Google’s Nik tools are now free has removed the price from their Nik tool collection, which is a set of plug-ins you can use in Photoshop or Lightroom to process your images. If you don’t currently use a set of plug-ins to supplement the standard functionality of Lightroom, these are a nice set to try — but of course we have to realize this is Google’s way of saying they’re basically ending their useful lifetime,  not that they’ve been significantly upgraded since Google bought them (they bought Nik for Snapseed and have been primarily integrating technology into Google Photos, which I think makes sense for both them and the Nik folks)

I’ve been using the Nik tools for a long time, since Nik was independent and they cost a lot more than Google charged for it, and I’ve been really happy with them overall. But the reality is — and this is part of why I think Google is doing this — Lightroom has been overtaking the plug-ins capabilities, and today, I rarely feel the need to fire these up. The new radial tool in Lightroom CC has really removed a lot of the situations where I felt like the plug-ins were needed, to be honest.

Still, there are times, and there are images, where you simply can’t get the best out of an image without some extra help, and when you  run into those images, the Nik tools are good to have handy. For me, I’d say the primary uses of the plug-ins today is sharpening for print, and when I have some special needs for noise reduction.

If you’re interested in these kinds of plug-ins but want something a little more supported than the Goole Nik tools, a couple of good sets to look at are On1 and Topaz Labs. Of the two in the past I’ve worked with On1 and liked it but preferred Nik, and if I look around at the photographers I track, it looks like Topaz is more popular and preferred (but more expensive).

I don’t think any of these plug-in sets are magic tools: you need to understand post processing and how to take advantage of them, so I feel they are best for intermediate level photographers looking to up their game, not for newer ones trying to learn how to process a quality image; you are better off putting the time (and money) into learning how to really take advantage of Lightroom rather than hoping a plug-in solves your problem — your time and money is much better spent on (a) upgrading to Lightroom CC (or 6) from older versions first, and once you’ve done that, taking a good Lightroom processing class like Jared Platt’s Creative Live Class or this upcoming April class being taught by Ben Willmore.

Plug-ins supplement the fundamentals, so learn those before investing in them. But because the Nik tools are now free, it doesn’t cost anything to grab a set and try them out — but be aware you shouldn’t expect much, if any, enhancement from Google in the future. These aren’t the tools to wrap your workflow around unless you are willing to redo your workflow with other tools down the road.