Black and white photography is hard, and doing a good black and white conversion in post processing can be even harder. Photoshop is the most powerful B&W conversion tool, but for sure it isn’t easy to use.
In the last few years software houses have come up with some tools that help with this task, starting from Google Silver Efex Pro, which has since been considered the standard. Now there are at least a couple of contenders to the title of best B&W conversion tool: onOne Software Perfect B&W and Topaz B&W Effects.
Topaz Labs is running a 50% sale on B&W Effects 2 from November 5th through November 19th (promo code NOVBW), so I think it’s the right time to write a little about this plugin.
The interface of B&W Effects 2 is clean and organised.
On the left you have a column with presets divided by collections. If you’ve used other Topaz Labs plugins, you already know how these work. Moving the mouse cursor over the preset names a large preview pops up. Also, pressing the nine-square button on a presets collection name, a preset Quick Look opens. This is a browser of all the presets present in the collection.
I have to say the performance of this Quick Look window isn’t stunning, and scrolling through the presets is a little sluggish, but it’s certainly usable, and useful to browse the large amount of presets. In the style of Topaz Labs plugins, you have a lot of presets, and they’re all good starting points for your B&W conversions. Obviously you can create your own presets as well.
The left column hosts the Work Area. At the top there is the small navigator. You can change what appears here in a Zone Mode or a Loupe View. The Zone Mode shows an histogram and a series of buttons to switch on/off a zone system overlay on the image. I use this a lot while preparing my prints.
Just under the navigator there is a quite handy shortcuts panel, called quick tools. Here you can rapidly set a colour filter (a simulation of physical filters used on the lens), you can add and remove contrast, brightness and adaptive exposure (see later), you can access the dodge/burn tool, and you can set the colour toning of the conversion.
Under the quick tools panel there are four collapsible panels: Conversion, Creative Effects, Local Adjustments and Finishing Touches where the details of the processing are “hidden”.
In the Conversion panel there are all the tools you may need to convert the image in black and white. First of all you have a Basic Exposure tab where you can set contrast, brightness and boost blacks and whites.
Then there is an Adaptive Exposure panel. According to Topaz Labs, “the Adaptive Exposure tab uses an adaptive technique to enhance the dynamic range of your image”. I find this tool quite powerful but a little difficult to get used to.
You have an Adaptive Exposure slider that sets the tonal balance, and a regions slider that sets the number of regions to divide the image into. Basically, using these two sliders you can fine tune the local contrast of the image.
The Regions sliders divides the image in a number of sectors from 1 to 50. If you set it to 1, the adaptive exposure slider balances the exposure of the entire image. If you set it to 50, the adaptive exposure slider balances the exposure of each of the 50 sectors independently from eachother, enhancing smaller details and local contrast. I find the amount of control and the number of achievable looks you can obtain using these sliders is amazing.
Under Conversion there are also colour sensitivity, colour filter and curve tool panels to fine tune even more precisely the image.
In the Creative Effects panel there are four useful creative tools: Simplify, Diffusion, Posterize and Camera Shake, and they’re quite self explanatory.
Simplify and Posterize create peculiar graphic looks, but they can be used to achieve quite unique looks if used in combination with Photoshop’s layers
Diffusion permits to add glows to the image, and Camera Shake, well, simulates a blurred image.
This panel has all you need to use brushes on your image. You can dodge and burn, add color and detail, and you can smooth the image using brushes. You can set the size, the opacity and the hardness of your brush. There’s even a edge aware feature.
The first tab in the Finishing Touches panel is Silver and Paper Tone. Here you have some sliders to set the colour toning of the image. “Silver” refers to shadows and “paper” refers to highlights. It’s nice to have some darkroom terminology here.
The second tab is the Quad Tone tool. Here you have e control similar to what Topaz Restyle does. You have four colours to map to four tones in the black and white image, allowing you to obtain special toning and contrast effects. This is a complex algorithm that allows to obtain virtually infinite looks, special effects and natural looking tones.
Then there is a self explanatory Film Grain simulation tool and a Border tool. The Edge Exposure tool allows you to burn or dodge along the edges with a linear gradient. The tour concludes with a Vignette tool and a Transparency tool that allows to bring back some of the colour of the original image.
To me, the standard to compare is Silver Efex Pro 2. B&W Effects 2 compares quite well, but it isn’t as snappy as Silver Efex Pro 2 is. I already complained about the window manager Topaz uses on Mac OSX in the past, and here I confirm there are those little nasty quirks of the interface in B&W Effects 2 too.
Also, like every Topaz Labs plugin I’ve tested, there is a lag when setting sliders. In fact, when you set a slider, you have to release the mouse button to have the image updated. I prefer Silver Efex Pro 2 behaviour here, where you can see in realtime the effect of the slider on the image.
Besides these little quirks, the software is well performing, fast and stable.
How does it compare to Silver Efex Pro 2?
I have to admit I was a little skeptical about B&W Effects 2 at first, but I have to admit it compares quite well to Silver Efex Pro 2. B&W Effects 2 allows you to obtain the same level of black and white you can obtain using the software by Google, and maybe even a little more.
If you are in that kind of thing, there is all the plethora of special effects lacking in Silver Efex Pro 2 and present in B&W Effects 2, but Simplify and Posterize can be used to obtain natural looking effects too, and this is a nice add to the plugin.
Also, Quad Tone is another key feature absent in Silver Efex Pro 2 that allows an unprecedented amount of control over toning.
Of course, B&W Effects 2 misses the UPoint technology present only in Google Collection plugins.
Topaz Labs is running a 50% sale on B&W Effects 2 from November 5th through November 19th 2013. To redeem your discount, to use the promo code NOVBW to get B&W Effects 2 for $29.99. I think it is a great value for your money and you shouldn’t miss this.
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Disclaimer: if you purchase the software using one of the links in this article, I might earn a commission. Rest assured that my review is honest, and that it express my real opinion of the product.