The Death of Nik (talking about Om’s In the Future, we will Photograph Everything and See Nothing)

I have massive respect for Om Malik, so when he writes on a topic I tend to listen to him. His latest looks at Google’s decision to make the Nik Tools free, but from a larger position of why they did it and what it means for photography. I mostly agree, but…

My guess is that it wants to kill the software, but it doesn’t want the P.R. nightmare that would follow.

I don’t think there would be a P.R. nightmare for a few reasons. the first is that Google bought Nik going on four years ago and in the meantime, there has been little significant engineering done to the tools and no significant innovation has shown up in these tools in years.

Why not? The easy answer is that Google wanted Snapseed, their mobile product and these tools came along for the ride and got ignored. But the answer while true, is only part of a more complicated and nuanced one. As a user of the Nik tools since about 2009, the reality is that in 2010 or 2011, as many as 30% of my images needed to be processed through one or more of the Nik tools to bring out their potential. Today? The number of times I might open up a Nik tool to tweak an image might be five. Not five percent, five.

The Nik tools were a significant help to an intermediate or advanced photographer five or six years ago. With the changes that have happened in our primary processing tools — especially Lightroom, but Photoshop as well — the need for specialized tools has to a very good degree gone away. These tools increasingly exist for a niche audience and I’m guessing that Nik’s sales were dropping when they chose to sell to Google (because the Nik people aren’t stupid) and have continued to drop despite the price drop.

This is the software equivalent of what’s happened to the camera market, where the point and shoot consumer market has effectively disappeared, because the cameras on Smartphones got good enough and usage convenient enough that most people stopped seeing a need to buy another camera unless they got interested in more serious photography. The shift from needing plugins to process an image to using the existing tools in your standard software has done the same to these specialty plug-in vendors.

Today, I can only think of two situations where I still feel like I need Nik’s tools: I still prefer to use it to sharpen for print over the built-in tools (but it’s close, and more and more, I’m not bothering) and I still occasionally need their noise reduction tool for high-ISO crazy sensor noise problems. Other than that, it’s hard to think about the last time I hauled out Color Efex or Viveza; the radial tool in Lightroom CC killed the need for Viveza for me.

So it’s sad to see these tools hit end of life, but it’s been a long, slow decline that I saw long ago, and honestly, I think Google kept them going and kept them updated and working longer than I’d expected them to. This isn’t about Google not caring, it’s about a market this that made the product irrelevant and no longer selling enough copies to justify spending resources on them.

Progress. Which is sometimes sad, but it’s out of Google’s control what Adobe does to make Lightroom better, and the market responds appropriately. there’s little real need to spend money on plug-ins today for almost any photographer.

I don’t think enough people care about the passing of Nik Tools. Unlike Om’s example of Google Reader for RSS, I think Google is reacting to the lack of interest in the user base, not the lack of commitment within Google.

Practical example: I am starting to do some reprocessing of older images, and it so happens that the one I was experimenting on this morning is this one:

Morro Bay Rock at Sunset

This is by far my most popular and often-licensed image. It was taken in 2011 as a 3 image HDR, and processing it required an external HDR rendering and about four hours of work including multiple layer masks in Photoshop, extensive use of Color Efex Pro and Viveza, noise reduction, specialized sharpening in the sky… It is, to put it mildly, an extreme pain to get to look the way I want. I’ve tried a few times to update it with newer tools and it’s invariably won that fight, and I haven’t touched it in a couple of years.

So this morning I tried it again using Lightroom CC. I plan on writing about this in more detail later, but I finally got an image I felt properly represented. This is still an experimental image that isn’t finished, but it shows me getting to where I want to be is possible:

Morro Bay Rock sits on the harbor during sunset, Morro Bay, California

This experiment took me — 35 minutes, 100% in Lightroom. About a third of that is brushing in a mask on the rocks, the modern equivalent of a Photoshop Layer Mask.

Morro Bay Rock sits on the harbor during sunset That, in a nutshell, is why the Nik Tools are end of lifed. Because why spend $500 on plugins (as I did around 2010) or even $149 for Nik Tools (as you could have a couple of weeks ago) when your default tool already does the job? That wasn’t true two years ago, although even then it could do a lot more of the job than was possible five years ago. It’s been amazing how the quality of image processing has evolved…

And for the terminally curious, while I plan on writing about this reprocess task in more detail soon, here’s what that image looked like after the HDR merge but before I started working on it… Just in case you were wondering why it required so much work…

So I think in a way Om sees the tree but is missing the larger forest behind it. That forest’s name is, for better and worse, progress….

There are other aspects of what Om says I could quibble with but this has gone on long enough, but I think in this case, pointing at Google as the villian in the death of the Nik tools is misplaced. They are reacting to a changing market and the maturation of the core tools they used to supplement. And to blame Google for this change is to shoot the messenger without taking time to look past that to the root causes, which is simply — progress.