“The negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when ‘performed’ as a print.” Ansel Adams
In Ansel Adam’s day, dodging and burning in the darkroom was to the film negative as post-camera processing on the computer is to the “digital negative” (i.e., RAW image capture) in digital photography. Right out of the camera, digital images can be quite flat and lifeless compared to print and slide film. With today’s image processing software, however, the full creative potential of our digital captures can be realized.
Since 1990, the reigning king for post–processing has been Adobe®Photoshop®. Using Photoshop, however, comes with a steep price, $699, and an even steeper learning curve to master. Even for professional photographers who regularly use the program, editing an image using local adjustments with selections and masks can be time consuming. In our hyper-competitive world of instant communication via social media and ubiquitous smart phone cameras, a slow workflow to generate media can be a disadvantage. Enter photo editing plug-ins to fill the void. They are essentially niche software products that are easier and faster to use, and in some cases, go beyond the capabilities of Photoshop.
There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of plug-ins for photo processing. All have been designed to address a specific need. The most successful companies have several plug-ins and bundle them as collections or suites, like Topaz Labs, onOne Software, and my favorite, Nik Software. Nik was founded in 1995 as nik Multimedia by German programmer Nils Kokemohr, and began with software for graphic design. In 1998 it changed its emphasis to serve photographers. Nik entered into a strategic alliance with Nikon in 2005 and helped to develop Nikon’s Capture NX RAW converter. Last year, Nik was acquired by Google and is now a subsidiary of Google. Nik’s post-processing software collection consists of six plug-ins: Color Efex Pro 4 (color filters), Silver Efex Pro 2 (black and white conversions), Viveza 2 (selective color and tonal adjustments), HDR Efex Pro 2 (high dynamic range), Sharpener Pro 3 (image sharpening), and Dfine 2 (noise reduction).
To demonstrate the versatility of Nik software, Silver Efex Pro 2 will be used to convert a color image to black and white from within Photoshop CS6. (The software can also be run as a plug-in within Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture.) Once in Photoshop, the software is launched either by selecting Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 from the Google floating palette or under Photoshop’s Filter menu. Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, like HDR Efex Pro 2, has preset categories that can be used as starting points for the black and white conversion, Figure 1.
There are thirty-eight presets, some of which borrow from darkroom processing techniques such as high contrast, push-processed, high key, low key, and sepia. Others are techniques from the digital age. You can even make custom presets. All presets are global adjustments since they affect the entire image. Adjustments are seen real time in single image view, split preview using a slider which can be moved vertically or horizontally, or side-by-side preview, and can also be zoomed from 100-300%. Once a preset is selected, the parameters for the global adjustments are set and can be fine-tuned, Figure 2. Dynamic brightness, amplify whites, amplify blacks, and soft contrast provide advanced tonality control. Black and white film enthusiasts will like the ability to emulate eighteen popular black and white film types, Figure 3. Furthermore, just like shooting black and white film, red, orange, yellow, green, and blue contrast filters can be applied to enhance certain parts of the scene. Unlike film, however, you don’t have to wait until you process the film to find out how well the filter worked! Nik builds on this capability by adding a slider for adjusting filter strength and a hue slider for finer color filter control.
If this were all that Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 did it would still qualify as a great post-processing plug-in. However, what distinguishes Nik Software from all the others is something called U Point® Technology, introduced in 2006, that provides precise control of local adjustments. By eliminating complicated selections, layer masks, and blending modes required in Photoshop for local adjustments, U Point® Technology removes the learning barrier from using this advanced photo editing technique. For example, if I want to selectively adjust the sky I would place what is called a control point in a portion of the sky, Figure 4. The size of the area affected is defined by the diameter of the circle. Figure 5 shows the mask that the control point has made. In masking, white reveals and black hides so the white areas show where the adjustments will be applied 100% and black 0%. Grey areas mask adjustments between 0-100% depending on the shade of grey. Notice that even though the selection is defined by a circle the mask is not circular. Sliders for brightness (Br), contrast (Co), structure (St, mid-tone contrast), amplify whites (AW), amplify blacks (AB), fine structure (FS), and selective colorization (SC) can be adjusted for the masked area. Usually the masked adjustments blend well with the unmasked areas. In a matter of seconds, selective adjustments can be made to images that normally would require minutes, even hours in Photoshop to accomplish.
Although one could argue that the selections made with U Point® Technology control points are not as exact as Photoshop masks, there are techniques that allow the control points to be even more precise.
Reducing the size of the control point will reduce the area affected. Blocking areas that you don’t want adjusted is as simple as placing a control point with all the sliders set at zero in that area. For example, when adjusting the sky I don’t want the mountains to be affected so control points are placed in the mountains with the sliders set at zero. For making adjustments to large portions of an image control points can be duplicated (using the Option key on Macs or Alt key on PCs) and then grouped together to form one large masked area.
With all these choices and controls it is very easy to forget the various adjustments made to find the optimum rendition for your black and white conversion. Very similar to Lightroom, all Nik software plug-ins have a history browser that allows you to revisit all the changes made to your image from the moment it was opened to the most recent change. That way you can review and revert back to a previous adjustment. Using the Compare button, two adjustment states can be viewed in a split preview or side-by-side preview.
There is a levels and curves adjustment similar to what you would find in Photoshop or Lightroom, although I can’t imagine they get much use with all of the selective controls. However, in deference to Ansel Adams, there is also a Zone System map that overlays colored hashmarks on your image to indicate where the various zones of tonality are. That way you can balance and expand the range of tonality much like Ansel did in the darkroom with dodging and burning.
After global and local adjustments are completed, numerous finishing tools are available, many of which originated from traditional film printing techniques. Toning and split (or duo) toning can be applied including sepia, selenium, and cyanotypes as well as custom colors. There are controls for applying vignetting, that is, darkening of the edges to draw attention to the center of the image. In addition to the amount of darkening, and size and location of the vignette center, the vignette shape can be adjusted continuously from a circle to a rectangle. Extensive controls for burning of the image edges and a selection of image borders complete the finishing touches.
No doubt, practitioners of black and white printing in the traditional darkroom will feel at home with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 software.
Once the user is satisfied with the black and white conversion, there are two options for closing the filter plug-in and returning to Photoshop. The first option is to press OK to apply the filter. The black and white conversion is then recorded on a layer labelled Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 which is placed above all the other layers in the original PSD file. Since no mask is associated with this layer, the only thing that can be done with it is to change the opacity of the layer to let some of the colored image in the layer(s) below to come through. The other option when closing the plug-in is to press Brush to apply the filter selectively to the image. Again, the black and white conversion is then recorded on a layer labelled Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, however, this time a black mask is attached to the layer. Since black hides, the black and white conversion is hidden and the image retains the characteristics of the layer(s) below, in this case color. By using a white brush and painting on the black mask, the black and white portions of the image can be selectively revealed. This is one way to make a hybrid color/b&w image.
Neither of these options allow you to go back and re-edit the black and white conversion. However, there is a way to do this. Before you first launch the filter plug-in on your PSD file, flatten the layers down to one background layer. Next, make a duplicate copy of the background layer. With the duplicate copy of the background layer selected, select Filter, Convert for Smart Filters from the Photoshop menu. This converts that layer to a smart layer so that when you launch the Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in it will become a smart filter on that layer once the conversion is completed. Double clicking on the filter icon in the layer relaunches the filter for additional adjustments.
With extensive and powerful features, intuitive and easy to use tools, and the U Point® Technology control points for making precise selective adjustments, Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 is widely regarded by photographers as the leading black and white conversion software on the market today. Users include such well-known photographers as Art Wolfe, Vincent Versace, Jennifer Wu and others. Since all of Nik’s software plug-ins use the same control point technology for selective adjustments, they are well worth exploring for other aspects of advanced photo editing. For example, Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 for high dynamic range photography is considered on a par with the leading HDR software, Photomatix Pro. Color Efex Pro 4 and Viveza 2 are also popular for color enhancements. Nik’s website (www.niksoftware.com) contains many videos for quickly getting up to speed on how to use their various plug-ins. In March, several months after being acquired by Google, the price of their complete collection (all six plug-ins) was dropped to $149 from $499. In addition, customers who bought one or more plug-ins in the last five years are entitled to receive the remainder of the collection for free. So there isn’t a better time to try the Nik Collection.