, then call up the plugin. The part that makes Silver Efex Pro so creative is that while I go in thinking in terms of how I might want an image to look in B&W, working through the presets gives me the chance to view the image in ways that hadn’t occured to me. The surprise factor is part of what makes the plugin fun to use.
One part of the plugin that I really like using is the vignetting tool. Giving B&W images artistic B&W corners and edges can be a pain in Photoshop. It’s hard to create any vignettes that are irregular. Silver Efex Pro makes it easy. It offers circular or rectangular vignetting, or a setting in between, and you have full control over the amount, intensity, and amount of transition in the vignettes. Of course you can do white vignettes too, for high-key effects. There is a separate tool that allows you to work on any of the four edges of an image for extra control.
Once I’ve created a B&W look for the image I like, I click OK and the plugin chugs through its processing and puts the results on a new Photoshop layer. Oh my. That can lead to all kinds of fun, which I’ll discuss more next time.
Everything has to have a downside though, right? The Yin-Yangy thing? Silver Efex Pro has one big downside: cost. This lovely product will set you back $200 USD.
Because of the price (I’m not a professional making a living from my photography) I tried to resist buying Silver Efex Pro when my trial expired, but I couldn’t do it. I’d come to love the results too much. Now when I’m out shooting, I look for scenes that I know will be stunning after a session in the plugin. Like the first snowclouds of the season over the Port Credit harbour, rendered with the high-contrast orange filter, then tweaked in Photoshop.
Next time I’ll discuss how I combine images produced with Silver Efex Pro with the underlying colour layer beneath in experimental ways.