nik multimedia’s Color Efex Pro 2.0; …With A Focus On B&W Effects

An old adage says that beginning photographers start out shooting black and white, graduate to color, and then return to black and white when they become good photographers. Student film shooters begin with black and white because it's easier to process and print than color material, but they soon learn that it's not any easier to get top-quality results.

Digital changes everything, of course, and color dominates in the digital world. Nonetheless the quest for outstanding black and white images prevails for some. Because monochrome technology has been de-emphasized it can be challenging to get superlative black and white images from a typical JPEG image file. Fortunately, Color Efex Pro 2.0 from nik multimedia puts a full range of output image controls into the hands of the serious black and white shooter. That eliminates the excuses and places the burden of creativity upon the photographer, where it belongs.

Strictly speaking, it's not necessary to use a Photoshop plug-in to convert your color images to grayscale. You can instruct CS2 to disregard the color data (e.g., change the Image Mode to Grayscale) and viola! You've got monochrome. But unless you're one of those folks who "like what they get" instead of working to "get what they like" you are not going to be completely happy with the results. Unscrambling channel data offers additional control, but it's limited and somewhat haphazard compared to the "tweakability" of Color Efex Pro.

Color Efex Pro 2.0 includes three distinct black and white conversion filters, each with its own characteristics. The complete edition of Version 2.0 includes 72 other filters, some of which can perform individualistic monochrome conversions to broaden your options. Like all Color Efex Pro 2.0 filters, the three black and white conversion filters have an intuitive and easy-to-learn interface. Controls differ from filter to filter but in every case the user can adjust the outcome to the nth degree--the hallmark of Color Efex Pro--and has the choice of Basic or Advanced manipulation. The Basic Controls interface consists of sliders that adjust Brightness, Contrast, and Spectrum, plus other characteristics appropriate to a particular filter. The Advanced Controls interface consists of two sliders that allow the user to separately Protect Highlights and Protect Shadows. All of the filter GUIs (Graphical User Interface) provide before and after previews that can be viewed in various side by side or full-frame layouts, and at different magnifications.

True Light
True Light is nik multimedia's proprietary color handling system. They claim that it automatically provides better color enhancements, preserves the relationships between colors, contrast, and details in the image, and provides more natural and film-like images. Nils Kokemohr, founder of nik multimedia, explains it this way:
"True Light does not work on RGB channel information alone," he told us, "but often treats different aspects of the image in different ways. This allows better control over saturation, color casts, and tonality."

Portrait of nik multimedia's founder Nils Kokemohr.
© 2005, Josh Haftel, All Rights Reserved

The sequence is as follows. The filter receives the user settings, which are of course input via the filter's GUI. Next, enhancement transition curves are created. Then True Light enhances these transition curves based on image contents and colors, so that more natural transitions occur. Finally, the image is enhanced.

Despite the sophisticated technology that's happening behind the scenes, the filters are easy to use. In Photoshop, select Filters and click the "nik Color Efex Pro 2.0: traditional filters" submenu. The first filter listed is the B/W Conversion filter. The Basic and Advanced Controls are as described earlier. The Spectrum slider allows you to target a particular color range and manipulate how it is rendered. In the Advanced mode it's easy to protect shadow and highlight detail. More on this later.

The next filter choice is the B/W Conversion: Dynamic Contrast filter. In addition to the three basic sliders it includes a Contrast Enhancer slider, which is used as the name implies. Adjusting the slider produces dramatic changes and simulates an exaggerated dynamic range.

The third traditional option is the B/W Conversion: Tonal Enhancer filter. Basic Controls includes a drop-down Contrast Method menu with three options that provide three separate starting points for contrast enhancement. Although there is no direct correlation, the process is somewhat similar to the process of using contrast filters when printing.

Original image of girl at the ocean (no filter).
All Photos © 2005, Jon Sienkiewicz, All Rights Reserved

Ocean image using B/W Conversion filter and Protect Shadows adjustments.

Ocean image using B/W Conversion filter and default settings.

Converted to Grayscale mode in Photoshop (no filter).

Converted with nik's B/W Conversion: Tonal Enhancer filter at default settings.

With all three conversion filters, experimentation is the key. It takes a while to become accustomed to the effect produced by each slider. Once the perfect combination has been determined it can be saved for future use, so all effects can be easily recreated and applied to other images.

The greatest benefit of using Color Efex Pro 2.0 for black and white conversions is the ability to preserve highlight and shadow detail. Here is an explanation from Kokemohr:
"There are three ways the `Protect Shadows' or `Protect Highlights' controls can function. Most often, the sliders adapt to the filter function itself. For instance, by smoothing the contrast transition curve in the B/W Dynamic Contrast filter, the transition from `almost white' to `white' is logarithmically smoothed. The same process is used for the shadows.

"In other cases, an algorithm somewhat comparable to Adobe Photoshop's `Shadow/Highlight' is used, but only in filters where the flat nature of this effect does not disturb it, such as in the filter Old Photo (Color).

"In the third method, the filter is diminished by a certain percentage where a strong lightening effect is applied at a bright location, respectively, and where the opposite effect is applied at a dark image location.

"In many filters, several of the algorithms are combined for better results. In the B/W Conversion filters, the `Protect Shadows' and `Protect Highlights' routines ensure that the transition of the luminosity in the highlights does not have a sharp transition, as seen in this illustration:
"The arrow indicates the smooth transition. The curvature at this place depends on the `Protect Highlights' slider while the bottom left curvature is defined by the Shadows slider. Slider settings of 0 percent represent a sharp angle, while 100 percent slider settings represent a very smooth curve."

In addition to the three traditional filters, Color Efex Pro 2.0 provides other ways to convert images to monochrome. They differ dramatically so, once again, experimentation is essential.

Old Photo: Black And White
The Basic Controls for the Old Photo: Black and White filter provides six options in addition to sliders that adjust Grain and Brightness. Each option establishes a different starting point and each relates to a different photographic style.