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The Nik Collection review

STOP PRESS: March 2016: Google has now made the Nik Collection completely free. There’s an upside and a downside here – obviously free is good, and makes getting the suite a no-brainer (especially if you are into black and white), but there will be no upgrades, so sooner or later the software will no longer work on a modern operating system.

Recently Google acquired Nik Software. Nik had been known for a suite of still image editing tools, although probably Google want the company for its mobile applications. The upshot of this is that the price of the Nik Collection has been made a lot more affordable.

The suite consists of several tools –

  • HDR Efex Pro 2 – for HDR effects
  • Color Efex Pro 4 – a preset based set of colour image editing tools
  • Silver Efex Pro 2 – For converting to Black and White
  • Viveza 2 – for making selective adjustments
  • Sharpener Pro 3 – for sharpening
  • Dfine 2 – for Noise reduction

The important question is, if you already have Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture do you want these as well? If you don’t have one of the Adobe or Apple packages I’d recommend you spend your money on one of those rather than the Nik Collection, but assuming you already have that software, is it worth spending the money for these additional plug ins?

How it works:
Lightroom and Aperture: Right click on the thumbnail and choose ‘Edit in…’ or ‘Edit with Plug in…’ and then choose the relevant Nik pluggin. Nik will generate a separate TIFF image, which will appear next to the original file, and all your edits will be applied to this TIFF. The edits are not non-destructive. Although you can always return to the untouched original, you can’t just tweak a setting later. If you want to change an adjustment you need to start again from scratch.

Photoshop: You can apply the Nik Collection effects from the filters menu. When you have applied the effects they appear as a new layer. Nik gives you the option of brushing the effects in or out, but it would be easier to do this using a Layer Mask and Photoshop’s more sophisticated selection tools.

Of course, if you are using Lightroom or Aperture, but also have Photoshop, you could also choose to edit the effect in Photoshop, and then apply the filter there. This will often work out best since you can more easily apply the effects to selected regions using a Layer Mask.

Lets look at the individual components…

Sharpener Pro 3 – for sharpening
I don’t really see any use for this at all. The tools in Lightroom or ACR are better, and just as easy to use, and more importantly they come at the right stage in the workflow – on the RAW file rather than on a TIFF after the conversion.

Dfine 2
This noise reduction plug in works very well on images that have a very low amount of noise, but is helpless when confronted with an image that has a lot of noise. Given that, if your image is very noisy in the first place, Photoshop or Lightroom’s noise reduction is going to be a smeared look anyway, so you could argue that Dfine works only on those image where it is going to be most useful, and is not useable on images that are so bad that the noise reduction would have visible artifacts anyway. However, the built in Noise Reduction in Lightroom or ACR is just as good, and again, as with Sharpener Pro 3, it is applied at a better stage in the workflow. So I don’t see much need for this one either.

Colour Efex Pro 4
This is a large collection of preset effects (left column). Each effect is quite customizable (in the right column), and you can apply multiple effects at once – until you ‘save’ you can tweak the controls to adjust the interaction of the different effects. [Click to see the screenshot larger]

Color Efex Pro 4ScreenSnapz001

There’s nothing here that you can’t do in Photoshop, but there are a few effects that you can’t really do in Lightroom or Aperture. However, it really is a different way of working. In Photoshop (or Lightroom or Aperture) you tend to have an idea of what you want to achieve, even if you use a fair amount of experimentation as you work. Colour Efex Pro seems to work best when you have no idea of the outcome you want to achieve. You can very easily browse through the dozens of effects until something sparks your imagination, and then refine the image further with the right column controls. If you did a lot of work with it I think you would get to know the various presets well enough to use them more deliberately, but I don’t see myself doing that. I think this will be the place I come for inspiration with images that I am stuck on. I can imagine occasional use, but not extensive use of this one.

Here’s an example of an image worked up in Color Efex Pro 4… (although a single image is not very revealing – the point is you can produce an almost unlimited number of effects with this pluggin.

S-FX--4

Silver Efex Pro 2
I’ve been using thins one quite a lot in the last few days, and I think it works extremely well. While I think I could do almost everything that this plug in achieves in the other packages, the fact is that in this case the way the interface works encourages me to get better results. While I could probably copy the outcome of using the Silver Efex using the controls in Lightroom, I don’t think I would come up with as good an image if I started with Lightroom and used only those tools.

If you are interested in Black and White imagery, I think this plug in alone easily justifies the expense of the set.

Here’s the workflow I’ve been using, in conjunction with Lightroom, which should indicate why I like this pluggin so much.

First, take advantage of the basic raw processing in Lightroom to get the exposure just the way you feel it should be. Then right click and ‘Edit in’ either Photoshop or Silver Efex Pro 2. I’ll use Photoshop for the more advanced edits, where I think I might want to put different effects on different parts of the image, or, more usually, I’ll just go straight to Silver Efex if I’m intending to process the entire image the same way.

Silver Efex Pro 2ScreenSnapz001

On the left side there are a series of presets that you can apply, but I don’t find these very useful.

On the right side, starting at the top, there are brightness and contrast controls – but you should have already dealt to this in Lightroom. Next are the ‘Structure’ controls, which work in a similar way to the Clarity controls in Lightroom or ACR, except better. Firstly the controls allow you to adjust the clarity (or ‘structure’, to use Nik-speak) independently in highlights, mid tones and shadows, as well as having an overall control with ‘Fine Structure’, which seems to be a similar effect with a very small radius. Secondly, the controls very rarely introduce haloing or artefacting.

Next you can apply the equivalent of a colour filter – for example using a red filter to darken the sky. Again, the effects seem to produce fewer artefacts than using the equivalent effects in Lightroom or ACR. I the Adobe products you can often get halo around the edge of the horizon when you lower the blues to get a darker sky, but I’ve yet to see this happen when using the approximation of the red filter in Silver Efex Pro 2.

Further down you can apply an approximation of a film look. These are actually presets of tone curves, grain and colour responses. Usually I don’t like using preset effects, but these seem to work very well. I’ll experiment with several of these and usually one will stand out as working especially well on a given image. Perhaps I’m just being fooled by the film labels, but they do seem to look more organic than conventional adjustments.

Below this are finishing adjustments that allow you to apply a subtle colour tint (or non-subtle, if you wish). The mildest of the Selenium tones seems to work quite well.

You can add a vignette or ‘burn’ the edges here, but I find that the Lightroom controls work better at this, and have the advantage of being non-destructive.

At this point I’ll hit save and return to Lightroom. There I’ll open the image that I’ve been working on in the Develop module and add a vignette or a gradient to  ‘burn’ the edges as needed.

Certainly with high contrast images, Silver Efex Pro 2 seems to work really well, giving interesting, detailed and organic looking images. Below you can see a caparison between working an image up in Lightroom 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2. Although I think I could get a similar result in Lightroom or Photoshop if I copied the Silver Efex version, that’s not the point here. What these demonstrate is the difference that the two progams led to in terms of creative choices. I worked up each image independently of the other to see where the diffent interfaces would lead me.

Pengelly Hotel

Pengelly Hotel

The top one is form Silver Efex Pro 2, bottom form Lightroom. It might not be so apparent at this small size, but the sky and rock textures are much better in the Silver Efex version when viewed large.

Below is a tougher test. In this case I’ve worked up a low contrast, high ISO image in Lightroom and then had a go at it with Silver Efex Pro 2. The image was shot at 128000 with a Canon 6D.

S-FX-6924

S-FX-

Here it is the top one from Lightroom and th bottom one from Silver Efex Pro 2. In this case I certainly prefer the Silver Efex version – it has a more subtle range of mid tones, and there is too much contrast in the Lightroom version.

In conclusion: While I don’t think that most of the pluggins are especially useful, I do think that Silver Efex Pro 2 is a wonderful pluggin for anyone working in black and white. With the cost of the complete collection now at a very reasonable $US 149, I’d recommend the collection for the use of this pluggin alone. Perhaps with some work you might find that you come to appreciate the other pluggins, but for me they work no better than the equivalent controls in Lightroom or ACR.

Bridge and ACR vs. Lightroom

These are two software packages that do very  similar jobs, but essentially the difference is that Lightroom is oriented towards photographers and Bridge is oriented towards multimedia professionals (including photographers but also designers and video editors).

Lightroom only supports the main photography file formats (Raw, .dng, .jpg, TIFF, .psd and Quicktime movies), wheras Bridge supports a huge range of formats for different types of media.

Lightroom has a variety of views ideal for comparing one photo with another; Bridge is more limited in this regard, but still has some useful viewing options.

Lightroom is a database based application while Bridge is a file browser.This means that Lightroom is faster and more efficient at managing large volumes of files in collections and searches.

You need to import photos into Lightroom. Bridge allows you to browse the photos that are already on your hard dive.

Because Lightroom is a database it is better suited to a single person operator. Bridge allows several people to work on a project at once. For example in a large studio you might have several photographers uploading files from a wedding, one editor, and another person just doing retouching.This kind of environment is much better suited to Bridge.

Lightroom allows you to make virtual copies, Bridge doesn’t.

You need to buy Lightroom. Bridge comes free with Photoshop. Of course, for some photographers, Lightroom might be all your need anyway, and Photoshop can be expensive if you can’t get the student price. At least Lightroom is not expensive.

In general, Lightroom has a more streamlined and intuitive workflow, while Bridge requires you to have a bit more experience in knowing what you are doing.

Conclusion…
If you have Bridge, it will do everything you need for Photography. Lightroom will do it slightly better and slightly more elegantly. Fortunately Lightroom is not very expensive. For me I think it is worth the money to use Lightroom, but if you have been happily using Bridge to keep track of your images, and know it well, I don’t think there would be much advantage in changing to Lightroom. For novice photographers I think Lightroom is a wise investment.

Aperture vs. Lightroom

These are two software packages that do exactly the same job.Typically Adobe and Apple are trying to outdo each other, so the two packages are pretty closely matched.

I tend to use Lightroom, but that’s because I a little more familiar with it. Lightroom essentially has the same image controls as Photoshop’s ACR window, so if you are used to Photoshop, picking up Lightroom is dead easy.

Here’s the breakdown of the two packages….

Image quality:

With Lightroom 3 and earlier versions Aperture had a slight edge here. It was possible to push an image a little further without it breaking down in Aperture. But since the new ‘process’ in Lightroom 4, I think this has evened out. I think the image quality is around the same.

Image Control:

Lightroom has Lens Correction controls that I find very useful, and are completely missing from Aperture. In the two shots below you can see the (R)avensbourne store. The light was great that morning, but ideally I would have been further back and using a longer lens – but that would have put me in the harbour. So I used a wide lens and the result has converging verticals. No problem, in Lightroom with the lens correction tool I’ve adjusted the perspective. Using the tool does have a kid of weird effect as if the camera is floating upwards.

Lens correction applied to cure converging veritcals

Lens correction applied to cure converging veritcals

Lightroom has less controls, but they do work very well. This might just be a little bit of bias in that coming from Photoshop the Lightroom controls are more familiar since they are basically identical to the ACR window, but my overall impressions that although Lightroom has fewer controls, they work better. For example the vignette control in Lightroom – with Aperture, to apply a heavy vignette you need to apply the effect fully, and perhaps even apply the effect twice. In Lightroom you cannot apply the effect twice, but there is more than enough adjustment room in the one control you have – you would never want to apply the effect to it’s fullest.

In Aperture’s favour the customiseable adjustment controls is very well implemented, and I wish Lightroom had something similar. In Aperture you can add control units, and customize the default set. You can add controls twice if the effect is not intense enough. You can bush in or out most of the effects so the effects apply only to certain parts of the image In Lightroom you just have the controls Adobe gives you, and the localised brush effects are a lot more limited. Aperture has better controls when it comes to retouching portraits.

Ease of use:

Both packages are very easy to use, but I Lightroom appears to accomplish the same tasks with less complexity. In writing courses for both Aperture and Lightroom I found that it was much simpler to describe Lightroom’s workflows than Apertures.

Price:

Lightroom is nearly twice the price of Aperture, but neither package is expensive. I think the difference in price is not enough for me to decide between them on price alone, since both packages are extremely good value for money.

Bottom Line:

Both packages are so close that there is certainly no point in changing from one to the other if you already have one.

If you are used to using Photoshop, the controls in Lightroom are so similar that it makes it very easy to learn, so I would go the Lightroom way.

Aperture wins hands down when it comes to retouching portraits, but apart form that, I think the controls n Lightroom work better than the equivalent ones in Aperture.

If you use Windows – well, Aperture is Mac only, so your choice is easy.

But the bottom line is that I think Lightroom is the more elegant package, the software that does the job with the least complexity. Lightroom is simpler to use, yet does exactly the same job, and perhaps even a better job.