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Two Essential Photoshop Plugins for Black and White Photographers

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Are you looking for a quick and easy way to convert colour photos to black and white in Photoshop? Then plugins may be the answer. In an earlier article I looked at the most common ways to convert colour photos to black and white in Photoshop CS. The best methods are very effective and, if you don't mind taking your time over each conversion, you won't need anything else. But sometimes you want something that is quick, easy and that can be applied to any photo at the touch of a button. For that, you need a plugin.

There are two great plugins for converting colour photos to black and white; Silver Efex Pro and Virtual Photographer. Both are easy to download and install and are fully supported by their makers.

Silver Efex Pro isn't free and therefore isn't for everybody, but it's very good at what it does. You can download a 15 day trial from the Silver Efex Pro website to try out the plugin without purchasing anything. Virtual Photographer is free, and has lots of tools for creating cool black and white conversions. It isn't limited to black and white and you can use also some of the effects on your colour images.

This article looks at what you can use each plugin for. It's not a step by step guide to using them - full instructions are available on their respective websites.

I use these plugins with Photoshop CS 3 and the screen shots are from this program. You can use both plugins with a wide range of software:

Silver Efex Pro (Windows & Mac OS X): Works with Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Aperture. Full installation instructions are in the Silver Efex Pro Quick Start Guide. It costs $149 (United States) from BH Photo Video. If you're in the UK, it's priced at £159 (UK) from Warehouse Express.

Virtual Photographer (Windows Only) is completely free, and works with Photoshop CS, Photoshop Elements, Corel Paintshop Pro. At the moment it's not available for Macs, although OptikVerve plan to make a Mac version available in the future.

Silver Efex Pro

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Start up Silver Efex Pro (download it from the Nik software website) and the Silver Efex Pro window pops up (above). Straight away you'll see that there are a lot of settings, giving you control over all aspects of the black and white conversion:

Style Browser

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Confused? Let's take a look at what you can do. To start you have the Style Browser on the left hand side (above). Click on any style to apply it to your photo. A preview of your photo is displayed in the centre of the window and you can zoom in for a close-up view of the changes.

These are some of the styles that come with the plugin:

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Neutral (above).

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High Structure (above).

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Pull Process N+1 (above).

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Antique Plate I (above). Other styles imitating old process are Ambrotype, Cyanotype and Tin Type.

The Style Browser is also where you can use styles that somebody else has created. To start off you can download more free Styles from the Nik software website.

Preview

You can set the preview to give you a before and after display for comparison purposes:

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Split preview (above).

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Side by side preview 1 (above).

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Side by side preview 2 (above).

Brightness, Control & Structure

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At the top right of the Silver Efex Pro window you can control the brightness, contrast and structure (above). Start by choosing a Style from the Style Browser (I've started with Neutral) and move the sliders for the desired effect (below):

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(Please note that the sliders do not appear above the preview, I've placed them there in this screenshot so that you can see what settings I used).

Structure

Dragging the Structure slider to the right emphasises fine detail in the photo. Dragging it to the left reduces detail and smoothes the surfaces in the photo.

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The left hand side shows the Neutral Style, and the right hand side shows the Neutral Style with the Structure slider set to 84% (above).

Control Points

The Add Control Point button is underneath the Brightness, Contrast and Structure sliders.

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The Add Control Point button (above).

Control Points give Silver Efex Pro its versatility. You use them to make localised changes to the photo. A simple example is making the sky darker in a landscape photo. You can think of Control Points as an advanced selection tool. You can select the part of the photo you'd like to modify. But Control Points go further - you can duplicate them, change them, turn them on and off, and add more. All the Control Points communicate with each other so that the plugin can apply the enhancements in the most suitable manner.

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Here I darkened the photo and then added a Control Point to lighten the dog's face (above). A Control Point is a circle and you can alter the size of the circle, and the Brightness, Contrast and Structure within the circle.

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This is what the photo looks like after the alteration (above).

Colour Filter

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The Colour filter is another versatile tool to help you convert your colour photo to black and white (above). You can choose from present colour filters (red, orange, yellow, green and blue) which would have the same effect as using the same coloured filters over the lens with black and white film. You can then refine the conversion further with a slider that covers the hues between the preset colour filters and another slider that sets the strength of the effect.

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I set the hue to 170∞ and the strength to 151% for this conversion (above). The tones of the photo change dramatically when you move the hue and strength sliders - giving you great control over the black and white conversion.

Film Types

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Silver Efex Pro comes with the information for eighteen common black and white films including classics like Kodak 400 TMAX Pro and Ilford's Delta 400. Not only can you can select a film type to apply to your photo, but you can then fine tune the enhancement by adjusting grain size and hardness; the film's sensitivity to red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and violet; and the film's tone curve (above).

Stylizing

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You can use the Stylizing menu to tone the photo, darken the edges (vignetting) or burn the edges in to make a border effect (above). The toning section is very sophisticated, there are eighteen present tones covering all the popular darkroom toners including sepia, copper, selenium and blue. There are even a couple of split tone presets. Like the Film Types menu, you can fine tune the presets to create your own new look. Darkroom aficionados will love the toning menu because it gives you options to control the hue of the paper and silver - meaning they can replicate the look of their favourite papers.

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My final black and white conversion. With Silver Efex Pro's controls you have the creative freedom to convert colour photos to black and white in almost any way that you wish.

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Add/Save Your Style

Once you're happy with your black and white conversion, you can save the settings as a Style so that you can apply them to other photos with just one click. Just click the Add Style button at the bottom of the Style Browser to do so.

Virtual Photographer

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The Virtual Photographer plugin works in a similar way to Silver Efex Pro. You start with either a preset Style or from scratch, tweaking the image to create the effect that you want. Silver Efex Pro is designed specifically for black and white conversions, and while Virtual Photographer doesn't have the full range of controls that Silver Efex Pro has, you do get an impressive selection of effects and styles that you can apply to both your colour and black and white photos.

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This is the Virtual Photographer window (above).

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There are over 150 preset Styles. These are some of my favourites:

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Disposable (above).

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Faded (above).

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Old Newspaper (above).

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Cinnamon (above).

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Linen (above).

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Ticking the Half box gives you a half and half display for comparing the before and after versions (above).

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Click on the Film tab to select a film type and speed (above). You can use the sliders to adjust brightness, contrast and grain size.

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The Style tab is where you can really get into tweaking the photo to create unique Styles that you can save and import into Virtual Photographer (above). You can then apply them to other photos.

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You can select an Effect from the drop down menu (there are over 30 to choose from) and use the slider to control its strength (above).

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You can also choose a Black and White effect from the drop down menu and dial in its strength using the slider (above).

Conclusion

Silver Efex Pro is a great black and white converter and Virtual Photographer lets you experiment with lots of styles to give your photos a unique look. Both plugins are easy to use and a lot of fun - and both have so many options and so much potential that it will take you some time to master them. The key to getting the best out of them both is experimentation. It's an enjoyable process - have fun!

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