Sunday, March 3, 2013

COMPARISON: Nik Silver Efex–vs–Topaz B&W Effects–vs–onOne Perfect Effects (with discounts) - Part I of II (Updated Apr 10, 2013)

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

When it comes to black and white conversions, I’ll admit that I’m a Silver Efex Pro 2 fan boy. It’s a great product with gobs of control that allow you to dial in the results you want, where you want it. However, after a good first try Topaz Labs really upped its game with awesome follow up called B&W Effects 2. I’ve really been pleased with this product to the point that I find myself using it probably more than I should! It’s just very well done and it’s fast to get good results, so it’s tempting to fire it up and say “I wonder what this would look like in B&W”. Finally onOne surprised everybody by tossing its hat into this now crowded space with Perfect B&W. It’s got some impressive features and a wealth of presets, so I started to wonder myself – which one should I use?

For this Black & White showdown I decided to do a very unscientific comparison which I’m sure will piss off my anal retentive, OCD, engineer readers who are sticklers for scientific analysis. If that’s what you are looking for then I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. Instead, I got this crazy idea to just edit some images the way I’d do them in real life using all three products, then compare the results. I’m all about real world results, and I think this really measures what you can expect as I’m very familiar with all three products.

I have no doubt that if someone wanted to spend a couple days doing an analysis they could get all three products to produce identical results using the same image and mapping the values set by one to the others. I don’t have the desire to do that because I don’t think that’s real. Instead, I think that when you have a product you use it based on what’s easily accessible and you edit your image with subjective results based on how you are able to use the features within the product effectively. With that in mind, that’s how I approached this – I wanted to see what’s the best result I could get using the features of the product like I’d really use them and see which of the three gave me the best result for a variety of images.

To help me in this process, I also printed all of the images I did during my testing (which is more than you see here in this article) on my Canon iPF6450 and Canon PRO-1 printers to see which result I preferred when viewed inside a lightbox. I examined them as prints to draw my final conclusions, but in all cases my opinion of the display version mirrored my opinion of the print.

User Interface Comparison Overview

I’ll begin this review with a little run down on the user interfaces of each product. Click the images to see a larger version of the screen shot, and click the links under the images to see my current review for each product. I go into more depth on my reviews than I will here.

onOne Software Perfect B&W 1

onOne Software Perfect B&W 1

This is a slick looking user-interface that can be run standalone or as a plug-in in your Apple or Adobe favorite product. It features nice interactive previews of what your image would look with its large number of presets. It also features a handy search feature so you can get to your preset quickly (which none of the other products offer). It also not only allows you to mark your favorites, but it also has a way for you to see (or instantly run from Photoshop) your most recently used conversions. This is really great if you aren’t using Smart Objects and you decide “oh crap, I wish I would have created a custom Preset for this”. You can just reload the software and go back to one of your recently used items and save it as a preset.

All products in this review feature preset import & export, so I won’t go into details about one versus the other – I like all of them. All also feature live previews of your image with your preset too.

On the right side of the UI onOne Software matches the competition feature for feature and throws in the Glow feature as well as a wider variety of options for sharpening. In version 1.0, I found the local adjustment brushes on the main window toolbar to be a little more unsophisticated than the competition, and they often had an undesirable latency when I was painting with my brush. As a result, I’d call the brushes “barely usable”, but the rest of the product was pretty solid.

While there are no pending updates available, I did hit a bug where I applied a border which was shown in the preview window, but it never applied it when I went back to Photoshop. This happened 80% of the time (but oddly enough, not 100%) so there’s an odd bug here.

This is a good UI and impressive for 1.0, but the brushes performance needs work. Hopefully that’s coming soon in an update.

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2

This is, by far, the most powerful and complete user interface for black & white conversion of anything on the market. It’s the gold standard that work professionals rely on and trust, so I doubt anyone would find themselves less than happy with the controls at their disposal here. What’s more, not only do you have excellent controls you also have a brilliant zones map shown above that will overlay hashes while you over (or click to make them stay) the zone number on the histogram. This allows you to quickly identify gaps and anything missing rom the zone. Personally I always try to have all zones except for 10, but I tend to push zones 0 – 3 pretty heavily.

Some huge advantages of this user-interface for features not found in the other products are:

  1. U-Point controls – If you use Nik Software you know that this is their magic control that allows you to quickly and easily create complex masks by simply putting a dot on the tonal value that you want to enhance. It’s a brilliant feature and it’s super helpful in B&W conversions where sometimes an area goes dark or you are missing a a zone.
  2. Zones on the Histogram – mentioned above, this alone is worth the cost of this product for print masters. (UPDATE: B&W Effects 2.1 adds this feature)
  3. Dynamic Brightness – This is the magic “just make it look like I want” slider. It’s very much like fill light in the old Lightroom, but much more advanced. You just have to try it to fall in love.
  4. Brilliant Lightroom-like history – It’s so helpful to be able to go back and see what you’ve done and roll back if you need to. With the visual history featured in this product, you get the same level of rollback as you get with Lightroom. I LOVE THIS!
  5. Fast & Reliable – Of all three products, this one has been out the longest so it seems completely free of bugs and the performance is outstanding. In short, it just works – very well!

There’s other advantages as well, but the ones above are all decision maker features that put Silver Efex Pro 2 on the top of my recommended plug-ins list (as of the time this paragraph was written).

Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2

Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2

If you are a preset clicker and not a tweaker, then this is by far the best and easiest to use interface. With huge live previews shown above (they disappear when you mouse out of the preset window), you can really see what your image is going to look like with a given preset before you apply it. While the others have this feature too, the previews are postage stamp size so this is really helpful. However, what’s even more helpful is the fact that all collections (including your snapshots, favorites and personal collections) can all be viewed in a single window for that collection (shown below). This means you can quickly see large previews of what every preset in the all Traditional Collection collection looks like using your image. Here’s what it looks like:

This is huge because you really get to take advantage of the huge number of presets because it only takes a few minutes to see what your image looks like with every one of them. This makes getting a good starting point go by very fast. Of course most people will gravitate to a few number of presets which they can flag as their favorites, and still use this feature to view their image with all of their favorite presets applied – WOOHOO! I hope this comes to EVERY product with presets!

This product matches the competition in all of the other features, but I felt like its local adjustment brushes were a bit lame. While they performed well and weren’t buggy like Perfect B&W’s, they are a bit cumbersome to use and very basic (effectively just dodge and burn with a limited intelligence brush). In short, I didn’t like using them.

What’s added and is unique in this product over the others is that it features Topaz Labs Adjust’s (and Detail’s) detail processing. This is effectively a very advanced sharpening tool that can be easily abused to destroy a photo. This product also had the best group of presets by far compared to the other products. This can be a big time saver for a fast start up.

I enjoyed this UI and felt that it was certainly the best of all Topaz user interfaces up to the day this article was written. While the brushes are a bit disappointing, I think most will be very satisfied with this user interface experience. 

UI Summary

I’d quickly stack rank the UI’s as:

1. Silver Efex Pro – The most powerful with the brilliant U-Point controls. However, the lack of an adjustment brush is problematic when U-Points don’t do exactly what you want (sometime brushing is easier). 

2. B&W Effects 2.1 – While not as powerful and polished as Nik’s, the large preset previews REALLY help speed up both creativity and productivity. It’s wealth of presets will be a huge time saver for busy photographers. The recent addition of the zones feature (since this was originally written – in the new 2.1 update) really helps close the gap to SEP2.

3. Perfect B&W – A good start and its Ansel preset is sure to please, but this product is just suffering from a little 1.0 quirks (some of which are now addressed in the latest update). It lacks the something special like Topaz pulled off. I like where it’s going though and expect it to blow us away in version 2. Perfect Photo Suite users shouldn’t feel bad either as this is an excellent product.

Processing Comparison #1 - Temple Nightscape

For my first test image, I decided to go with this temple nightscape photo that I took in Japan last year. It was an evening shot taken with a Canon EOS-1D X using f/5.6 @ 24mm for 1s on a Gitzo GT1541 tripod. Since I used ISO 800 at night, I decided to start by using Noiseware on it. I also removed some of the stars from the original as they felt more like sensor hot spots since there were so few.

For this test I thought that B&W Effects 2 gave me the best result, followed by Perfect B&W and surprisingly last was Silver Efex Pro 2. All three were solid images, but I just really loved the contrast and attention drawn to the foreground of the Topaz Labs version. For this image I did use U-Point controls in Silver Efex, but I didn’t use local adjustment brushes in either of the other plug-ins.

B&W Effects 2 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
B&W Effects 2 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Perfect B&W 1 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Perfect B&W 1 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The result I got from Perfect B&W offered the best tonal range but it fell a little flat in the mid-tones. 

Silver Efex Pro 2 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Silver Efex Pro 2 - Copyright (c) Ron Martinsen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This image has better mid-tones than the Perfect B&W and is very good overall, but I think I overcooked it. I regret doing the burned edges and I just wasn’t thrilled with the way the dark areas looked in print – it’s just too dark overall. Yes, this is clearly user error, but my argument here is that I use the product all of the time so this represents what I’d do with it in real life. I took advantage of all the tools in Silver Efex Pro and tweaked it so much that I ended up over tweaking. That’s not the fault of the product, but if I only had this product (as I did in the past) this is very likely the result I would have obtained. The same is true of the other products.

Click here to see part 2 for additional images compared head to head.

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.


To see my conclusion, visit the second part entitled B&W Showdown: Nik Software-vs-Topaz Labs-vs-onOne Software (with discounts)–Part II of II.

Discounts and where to order

Use this links below to Download the Trial Version or Order Now:

You can also find details on my discount coupon codes at the end of each of my product reviews for these products. You can also visit my discount coupon code page where I have discounts for lots of other great products too. Be sure to also scan the right side of this blog for an index of some great articles.

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Jeff Clow said...

Fine comparison, Ron.....I have all three products and use them when experimenting with a color to black and white conversion.

I find that - depending on the tonal range of the original photo - that each of these programs can produce stellar outcomes. But it really depends on the shot - it amazes me how each of these three can transform the color photo differently and not "look" like each other.

Once again, I think you did a fine job on this side by side comparison review.

ajcarr said...

You should really look at DxO Film Pack 4: Salgado uses it with his modern digital photos to get the same appearance as his film images on Tri-X. I use it as an Aperture plugin and also with DxO Optics Pro.