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Google’s giving away $500 worth of photo software for free — but is it any good?

David Pogue
Tech Critic

Sometimes, you can see guess how a thing got priced by looking at its raw materials. A gold necklace. A filet mignon. A house.

Other times, the price is harder to assess. What, for example, is the value of software? It’s just an electronic file — lines of code, infinitely duplicatable without incurring any additional expense.

Years ago, I co-wrote a huge, 1300-page book called Mac Secrets. Each edition came with a CD filled with software. But it wasn’t just demos and shareware. Instead, I contacted various software companies and asked them if I could include, on this CD, the full commercial versions of their products — perhaps one version old. For free.

To my eternal amazement, most of them jumped at the chance. Their thinking was: “By introducing more people to our recently discontinued 3.0 version, we gain new customers for our current 4.0 version.”

I found it incredible that a software company might charge $300 for a piece of code on September 18 — but then give it away for nothing on September 19. Surely the value of the 3.0 version hadn’t dropped that much overnight.

All of this came to mind two weeks ago when Nik Software’s Complete Collection, a suite of seven photo-editing programs that once cost $500, suddenly became free. That’s right: The same set of well-reviewed, high-end plug-ins that once cost $500 (and then dropped to $150 after Google bought company in 2012) just became free.

You can download them right here, for Mac or Windows.

Is ‘free’ good?

The first question is: Why would Google buy a software company and then give away its crown jewels?

“The Nik Software team has deep and unique image-processing expertise,” Google told me. “Their technology, coupled with the team’s passion for photography, accelerated our ongoing efforts at Google to deliver a great photo experience.” In other words, it wasn’t the software Google wanted; it was the company’s talent and technology.

The fact is, though, that when one software company acquires another, the acquired company’s wares are usually “end-of-lifed” — in other words, terminated. There’s a very long list of cool apps and programs that are no longer with us because their companies got swallowed up by bigger ones: Persuasion, Tweetie, Picnik, Posterous, Sparrow, Summly, Wavii, Siri (the standalone app), Poster, Meebo, BumpTop 3D, Fridge, SageTV DVR, Lightbox … the list goes on.

So it’s remarkable, brave, and possibly expensive for Google to make the Nik suite available to all, for nothing. It would be simpler to kill off the Nik plug-ins; instead, the company plans to keep them updated for compatibility as operating systems and host programs (Photoshop, Lightroom, and others) evolve.

The second question is: Now that these plug-ins are free, should you download them?

If editing your photos means more to you than just clicking an automatic Fix button, the answer is yes. The Nik tools are complex, but they bring amazing editing power to Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, and Aperture as plug-ins. (You can also run the Nix apps as standalone programs, with some limitations.) In many cases, you’ll find them to be more flexible, powerful, and satisfying to use than what Adobe or Apple provides out of the box.

Get started with the nik collection

You get the software here. The videos here show you how to install it. You can find out how to run the Nik programs as standalone apps — if you don’t own Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, Bridge, or Aperture — here.

And this video gives a concise one-hour lesson in using all six plug-ins. If you need more, this page is full of video tutorials.

Once you’ve installed the software, you can access them either from your host program’s menus, or from the floating Nik palette that lists them all:

What you’ll soon discover is that there are seven basic Nik plug-ins: Dfine, Viveza, HDR Efex, Analog Efex, Color Efex, Silver Efex, and Sharpener. Here’s what they do, one at a time.

Dfine 2.0

Dfine 2.0 reduces “noise” — digital speckles, which commonly degrade photos in low light or when your camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) setting was too high.

The problem with most noise-reduction software, of course, is that it basically works by blurring stuff. After all: How is a piece of software supposed to differentiate unwanted mottling of pixels (“noise”) from detail in the image?

Dfine 2.0 offers a solution: You help it out by showing it which areas to de-noise. A featureless sky, for example, is an easy one; there’s not much detail that would be ruined by a little blurring. 

You can paint onto the areas you want to de-speckle, you can alter the entire image, you can specify a range of colors, or you can use Nik’s famous control points (described below). At any point, you can use Nik’s cool split-screen effect, which shows you the before and after (and you can drag the divider line from side to side). See how the boat’s hull on the left side is “noisier” than the right?

Obviously, all of this means that you’ll spend more time working on a photo than you would with your software’s built-in, one-shot noise filter. But equally obviously, you have far more control, and may therefore be able to rescue far more pictures.

Viveza 2

This plug-in does the kinds of things you’d do in almost any photo editor — even Photos (for Mac or Windows): adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, shadows, warmth, hue, and “structure” (texture emphasis).

The advantage is that you can use Nik’s split screen, control points, and other tools to apply those effects selectively.

Color Efex Pro 2

Color Efex Pro is like Instagram for the professional. It offers 55 filters that affect the look of your photos in dramatic and cool ways.

Thanks to the gallery of thumbnails, they’re much easier to preview and understand than wading through the menus in Photoshop or Elements.

You can apply these filters only to sections of your photo, and you can adjust their opacity (the strength of their effect). You can combine them, thereby multiplying the 55 effects into thousands. You can dial up your own filter combinations and save them to use later — or to share with other people.

Some of them simulate certain kinds of old film, or give a nostalgic look to a photo, or distort its coloration beyond recognition.

It’s worth noting that in Photoshop, any of the plug-ins can be “smart objects” — floating layers that you can re-edit later.

Analog Efex Pro 2

Here are more filters — this time, designed to simulate the characteristics of different kinds of photographic film and film cameras. Special sliders govern dust and scratches, lens vignetting (where the corners get darker), the amount of film grain, and so on.

HDR Efex Pro 4

Ever hear of HDR? It’s short for high dynamic range photography.

Turns out that a camera sensor still isn’t as sensitive as your eyeball. The sensor can’t take in as wide a range of brights to darks. So what canny photographers do is take several photographs of the identical scene at different exposures — one too bright, one too dark, one in the middle — and then use software to combine them to produce a complete spectrum of lights and darks.

You probably won’t use HDR Efex Pro often, but it’s there to combine your multiple exposures when you’re ready. It’s got every kind of tweak, from realistic to crazy impressionistic or dramatic.

Silver Efex Pro 2

This one’s expressly for converting color photos to black-and-white ones, with all of the flexibility, sliders, and control points of the other Nik plug-ins. Turns out there’s a lot more to converting a color photo than just subtracting the color, which makes the preview thumbnails extra useful.

Sharpener Pro 3.0

Sharpening makes a photo look a little crisper, a bit less blurry. Nik’s sharpening tool is excellent, thanks to great algorithms and the ability to sharpen different parts of the photo in different amounts. It’s also great for blurring parts of photos — a background, for example, to simulate that shallow-depth-of-field look that’s common in pro photography.

To use it, you specify whether you’ll be showing the image on a screen or on paper — and, if it’s printed, which paper, ink, and printer you use. You can even specify how far away people will be standing when they look at the print, if you know; you can sharpen more if the distance is greater.

Sharpener Pro 3.0 even includes a fairly amazing Focus tool that can make an out-of-focus element sharper.

Why plug-ins?

Of course, your copy of Photoshop or whatever can also do most of these things. But the Nik plug-ins offer four advantages:

  • Tweakable presets. Instead of just dragging sliders around and eyeballing the results, each Nik plugin offers a panel of presets: thumbnails that present a bunch of different possible looks. With one click, you can apply that look to the photo — or you can use one as a starting point, and tweak to taste.
  • Control-point masking. Often, you want to apply an effect to only part of an image. In Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, you can carefully select part of an image by dragging around it, by selecting all pixels that match a certain color range, and so on. But the Nik plugins offer a crazy-different alternative: Little control points that you can plant in different parts of the photo. Each control point samples the color you clicked; its draggable spokes control how much change you wan to apply, and how big its “area of influence” is on the photo, as indicated by a circle. Complicated, but useful once you get a hang of it.
  • More control. You get more sliders for more functions. And you get a pretty awesome comparison view, where the screen is split between the original and modified image, and you can drag the dividing line back and forth to compare.
  • Better algorithms. Some photographers prefer Nik’s skill (at removing noise, sharpening, converting to black-and-white, and so on) to Adobe’s or Apple’s.

Really, that’s the bottom line. This high-end software, which once cost people $500, is now yours free. If you use Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, or Aperture, and you like to edit your photos, you’d be crazy not to at least explore this Google bounty.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.