By Hans Weichselbaum – www.digital-image.co.nz
You might have heard about Nik Software, especially the Nik Sharpener Pro, which was seen as the very best sharpening tool for the professional photographer.
Over the years this company developed some of the finest filters available for digital photography. The whole Nik Collection was priced at US$500, which kept it out of reach for most amateurs.
The good news came in September 2012 when Google bought up Nik Software and dropped the price to US$150. And if that wasn’t enough, in March this year came the surprise announcement that the software would be available as a free download!
The only caveat is that you need one of the following image editing programs: Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom or Aperture. You simply download the entire collection from google.com/nikcollection, run the .exe file and the filters will automatically install in your favourite image editor.
The Google Nik Collection
The whole bundle goes under the new name of Google Nik Collection and there are seven individual modules:
Dfine 2.0 – This module deals with digital noise/noise reduction and should be the first step in your workflow.
The program identifies smooth areas in your image and evaluates the noise automatically. Then it applies the optimum amount of noise reduction globally. There are lots of options for fine-tuning the results and to apply noise reduction to selected areas only.
Viveza – This is usually the second step in your workflow. The filter lets you fine-tune tonality; globally and in isolated areas. It does give you a lot more control than you normally get with Levels or Curves. Using Control Points, which I’ll explain later, you can work on particular parts of your photo, without complicated masking.
Color Efex Pro – Lets you optimise the colours in your image. The module gives you 55 presets to start with, showing you what can be done with your image. You’ll find traditional photo filters, funky ones and you’ll come across effects you didn’t even know existed, like infrared or solarisation filters.
Silver Efex – A very powerful Black & White converter. The preset options will surprise you with renditions of your photos you never thought of.
HDR Efex Pro – Used to combine a series of shots taken of the same subject with different exposures. I will describe this module in more detail below.
Sharpener Pro – Takes all the guesswork out of image sharpening. This is one of the most important steps in your workflow. Again, the ability to only sharpen selected areas makes this filter a particularly useful tool.
Analog Efex – A specialised filter to simulate old, classic film photography. There are lots of presets to start from and you can add film grain, an eye-catching vignette and even dirt and scratches.
Open an image in your favourite editing program, then go to the Filter menu and you’ll find a new listing called “Nik Collection”. Then simply pick the module you want to use from the popup menu. (In Lightroom you need to click on ‘Photo’ in the menu bar and select ‘Edit In’.)
The HDR Efex Pro Module
This module allows you to combine a series of shots taken with different exposures into one image. HDR stands for ‘high dynamic range’, which is a technique used in photography to compress a very wide dynamic range into one image. You normally take a series of shots, both over- and underexposed, but you can also work with a single photo.
You don’t start this module from the Filter menu. In Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Merge HDR Efex. Then select your image series from the Merge Dialog and click OK. In Lightroom, you first select the series, go to Export and click on HDR Efex in the popup menu. For my example I chose a series of three shots I took of a palm tree. The program then comes up with the Preset Browser (see Image 1).
On the left of your screen you’ll see more than 30 presets to choose from – they give you a great starting point. The dynamic range under the midday Fijian sun could not be nailed down with one shot, but note that the combination of the three shots does show us all the detail in the darkest shadows, without having too many blown-out highlights. With HDR Efex you can even squeeze an HDR look out of a single shot.
Once you have selected one of the preset thumbnails, you move to the right where you can fine-tune the overall balance and tonality. The Tone Compression slider exaggerates or softens the full dynamic range.
But there is more! The program allows you to apply ‘Control Points’ to enhance specific colours, tonalities or textures in localised areas.
All Google Nik modules use these Control Points, also called ‘U Point technology’. It is a really cool feature, which sets Nik apart from other plug-ins, and we need to take a closer look at this tool.
Image 2 – A Nik Control Point.
With your mouse you can drop a new Control Point anywhere in the image. The program looks at the RGB values at that particular point and selects similar pixels within a certain radius. If you click on the point, a tree of options pops up. The top slider defines the size of the area and the other two sliders control colour and tonality. In other modules you will find five or more controls. You can move those Control Points around, duplicate and tweak them individually. This is a lot easier than the usual masking in Photoshop. It is simple and works surprisingly well.
We’ll definitely look at some of the other modules in more detail over the next few months. The Nik Collection is a highly valuable addition for your photo editing tool kit – and it is free! Even the less experienced user will be able to achieve stunning results in no time and with very little effort.