First Exposure: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

May 5, 2011

By RF Staff

By Stan Sholik

Every image-enhancement program includes a means of converting color images to monochrome. These range from lowering the saturation to 0%, to channel mixers and color filters. But since the introduction of Nik Silver Efex Pro, photographers who are really interested in extracting the maximum amount of image information and having the most creative control during the conversion have gravitated to Silver Efex Pro.

With the introduction of Silver Efex Pro 2 (SFX2), it’s time for those photographers to upgrade, because the additions and improvements are outstanding. And even for photographers that only occasionally do monochrome conversions, the ease of use and high quality of even the default conversion in SFX2 make it a worthwhile investment.

As a plug-in for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Aperture and other Photoshop plug-in-compatible programs, SFX2 looks and functions similarly to other Nik plug-ins such as Dfine, Viveza, Sharpener Pro and especially HDR Efex Pro. Like these programs, SFX2 allows overall adjustments as well as local adjustments without complex selections and masking with Nik’s U Point technology.

Installation is straightforward. The installer finds your plug-in folder, asks for registration information and installs. You can begin working without a reboot. If you are using a host program such as Photoshop that utilizes the Nik Selective Tool, SFX2 loads automatically into the Selective Tool.

To access SFX2 you must use one of the host applications. With Lightroom and Aperture you can open multiple files, adjust one and use that as a basis for adjusting the rest, and then save them all back to the host application. This is a great feature for creating monochrome panoramas or even HDR images. SFX2 is also compatible with Photoshop’s Smart Objects tool so the adjustments you make in SFX2 will always be available for further tweaking. This is a useful feature if you make a print and it doesn’t look exactly as you thought it would from the monitor preview.

Your image opens in SFX2 with a default monochrome conversion. The interface looks the same as SFX, but actually it has changed substantially. The previous 29 presets in the Preset browser to the left of the Preview window are now 38, but I’m sorry to see that the two “infrared” and the Holga didn’t make the cut to SFX2. All three are available for download, however, from the Nik Web site at least.

Portrait and wedding photographers will likely miss the availability of presets with different levels of softening, and while there are soft portrait presets available for downloading, they seem more like low contrast than soft.

With the increase in the number of presets, there are now category buttons to group presets into Modern, Classic, Vintage and Favorites categories in the Preset Browser. You can also create your own presets and store them as Custom presets in their own browser window. And as in SFX you can export/import presets to/from the Nik Web site, to/from another of your own computers or to/from any other Silver Efex Pro user.

The really major changes have happened in the adjustments palette on the right side of the interface. It is now organized very much like Nik HDR Efex Pro, with tabs for Global Adjustments, Selective Adjustments, Finishing Adjustments and then others specific to the plug-in. With the increase in the number of available tools in SFX2, this arrangement works very well.

There isn’t room in this article to cover all of the many changes and improvements in the adjustment tools. Besides, the video tutorials on the Nik Web site demonstrate them far better than I could ever describe. I want to touch on just a few that I will be using regularly—fine structures, selective colorization, toning and image borders.

The Fine Structures slider controls a tool that seems to have found its way into SFX2 from HDR Efex Pro. The Structures slider from SFX is still present and acts like a high-pass filter to increase the contrast along edges with high contrast. Fine structures looks inside the image to areas with lower contrast but lots of texture, and brings it out by adding contrast, detail and sharpness without being heavy handed or creating halos.

Selective colorization may be a “niche” technique, but it is reminiscent to me of the long history of hand tinting black-and-white prints. In SFX2 selective colorization is one of the options for a Control Tool. There are other new options in the tool also, such as fine structure discussed above and amplify whites and amplify blacks that are new general adjustment tools also.

To bring color back into the monochrome image, you simply add a control point, expand the tools, choose selective colorization and adjust the slider to the saturation you desire. By placing other Control Points with no selective colorization around the colorized area, it is easy to limit the color effect to just the parts of the image where you want it. Very slick indeed.

The Control Points palette has a few added buttons in SFX2 for grouping and ungrouping control points, duplicating them and deleting them. The old keyboard shortcuts still work, but if you prefer clicking things, you can now do that for these actions.

Toning was a part of SFX, but several of the toning effects were presets. Those presets have been eliminated, and the toning they used plus other toning techniques have been incorporated into the Toning sub palette. Toning is now found in the Finishing Adjustments palette. For landscapes, selenium toning was always my favorite in the wet darkroom days, and for portraits I often used sepia. Both of these are nicely simulated in SFX2.

Even though SFX2 lacks the softening tools that many portrait or wedding photographers would need to make SFX2 a truly one-stop program for monochrome conversions, it does include a new set of tools to add image borders and these tools rival those in software that only provides image borders.

All together there are 14 different borders available and you can adjust each one in size, spread and roughness. In addition, there is a randomize function for all of the borders other than the solid black and the solid white, making a practically infinite variety of borders available.

My very favorite tool did get carried over from SFX to SFX2. That tool is the 10-tone step wedge at the very bottom of the Adjustment palette—it only stays visible if you discover it and uncheck the checkbox to its left. When you run your cursor over the tones, SFX2 adds yellow slash marks in the image where areas of that tonality are present. This is a wonderful visualization tool to allow you to see where tones fall in the Zone System and is a far more valuable tool than trying to decipher tonality from a histogram, although SFX2 provides two histograms also.

Other than the need for more presets for portrait and wedding photographers, and a softening tool for everyone, there is little to criticize in Silver Efex Pro 2. It is a must have upgrade for Silver Efex Pro users. Any other photographer interested in doing serious image conversions from color to monochrome should also look seriously at Silver Efex Pro 2.

The suggested retail price of Silver Efex Pro 2 is $199.95. Upgrades from Silver Efex Pro are $99.95. More information about Silver Efex Pro 2, including informational and instructional videos and a free 15-day fully functional trial version is available from the Nik Software Web site,

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. He is currently writing his fifth book, Nik HDR Efex Pro, for Wiley Publishing.