You know the warm feeling of genius you first felt at the click of an Instagram button when your very average snapshot of the next door neighbour’s dog was magically turned into a David Hamilton masterpiece of a soft focus poochery ?
You know how quickly the feeling evaporated when you found millions of such pinhole-&-other-pre-baked-effect afflicted pictures online ?
You know how – as a photographer – you now feel nauseated at the very mention of the name or idea of the gimmicky filter set ?
Is Nik Software’s Silver Efex more of the same ? Just a clicky-go-lucky set of shortcuts to turn 99.99% of uninteresting shots into standardised uninteresting canned art ?
To determine wheather SusanS would approve or not of Silver Efex, let me violate blogging rule #1 and tackle 2 subjects in one post. No, make that 3.
Last week-end, I visited “La Friche de la Belle de Mai” in Marseilles with my much loved Olympus OM-D EM-5 and brought back pictures to try Silver Efex with.
This blog post is my account on all three subjects, woven into one narrative. I hear the content marketing gods screaming in anger.
However, let’s go. All pictures on this page are processed with LightRoom and Silver Efex (unless otherwise mentioned). As usual, clicking produces an enlargement.
La Friche de la Belle de Mai is a 5 acre (20 000+ square meters) derilict tobacco factory converted into an exhibition hall slash open air market slash restaurant slash concert venue slash potager slash you name it.
In typical Marseillais fashion, it is noisy, hellishly difficult to park around, poorly indicated, not a little overpriced and potentially wonderful.
For me, the brilliance of it comes from the combination of open-air streets and rooftops with closed and secure spaces that allows a museum to cohabit with a circus, a farmer’s market, a food hall and a concert arena.
It is not often you can browse Irvin Penn photographs accompanied by ear splitting drum rolls and the whaff of Lebanese delicatessen. Not that you’d always want to, but it does make for an interesting and light hearted change. And Marseilles good at this sort of mix n match where none of the parts are absolutely breathtaking but the whole is a different and pleasant experience.
To be honest, on a scale from WTF to OMG, the photo exhibition is rather mah. And the rock band also quite unmemorable. But, again, the combination ? Really good experience.
We visited during the 5 day “Cuisines en Friche” event that invites renowned chefs to live performances, TV shows, pay as you go tasters of their upmarket cuisine …
All through the maze of shops, tents, caravans, huts … people were cooking creating work of art cakes or edible newspapers and quite a bit of fun seemed to be had.
Because of the hoolala surrounding the arrival of Olympus’s OM-D EM-1, I decided to leave my Nikon D800e behind and take my diminutive OM-D EM-5 with its tiny Panasonic 14mm lens (28mm equivalent focal length).
This camera’s strongest point is the amazing colours it produces. But my intention was to test Nik Software’s Silver Efex LightRoom plugin (a black & white converter with pedigree) and the Oly’s role is therefore to produce files that convert well.
I have always enforced a strict “only one camera at a time” rule to keep my gear lust in check (except for a medium format film + DSLR in the early days of digital). But when I acquired the Nikon D800e, I couldn’t let this little trooper go.
It’s brilliantly competent at most things, has tremendously helpful in camera stabilisation, produces great colour, weighs next to nothing yet feels solid as a wrestler. Lenses in the Olympus range are fantastic. Every bit as good as Leica. And quite a bit cheaper.
My only gripes, besides the longish name, are the slightly grainy texture at all ISO, a minimum ISO setting of 200, battery life that’s good but not exceptional and its size, too small for my liking. The E-M1 should be perfection and I’ll report on it as soon as mine arrives.
So, there we are ! Nice setting. Great camera. Perfect shooting conditions.
What’s Silver Efex and what is it like to use ?
Although it can be used stand alone, I’ll be describing the use of Silver Efex as a LightRoom plugin, a role in which it can probably shine much more than by itself.
Quickly put, Silver Efex takes a colour picture from LightRoom – with LightRoom edits – and converts it to black and white very quickly and efficiently.
Above is a manually converted picture of a chef making delicious chicken soba wok. I used only crop, B&W mode, global and local adjustments in LigthRoom to create this.
Below is the same picture corrected for convergence in LightRoom then converted to B&W in a single click in Silver Efex.
I like my version better (the tone is a factor of the filter chosen, but I blurred some parts of the background, burnt in shadows on the face …) Still, Silver Efex’s conversion is really good for a one click job and there’s much more to come !
On the left of the screen, the plugin presents you with 38 presets ranging from neutral to Film Noir (the lith style conversion with the tubing, above), each with preview. Click one and your image is converted. Et voilà.
Not every preset suits every image, obviously, but I’ve yet to find one of my pictures that one of the presets doesn’t render beautifully !!
On the right of the screen, sliders and control points let you refine your choice.
Sliders control global aspects such as contrast, brightness, structure, grain density and coarseness … Every preset is in fact a combination of settings on these sliders and you can then alter each to season to taste. A really nice touch is that every slider displays the deviation from the standard value. Lovely.
Control points let you make local edits, much like the adjustment brush in LightRoom. Click the tool, place it on the area you wish to alter and a set of local sliders appear on the screen, letting you define the diameter of the area affected by the control point and various other parameters described above (brightness, contrast, structure, grain …)
To be honnest, I prefer doing the local editing back in LightRoom as it does offer slightly more tools for the little details. Click the Gut feeling picture above and you’ll notice little nasties in the background on the left that would show up as rough patches on a print. Lowering contrast and clarity with the adjustment brush would take care of that in LightRoom. And while you would achieve the same results in Silver Efex, it would take (me, at least) a little bit longer.
But still, the result is really really good, in just a few clicks. Whereas LightRoom might let you fight your way through uninspired post processing all by yourself.
In the picture below, I randomly scanned the preset until one just blew unwanted detail out of the background. Then back into LightRoom to intensify the light rays on the right and the texture on the ground.
First, the film emulator is rather useful. I once tried the DxO Pro film module, which seems second to none, and that does very little for me as a stand alone product. I’d be tempted to say the same here, except for the fact that choosing a film can be an interesting way of altering the rendition of a filter preset. In the final image below, I selected Agfa APX 100 PRO and the tonal separation in the lower values of the image improved quite significantly. In a single click. Magic.
The same effect could have been achieved manually with the LightRoom Adjustment Brush tool, but it can be hard to use over large surfaces without leaving evident smearing whereas this automatic filter is consistent throughout the frame. Nice.
Then, there’s the bottom right part of the window, dedicated to final touches. These include toning with all the regulars (sepia, selenium, ambrotype …) and frame borders. While some borders are selected by some presets, the choise is always yours to add, alter or remove a border.
Gripes ? Negatives ? Just one, basically.
Every new picture starts with making a copy in lightroom, loading Silver Efex, performing your magic and saving the final image to exit back to LightRoom. Quite a convoluted process for what is otherwise a huge timesaver.
But on the whole, this is a fantastic program and the array of preset suggestions adds real value when thinking in B&W. The picture above was quite flat and uninviting. Two different presets made it come alive but one blew the sky and the other made the bottom part too dark. I exported the two to Photoshop and blended the two “exposures” for this result.
Elegant alternative to processing that screams HDR, wouldn’t you say ?
So, is it just canned art ?
I’ll admit I approached it thinking it would be, albeit elaborate canned art. But it isn’t. It really isn’t.
Silver Efex is brilliant in that it lets you experiment very quickly with different renderings and go beyond your original vision.
The danger with this sort of software is becoming lazy. Just grab pictures and know that one of the presets will save the day. Given their quality, it’s quite likely that one preset will save the day, but you’ll end up learning nothing and producing a set of unrelated pictures and no common vision.
If you look at the previous post on this blog, you’ll find a set of steam train pictures by Paul Perton also processed with Silver Efex. All use the same settings and the result is consistent and meaningful. This is what to aim for.
Take the time to go beyond the presets and write down the corresponding slider values whevener you like a result.
Take note of the type of image they work best with, so that the next time you’re out in the field you can previsualise the finished result more easily and develop your own artistic style.
To me, that’s pretty much the opposite of canned art !
The price used to be 200$ for the program, but when Google acquired Nik Software, this miraculously dropped to $149 for the whole suite, which includes very useful modules such as Nik Sharpener and Dfine. I’ll write more about these in the future, but let’s just say the suite is really a steal and very highly recommended. Congratulations to Nik Software.
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