Photoshop plug-ins are like mini-applications designed to work from within Photoshop rather than as standalone tools, though some do this, too. Typically, they’re installed alongside built-in effects in the Filter menu, though they may appear elsewhere, such as the File>Automate menu.
You choose the filter from the menu, and the image opens in the filter window. When you’ve made your adjustments, the image is returned to Photoshop, sometimes as a new layer or a Smart Object.
Plug-ins aren’t usually designed to replace key functions in Photoshop, but to carry out specialised tasks much more effectively. Photoshop is a good jack-of-all-trades, but plug-ins give you extra tools and capabilities in specific areas.
They may do things that you simply can’t do in Photoshop, though this is becoming rare. They may simply do a particular job much better, and that’s certainly the case with Silver Efex Pro 2, the plug-in that features in our tutorial here. They can save you time, simplifying processes that might take many steps in Photoshop and, most importantly, can provide valuable inspiration.
Photoshop is fine when you already know what you want to do, but plug-ins can give you an instant insight into how your image can look with different effects applied.That’s where Photoshop plug-ins like Tiffen Dfx 3.0 are so valuable, or Nik Color Efex Pro 4.
Black and white conversions, though, are an especially good example. It’s easy enough to master Photoshop’s Channel Mixer or Black & White tools to simulate the effect of black and white ‘contrast’ filters to darken blue skies and lighten foliage, for example.
And you can use Curves to increase the contrast, and apply the Dodge and Burn tools to control the brightness of specific areas of the picture. Yet that authentic black and white look is surprisingly elusive.
You can try adding grain, of course, but that’s not so easy to get right, either. You can’t just apply the Noise filter because the grain needs to be softened and worked into the fine detail of the image, not just laid on top.
And there’s so much more about classical black and white media that is difficult to recreate digitally, such as the subtle balance of midtone contrast with shadow and highlight detail, the intensity of the blacks, the subtle brilliance of the whites and the gutsy depth of a well-crafted and honed black and white image.
Silver Efex Pro 2 does this in a way that Photoshop does not. It’s possible that you could reverse-engineer what it does and recreate it manually, but it would take a long time and a great deal of expertise – and why go to all that trouble when a simple Photoshop plug-in can do it for you?
The other thing to remember is that Photoshop isn’t designed just for photo manipulation. It’s also for illustrators, designers and artists, and the terminology and approach reflects this broad scope.
Photoshop plug-ins like Silver Efex Pro 2, however, are designed specifically for photographers, mirroring the jargon, the techniques and effects that they will understand.
Tiffen Dfx offers digital equivalents of a whole raft of cinematic filters, and you can see how your image will look before you choose.
Make a classy black and white image with Silver Efex Pro 2 Photoshp plug-in
01 Choose a style
Silver Efex Pro 2 offers a long list of preset black and white styles. This ‘Full Dynamic’ preset looks like a good starting point for this shot, bringing that bright sky back under control.
02 Local adjustments
The sky’s been darkened, a localised ‘control point’ has been used to keep the flag and the mast bright, and the overall contrast and ‘Structure’ have been boosted – the original is on the left.
03 Finishing touches
Silver Efex Pro 2 also offers toning and framing option. And if you like the effect you’ve achieved, you can save your adjustments as a new custom preset that you can re-use in the future.