Product Review : Nik Software

Google bought Nik Software a few months ago, and their first decision, God bless them, was to drop the price from about 500$ to 149$. That makes it affordable to most of us, and therefore worth reviewing since many of you are likely to be interested.

Long story short : if you own a DSLR or premium compact shooting in RAW, Nik Software's plugins are a must have. Let's discuss why and illustrate that with a few examples. 

What is in the package

A series of 6 plugins that work with Lightroom (V.3 and above), Photoshop Element (V9 and above),  Photoshop and Aperture:

Those will allow to:
  • Create HDR images (read further, I am strongly opinionated on HDR)
  • Customize your raws into B&W images
  • Sharpen or denoise your files, with amazing results on RAW images
  • Adjust colors and tones
  • Apply creative color effects (the list is endless)
In other words, everything you might want to do while post processing a photograph. I'll be testing it with Lightroom 4.4, the combination that to me makes the most sense for a non photoshop maniac, and from a productivity perspective.

Once you've installed it, you can access the plugins like this: 

You can edit a copy, or the version you are working on in Lightroom. Once you save it'll create a copy in Lighroom anyway, so no risk of messing up the original file. A minor detail, but it illustrates how well thought this collection is. 

Let's deep dive into the logic 

It is for me the greatest strength of this package. The workflow is excellent whereas in Photoshop well...there is none, it's all up to you to figure it out. Because Nik provides a package dedicated to photo editing, it provides better guidance than Photoshop, which is essentially a gigantic tool box with few instructions. This is how the UI for one of the plugins looks like (in that case Color Efex):

You have on the left side a series of presets or filters, your image in the middle (you can see the outcome, a split view or a side by side comparison), and the different elements contributing to that effect on the right. So here is the way it works: 
  • You will hardly ever apply those filters as they are, first because they are overexagerated and mostly because every image requires a custom treatment
  • But those filters give you a good visual of what they can do if you push them. It other word, mouse over presets until you think "oh , I'd like some of that", then on the right side tweak it until you get just that part of the effect that you want.
One of the great things indeed is that the effect is alway decomposed so that you can extract just what you need. For example, just add a bit of cross processing from a filter, then apply an other one from which you'll just keep a tiny bit of color filtering. You can end up with very subtle images in the end. 
You can then save it, and keep on customizing it in Lightroom or in an other one of the plugins. It is very smart because it goes from the expected end result down to the execution: you first see what it can do, and you can very easily pick just what you want from it.

An other great thing is the control points: you can decide to apply the filter on just one part of the image, and separately edit the rest of the image from that area. That works brilliantly (the selected area blends in well with the rest). I'll show you further in an example.

This is essentially how it works, pretty easy uh? You can do simply what the best photoshopers can do with a lot of experience, in significantly less time. I won't go thru an exhaustive list of what you can do, because it's not needed really. First of all it would take forever, and mostly you can really learn how to use it just by doing.

Some Examples

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction on a raw file at ISO 6400, F5.6 1/200s. It is very impressive. Beware, you need a raw file for such result.

Whoooooo lives in a pineapple under the seaaaaa ?!!

Here is the same just using Lightroom 4.4. Open them both in a new tab and you'll clearly see that the file from Lightroom is significantly less clean on plain surfaces. It's a minor part of the Nik package of course, but sill a nice to have.

Some advice on how to use it
Experiment. There is a lot of buttons to press at first sight, but you'll quickly realize most effects are composed of very similar elements recombined differently. Learn to use those levers, spend 45min on a picture at the beginning, it'll be worth it in the long run.

Shoot in RAW. You get three times the data in each file, allows you ANYTHING in post processing. If you try to edit a jpeg in there, you are just a bloody idiot. 

Don't use filter and presets as they are. It looks gross. Keep in mind they are over exaggerated to help you visualize what they do. It's up to you to customized. Even for B&W, I never used the film presets they have. No matter how much you shoot, you'll always have a very few shots that are on top, you should only focus on those. Spend a lot of time processing them if you must

Is it worth the bucks?

Clearly yes. It's smartly done, fast and extremely exhaustive. The workflow/ logic is excellent and intuitive. It's also well optimized for your computer not to choke on those big files (I know what you are thinking about...), and last but not least: it is now correctly priced.

In other words, for a photographer (not a digital graphic artist), it is everything you need. Paying for a full photoshop licence is totally retarded for a photographic use only. At 500$, I'm not sure it was worth it unless you are a pro. You could have manually done it for free in Gimp with a lot of practice. But at 150$, you should buy it as a bundle with your DSLR, no doubt.

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