3 Ways to Colorize Photographs Selectively Using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2

Vivian's Elephant
“Vivian’s Elephant,” © Karen Joslin, 2011

Hands down, my favorite Photoshop plug-in is Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2. With SEP 2, photographers can create amazing black-and-white images quickly, including vignettes, borders, and toning. This works wonderfully for me, since I prefer many of my images in black-and-white. But sometimes I want selective colorization on those images, and  SEP 2’s new selective color feature makes that a lot easier. Of course, as with everything in Photoshop, there’s more than one way to achieve the results you want.

Selective Color Within Silver Efex Pro 2

The simplest way to selectively colorize your images is to do it all in SEP 2. This assumes that your original image includes color, and that you want the colorized areas to stay in the same basic hues.

Your first step should be to turn an image layer into a Smart Object. You can use the Background layer, or if you’ve got a separate retouched layer of the entire image, use that. (It’s best to do all your retouching first, because to retouch once it’s a Smart Object, you’ll have to open up the Smart Object, retouch your original color layer, save it, and then close it. That can turn into a real time-waster.) Once you’ve selected the correct layer, go to Photoshop’s Filter menu and choose “Convert for Smart Filters.” Once the conversion is complete (and with that layer still selected), go back to Filter, highlight “Nik Software” in your filter list, and from the pop-up, click on Silver Efex Pro 2.

When SEP 2 opens, it gives you a default black-and-white conversion called Neutral, shown below. (Important: note the Settings button at the bottom left. If you want all your future edits to be performed on the same layer instead of on separate layers each time you save a new version, click on Settings and make the appropriate change in the pop-up box.)

Screen shot of Silver Efex Pro 2's opening interface
Silver Efex Pro 2’s opening interface with my photo “Vivian’s Elephant.” I’ve turned off all my adjustments so you can see how it looks with the initial Neutral conversion.

SEP 2 provides many different ways to modify images. One handy feature is its presets, a few of which you can see on the left side of the screen shot above. Also, you can go to Film Types and select one of those options if you like. (Those include simulations of popular films, such as T-Max, Ilford Delta, etc.) Or tinker around with different settings and create your own look, which you can save as a preset for future use.

When you’re ready to apply selective colorization, go to the Selective Adjustments tab and add a control point. The top slider controls how large an area you apply your adjustments to, indicated by a circle around the control point. The slider at the very bottom controls selective color. (If you only see a few choices and can’t find selective color, click at the bottom of the drop-down list to expand it.)

A screen shot of the image "Vivian's Elephant" in Silver Efex Pro 2.0, with a Control Point selected
“Vivian’s Elephant” with adjustments made and my selective color control point visible. You can’t see the control point’s circle because it’s outside the image’s borders.

As you can see, SEP 2’s selective color function approximates a vintage, hand-painted style rather than preserving the precise color values in the original image. However, the way the colors display changes depending on where you place your control point, so if you don’t like the color at first, moving the point around may help. You may also need to use several control points for the effect you want. Colorizing “Vivian’s Elephant” turned out to be incredibly easy – one control point covering the entire image gave me exactly the right look.

Add a Photoshop Blending Mode 

I’d love it if it were always so easy to get a fabulous effect, but how well SEP 2’s selective colorization works on any given image varies greatly. For instance, the same technique I used above didn’t work well here:

Black-and-white photo of detritus, with just a hint of color
My first attempt at colorizing “Remains,” using just Silver Efex Pro 2’s selective colorization tool.

With colors that lackluster, the image might as well just stay in black-and-white. Nothing I did in SEP 2 improved on these colors, but I decided to save this version anyway and try tinkering with it in Photoshop to yield a more interesting effect. I achieved that by applying a Hard Light blending mode to my SEP 2 filter. It’s easy to do – just click on the double arrows, and when the Blending Options box pops up (which can take a while when you’re working on large image files), test the various settings to see if you like any of them. If you decide to do more editing in SEP 2, clicking on “Silver Efex Pro 2” will open it up .

Screen shots of a Smart Object layer with an SEP 2 filter applied and of Photoshop's Blending Options box
Above left, a Smart Object layer with an SEP 2 filter applied. Clicking on the double arrows brings up Photoshop’s Blending Options box, above right.

Here’s how my final version looks:

“Remains” with Hard Light adjustment

I love how the Hard Light mode punched up the color, especially in the bit of pink transparent ribbon that wasn’t even noticeable with my SEP 2 adjustments. It also added some much-needed contrast. Normally I wouldn’t like highlights so blown out, but the harshness gives an edgy feel to the image that works for me.

Painting On a Layer Mask

Prior to this version of Silver Efex Pro, if I wanted selective color I’d go to my SEP layer mask and use the paintbrush to mask whatever area I wanted to remain in color. Aside from the time that took, another big problem with that method was that it removed any grain and film effects that SEP had added to the image. In addition, whitish areas with a slight color cast didn’t look quite like they belonged. That sometimes resulted in enough of a mismatch for the image to look a little unnatural. I decided to re-do one such image completely in SEP 2, and I’m glad I did, even though it was more challenging than the other images I’ve already talked about.

When you add control points for selective color in SEP 2, sometimes you get colors bleeding into sections you don’t want colorized. You can add more control points to remove those unwanted colors, but that doesn’t work well when you’ve got lots of sharp edges and small areas to remove from. Trying to remove color from the corners where the petals meet was impossible to do well even with the smallest control points, since it removed color from the petals. The only way to fully restrict the color to the flower was with a layer mask.

Fortunately, all I had to do in this case was to drag my layer mask from the old version to a Hue/Saturation layer with the saturation slider set all the way to desaturate. It’s possible there may be a better way to achieve the same goal by applying a layer mask to the Smart Object layer, but I didn’t experiment with that.

Here’s how my final colorized image turned out, thanks to Silver Efex Pro 2 and Photoshop:

“Remains,” final version

Got any other tips on how to use Silver Efex Pro 2’s selective color tool, either with or without extra help in Photoshop? I’d love to hear them!

© Karen Joslin, 2012

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