If I were to ask you, which black and white software do you feel is the best out right now, what would you say? NIK Silver Efex Pro? Alien Skin Exposure 6? OnOne Perfect B&W? Topaz B&W Effects? While I can, and would make arguments for a couple of these, I have to say that this question for Mac users just got a whole lot harder.
With 16 bit processing and RAW support for many current cameras, MacPhun Tonality Pro (click here) is a Mac only program which can be used as a standalone, or as a plugin for Aperture, Light Room and Photoshop. Available for $69.99, it begs the question, what does it provide, and what might it skimp on versus other, great, more expensive B&W conversion programs?
It’s no secret that I am a fan of Alien Skin Exposure as it offers a great value for both B&W and Color film emulation, and in my reviews, I’ve often pitted it against NIK Silver Efex Pro which has often been seen as the standard. I always found Exposure winning any head to head I’ve ever done. These are pricy programs though, or in SEP’s case, now only available as part of the whole Google package, not having been updated since version 2. This is not to take away from either, as they are both great pieces of software, of which I’ve used for years, extensively. I’ve also really liked Topaz B&W Effects as a budget friendly plugin, packing a lot of bang for the buck, but Tonality Pro’s little brother, Tonality (standalone only) offers much of what Tonality Pro does, at a fraction of the cost as well covering both the low and higher ends of the plugin marketplace.
Tonality Pro is a program that seems to have borrowed a bit from the NIK approach, quite literally as I do believe some of the developers and programers have moved over to MacPhun since the Google buyout of NIK, and that is both a really good thing, and apparent when getting into the program.
When opening an image in Tonality Pro, you are greeted with the default conversion, all sliders in their neutral position. The first instinct is to start clicking on presets to see how it suits your image (at least that is my first instinct). Broad strokes at first to see what you might be able to do with a single click as it were. Then, the power of this program sets in.
- Before you dive into the sliders, you may want to peruse the smattering of preset groups at the bottom right (where my screen shot says “User Presets” which house groups of presets from Portrait to Landscape, Street to Film Emulations or Dramatic to Vintage. Along with a few others, you have the ability to both favorite certain presets within these preset groups (click on the star next to each preset name), or create User Presets by simply clicking the “+Create” button after tweaking your image to your liking which will immediately allow you to name and save it to your own personal “User Presets” group.
- When selecting any preset, you can adjust the opacity of that preset (or layer) directly via a slider that appears when you hover over that preset along the bottom, preset bar. By default, this adjusts the preset effect by adjusting the opacity of it, over the default profile.
- Hover over the histogram at the top right to see a zone scale pop up. This enables you to immediately see the pixels that populate the different tonality values. You can immediately use this in concert with your histogram to find out where your highlight and shadow values reside within your image. This is a very useful tool throughout your processing, and one that will aid massively in printing.
- Sliders. Tons of them. Broken down into groups, and done in a way that walks you through the proper order from temp, tone/exposure, clarity/structure (local and global contrast sharpening essentially), color filters and isolated color luminance/saturation, tone curve, split toning, glow/halation effects, lens blur, texture overlay, vignette, grain, frames and layer properties.
- Yes, layer properties. You can blend, mask and layer within Tonality Pro. Back up at the very tip top of the slider bar, you can add, and adjust the opacity of layers directly in the program. You can layer effects over effects, textures, grain or select specific areas by way of the masking brush (found along the top of the slider bar).
In my experience, it really works best to play around and just explore without a particular end result in mind at first when getting to know a new program, and with Tonality Pro, not only has that been fun and intuitive, but each time I start to dig around, I find more that I can do with this.
By layering two different effects and masking one in over the other, it becomes inspiring instantly. Whether entering into it with intention, or like in my case on the fly, the ability to create dramatic, graphic effects within the program is very cool and very easy. Above, I just had fun masking an effect onto the background, and then layering a metal texture over the two giving it an almost cut out, vintage effect.
I see plugins as tools. Photoshop is my toolbox, and I have a multitude of included and added tools that I use for any given image. A good plugin, regardless of effect, is one that is quick, efficient and allows for repeatable result. A great plugin takes it further with refinement of details and control of the functional parameters needed to adjust your image in a way that makes sense for that particular job. Not having to bounce back and forth to adjust exposure, tonal adjustments, sharpening, or mask effects saves time and sanity. There is no singular “all in one” plugin or program that does everything really well (arguably the closest would be Photoshop essentially) but as we see with add on plugins, the more a particular program may do, the more it may require specialty tools to handle specific tasks.
One big tool that Photoshop, and other DAM/host software programs do seem to lack depth and richness in, is a fully functional black and white conversion interface, as this is one area that can, and should be specialized in my opinion. Having a few sliders, filters and the ability to create and share presets in Lightroom or Aperture is great, but the detail, the tonal control, the grain and halation are all tools that are in someway lacking in their entirety, and in Tonality Pro, we get a wonderful and comprehensive set of these tools.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of converting these rich, deep, beautifully colored digital files into black and white is the desire to recapture some of the magic from my own personal beginnings with photography in the darkroom. Before I thought at all about gear, I had to figure out how to see an image. When tone and luminosity override color, composition tends to be more easily focused on. Being involved in the process from beginning to end also helped me connect with image making. I learned by buying my own film and winding it into cartridges, fitting it into a spool in the pitch black closet to then spend the finely timed out period developing the film in my high school photography darkroom. While I love shooting digital along with all of the benefits it brings, I still do enjoy shooting film, but more than film, I often find myself missing the experience of shooting in black and white. While fun, photo chemicals stink and aren’t exactly healthy. The digital dark room is such nowadays that we have the ability to recreate many of the processes and effects that we did in a simpler time past, digitally. For that, I’m grateful. Nothing against the film purists at all, but I’m missing it less and less as time goes by.
I’d mentioned the zone scale above, and wanted to reiterate how useful that is. Most landscape photographers (and many non landscape photogs I’d imagine) have read about Ansel Adams, or spent time reading his books on capturing, processing and printing black and white imagery using the Zone System developed by Adams and Fred Archer.
While it is not realistic for me to accurately recap this in any depth here, if you’re not versed in it, it is a journey worth taking. (have a quick search for “The Camera” “The Negative” and “The Print”) Simply put, the zone system is a process wherein the photographer measures and determines tonal values during the capture of an image with the intention of using this scale to develop and print these images to accurately replicate both the scene and their intended vision getting the most out of the light available at the time of capture. Or, something like that.
Modern day metering algorithms, RAW files and 14+ stop dynamic range in many modern cameras, have largely done away with the need to accurately determine your range of tonality, but in many ways, understanding this process helps one to become a more intentional photographer. With digital tools available now, it can enable someone with the ability to use the ideas and techniques of yesteryear, coupled with modern technology to really push into new territory from a personal level. Tools like the zone scale, included in Tonality by merely hovering over your histogram, immediately shows you where your tones fall. Often, computer screens are not properly calibrated, and even when they are, can produce an incorrect luminosity resulting in darker or inaccurate prints comparatively. While this is also an issue with print and screen calibration, having the ability to see what falls into zone 0, or zone 10 in your images, while being able to adjust that very easily is pretty amazing and can save on a ton of ink.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed using many different plugins, and continue to appreciate what a specialized tool can help me achieve. One thing I find very important is how a digital image actually translates to a print. There is arguably very little room for error with black and white when it comes to the print. Grain is evident, tonality tells the story and with the removal of color, entirely dictates the story with the viewer left to asses the image based almost solely on composition and the relationship of the tonal contrast in the image. It’s a different way of expressing through image making when you remove color and while neither better nor worse, is most efficiently utilized when having tools available to get your finished image to where you need it, and want it to be.
I like to print images, large when applicable. I’ve found B&W conversion software can quickly peg your images as digital by way of harshly added grain in an attempt to recreate certain film grain, or not be able to utilize a deep image by compressing it into an 8 bit file causing harsh tonal transitions, even artifacts. I loved the functional qualities of Tonality on screen, but once I started printing images, I realized that it is capable of giving me exactly what I want and need in a print. If adding grain during a black and white conversion, (as I did by way of a film emulation preset on the lead image of Mrs. Squeeze) certain programs I’ve used, can unnaturally alter a print by creating blotchy, blocky noise grain which immediately points to an over processed, or inadequate digital file. The grain on the image in question that I ran through Tonality is evident, and beautifully natural. Film like even, and this was my final test really, which Tonality Pro passed with flying colors.
If you’re on a shoestring budget, MacPhun does offer Tonality (non “pro”) which currently runs a paltry $19.99 as an introductory offer (it will eventually jump up to $29.99 I’m told) but requires purchase through the Mac App Store. It’s a stripped down version that operates as a standalone. If and when you decide that the Pro version might be what you’re after, or prefer using this as a plugin, you can easily upgrade to Tonality Pro via the MacPhun Website for a mere $39.99 more… yep, I thought my math was off at first too. Here are the features as listed on MacPhun’s website.
You can download trials, or purchase Tonality and Tonality Pro directly from the website HERE. If you are purchasing the non pro version, you will be redirected to the App Store, but this link above will also give you the rundown, features and provide more examples than I’m able to.
Tonality Pro runs $69.99 which is less than half what it would cost to purchase Exposure 6 or the Google Suite/NIK Silver Efex Pro, which I’ve felt have consistently been the best, and most complete options for black and white conversion software. After spending a couple weeks with Tonality Pro, I can say that it will become my black and white conversion plugin of choice. I’ll still use Exposure for color, but I think Silver Efex Pro just got entirely knocked off my radar. While I used to use it when needing the Zone scale (Exposure doesn’t have this feature) it was about the only thing I found useful that Exposure didn’t offer. While $70 is not cheap, it can easily pay for itself if you print, or need to replicate a process for events, weddings, series or photo shows. If and when I need to process B&W for any of these reasons, Tonality Pro is going to now be my go to.
What does Tonality Pro provide? A comprehensive conversion software with a multitude of presets and an unlimited ability to create any number of personal presets, a full set of tools, and complete control from conversion with a beautiful, print ready and print worthy file. What does it skimp on? Nothing. If you are a Mac user, and enjoy working with Black and White, especially if you don’t already own a dedicated B&W plugin, I would strongly suggest trying out Tonality Pro. Thank you MacPhun Tonality Pro, I’m truly impressed.
Thanks for the read all and happy shooting,