All through its journey from Nik, to Google, to DxO, Silver Efex has more or less remained the same. That wasn't really a problem however because it's good. And much like a black tux that never goes out of style, so remained my favorite application for digital black and white photography.
Then along came Silver Efex 3, and truly, a good thing got better. This new version released by DxO updated the interface, added presets, now includes DxO's ClearView technology, and made the control points easier to use. If you work with Tiff files, you have the option to retain all of the edits so you can return to the image and pick up where you left off.
Two Basic Workflows
You can use Silver Efex as a standalone app or as a plugin for Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. I tried it with Capture One Pro, and it behaved like it knew what to do, but in the end the experiment failed. (In fact, make sure Capture One Pro is not open when working with Silver Efex 3 or it will muck up your workflow.) I also could not get it to work with the Creative Cloud version of Lightroom or Photos for macOS. So that left me with Photoshop for roundtripping. Ugh.
As a standalone, the app works well. I recommend exporting the file from your photo management app as a Tiff so you can return to the project and retain your edits. Silver Efex will also accept Jpegs, but without the nifty return-to-edit feature. No RAW files of any type are accepted.
Start with the Presets
The presets are visible on the left side of the interface, and they are a good starting point. If nothing else, they help you explore the possibilities with your photo. If you find something you like, then select it and move over to the right side of the interface to fine-tune the image's appearance with the variety of tools available.
If you don't see any presets that you like, then I recommend that you choose 000 Neutral and move over to the film types on the right side. There are a bunch of them there to choose from, and DxO has been working on these for years. They are quite good.
Once you hone in on a basic look, you can add finishing touches such as structure, ClearView, soft contrast and a host of other tools. It's really fun to play with these. You have three different ways to review Before/After, with those buttons located at the top of the toolbar.
Improved Control Points
I wasn't a huge fan of the U-Point technology back in their early days, but I used them. This is an area where I think DxO has added value to the maintenance of Silver Efex. I think the current iteration of control points are easier to use and make more sense.
In Silver Efex 3, you enable the control point target by clicking on it (in the Selective Adjustments panel), then clicking on the area of the image that you want a localized edit. You can adjust the diameter by sliding on the scale that appears to the right of the control point.
To apply a tonal adjustment, just make sure the control point is highlighted, then make your adjustment using the sliders on the right side of the interface in the Selective Adjustments panel. There are some nice little features that allow you to turn on and off the effect of the control point and to show its mask. You can even give the control point a specific label, which I think is a great touch.
You still have the limitations that control points are round circles, to they are not as precise as a mask created by other means, but they do have intelligence under the hood, and are now much easier to use.
The Bottom Line
Silver Efex Pro 3 remains a quirky application. The workflow is limited compared to other apps, and you have to spend a little time getting inside its head. But if you love black and white photography, it's still the premier tool for creating stunning monochrome and duotone images.
Silver Efex 3 is part of the entire Nik Collection, currently on sale for $99.
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