A little show and tell from Nik Silver Efex Pro
So, I had an image from a recent trip to Seattle which I have overlooked several passes through the image set. I thought it looked okay in raw and thought it might have some potential after a bit of post-processing, but just couldn’t get myself to go after it. I wasn’t totally sure if it was worthwhile, but of course, eventually I wanted to find out. No potential negative goes untested (at least a quick test). So here is the original file as captured from the camera:
It is a bit underexposed and quite flat. I was hoping to pull a bit more detail from the cranes and sky and maybe a little more drama from the waves, but wasn’t sure how much I could grab with my usual curves adjustments, even with many masks. I was sure I could bring more exposure and contrast to the waves and clouds on separate masks, but I wasn’t sure about the cranes without some elaborate mask using paths. The cranes are kind of in the exposure and contrast of the water, where the sky is on its own planet. So here is what I came up with from a quick couple of masked curves layers:
Not too bad, but still not what I was envisioning. Those cranes just fall back into the sky and seem unimportant, which is the opposite of what I was going for. I normally use Nik Silver Efex Pro for monochrome conversions (and a little secret, I use the structure adjustment for sharpening on luminosity mode for color, too, just don’t get too heavy handed; subtlety is everything.) So I pulled up the trusty silver efex plugin and played with my normal starting point presets (high structure, push process N+1.5, full dynamic, etc.). Then I tried full contrast + structure, which I had not tried before on normally well-exposed images. But bam! that was what this image wanted. Here is the full contrast + structure with a single curves adjustment for highlights, shadows and contrast tweaking:
I felt slapped in the face. After all this time working on photos underexposed, overexposed, properly exposed, bad lighting, weak lighting, etc, I just assumed there wasn’t enough information in the file to pull the contrast and exposure needed. But I was wrong. The guys (and gals) at Nik sure got this filter down. It was able to see what I was not. Now I’m not sure I’m totally sold on this particular preset’s overall application, but it certainly opened my eyes to what was possible. I will probably still tweak this further with several masks and other silver efex filters, but to see what a simple preset can do to an otherwise benign image is quite amazing.
The bottom line is, if you are doing any number of monochrome conversions, definitely look into silver efex. You have amazing controls over the conversion, way beyond the quite good presets and lightyears beyond photoshop’s internal black and white adjustment. And, like I mentioned, I generally use the silver efex structure to sharpen my images instead of any of photoshop’s tools. I just put the silver efex layer on luminosity. I should also add, I always use silver efex on a smart object as a smart filter. If you are unfamiliar with smart objects, I would suggest familiarizing yourself with them asap if you do any sort of complex or multilevel photoshop adjusting. Russell Brown is an amazing resource whom I cannot recommend enough.