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Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro

This elegant and easy to use plug-in for Photoshop and Aperture helps you turn your color photos into great b&w images By Robert Jensen

Color photography has been around for since 1861, almost 150 years, yet our fascination with black and white images has never faded. By stripping out color they offer a different viewpoint to our world, often creating a very strong emotional impact. Even today, with digital photo sensors capturing every color with 14-bit glory, many of us still end up turning those images into black and white.

I've spent the last several days working with Nik Software's new Silver Efex Pro plug-in. Its specialty is converting your digital color images into black and white and offering it in an infinite variety of flavors.

There are lots of other b&w processing plug-ins out there, however there are two features that make Silver Efex Pro stand out. One is the very powerful 'U-Point Technology' introduced a few years ago in Nikon's Capture NX software. U-Point offers effortless selection and blending options that give the user superior results and can save a lot of effort spent creating masks inside your images. You'll find this especially noticeable when selecting difficult subjects such as a skyline full of trees or in a portrait where the background is visible through the subject's hair.

This complex selection was done is seconds with just a few clicks and drag of a mouse.

The other feature worth pointing out is Nik's new state of the art 'Film Grain Engine.' A lot of the competition have a 'film grain' feature but they do this by overlaying a random noise pattern that isn't quite as nice as Nik's solution of using advanced algorithms written specifically to output realistic looking grain patterns. By recreating an image out of grain and mimicking the natural silver-halide process, Silver Efex Pro's grain engine provides a more realistic look to your photos.

Installation is easy and on Windows only takes a few seconds. Afterwards you'll enter your name and the serial number. That's it! On a Mac you'll choose between installing the Aperture or Photoshop version.

Once installed you'll find the Nik Selective Tool sitting inside the Photoshop interface. You can close and recall it by going to File/Automate/Nik Selective Tool in Photoshop.

Up to here everything is similar to Nik's Viveza plug-in (read my review of Viveza here )

In fact if you've already purchased and installed Viveza then Silver Efex Pro will also show up in the Selective Tool panel. I do wish that Nik would integrate the Selective Tool panel into Photoshop CS3's new Tool Dock. As it is you can set the Selective Panel not to automatically open and instead use the Nik sub-menu under the Filter menu.

Once inside Silver Efex Pro you'll find Nik's refined looking interface. I hope Nik updates all its other titles to match and retain uniformity.

Nik's elegant interface

Style Browser
Along the left side of the screen you can quickly see the effects of more than 20 different presets included in the package. You can also save and import your own presets and with my crystal ball I can foresee that soon there will be plenty more available online from other users of Silver Efex Pro. You can show/hide this panel with one click.

Within a minute I was able to make three very different variations from the original.

Along the right side of the screen are the following controls:

  • Brightness " Overall brightness of the image
  • Contrast " Overall Contrast
  • Structure " Adjusts midtone contrast to bring out or hide detail
  • Add Control Point
  • Shadow " Raise or lower Shadow detail within Control Point
  • Highlights " Raise or lower Highlight detail within Control Point
  • Color Filters " instantly convert your images as if you shot them through one of 5 commonly used color filters such as Red, Green and Polarizer. You can even fine tune the results via Hue and Strength sliders.
  • Film Types
  • Film Selection " Choose from 18 film emulsions of popular black and white films like Kodak Tri-X or Agfa Pan.
  • Grain " State-of-the-art Film Grain Engine (see above)
  • Sensitivity " Fine tune your filters with RGB/CMY channels (or in this case instead of Magenta they call it Violet)
  • Tone Curve " Apply a curve to your filters.


  • Toning " Sepia, Selenium, Gold and Split tone presets (all fine tunable)
  • Vignette " Black or White vignettes
  • Burn Edges - Here's a feature long overdue. When I used to practically live in the darkroom printing b&w - as a final step I'd always have to do a little burning or dodging along the edges of the photo to compensate for light falloff or just for effect. Burn Edges is a faster way to do this than my usual method in Photoshop, plus its more interactive since you instantly see the effect. If you don't like it just change the slider and instantly see the change. They should have called this Burn & Dodge Edges since it does both.
  • Smart Filter support in Adobe Photoshop " which allows easy re-editing later on.
  • Multi-Image Editing (Aperture only) " with Apple Aperture, photographers select multiple images and convert them within a single editing session.

Final Thoughts
I give Silver Efex Pro a wholehearted recommendation to those who love making black and white images. You can achieve results in minutes or even seconds, that used to take me hours in the old chemical style darkroom.

The $199.95 package includes versions for Adobe Photoshop and Apple Aperture is compatible with PC and Mac. I suggest you try this out for yourself by going to Nik Software's website and downloading a trial copy of Silver Efex Pro or Viveza. You'll become a believer like so many others have.

While you're at Nik Software's site check out the videos they've produced on each of the features of Silver Efex Pro. They've even made versions you can download to your iPod.

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Robert Jensen has spent most of his 55 years in photography, from the age of 11 when he got his first camera (a Kodak Instamatic) to the present, shooting professionally. From 1971 to 1997 he worked in retail selling photographic equipment to people of all skill levels. For most of that period he was also a manager.
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