Last week, Nik Software announced the release of its next version of Silver Efex Pro. Many of my friends already had the software on order (I have a whole rant against the phrase “pre-order”, but I'll spare you), but I hadn't made up my mind yet. As I've mentioned before, I'm far more passionate about color than black & white. I owned the previous version of Silver Efex Pro. Actually, I own two licenses of it, but that's due to mismanagement on my part. Suffice it to say that the software is as good as you've been told. I'm a big fan of most Nik products and Silver Efex Pro was no exception, even if I only used it rarely. When I wanted to convert something to black & white, duotone, , etc…this is the tool that I used.
The question I needed answered before I bought the upgrade was pretty simple – How can the new version help me make better finished images than its predecessor? Honestly, I thought that Nik did a great job in the initial release and didn't expect to find any compelling differences to make it that much better to warrant an upgrade. A number of photographers with pre-release versions commented on Twitter about how great it was, but I take that with a grain of salt. There's a lot of hype and cross-promotion that leaves me very skeptical about whether something is really good, or if it's just a case of “you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.” Since Nik offers a 15 day free trial, my plan was to wait for release, use it and see if it was worth the upgrade.
Exploring The Features
This is my starting point. It's a hand-held HDR image of the porte-cochére of The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. I had a Nikon 14-24 wide angle lens on this trip and I wanted to get a feel for the angle of view, so a wide area like this one seemed like a good test subject. From here, I wanted to see the default setting in Silver Efex Pro 2.0.
It looks familiar to the old interface. I like the initial take on the black & white conversion. but I don't see too much that cries out as new for this version. Of note, I see some new presets as I scroll down the left side column, and I see a new selection for Image Borders in the Finishing Adjustments on the right column. Everything else really looks the same, at least until I start opening up the individual adjustment items.
When I expand the elements of the Global Adjustments, I see that we now have much more fine control of Brightness, Contrast and Structure. In fact, fine control seems to be the theme for this upgrade. You no longer have to make course global adjustments that apply equal effect to Highlights, Midtones and Shadows. Silver Efex Pro 2 lets you tweak these elements individually on the Brightness and Structure sliders. You also get a Fine Structure slider under Structure. Further down, there are options to protect Shadows and Highlights, a feature carried over from the original version. The Contrast slider elements allow more control for Whites & Blacks, but also offers a Soft Contrast slider. That's an interesting little feature in itself.
Skipping down to the Color Filters, we see the same range of colors as the original version, and also the same Hue & Strength detail adjustments. No real surprises here.
At first glance, the Finishing Adjustments seem to be the same as the original version. However, opening the Toning Selection reveals more options for a quick selection. There were 18 selections in the original, now increased to 25.
The thing that caught my attention was the Image Borders adjustment, though. Here's a look.
It looks deceptively simple, but there are thousands…nay, millions of options here. First, take a look at the border in the image and compare it to one of the screen shots above. You can see that the border encroaches on your image, which isn't unexpected. You have control of how much space that border uses by the Size slider. Next is the Spread slider. Think of that as a control of the thickness of that dark line you see on the edge of the border inside the white space. The final slider varies how Clean or Rough the edge of that dark line is in your border.
The pull-down I'm displaying shows that you have choices from Off (no border) to 14 different types. Now that's great in itself. Just think of using those three sliders with 14 different types of borders and you can get plenty of combinations. What you can barely see in my screen shot is another field (behind Type 6) with a numeric value. There's a button next to it that says Vary Border. Click that button and it generates a different numeric value, changing the appearance of the border itself. It's a four-digit value. Now do you see your possibilities explode with potential for different borders?
Image Borders is the feature that sold me. Instead of using 15 days to evaluate the product, I bought it on the same day. Don't get me wrong, I also really like the fine controls in the global adjustments, as well as other features in the update, but this was the killer feature for me.
One More Thing
There are more features in the update than I mentioned. Support for Selective Color is one, but the one that grabbed me was a History browser.
I hope we see this history feature, as well as Image Borders, adopted in future updates of other Nik Software products. Sometimes you play with sliders to see what a you can do, but then you go to far. This is a very simple tool to let you go back and see where you've been. I love it.
What Am I Missing?
Something I may be overlooking is the old Preview checkbox. It was on the top menu line where you could easily toggle the check to see your original image or the preview of your filter adjustments. We now have a Compare button. That's been useful for switching between your current settings and the default, or Neutral, preset. Actually, I don't think that's a bad option for this tool. Sometimes, though, it may be useful to see the original color image to get a feel for how you want to adjust it into a black & white or duotone image. That feature seems to be gone now, or perhaps I'm missing where it moved.
As I said, I found enough reason to convince me to purchase the upgrade. You have pretty much everything that was in the original Silver Efex Pro, but now with more fine control, selective color, image borders, and a history browser. I noted that Nik mentioned GPU Processing as an improvement and I expected a performance boost as a result. On this one, I'm not ready to make a declaration yet. My initial response seemed a bit more sluggish than its predecessor, but today it's quite snappy. Those differences may be due to issues with my own computer, so I don't want to declare that the software is faster or slower. I've only had it for a few days, after all.
Still, I'm more than pleased with the new version. If you're undecided, download the trial version and see if the features are right for you.