Aperture Plug-in Mini Review - Nik Silver Efex Pro 3.0

DSC_0196__1_.jpgI started  out in photography with black and white. I still prefer making black and white photographs in both the traditional silver process, digital, and hybrid approaches. Having fessed up to that I will also disclose that I have tried just about every digital black and white product known to mankind. Honestly I have never been really impressed with any of them above and beyond what I can do with plain old Adobe Photoshop and would probably not recommend any of them to anybody. Nik Silver Efex Pro 3.0 is probably the best digital black and white converter that I have owned used or tried and I can recommend it to some people.

I will get to the bottom line really quick and follow-up with a couple of more detailed thoughts. I can do anything that Silver Efex Pro 3.0 can do in plain old Photoshop. The only exception may be the Nik grain engine. That being said if you have been doing digital black and white conversions for a long time and understand what you are going for and how to  get there in Photoshop there is nothing that is going to knock your socks off about Silver Efex Pro that would cause you to want it. The only exception as I mentioned is if you have the black and white conversion thing exactly where you want it in Photoshop but have been searching for a decent way to simulate film grain.screen_capture_8.jpg

On the other hand if you love black and white but have no idea how to get the results that you want in Photoshop or rather not use Photoshop in your work-flow Silver Efex Pro may be just the ticket. You can get fantastic results extremely fast with no fuss. If you are familiar with the Nik control point way of making local adjustments and masks, local adjustments are a breeze. They work just like they work in other Nik products like Viveza or Capture NX2. You can set up presets that combine everything that Silver Efex can do to speed up your workflow even more.

Going through some of the features in a little bit more detail along with some random thoughts and opinions let's start over on the right hand side, this is where all of the image controls live. First off you have brightness, contrast, and structure sliders. The first two are pretty much self explanatory. The structure control deserves a little more explanation. This control is a very fine tuned local contrast control that is perfectly suited to dealing with black and white tonal ranges. While you can accomplish the same results in Photoshop if you have no idea how you might go nuts with a million different curves, masks and other local adjustments to get the same effects of what the structure control does just by sliding it back and forth. This is one of the high points of Silver Efex, especially if you are struggling with Photoshop adjustments to get some of the same effects. Fantastic.

Next come the control points for localized adjustments and the highlights/shadows protection controls that are typical of all Nik software - if you don't know what they do visit Nik's site, it's pretty much all they talk about. Extremely quick, easy, and effective. I wish Aperture would adopt something like this build in to Aperture.

After that are the color filters, these are typical of virtually every black and white conversion tool out there. Nik's twist on them is each filter has a color and strength fine tuning slider. The controls are a little different but accomplish the same thing as everything else out there - channel mixers, etc. No need to dwell on them.

After the color filter controls comes the film types block. This is an attempt to simulate various brands  and speeds of actual black and white films that have been on the market over the years. Simulation of actual black and white films are nothing new or exclusive to Nik Silver Efex and I have to say the attributes that Nik attempts to simulate are pretty comprehensive but I find them more an amusement than an indispensable finely tuned tool. You may feel differently. The Silver Efex Pro film types attempt to simulate characteristic curves, grain, and spectral response of each film type. This deserves a little bit of an explanation for those not super familiar with actual black and white film.

Each black and white film has a unique spectral response in terms of the way it sees colors. some films see blue a little more than they see green, etc. These spectral response differences with real black and white films are subtle but noticeable in various situations. In the real world you have to be pretty familiar with various films with similar subjects to notice any spectral response differences between them. Add a colored filter and the spectral response differences between films is overwhelmed by the colored filter. The same thing holds true for tonal response curves or how a particular film responds to various exposure values. TXP (TRI-X PRO 320) is vastly different than regular TX (TRI-X 400). While they are important in getting to know a particular film if you are shooting real film the differences are overwhelmed when you start manipulating the contrast curves in other ways.  The grain simulator is preset set for each film type in sort of a caricature sort of way that may serve as a starting point for some of the various film type simulations but is in no way the end all be all of what that particular film looks like in reality.

I guess my issue with the film type simulations all boils down to the way the characteristic curves are handled within the film type simulation. The characteristic curves do not appear to be characteristic curves of the various films developed to the same CI (overall contrast index), they seem to be combined with completely different CI's from film type to film type. In effect you get a film types characteristic curve AND a ONE particular way of developing that film combined into one, each simulation again being a caricature the "guy on the street's" impression of a particular film. 

The film grain simulation is by far the best I have ever seen. At first glance it really does give the impression of the way real film grain looks. It does have some short comings. The first one is the biggest deal with simulating real film grain. With real film grain seems random in areas with no detail and then some how seems to magically line itself up and form specific patterns to reproduce details that seem smaller than the film grains in highly detailed areas of the image. If you have ever looked at film under high magnification this is clear and is the biggest reason most grain simulators look like absolute crap compared to real film grain. When I first looked at the Nik simulated film grain I thought that this was nailed. Upon closer inspection it is not. Maybe Nik does do something different in areas with a lot of detail but it does not nail the way real film grain works. Maybe in the next version.

The second and more minor issue that I have with the grain simulator is the way that you control it. A slider for "grains per pixel" and a slider to control hardness/softness of the grain. Depending on how you plan to use your final images this seems like the wrong way to control a grain simulation to me for an image that starts out with no grain and you can put out at arbitrary sizes. For example If I shoot with TRI-X and push it to 1600 shot on 5x4 film and then print an 8x10 print you would never even see the grain. How come when I choose the TRI-X film simulation I get what a super grainy pushed TRI-X 35mm blown up to 11x14 would look like no matter what the resolution of the camera I am using even at tiny web display sizes. Conversely if you send a 6 Megapixel image in it looks completely different than if you send a 25 Megapixel image in. What this all adds up to is the grain engine is difficult to nail down with any degree of repeatability depending on your output sizes and intent. It needs a better UI to specify what it should be doing. Especially if you are going to use it as a preset across multiple output intents and cameras.

After the film types are the stylizing controls. You can simulate various traditional print toning methods, add vignettes, and add edge burning effects. Again nothing new under the sun here but quick easy and effective. Not much to talk about here, maybe a mention that each of these controls has enormous flexibility and range.

The last thing I will mention is something that seems like a small thing but it is actually m screen_capture_9.jpgfavorite feature of Silver Efex. The little Zone viewer all of the way at the bottom of the left hand side. This little thing is a god send if you do any printing. Even with a ton of practice it is still really easy to get an image that looks great on screen but looks like crap on paper. The huge 1000:1 contrast range of your typical high quality LCD monitor tricks your eyes very easily. Tones that are easy to differentiate with full detail at the high and low end of the tonal range will not do the same thing with ink on paper at more like 100:1 contrast ratio. The little zone system tool works a couple of ways. If you hover your mouse over a particular zone it shows you all of the tones in the image that are in that range. If you click on one of the little zone patches the overlay stays on the image. This makes it easy to make adjustments while keeping things in ranges that will look great on paper. Very cool.

Nik's packaging and pricing structure for various products continue to be a mystery to me. No advice here but if you do choose to by one of the various versions for Photoshop, the whole shebang pack (except no SFX for NX2) or just the lowly Aperture version do me a favor and use the Amazon link on the site.

RB

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