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Plug In with Nik: Silver Efex Pro 2

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Silver Efex Pro is simply the best and most essential black-and-white plugin on the market. John Batdorff explains his approach to using Silver Efex Pro while orienting you to SEP’s interface and rich set of creative tools. Of course, you’ll do this by creating images and exploring all the creative possibilities SEP has to offer.
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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, 2011Canon 5D Mark II 17mm 1/400 @ f/13 ISO 100

Very few plugins have met with as much success as Silver Efex Pro 2 (SEP) and for good reason: It’s simply the best and most essential black-and-white plugin on the market. Photographing a good image is difficult enough, so when it comes to processing, plugins that help you bring your vision to life effortlessly are indispensable. SEP does a great job of blending superior technology with ease of use. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to make many of my favorite black-and-white images without this software!

In this chapter I’ll explain my approach to using SEP while orienting you to SEP’s interface and rich set of creative tools. Of course, you’ll do this by creating images and exploring all the creative possibilities SEP has to offer.

Why I Use Silver Efex Pro

Black-and-white photography is experiencing a major resurgence despite film’s ill-fated future. Although this may bristle the hairs on the backs of a few of you holding on tightly to your last roll of Tri-X, the reality is that the digital era is here to stay. You can think of SEP as a digital darkroom; its sole purpose is to help you create dynamic black-and-white images.

Why use SEP and not some other plugins or a software suite? Simply put, SEP does a better job because of its unique algorithm, which is designed to render a superior tonal range with exceptional contrast and texture control features. Its U-point technology allows you to make both global and very selective adjustments, depending on your visual direction, and its easy-to-navigate interface makes doing all of this fun! As photographers, you should own software that makes your life easier and that helps your visions come to life. SEP does just that.

Managing Your Files

Using SEP can be as straightforward as importing an image, applying a preset, and calling it good. Or, the process can be as complicated as creating several layers in Adobe Photoshop and mixing and matching different plugins to create your desired look. Regardless of the approach, all of my images start out in Adobe Lightroom before they are exported either into Photoshop or directly into SEP.

Proper image management is crucial to creating a seamless workflow, so I recommend using a program like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture to manage your image library.

Two Approaches to Using SEP

When I first started using SEP, I exported the images directly into SEP, made the desired adjustments, and then saved the images back into my Lightroom library. This is still a great approach for black-and-white conversions, and if you’re new to the plugin, I recommend this is where you start (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. Exporting from a host program like Lightroom.

However, for those of you who use SEP in conjunction with Photoshop, you will benefit from the additional flexibility of being able to brush on certain effects (I’ll show you how in Chapter 7), adjust blending and opacity, add layers—the list goes on. All of this flexibility comes at the cost of additional software and larger files but is well worth it when you’re trying to create your unique vision.

Analyzing Your Image

Every time I import a new image into SEP I get a little giddy, simply because it feels like I’m an artist staring at a canvas. But instead of a blank canvas, it has a grayscale sketch of my image. The trick is to learn to use the tools in SEP to bring that sketch to life by dodging, burning, using the color filters, or choosing one of the many presets. Of course, understanding how to apply or when to apply these tools is part of the learning curve. By the end of this chapter, you’ll be analyzing and creating wonderful black-and-white images.

When you import an image into SEP, first you want to examine it carefully without any distractions, so it’s best to always start off in Single Image Preview. Once you have your image in front of you sans any distractions, you can take a three-part approach to evaluating it (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2. Use Single Image Preview to analyze your image.

  1. Identify the compositional components that make the image unique. It will be your job to highlight those components based on their characteristics and determine whether they require you to dodge, burn, amplify the texture, and so on.
  2. Evaluate the tonal quality of the image. Begin by looking at the image and comparing it to the histogram. Is the image relatively flat with mostly midtones (Figure 4.3), or does it have a lot of contrast? Is it dark (low key) with the histogram pushed to the left (Figure 4.4), or is it light (high key) with the histogram pushed to the right (Figure 4.5)?
    Figure 4.3

    Figure 4.3. This histogram shows a lot of midtones with some contrast.

    Figure 4.4

    Figure 4.4. Notice how the histogram is pushed to the left in zones 0–3.

    Figure 4.5

    Figure 4.5. Notice how the histogram is pushed to the right in zones 7–9.

  3. Envision how the image will look when you’re done. Or, determine if you are at a loss for where to take it and need one of the many presets (Figure 4.6) to help guide your direction.
    Figure 4.6

    Figure 4.6. If you need help finding a creative path, start with a preset.

You’re probably thinking that I spend a lot of time talking to myself; well, I won’t deny it! But following the simple steps that I just outlined will help steer your process so you won’t click presets aimlessly and move your sliders around until the image “just looks right.” Although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, it’s not the most efficient or consistent way to produce a great image.

Setting Up Your Editing Workspace

Immediately after you’ve finished analyzing your image (Figure 4.7), one of the decisions you should make is whether or not you’ll need to review the original color image during processing. By default, SEP displays only the grayscale conversion of the original image (Figure 4.8), so if you need to review the original color image, you need to change a few settings before beginning.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7. Chicago, 2011; the last snow storm of the year. I used the color cast to my advantage when converting to black and white.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8. The default comparison view is set to the (000 Neutral) preset.

You might be wondering why you would need to review the color image. Well, you might use Selective Color to bring some color back into the image; in that case you’ll definitely benefit from reviewing the original color image. In the image of a woman carrying groceries during a snowstorm in Figure 4.9, you’ll notice a lot of yellow in the original. So I was able to brighten the image simply by using the yellow color slider, which has a very unique and different effect than if I had just used the Brightness slider.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9. I prefer to set my comparison view to the original color.

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