Converting images to monochrome is never as straightforward as it might appear. In this post we look at methods of achieving the monochrome look and answer the question “Is Silver Efex Pro the best Black and White Photography Plugin ever?”
First the disclaimer. I am affiliated with a few carefully selected companies whose products I love and use regularly. DXO is one of those companies and if you download software via this article I will get some small reward and a nice warm feeling!
On with the show! I’ve been using Silver Efex Pro for more than ten years, I’ve seen it thrive as a startup offering, languish in the grip of Google and thrive again with DXO. I started using it as a plugin to Lightroom and continue to use it with DxO PhotoLab. It also works as a standalone image editor however I prefer to edit the image first in colour and then convert to Black and White.
Black and White in Camera
There are cameras such as the Leica Monochrom that are designed to shoot Black and White. Leica have done an excellent job but for the price of a small car, I’d rather have the ability to shoot Colour and convert. Interestingly enough, when Leica launched the Monochrom they bundled a copy of Silver Efex Pro with it. That tells you most of what you need to know about the quality of Silver Efex Pro!
Some purists feel that photographing in monochrome is the right way to go and I completely disagree! The reason I disagree is that we see in colour and while a good black and white photographer will develop the ability to see the potential for a black and white photograph in his or her surroundings, the back of the camera is never as good as a large computer screen. The camera is essentially a data gathering device. The data we are gathering is light and we owe to to ourselves to make the best possible exposure in camera, before bringing it to the editing screen for further development.
That means a good composition, no loss of detail in the blacks or whites. Filters can make this process easier as can Bracketing, the process of taking three or five pictures at varying exposures and then combining them to extend the dynamic range of the photograph.
As a good chef buys the best ingredients, the best camera and lens combination will deliver the best image to the edit.
Using Filters on Camera
I use Lee Filters to modify the light. There are two standout reasons to do this.
Sky is Brighter than Land
Often, particularly at dawn and dusk the sky is much brighter than the land. Which do you expose for? You can have a perfect sky or you can have perfect land. Rarely both.
Your choice is to take two or more photographs exposing for various parts of the image and blend them in post processing or use filters to make the adjustments in camera. I use graduated filters to do this and I’ll be writing a review of the Lee Reverse ND Filter in April when I’ve had a chance to put it through its paces. This is a filter that is designed specifically for sunsets and sunrises – the darkest glass is towards the centre of the filter.
With a camera we shoot a frame at somewhere around 1/100 th of a second in normal lighting conditions to get a well exposed frame. If we shoot slower than that, the image becomes brighter as we are letting more light into the sensor. If we shoot faster the image becomes darker.
In order to get the still waters shot we either have to wait until dusk so that you can keep the shutter open for long enough to smooth out the ripples, or use an ND Filter. The most famous is the Lee Big Stopper which is impenetrable to the eye and allows you to take extended exposures of several minutes. The other use for this is to get rid of people moving about in a scene. This image was shot using a Lee Filters “Big Stopper” and processed with Silver Efex Pro.
A type of photography that lends itself well to black and white is Infrared. I had a camera converted last year by Protech Photographic. They installed a 720nm infrared filter in my old Canon 550 D. the results were stunning and it brought this old camera back into regular use. This picture was edited in Photoshop and finished in Silver Efex Pro.
The Best Black and White Photography Plugin
Like Lightroom, DxO PhotoLab 4 has a number of Black and White “Looks” that are pre-canned recipes for black and white. Some people will be perfectly happy to simply apply a recipe like this. There are others who, in the kitchen as well as in photography use the recipe as a starting point. Silver Efex Pro is designed for these people.
Silver Efex Pro is the most advanced, possibly the best black and white photography plugin I’ve used. Equipped with 58 looks out of the box, an arsenal of tools, filters and image level adjustments for changes like brightness and contrast you can produce your image all the way from sweeping whole picture changes to precisely targeted finessing.
In addition to the normal sliders and filters, DXO use the U-Point technology that I first encountered in Silver Efex Pro in their other Photo processing tools as well. U-Point allows the user to work on portions of an image without using layers.
U-Point is hugely powerful and has become very sophisticated over the years. The use involves placing a circular “control point” on a detail of an image. You can expand the circle to define the area you want to be affected by changes you apply to the Control Point. The program samples the pixels at the point in the centre of the circle and applies changes to all the similar pixels in the circle. You can adjust the fall off so that it blends perfectly with its surroundings.
Changes applied through U-Point in Silver Efex Pro include Brightness, Contrast and Structure at the top of the U-Point control with Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks and Selective Colourisation at the bottom.
Using Control Points is a very flexible way of working, you can copy the control point by clicking on the copy control (under the 33% on the image above) and drag it elsewhere on the image. It will show you the impact in real time as you drag it around the image. Ticking the box next to the Control Point on the right reveals the mask itself so you can double check the impact on the image. You can also group control points and apply changes across the group.
Silver Efex Pro in the Workflow
Although Silver Efex Pro works as a standalone editor, it is not an all singing all dancing solution, it is a specialised tool and therefore better to make it part of your workflow. I edit pictures in DxO PhotoLab and once I am happy with the base image, I’ll export it to Silver Efex Pro for finishing. This works equally well with Adobe Lightroom.
Is Silver Efex Pro the best black and white photography plugin? I’d say it is. I haven’t found anything that comes close to the breadth of looks, the ability to do detail work as well as picture styling and the integration with other Picture Editors is first class. It combines ease of use with immense flexibility. I’ve been using its for ten years now and I’m still impressed.