Successful black and white photography sometimes gets its power from strong contrasts and graphic shapes, and sometimes it relies on subtlety and control. Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro, now taken over by Google, can do both. In principle, you should be able to do all these things in Photoshop, but in practice I think plug-ins like this do a much better job – and I hope this Silver Efex Pro tutorial will help explain why.

This is my start shot. It was taken in colour, and this is a straight black and white conversion. It’s pleasant enough, but my model Charlotte’s face is too dark, and that cluttered background is confusing.

Silver Efex Pro tutorial

But I think I can get a much better result by using some of the more sophisticated tonal controls in Silver Efex Pro. And if you’ve ever wondered by straight contrast and brightness adjustments don’t give you the results you want, maybe these more advanced options in Silver Efex Pro will show you why these things are a little more complicated than simple levels and curves adjustments.

01 Midtones Brightness

Silver Efex Pro tutorial

Using the Brightness slider in Silver Efex Pro didn’t give me the effect I wanted. It left the photograph looking washed-out and lacking in contrast. I also tried the Dynamic Brightness slider, which applies localised brightness adjustments – this was better, but still not quite right. Finally, I tried the Midtones slider. This brightens the midtones in the picture without affecting the shadows and highlights, and did brighten up Charlotte’s face without spoiling the picture as a whole.

02 Amplify blacks, amplify whites

Silver Efex Pro tutorial

My next step is to increase the overall contrast, but the Contrast slider on its own proved too harsh. I also tried the Soft Contrast slider, which applies localised contrast increases, but while this was better it still wasn’t quite right. Instead, I used the Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks sliders. These made both the white and black tones in the image stronger, and increased the contrast in just the right kind of way.

This may sound like dubious half-science to people used to trusting everything to Photoshop, but having used Photoshop for many years, and Silver Efex Pro since its launch, I do really believe there is an important difference in the way Silver Efex Pro can adjust the tonality of your black and white images.