Post-Processing » How to use Silver Efex Pro 2 to Create Amazing Black and White Images?

How to use Silver Efex Pro 2 to Create Amazing Black and White Images?

What is it about black and white photography that is so amazing? And how can you create it?

In a world full of color, we often get attracted to the colors that ‘screams’ the most for attention or the colors that have the greatest visual mass in a photo. But in some photos, we want the viewers to look at something else like the textures, shapes, lines or connections between two subjects. Creating great black and white images are about obtaining a good contrast. Without it, black and white images will look flat and uninteresting. And Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 got some cool tools to work with to do just that. 

In this article, I will show you how to work with Silver Efex Pro 2 so you can create amazing black and white images.

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Steps Before Using Silver Efex Pro 2

Before you begin converting your photo in Silver Efex Pro 2, you could use the RAW Presharpener tool in the Nik Collection to add just a bit of sharpening to counteract the blur that anti-aliasing filters inflict on the raw file. Additionally, remove noise, for instance using Dfine 2 also from Nik. For a suggestion on a complete workflow using Nik Collections see How to Create Striking Images using Nik Collection.

Processing Your Image in Silver Efex Pro 2

When you are ready to convert your photo into Black and White, open up Silver Efex Pro 2 from either Lightroom or Photoshop.

It is good to begin with a preset to let you find the direction you want the image to go in with a single click and compare your options by scrolling through the presets. After you have found the preset, you can modify or fine-tune it to fit your specific style and preferences.

Silver Efex Pro 2 comes with a range of presets. However, I have created a cool package with extra Nik Collection Presets and Recipes for both Silver Efex Pro 2, Color Efex Pro 4 and HDR Efex Pro 2, for those wishing greater variety.

After selecting a preset in the left side panel go the right side panel to begin making the adjustments. Begin from the top and work your way downwards.

Global Adjustments  – Play with Brightness, Contrast, and Structure

SEP Dark Tones - Zone0
At the bottom right corner, you can see that ‘Zone 0’ is activated to show all the part of the image, that are completely black.

The first panel in the right side panel is the global adjustments.

The first question to ask yourself is: “Is the exposure correct or do I need to modify it?”

If you click on Brightness next to the Brightness slider detailed settings will unfold. This allows you to modify brightness separately for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. Pay special attention to Dynamic Brightness below the other brightness sliders. Dynamic brightness is really cool because it maintains the contrast of the image even though the brightness is modified to being either brighter or darker. The other brightness sliders don’t do that.

The Contrast sliders allow you to modify either the overall contrast, amplify whites or amplify blacks. However, if you bring it up too much your image becomes crunchy, which doesn’t look good. If you use the Soft Contrast slider you can increase the contrast without getting the overly processed look.

The Structure tool adds a small amount of contrast in texture and fine lines. Even though it doesn’t sound like much, the structure tool is really amazing  at bringing out details. With the Fine Structure slider, you only work enhancing the smallest details.

With the example image above, I have activated the zone system (by clicking on the number under the Loupe tool) in the lower right corner of Silver Efex Pro 2. This show me all the areas in the image that are totally dark (Zone 0) (click on the image to view it in large). You wouldn’t want to have too much of your image being highlighted by the zone mask at zone 0. So brighten up the shadows a bit to counteract this. With the zone map active, you can see the effect on the zone mask immediately. Click on Zone 0 again to de-activate it.

Use Control Points for Special Areas

As always in the Nik Collection plug-ins, you can use control points to modify special areas of your image. In the example image, I enhanced the structure, brightness and contrast in the clouds using control points to make the lines in the clouds help bring attention to the building.

Color Filters – in Black and White?

Color filters can dramatically change the image. Back in the film days you would have to use the color filter on the scene when taking the photo and you couldn’t undo it once you pressed the trigger. Fortunately, we have moved past that limitation and can play with the look in post processing.

The default color filter is neutral. Color filters work by brightening the color tonality in the image that are in the color area of the filter you apply. At the same time, it darkens any opposing colors. To take an example if you apply a red color filter, in black and white the filter brightens the red-like colors and darkens opposing colors like green. See the two images below: The first without a color filter applied, and the second image with the yellow color filter applied.

Silver Efex Pro 2 Default - Neutral filter
With no color filter applied the clouds, sky and the building almost blend into each other giving a rather flat image
Silver Efex Pro 2 - Yellow Filter tool
With the yellow color filter, the building suddenly stands much more apart from the background, creating more depth in the image.

This is very useful to create greater separation between your subject and the surrounding elements and background in your photo, of course depending on which colors are present in the original photo. You can bring down the strength of the filter effect if you find it too much.

Further fine-tuning of how colors affect the black and white image can be done under film-type -> sensitivity, where you will find sliders for each color.

Choose Your Film-Type: Grain and Color Sensitivity

SEP Film Types Panel

Under Film Types, you will find a set of presets named after popular black and white film types. They will give you the mix of grains and the color sensitivity in your final image that those film rolls would have given you if you shot film. I prefer to do the mixing myself to fit my style and liking and to make the subject stand more apart from the background. As mentioned before the color sensitivity section allows you to fine tune how the colors affect your black and white result.

Finishing Touches

One of the final touches that you can apply to your image toning. This gives your image a Sephia, blue or copper look to it.

Under the Finishing Adjustments panel, you can also apply vignettes, burn the edges or create a border for your image if that is your taste.

Things To Do After Using Silver Efex Pro 2

Once you have given your image the best black and white processing that you can do, it is time to take it back to Photoshop or Lightroom to make the final processing, or sharpen it using Nik Sharpener Pro 3: Output sharpener and make your awesome image ready for printing.

Finished black and white photo - processed with Silver Efex Pro 2

Concluding Thoughts on using Silver Efex Pro 2 to process your Black and White Photos

I hope you benefitted from this short walkthrough of how to process an image using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to enhance your black and white photo processing. One of the things that make this plugin so great is that it is inspired by the old-school techniques from the film days, but Nik made these tools available to digital-age photographers.

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