Nik Software Review
Nik Software no longer uses coupon codes for any discounts. I'm happy I was able to help many people save money buying this great software, but those days are over now.
Many of the images in my Nik Software Review can display much larger – just click image to see a bigger view.
Selective Editing with U Point Technology
Before we dive into the various products and filters, let's take a look at Nik's U Point Technology because it's common through all of the Nik Software tools in this review. U Points allow you to selectively edit parts of your photograph without the need to create layers and masks. The operation is simple. You drop a point on an area of the image that you want to modify using a given tool (e.g., filter, sharpening, etc.). Once the point is in place, it recognizes the part you want to manipulate based upon the color and boundary that you set by dragging a slider. Then you can adjust the selection by using other sliders to enhance color, light, contrast and other controls. U Point Technology creates an intricate mask to affect the area you want. Let's take a look at an example.
Here's a shot that I took without getting the right light on the subjects face. You can see that his eyes are hidden in the darkness.
Now let's take a look at the same shot using a U Point in Nik's Viveza 2.
You can click on the images to view a larger size. I created a circle over his left eye and dragged the Brightness slider over to about 50%.You can see it made a significant difference. What you can't see is the amount of control it used to select which area to Brighten. Here's the mask that Viveza 2 created with a single U Point.
Now try and imagine creating that mask by hand. You can see there are different levels of masking and selection. Even with a pressure sensitive pen and tablet, you'd spend quite a bit of time to create something that was even half as accurate as this mask. Yet, all I had to do was drag and drop a U Point, then select the size of the area with a slider. The U Point Technology created a complex mask in a matter of seconds, and I could then affect the selection with ten different adjustments by merely moving a slider.
You can use multiple U Points, either acting individually or controlled simultaneously in a group. It's an exceptionally fast and easy way to make selective adjustments to your images and you get U Points in all of the Nik Software tools.
Nik Software Review: Color Efex Pro
This is my favorite collection of filters. It's an abundant, sometimes overwhelming, collection of filter to process and enhance your photos. 55 filters seems like a lot, but there's more to it. Inside the filters you find more controls and adjustments to modify their usefulness.
Let's start with a simple one – Pro Contrast. This is the first filter I choose for every image. You can see that it has three sliders that range from 0 to 100%. Then it has fine-tune sliders to affect Shadows and Highlights. Finally, you can choose how much of the Pro Contrast effect to apply using the Opacity slider. The reason I like it is because it quickly corrects Contrast and Color Cast in an image. It's great for clearing up flat or hazy images.
One of the bolder choices in Color Efex Pro is the Bleach Bypass filter. It's creates a high key, gritty result. That's typically the last thing you'd want to use in a portrait of a female subject, so let's do it anyway. Here's a shot straight out of the camera so you can see where we started.
I don't want to change my model into a gritty nightmare, but I'd like to contrast her soft appearance with a grittier environment. To do that, I used U Points to remove the Bleach Bypass filter rather than add it. Here's the result.
Here's the mask created by Nik's U Points placed on the model's skin.
Tonal Contrast is another favorite filter for many photographers who want to bring out the gritty texture of surfaces in their images. Here's a look at the same photo and U Points using the Tonal Contrast filter instead of Bleach Bypass.
This brings us to the next part of using filters in Color Efex Pro. You don't have to select and adjust one filter at a time. You can stack them, tailoring each one to work either globally or selectively. Let's imagine that I like the Bleach Bypass filter better for this image, but I like the way Tonal Contrast brings out her hair. No problem. I just stack them to create the effect I want – using U Points to add or remove the filter as necessary. Then I can add another one, such as Brilliance/Warmth, to add a bit of warmth on her hair.
By using combinations of filters, you can change an image very quickly and easily. If you like a combination and think you want to use it on another photo, just save it as a Recipe – Nik's version of a preset. You don't have to spend a lot of time manually processing your images using Color Efex Pro. If you like, you can get in and get out. Save the results to a Recipe and the next editing session goes even faster.
Here's a split view of a better subject for Tonal Contrast. The left side is unprocessed and the right side shows how Tonal Contrast can add some punch and detail to an environment.
Bleach Bypass works well when you want to emphasize texture and blow out the background.
Here's an example that combines three Color Efex Pro filters – Pro Contrast, Tonal Contrast and Darken/Lighten Center.
The combination of Pro Contrast & Tonal Contrast bring out the texture of the Vehicle Assembly Building, while the Darken/Lighten Center directs your attention to the nose of the Endeavour Orbiter. Just as its title implies, it darkens the edges with a vignette while brightening the center to direct your eye exactly where you want the viewer to go. You can place the center anywhere in your photo and control the amount of light that's darkened or lightened.
What about Portraits?
Color Efex Pro comes with a Dynamic Skin Softener that works rather well. Here's a split view.
You can apply it globally, as I have here, but sometimes you may prefer to use selective softening. Keep in mind that you can control the effect using the sliders in the upper right, as well as target the skin color for this filter. It's important to keep visible pores on skin as you soften it, so you can reduce the opacity globally if the result is stronger than you prefer. Also, each U Point has its own opacity slider. Since different parts of skin on the face have their own texture, you may prefer to target them selectively to get the best result.
Now how about using the wrong tool for the job? As I mentioned before, Tonal Contrast adds a gritty appearance to most textures. However, it also works in reverse. Here's an example of Tonal Contrast on the same photo using the Softening preset that ships with it.
Yet another softening filter is Glamour Glow. This filter let's you also control the warmth or coolness of an image, as well as the saturation. Not only is it good for skin softening and glamour photos, but it can add an ethereal quality to travel or HDR photos.
Here's an example of Glamor Glow on an HDR shot in a restaurant.
If you like to add frames to your photos, Color Efex Pro has an interesting array of Image Borders. There are 14 different border types that you can select from a dropdown menu. Then you can customize the border with seemingly infinite combinations. The Size adjusts the width of the border around your image. The Spread affects the thickness of the fringing around your image inside the border. The Clean/Rough slider lets you choose how fine or rough you want that fringe to display. If you can't make up your mind, hit the Vary Border button and it will randomly calculate variables to let you see different variations of the Type you selected.
If you prefer traditional Black or White borders, those types are available. The other twelve types allow you to create some esoteric variations of borders. Here are a couple of examples.
There's much more in Color Efex Pro than I can completely review here. You have a selection of Cross Processing filters, Bi-Color filters, Black & White adjustments, Infrared filters, more types of Contrast filters and Softening filters. There are filters to enhance foliage or make a scene look like an Indian Summer. Color Efex Pro has a great collection of Film Type filters, Color toning filters and graduated filters. You can correct color of your images to look more natural or turn them upside-down like a Saturday Night Live portrait. You can add fog or grain to an image, or style it to look like an older newspaper or polaroid print. The options are astounding.
Most of the time, I don't apply everything globally. I'll add a filter with an eye toward how it affects a portion of the photo, and then do the same thing for another part of the image. For example, Tonal Contrast makes asphalt stand out, almost as if it were wet. The softening filters do a great job of making a dreamy sky. The Remove Color Cast or Pro Contrast filters clean up an unwanted color cast so you can see the true colors in your image – great for times when you didn't have a white balance card to measure the scene. If you only get one Nik Software plugin, Color Efex Pro is the place to start.
Nik Software Review: Silver Efex Pro
Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom can all convert a photograph to Black & White, so why do we need a special plugin just for making Black & White images? The answer is because there's much more to making a compelling image than desaturating the color. Silver Efex Pro is the premier monochromatic tool for photographers. It gives you very fine control over Brightness, Contrast and Structure – Nik's name for very contrast control in very fine details. Here's a quick example of the differences between a Black & White conversion and the use of Silver Efex Pro to process an image.
The right side of the image shows a standard conversion from color to Black & White. On the left side, there's much more control. Let's start with the brightness. I want the eye to go to the face of the rhino, but the standard conversion leaves him about the same shade as everything else. The ground is far too bright, which brings your eye to the wrong place. I brought down the overall brightness to darken the image. Then I added a U Point on the rhino's face and increased the brightness in that area.
Next, I wanted to add more detail to image, so I moved up the Structure sliders for the Shadows and Fine Structure, while pulling down the Highlights a bit. Those changes affected the image globally, but I also added about 35% to the Structure slider on the U Points to enhance the rough skin on the rhino. Another alternative would have been to reduce the structure on the overall image while increasing it in the U Points to make the rhinos pop out a bit more in detail.
I ignored the color filters and film types on this image, but added a Selenium tone to the Finishing adjustments to deepen the impact of the blacks in the photo.
As you can see at the bottom, there are more options to include a Vignette, burn the edges or use Image Borders as we discussed in the Color Efex Pro portion of this review. That feature actually appeared in Silver Efex Pro first.
Along the left side of the interface, you can see a number of presets. Just take a look at the slider control and you can tell that there are a lot of difference options available. Sepia tones, film noir,high or low contrast, film types, antique plates and even pinhole camera looks are available in the presets. You don't have to just pick one of those, but you can use them as a starting place to begin your own tweaks.
Here are a few examples of my shots using Silver Efex Pro.
Nik Software Review: HDR Efex Pro
Nik Software has an interesting take on processing HDR images. HDR Efex Pro provides tools to resolve problems associated with bracketed images and stylize the combined result in one product. The first thing you see when launching it with a set of images is the Merge Dialog, shown below.
Select the Alignment checkbox if you need help adjusting the alignment of your bracketed images. I don't use this when I shoot on a tripod, but it's quite handy for handheld HDR shots. Why not leave it on all the time? First, why spend a millisecond aligning images that don't need it? Second, I've noticed the alignment results don't match up with JPEGs of the original frames that I export, just in case I want to blend in some fine details later in Photoshop.
The next checkbox is Ghost Reduction. Again, I only select this one when I need it. It's usefulness depends upon your original images. It works quite well if you have a sharp shot of the moving person or object in your brackets. If you don't, then Ghost Reduction can't magically sharpen an object that's blurry in your original photos. You can help it out by selecting the image to use for Ghost Reduction.
Finally, you can apply Chromatic Aberration reduction in the Merge Dialog. However, Nik's own FAQ for HDR Efex Pro recommends that you get your best results by correcting chromatic aberration in other tools, like Camera RAW, before importing them into this software.
There's a handy loupe tool that lets you inspect your image for Ghosting or Chromatic Aberration, as these problems tend to hide in minute details or along edges. Once you're satisfied with your options, just click the Create HDR button on the bottom. After a bit of processing, you come into the main screen with a default view of your HDR image.
Now you can start tweaking the image to your preference. Like most other Nik Software tools, there are numerous presets along the left edge and processing panels along the right edge. The Tone Compression pane is a new feature in HDR Efex Pro 2 that I really like. The previous version let you select different HDR Methods based upon a list of pulldowns. In this version, you have three major criteria that you can adjust and see instant results on the screen. Whether you want to make a photo-realistic HDR image or a completely grunged-out scene, these selections give you the option that you can see as you dial in the combination that works best for you. You can further enhance that combination with the Tone Compression and Method Strength sliders above the HDR Method.
To be honest, it's a bit hard to describe. It's better to show you. The first screen below shows what happens when you pull the Tone Compression Slider all the way down to -100%.
Now let's take a look at the opposite setting of 100%
You can drive your image to extremes. Keep in mind that HDR Efex Pro also includes U Points for selective changes. That allows you to make selective changes to exposure, method strength, whites & blacks and other aspects of your image. In cases of these extremes, the U Points can only do so much, though. For the -100% image at the top, I can easily reduce the exposure on the sky to darken it because the color is rather uniform. Fixing those blown-out signs on the roof is another matter. It may take a plethora of U Points to fix all of the different tones on the signs if you go this far. Then again, if you push the pixels to these extremes, you're probably not planning on undoing it with U Points. I'm of the opinion that adjustments to the Tone Compression is best done in small moves.If the Tone Compression panel lets you define the shape of your HDR image, the Tonality panel allows you to refine the details of that shape. You can make global adjustments to Exposure and Contrast, and yet refine the extremes of each adjustment to pull out details, or just enhance the shape.
For example, let's say that you want an image that's dark overall, but with bright elements that pop out of the darkness. You can drop the Exposure slider down and then pull up the highlights to quickly make that change. If that gives you too much brightness in those highlights, go to the Whites slider under Contrast and pull it down a bit to bring them under control. Using just a few sliders, you can very quickly and easily refine the appearance of your HDR image.
The Structure slider can work on fine contrasts to make your photo appear very edgy, or you can smooth things out by sliding it to the left. Adding too much structure to an image can cause a halo effect, so this is another tool that works best with small moves.
The Color panel gives you control over Saturation, Temperature and Tint. Slide the Temperature slider over a bit to add a nice warm atmosphere, or cool things down in the opposite direction. Temperature is another element of the U Points, so you can choose to add warmth to selectively to one area of your image and cool down the rest for some interesting color contrast effects.
The Finishing panel gives some interesting options for Vignettes that are very customizable, as are the Graduated Neutral Density filter sliders. There's a Curves panel with a selection of presets to choose topping things off. You can take your HDR experience from start to finish with HDR Efex Pro (perhaps with the exception of removing dust spots).
Nik Software Review: Viveza
Viveza is a wonderful little tool when you really don't need to use filters for effects, black & white, or HDR. It just lets you develop your images with a combination of global adjustments, U Points and Curves. Think of it as a development tool. You can brighten or darken areas. You can enhance saturation or take it away. It's the birthplace of the wonderful Structure slider. That feature alone sent photographers raving about Viveza, which fortunately found its way into the other Nik Software tools in this review.
Here's a quick side-by-side view of what you can do rather quickly in Viveza to enhance your photos with minimal effort.
Those little white dots show where I've placed a U Point. There are two on the bottom to darken the sidewalk, and one to brighten the light blue paint on that barrier. I used another one to add a slight amount of brightness and saturation to the flower bed. There are two U Points in the sky – one to darken the blues and another to brighten the white clouds. Finally, I enhanced the brightness of the sign and background in the center of the photo, and tweaked the Curves to make the overall contrast a bit deeper on the Blacks.
I've used Viveza for some quick portrait edits, too. A little Structure on the hair. Some U Points to brighten the whites of the eyes and another one to add contrast to the iris. You can use it to whiten teeth with a little desaturation and brightness. You can even soften skin by reversing the Structure slider. Viveza is an amazingly versatile tool for finishing photos.
Nik Software Review: Sharpener Pro
A good sharpening tool can raise your image to new a new level. Photoshop has gotten better with some of its latest sharpening tools, but Nik's Sharpener Pro provides tools that would otherwise take a lot of work. You can globally sharpen everything, but I think the key to good sharpening is to use it selectively where you want to attract the eye, or to avoid adding a crunchy appearance where the photo should be smooth. Here's an example of the difference Sharpener Pro can make on an image.
The right side shows the unsharpened image and the left shows how Sharpener Pro can enhance details. However, there are places where we don't want sharpening. I added a U Point in the sky and the tree in the background to eliminate sharpening on those elements. The sky doesn't need to be sharp, and I didn't want to bring out more detail in the tree, as it's a background element.
Look at the difference in detail on the hedges in the foreground and the texture of the building behind the hedges.
While it's nice to make such quick changes for images on a web site, one of the real advantages for using Sharpener Pro is to create the right sharpening for different kinds of output. This image was set for Display, but the pulldown menu also includes options for other types of output.
- Continuous Tone
- Hybrid Device
If you're printing your own images, that option can save you money by avoiding wasted ink if you used the wrong sharpening. Why guess? Let the experts at Nik Software guide you. They've done the work so you don't have to spend time printing and reprinting to find the right sharpness to print.
Nik Software Review: DFine 2.0
Modern full frame camera have really raised the bar for shooting at very high ISO while retaining usable quality. On my old Nikon D200, I would never consider shooting above ISO 800, and I hated the noise at that level. With my Nikon D700, I laugh in the face of ISO 800. Now I can easily shoot a concert at ISO 1600 and other low-light subjects even up to ISO 6400. The Nikon D4 goes even farther. So do we still need noise reduction software like Nik's DFine 2.0?
I think so. Even though the images are better, we still get some noise and the perfectionist in us wants to eliminate it. DFine 2.o attacks both Contrast and Color noise to clean up your images. Here's a split view zoomed into a 100% crop. You can compare the noise on the left vs the clean image on the right.
The results are amazing. DFine eliminates the noise and retains detail in the image. Look at the difference in the quality of skin tone on the guitarist's face. Then look at the smoky atmosphere behind him. In both areas, DFine created a much higher quality final image to use. Here are a few other photos where I used DFine to clean up the noise and make a better image.
Nik Software Review: Summary
I'm an unabashed fan of Nik Software tools. Almost every photo that you see me post on my blog has some enhancement from Nik Software, and often more than just one. These tools allow you to do more than correct problems with the images out of your camera. They provide an outlet for your creative vision. Give yourself the same edge as most every professional and serious enthusiast uses on their images. Save yourself time. Use Nik Software tools. I love 'em.