Sunday, March 3, 2013

B&W Showdown: Nik Software-vs-Topaz Labs-vs-onOne Software (with discounts)–Part II of II

Black & White Comparison - onOne Software Perfect B&W, Nik Software Silver Efex, & Topaz B&W Effects
Black & White Comparison
onOne Software Perfect B&W, Nik Software Silver Efex, & Topaz B&W Effects

Thanks for joining me for the second part of this series where I compare the top three black and white conversion plug-ins. The first part was called COMPARISON: Nik Silver Efex–vs–Topaz B&W Effects–vs–onOne Perfect Effects (with discounts) - Part I of II, in case you missed it.

With that said, let’s jump into two more processing comparisons and see which I liked the best.

Processing Comparison #2 – Portrait

For the original color portrait (found here), I decided I would use just the presets with my only allowable enhancements beyond that was to turn film grain off. I figured this would give myself and users who just use the presets pretty much “as is” an idea which might work best. This image was taken with a Canon EOS 6D (review) set to f/9 @ 175 mm for 1/60 sec at ISO 100 using studio lights (key light was the Elinchrom 39" Rotalux Deep OctaBox).

I created a huge 24” x 36” contact sheet of images from all three products and then one sheet of large prints of my finalists. It was tough to decide which I liked the best, but what follows is the stack rank of what I felt after carefully examining my these prints in a lightbox.

For this test I thought that Silver Efex Pro 2 gave me the best result, followed by B&W Effects 2 and last was Perfect B&W . All three were solid images, but I just really loved the tonal range of the Nik Software version.

Silver Efex Pro 2 - Fine Art Process Preset
Silver Efex Pro 2 - Fine Art Process Preset

Overall, this preset nailed the look I wanted for this image. I felt that the contrast was very good overall and the blacks were simply delicious. I also loved the amount of light on the face without blowing anything out. The zones looked great and it just felt spot on.

B&W Effects - 100 Fuji Acros Preset (Grain turned off)
B&W Effects - 100 Fuji Acros Preset (Grain turned off)

In second place was B&W Effects which used a film preset where I turned the grain off for a cleaner look. While the face was a little brighter white, I really liked the high key feel of it. In fact, if I were processing this shot for real I’d probably mask the eyes and facial skin from this one and put it on the Silver Efex version to create the perfect overall image (for my taste).

Perfect B&W - AutoMagic Preset
Perfect B&W - AutoMagic Preset

This image is pretty solid even with a neutral conversion, so when I poured through all of the onOne presets I found myself preferring its near neutral “AutoMagic” preset. It had a nice bright face, great tonal range and good contrast. If I were tweaking I’d probably bump the contrast a bit, but it was a good result. In fact, this preset was very satisfying with the Temple photo too, so I marked it as a favorite.

Processing Comparison #3 – Waterfalls

For the last image I decided to give myself a gnarly challenge. The original image from my 2012 camera of the year, the Nikon D600, was a disaster because I was resting my camera on a fence with the vibration of the falls coming through the very unstable fence blocking me from getting a better shot. I had a tripod but I couldn’t get it stable on the very uneven ground and in a position to clear the fence. As a result I just had to effectively handhold this shot with limited stabilization for 1.6 seconds. I tried about 30 different things to avoid having to resort to that, but none of them worked (with the long exposure that I wanted). I kept thinking this was the perfect location for the GT2531 tripod that I so desperately wished I had with me that day (and a rope with a long cable release <g>). I managed to get one click before people arrived and there was too much foot pounding to get another semi-clean shot like this.

The camera settings were f/9 @ 29 mm, 1.6s (handheld against a fence), and ISO 100.

Of course, even if I had a good angle on these falls I was also dealing with a lot of things that fight for the eyes attention in this shot. This meant in post-processing I’d have to do a heck of a lot of burning to help draw more attention to the water and less attention the background noise. I also considered the rocks to be an important secondary subject, so I wanted them to be strong but not distract too much from the falls. I’m not sure if I really accomplished that in the 20 minutes I gave myself as a maximum time limit to process each image, but I think it’s much better than the original.

In short, I had to use every feature available to each product to get the best result I could in a 20 minute time limit. That was no easy task as I could easily seem myself spending 7+ hours getting this image to look one of the awesome fall shots from Vincent Versace. I also limited myself from NOT using Photoshop and staying within the product* to get the final result. I used an asterisks because I did decide in all three cases to blend two images in Photoshop to create the final result as none of the products gave me the tools I needed to get it all perfect without using a Photoshop layer mask.  

For this test I thought that Silver Efex Pro 2 gave me the best result, but the U-Point controls were as painful to use as the spot healing brush in Lightroom. I fought hard to get the woods to darken out like I wanted. B&W Effects 2 was the easiest by far and gave wonderful results, but as the clock was ticking down I failed to notice that my vignette didn’t burn the brush on the foreground rocks enough. Last was Perfect B&W because the vignette at maximum darkness just didn’t cut it. It also had me cursing like a sailor at the lag on the dodge and burn tools which created some nasty effects over and over on the waterfalls. In fact, I ended up going over by 10 minutes on this image due to quirks in this version. The next result was that I just couldn’t get the effect that I wanted, so I had to cut my losses and stop short.

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2
Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2

While I’d still love a few more hours on this one, I think this most closely represents what I was going after. I wanted the falls to be the center of attention and the rocks to be next, yet I wanted the background woods and foreground cliff/moss to be heavily burned. While I’d love more time on the center rocks as they are still a bit too bright, I’m happy with this image in print. The global sharpening is really bad, so I would have spent some time tweaking it in Photoshop if I had the chance, but Silver Efex Pro doesn’t have granular control over this with its U-Point controls. I resisted the temptation to fix this as that would have gone outside the scope of what I was trying to do here.

Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2
Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2

This one was the last image I processed and it turned out so good that I went back and spent an extra 3 minutes on the Silver Efex one to make one tweak (I had blown the waterfalls too much). If I would have had more time I would have done a better job on the brush of the foreground cliff and selectively sharpened better, but this was by far the fastest and easiest product to use to get results that I enjoyed.

onOne Software Perfect B&W 1.0
onOne Software Perfect B&W 1.0

On a computer display I am disappointed in this one, but in print it actually isn’t that bad. In fact, I think if I were doing a real print I’d probably back off the contrast of the other two for a better print tonal range. However, I wasn’t able to use the tools effectively to burn the cliff sides and background. The vignette wouldn’t go dark enough – even with two applications – and the frustrating dodge and burn tools fell short before I ran out of time.

What about doing B&W in Photoshop & Lightroom directly?

My friend Vincent Versace (and guest blog contributor) wrote a great book that covers this subject called From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man. If you have no day job and can spend a few days doing your black and white conversions then you don’t need any of these products. Unfortunately I don’t have that kind of time, so I ultimately fall back on Versace’s finally chapters that basically say – just use Silver Efex Pro 2 (but now  B&W Effects 2 will be in the mix).

Samples Gallery

Click here to see a complete gallery of the images used in this two part review. Read the caption names to find out what’s what. I also have the originals of the landscapes and the portrait image original can be found here.

ALL images are copyright Ron Martinsen and MAY NOT be used for any purpose beyond your personal viewing. You may not save them to your hard drive, print them, share them on social networks, use them as wallpaper, etc… without a written licenses agreement with my legal signature in ink on it.


Like Peter Parker’s uncle says, with great power comes great responsibility, so the power of Silver Efex Pro sometimes caused me to waste too much time tinkering to the point of doing more harm than good. B&W Effects great presets and ease of use certainly had me realizing my artistic vision the fastest, but its local adjustment tools felt a bit crude compared to the others.

Perfect B&W is going to be a great product one day and it’s off to a great start, but today isn’t that day. It’s tough to pick a winner in this bunch, but my least favorite product to work in and my least favorite results in two of the three cases were with Perfect B&W. It’s not a bad product, and it’s got some excellent presets and features. It’s only issue is that it just needs some more bake time to catch up to the version 2 competitors which have benefited from customer feedback. If you own this product I wouldn’t jump ship, but I would keep current when updates are released.

So in the end, which is my winner? Well if you want the ultimate in control and are willing to pay the price, Silver Efex Pro is still the golden standard. Overall it’s just the strongest product and its Zones feature really helps to emphasize that it’s for serious B&W conversions. Perfect B&W tried to have a zone map but it’s useless. B&W Effects doesn’t have one (that I could find), but it’s presets are excellent. It’s ability to see large presets speeds up productivity as well. As a result, if speed and/or price are important then it is the clear winner.

Personally, I have all three so I’ll still probably find reasons to use all three. However, I’ll start first in B&W Effects 2 from now on. If I need more tweaking and have the time, then I’ll use Silver Efex Pro 2, as it’s clearly the most powerful. I’ll only use Perfect B&W at this point to try out its Ansel or AutoMagic presets.

Please note this is all subjective and one man’s opinion. It’s fine if you disagree, but this is what I felt after my admittedly very simplified test. You can do the exact same test yourself with your own images and the free downloadable trial versions, so I encourage you to do that. If you disagree, don’t be rude – just decide with your wallet and use the product that you like best (which may be none of these for some). In fact, if you end up with some great images then feel free to share them with me and my readers on my Flickr group or on my Facebook page. I love seeing my readers work and I am excited for those who have found a system that works well for them!

Discounts and where to order

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