Evaluating Black and White Conversion Tools

by Feb 24, 2020

I’ve been meaning to do more black and white conversions because I feel it helps me understand an image’s structure and composition in ways that can get lost looking at it through color. I decided for this batch of conversions, I’d do a test between a few tools I have to see which ones I like best for both ease of use and the end result.

The three tools I used were Lightroom Classic from Adobe, Luminar 4 from Skylum, and Silver Efex Pro from DXO.

I selected 12 recent images of mine for this experiment. For purposes of telling them apart later, I toned the Silver Efex images with a light sepia tone, the Lightroom Classic images were toned with a bluish Selenium tone via split toning, and the Luminar images I left neutral.

My bottom line: I’ve used Silver Efex Pro before, but not significantly since DXO took it over. It has by far the most complete set of tools and presets, giving you a lot of power and flexibility. Despite that, it feels easy to use and pick up for the basics, and then you can tweak and experiment to find out what the other pieces do. It’s my favorite conversion tool of the three by far.

If you don’t want to spend the money ($149 US) for the Efex bundle (a total of seven tools including Silver Efex for use stand alone or in Lightroom or Photoshop), the Lightroom Classic tools are perfectly good. They turn out good conversions, but don’t have the power and flexibility of Silver Efex but it’s more than adequate for many conversions. I’d be happy using it if I didn’t have a copy of Silver Efex available.

Luminar 4, which I’m really positive about overall (see Is Luminar 4 the Future of Photography?) really disappointed me. The B&W Conversion pieces of the tool feel like an incomplete, slapped-on afterthought. It has the fewest dedicated B&W tools, and I felt like I was always struggling to find a look to a converted photo I liked. With the other two tools, I seemed to dial in on something I liked quickly.

So if you’re looking for a conversion tool, you may already have it in Lightroom. If you want something with more bells and whistles and are willing to consider paying a bit for it, download the DXO Effects bundle free demo and try it out. You may find the extra cost worth it for the improvement in capabilities.

Silver Efex, for what it’s worth, is the only tool that comes with a set of toning presets, which I really like. For Lightroom, I used split toning to add the blue cast to the shadows.

My least favorite of the conversions is the merganser, which I picked because I felt it was a bad conversion candidate, and I was right, so it’s not the tools fault. I’m unhappy with the results of the grebe shot as well, but it had such contrast changes on the head I’m not suprised it didn’t convert well, either.

My favorites? I rather like the white-breasted nuthatch conversion, the junco, and the woodpecker, as well as the rufous hummingbird. I think the wood duck has potential but it’s not awesome as it stands (I limited myself to about 10 minutes per photo for right now).

I hope to do this on a regular basis, just to get back in the practice of doing conversions, although I doubt I’ll post all of the work. Maybe if it’s really good. Black and white conversions are something you really should be using as part of your image evaluation workflow, since removing the color helps you see the structure and composition better. It’s easy to get started, and you’ll probably find that some images are just better that way. Black and White work deserves a spot in your image library, and deserves some time from you while in the digital darkroom.