Black and white pictures have an appeal that’s universal. They take us back to the beginning of photography and …



Black and white pictures have an appeal that’s universal. They take us back to the beginning of photography and appeal to deeper layers of our consciousness. Because we live in a world of colour, reducing an image to monochrome makes it stand out and be noticed.

But not all images are suitable for converting to B&W. The best results come from subjects with simple, strong lines and shapes, plenty of texture and detail, strong compositional elements and a wide enough range of tones to produce interesting differences. It doesn’t matter whether you choose a portrait, landscape, close-up or architectural subject, good pictures for B&W conversion will contain most of these features.

Unless you have a dedicated black and white camera (or shoot film), it’s best to start with a full-colour image and convert it into monochrome with editing software. We recommend starting with a raw image file converted into TIFF format to ensure you have more control over tonal values in your final images. Effective conversion software will enable you to decide how the tones should appear.


We’ve chosen this portrait for conversion to monochrome. It has a good range of tones, plenty of detail and structural elements that will work well in monochrome.

Conversion Software

Popular applications like Adobe’s Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom, and Apple’s Aperture offer many ways to convert colour digital images to black and white. While they can provide excellent results, they aren’t quite as versatile or powerful as Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro. Nik Software was purchased by Google in September last year.

The Silver Efex Pro plug-in works with the applications listed above. If you’re using Photoshop, the Nik Collection plug-ins will be found in the Filter drop-down menu, circled in red in the screen grab below.




Selecting Silver Efex Pro opens the image in a separate workspace with monochrome conversion applied. The workspace is split into three sections. The image to be edited is in the centre; on its right are the editing tools, while on its left is are thumbnails that make up a gallery of pre-sets, which provide quick conversions with different adjustment levels.




Editing panel


If you’re unsure what effect these pre-sets will apply, clicking on a pre-set changes the appearance of the central image, allowing you to decide whether the adjustments suit. You can also create and save your own pre-sets here for future use.

The editing tools panel on the right hand side is divided into five sections: Global Adjustments, Selective Adjustments, Colour Filter, Film Types and Finishing Adjustments. At the bottom of this panel is a Loupe & Histogram section the shows a detailed view of the image at 100%, which shifts in line with the mouse cursor. This lets you check fine detail in the image without having to zoom in.

The Global Adjustments contain the main editing sliders, which apply changes to the entire image. They include adjustments for Brightness, Contrast and Structure (for adjusting detail). Sub-menus in the Brightness section allow adjustments to be made specifically to highlights, midtones and shadows.

There’s also a Dynamic Brightness slider that provides more selective brightness changes while ensuring the image maintains a good range of details and tones. Moving this slider to the left will darken the image overall, while keeping highlight detail. Moving it to the right will brighten the image overall, while keeping shadow detail.

Other sliders include the Amplify Whites slider, which works only on the light tones, and the Amplify Blacks slider, which causes only the darker tones to become darker. The Soft Contrast slider adjusts contrast transitions. Moving it to the right increases contrast but softens tonal transitions, while moving it to the left reduces contrast while maintaining edge contrasts.

The Structure slider controls how detail is rendered. Moving it to the right emphasises details, while moving it to the left subdues fine details for smoother surfaces. Separate sliders are provided for adjusting the structure of the highlight, midtone and shadow details. There’s also a Fine Structure adjustment for producing even finer details throughout the image.

Selective Adjustments are made with Control Points, which uses Nik’s U-Point Technology. This tool allows you to choose small areas in the image and adjust the group of pixels within an area you define. Clicking on the Add Control Point button lets you position a control point anywhere on the image and open a drop-down menu containing sliders for tweaking different parameters.

Adjustments in this menu include sliders for tweaking: Brightness, Contrast, Structure, Amplify Whites, Amplify Blacks, Fine Structure and Selective Colourisation. The latter is used to restore the original colour of the object or area selected. You can cycle between the different sliders with the up and down keys and use the E key to expand and collapse the control point sliders.

Control Points can be grouped to obtain the same enhancement slider settings or ungrouped by pressing the Ungroup button. Clicking on the Duplicate button will duplicate the currently selected control point(s), while the Delete button removes the selected control point(s).

The Colour Filter section contains six preset colour filters that simulate colour filter effects with B&W film. Sliders are provided for adjusting the Hue and Strength of the selected filter, giving users a high degree of fine-tuning.


The illustration above shows the drop-down menu for the control point adjustments.


Film types


The Film Types section contains 18 different simulated black and white film pre-sets (indicated by the red arrow in the illustration above), based on analysis of rolls of the original film. Selecting a preset will automatically add in the appropriate grain, colour sensitivity, and tone curve for that particular film. Once again, the parameters in each pre-set are adjustable and adjustments can be saved as separate pre-sets.



One of the nice features of Silver Efex Pro is the option to compare before and after images side-by-side. In these illustrations, the film type pre-set has been applied to the image on the right. Note the differences in the gamma curve near the bottom of the adjustments column.


The Finishing Adjustments section allows you to tone images and apply vignetting and border effects. More than 20 toning presets are available, based on actual tints and toners. Alternatively, you can create your own tones by adjusting the Toning and Silver Hue sliders. The Toning slider adjusts the strength of the toning, while the Silver Hue slider sets the colour of the toning to be applied to the silver (dark) densities.

The Balance slider sets the balance of the toning colour combination. Moving it to the left increases the toning effect applied to the dark densities; moving it to the right increase the effect applied to the paper (light) tones. The Paper Toning slider sets the strength of the toning applied to the paper tones.


This comparison shows the original image beside one that has had toning and vignetting and a border added.


Seven pre-sets are available in the Vignette sub-menu, along with a Custom setting that lets you determine the size, colour and edge effects. A Place Centre button lets you position the centre of the vignette and there are four pre-sets plus a Custom setting in the Burn Edges sub-menu, plus 14 pre-set border effects. An example of the combined effects of toning, vignetting and bordering is shown in the illustration below.


To produce this image we used a Control Point to boost the whites and increase contrast in the subject’s hair. We also tweaked brightness slightly with the Dynamic Brightness slider and added a touch of warmth to the tone with the Silver Hue and Toning sliders.