Nik Collection Now Free

(news & commentary)

Google today announced that the Nik Collection of standalone/plug-in programs for photography is no longer going to be sold for US$149, but instead will be free to all. Those who bought the collection in 2016 will be given a refund. 

This is bittersweet news, in my opinion. First the sweet: the Nik Collection has quite a few gems in it, buried among way too many not-very-useful presets:

  • Sharpener Pro is very useful for output (print), and pretty useful for input (de-antialiasing). The latter, however, does tend to produce visible speckles and hot spots if you get overaggressive, though. Still, I’d rate Sharpener Pro better than Adobe’s own sharpening tools, if used properly. Sharpener was based upon the late Bruce Fraser’s sharpening techniques, previously available as a separate product.
  • Dfine is one of the better noise reduction tools, and in many ways produces better results than Adobe’s noise reduction in an easier manner. Not the best of the NR tools available anymore, but Dfine still is useful if you don’t have one of the other NR tools out there.
  • Silver Efex Pro has some excellent B&W capabilities in it. For a long time it was my go-to choice for converting raw images to black and white, though I basically ignore about 90% of the presets Nik supplies. Silver Efex was one of the gems in the suite.
  • Color Efex 4 is a huge jumble of presets, but buried within it are a few gems, particularly Tonal Contrast, which is one of the more useful ways of handling contrast in tonal bands (highlights, midtones, shadows). 
  • The U-point technology in all the plug-ins allows you to apply effects to areas in interesting ways, rather than doing a full-image change and then having to use layer masks or other techniques to remove that effect from certain parts of your image. However, U-point isn’t exactly easy to learn. It has nuances that will take you some time to master.

The rest of the collection is not things that I tend to use, and not at the same level as the things I just described (though some probably think HDR Efex Pro is). Still, this is a very broad and deep suite of tools that you need if you’re going to get seriously into post processing.

Of course, you don’t have to get such tools from Google. I have several standalone/plug-in suites installed on my machine. The two that I rely on the most are the Topaz suite and the MacPhun Creative Kit. Indeed, as Nik stood still due to inattention, I’d say that I’ve started using those two named suites a lot more. I now use MacPhun Intensity more than Color Efex 4 for contrast tweaking, for instance, and the Topaz DeNoise noise reduction tool is about the best I’ve seen, as long as you stay away from the presets and learn to set it yourself. 

Which brings me to the bitter part of bittersweet. There are two aspects of this. First, since Google took over Nik, the Nik Collection has basically been stagnating. There were a couple of bug fixes and a change in registration handling, but not much else. Google’s announcement makes it seem clear that they think that mobile device photography is where they’re putting all their attention, and the desktop is dead for them. I don’t expect any additional updates or changes to the Nik Collection, and I don’t know what will happen when one of the big OS (Mac or Windows) or application (e.g. Photoshop) updates breaks it sometime in the future. So I’d consider its use as a free goodie limited in time.

But the second bitter part is this: by taking Nik Collection down to zero dollars, it’s going to put strain on the companies still selling similar suites (OnOne, MacPhun, and Topaz, mostly). It’s hard to sell against free. MacPhun, in particular, has been making big strides lately with their Creative Kit tools. Topaz has continued to bring new tools to their suite and refined the existing ones quite nicely. And OnOne has taken to integrating their tools into one standalone suite that’s starting to get some Lightroom-like capabilities to it. 

Putting these innovative companies under monetary pressure is one of the things I don’t like Google’s “free” announcement. I believe that we won’t get the kind of innovation and creativity in professional level products unless we pay for them. Having run software companies, I can tell you they’re a black hole when it comes to keeping products current and useful: if you don’t keep moving, you’ll be sucked into oblivion.

So my advice is this: absolutely download and try the Nik Collection if you’re not already using it. But please don’t use this as an excuse to stop supporting other photography software developers with your purchases. Google may be giving you a gift, but it’s not quite the grand gesture some are making it out to be. It’s Google deciding to put their attention and resources elsewhere and to let something they obtained in a takeover out on its own until it dies of natural causes.

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