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  • Ed Dozier

Silver Efex Pro 2 and the Zone System

If you love black and white photos as much as I do, then you should consider using Silver Efex Pro 2. This plug-in can convert your color photos into black and white with an extraordinary level of flexibility.

Plug-ins like Silver Efex Pro 2 can be used in conjunction with many editing programs, and even stand-alone. I’ll be showing you how I use it starting from within Lightroom.

There are many photographic subjects that simply aren’t enhanced by viewing them in color. Many subjects can be given a timeless quality by turning them into black and white. As a photographer, you should at least consider whether your subject might be made more special by a black and white transformation.

So, what’s that reference to the Zone System? The Zone System was invented by Ansel Adams, and it subdivides the light levels of a photograph into ‘zones’, where each neighboring zone number differs by one f-stop of brightness.

In Ansel Adams’ day, film and paper could capture about 9-stops of light at most. If you throw in total blackness (Zone 0) and total whiteness (Zone 10), the Zone system refers to 11 zones. Ansel created a system using these light levels to calibrate exposure, developing, and printing to control the results he wanted to get.

Silver Efex Pro 2 includes the Zone System in their program. You can use it to see qualitatively how changes in presets, exposure, film emulation, highlights, shadows, contrast, etc. will place areas of your photos into these zones.

If you do any inkjet printing, then you should know that any photo areas that land in zone 10 will not only be pure white, but they can also have a different “gloss” than the rest of the print, which generally means that the print is ruined. If you don’t use this Zone System for anything else, then use it for this problem as a sort of early warning system. You probably already know of this problem as “blown highlights”. Laser printers don’t suffer from this effect. Some newer inkjet printers actually have a ‘white’ ink, which also eliminates the ‘zone 10’ problem.

Invoke Silver Efex Pro 2 from Lightroom

As shown above, you can start up Silver Efex Pro 2 from Lightroom via the “Photo” menu, selecting “Photo | Edit In | Silver Efex Pro 2”.

Editing options

The editing dialog options before Silver Efex Pro 2 opens up allow you to decide if you want to modify the original or a copy, and you can also decide if you want to retain the edits you have already made.

The Silver Efex Pro 2 main screen

Silver Efex Pro 2 of course has the standard editing options to adjust highlights, shadows, contrast, etc. after making a ‘neutral’ conversion of your photograph into black and white.

Besides being presented with a large list of preset styles (with thumbnail previews), you also have a sizeable library of film-type emulation, such as various Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford films.

Under the heading of “Toning” (inside “Finishing Adjustments”), you also have the ability to adjust the hue/tone of the “silver” in the image (ala silver halide crystals of photo paper) and the “paper” hue/tone, as well.

Sepia Toning #20

Another “Toning” feature is available if you click the little drop-down control next to the default “#1” neutral value just to the right of the “Toning” label. You will find options for all of the standard darkroom coloring chemicals, such as “Sepia” and the very toxic “Selenium”. You can adjust the strength of these effects, of course, using the slider just underneath the “Toning” label.

The main talking point of this article (the Zone System) is fairly well hidden, however. To locate the Zone System features, you need to scroll down to the bottom of the right-hand menu and expand the “Loupe & Histogram” option. Place the mouse cursor into the Histogram plot area, and the little square ‘Zone’ icons with numbers (0 through 10) suddenly appear.

If you hover the mouse cursor over any Zone number icon, you will see colored highlights appear in your photograph that represent that light value. Each zone number has a different highlight pattern/color to identify itself.

Viewing “Zone 8” values in the photo

The screen shot above shows what happens when you hover over the “Zone 8” icon. You get a red cross-hatched pattern over all areas that contain the Zone 8 light value. If you move the cursor away from the icon, the highlight pattern will disappear.

If you click on one of the Zone icons, then the highlight pattern will stay on the photograph until you click that same Zone icon again. You can click on multiple icons, although the display gets confusing in a hurry.

Once a Zone is selected, then moving a slider such as “Highlights” causes that Zone number pattern to dynamically change in the photo.

Zone 0 shows up as yellow cross-hatching

Since it’s usually visually important to have at least some of Zone 0 (total black) in most photos, leaving this Zone clicked while editing the photo is very common. It will help keep you from accidentally getting rid of all of the Zone 0 areas.

It’s also very common to leave the ‘Zone 10’ icon clicked, in order to ensure that it never shows up in your photo unless you have something intentionally blown out like the sun or a specular reflection.


If you’re interested in black and white photography, then you really should try out Silver Efex Pro 2. Once you use it, I think you’ll find that general-purpose photo editors will disappoint you with their limited repertoire of black and white editing features.

You’d swear that the author of this little plug-in must have worked in a darkroom. I for one sure don’t miss those nasty chemical smells, or having to maintain 20 degrees C.



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