From Silver Efex Back to Lightroom

Google/Nik's Silver Efex Pro is a popular application for processing black and white digital images. It includes a variety of film emulators and presets; unique editing tools such as dynamic brightness and soft contrast; and, a set of conventional (albeit limited) exposure and retouching tools. I've used it extensively over the past couple of years with generally good results.

Though I was mostly satisfied with the output I was getting from Silver Efex, there were times when I wanted more control over global contrast, micro-contrast, and sharpening. In Silver Efex, micro-contrast and edge sharpening are simultaneously manipulated by what is called the "structure" tool. Its functionality is similar to the structure tools in HDR applications. Increasing structure can add clarity and "punch", but it can also quickly introduce noise and banding in smooth gradients and areas of solid gray. This issue often forced a compromise between optimal clarity in detailed areas, and smooth transitions in areas of flat tone. Also, the global contrast controls in Silver Efex are not as sophisticated as those found in Photoshop and Lightroom. 

These issues with Silver Efex prompted me to go back and re-process some of my older images using only Lightroom 5.4. In the past I've mostly used Lightroom for RAW conversion and cataloguing, but with the newer versions becoming ever more powerful, I felt it was time for another look.

I think the results in the screenshots below speak for themselves. The image on the left in each set was processed 100% in Lightroom, the image on the right was converted from RAW in Lightroom and processed to completion in Silver Efex. The Lightroom image has much better mid-tone contrast and clarity, smoother transitions from gray to white, and overall it's just a richer, more subtly toned and detailed image.

Lightroom on left, Silver Efex on right (click to view full size).

Lightroom (on left) showing improved detail and micro-contrast (click to view full size)

Lightroom (on left) showing improved mid-tone contrast (click to view full size)

Lightroom (on left) showing smoother transitions from gray to white (click to view full size)

A single image does not provide a definitive answer to which application produces superior output, so I also re-processed a number of other images in Lightroom. In each case I ended up with similar results; the images processed in Lightroom showed cleaner details, smoother gradients, and improved contrast.

The takeaway? While I still feel Silver Efex is a decent tool for quick conversions, from here on out I'll be doing all of my black and white processing in Lightroom.