The Nik Collection is a brilliant set of creative photo-editing plug-ins that’s as good now as it ever was, but apart from 42 new “En Vogue” presets, the plug-ins themselves are unchanged from the previous version. The big difference is that that DxO PhotoLab 2.3 is now included as standard – whether you want it or not. The Nik Collection 2 is too good not to give it a high rating, but while new users won’t have too much to think about, existing PhotoLab or Nik Collection owners will have a hard job figuring out their upgrade options.
What is the Nik Collection?
The Nik Collection contains some of the most important and best-loved plug-ins in the world of image-editing – but it’s had a chequered past and has changed hands three times.
Originally launched by Nik Software, the Nik Collection was then bought out and sold by Google, which added the Analog Efex Pro plug-in. Then Google ceased development and offered the Nik Collection as a free download, leading many to worry it might disappear altogether. Then DxO bought it from Google, updated it for compatibility with current operating systems and started selling it as a commercial product.
The release of the DxO Nik Collection 2 brings another major change. DxO is now including PhotoLab Essential, its own image browsing, RAW processing, lens correction and editing software to make a fully self-contained product that does not depend on ‘host’ applications like Photoshop or Lightroom.
DxO PhotoLab is the successor to DxO Optics Pro and comes in two tiers. PhotoLab Essential has all the basic tools to browse, optically correct and enhance your images, while the higher-tier PhotoLab Elite has more powerful editing tools, notably DxO PRIME Denoise, and DxO ClearView Plus haze removal.
The price of the Nik Collection has gone up and down like a yo-yo. The combined cost of the original Nik plug-ins was several hundred dollars, Google sold the suite for $150 and then made it free. When DxO took it on the cost was £69. The price for the new version with DxO PhotoLab Essential 2.3 included, is $125. The cost of the Nik Collection has gone up since its ‘free’ phase with Google and its initial acquisition by DxO, but it’s still cheaper than when Google and Nik Software were selling it, and it’s now a much more complete standalone proposition.
So let’s start with the individual Nik Collection plug-ins and then move on to the DxO Essential 2.3 software that now comes with them.
The Nik Collection plug-ins
Analog Efex Pro is designed to replicate the look of old films and darkroom techniques by adding grain, fade, borders, like leaks, toning, cross processing effects and more. Its looks are based around different ‘camera’ types, or you can build our own ‘camera’ by manually combining the tools and filters. Analog Efex Pro is unusual amongst ‘analog’ plug-ins in that it goes much further in replicating old/cheap/broken cameras, with motion effects, exaggerated lens distortion and blur, double exposure effects and more. Analog Efex Pro is the only plug-in produced by the Google team – all the rest were inherited from Nik Software when Google bought that company out.
Color Efex Pro is a large collection of photography inspired filter effects, some admittedly more useful than others, but collectively they are very powerful. In fact, each one can be customised and controlled and, even more important, they can be ‘stacked’ and saved as ‘recipes’. Color Efex Pro 4 is both a photo effects tool and image editor in its own right, and it would take a very long time to exhaust its full potential.
Silver Efex Pro is a powerful black and white editing plug-in that simulates the appearance of classic film emulsions and darkroom printing techniques. It offers a range of preset effects backed up by powerful and extensive manual adjustment tools. The results can be subtle, intense, rich or ethereal – it manages to capture the spirit, terminology and techniques of traditional black and white photography in a way that other plug-ins don’t.
HDR Efex Pro uses tone mapping tools and a variety of HDR algorithms on either single images or HDR exposure series, which it can merge with automatic alignment, ghost reduction and chromatic aberration removal. It’s perhaps not quite as effective as Skylum Aurora HDR, but it’s good nonetheless, and can achieve some striking results – and it comes with some attractive HDR presets too.
Viveza is a more specialised photo enhancement tool, and the best way to describe it is as the equivalent of dodging and burning in black and white, but for colour photos. It uses Nik Software’s control point technology to both mask and adjust areas of the image in a single operation. It is a very interesting and effective way to work, but beyond local adjustments it doesn’t offer the effects and presets available in the other plug-ins above.
Dfine is a noise reduction plug-in which analyses the noise properties of the image and then applies noise reduction in a two-step process – you can use automatic or manual noise analysis and you can use the default noise reduction settings or adjust contrast and colour noise manually. This is one of two image correction tools in the suite, as opposed to a creative effects too, and it does feel pretty dated. These days, you’re better off tackling noise in the RAW image processing phase, not later.
Sharpener Pro 3 is another image enhancement plug-in rather than an effects tool. It takes a scientific approach to sharpening that will appeal to purists, separating capture sharpening (overcoming camera/lens softness) from output sharpening (preparing images for different print/display devices). The output sharpening is interesting since many programs don’t address print sharpening settings properly, but otherwise you’d probably use your host program’s sharpening tools these days rather than a dedicated plug-in.
So that’s a quick run through the Nik Collection plug-ins (with links to longer reviews for each). The best and most important plug-ins here are Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro. All four come with extensive one-click preset collections (with the ability to define and add your own), and all offer the clever Nik control point (U-point) adjustments for both masking and adjusting areas of a picture with a single tool.
Working with control points is very different to working with masks and adjustment layers in other programs. At first it feels vague, not least because of the circular adjustment zones created by each control point, but once you gain familiarity and confidence with the system, it’s remarkably effective – and its speed and simplicity encourage you to try adjustments that in other program you might not have attempted or had time for.
New “En Vogue” presets
The Nik Collection 2 comes with 42 new “En Vogue” presets, with approximately ten each for Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro.
In Silver Efex Pro, for example, you get new ‘Dark Glow’, ‘Dark Pop’, ‘Dark Selenium’, ‘Highlight Fade’, ‘Intensifier’, ‘More Silver’, ‘Ominous Fade’, ’Subtle Contrast’, Subtle Glow’ and ‘Sun Bleached’ presets, while Analog Efex Pro now comes with new ‘Another B&W 1’, Autochrome 2’, ‘Burned Edges 3’, ‘Double Exposure Streaked 4’, ‘Good Vibrations 5’, ‘Layered Blues 6’, ‘Make Some Noise 7’, ‘Rich Ferrotype 8’, ‘Type 55 9’ and ‘Weathered Dry Plate 10’, which are all excellent.
If you already have the DxO Nik Collection, you wouldn’t upgrade to this version just for the new presets, but if you factor in the inclusion of DxO PhotoLab 2.3, it does become a pretty compelling combination.
It’s also worth saying that no matter how good its rivals might be for one-click effects, notably Alien Skin Exposure X4.5, ON1 Photo RAW 2019 and Luminar 3, the Nik Collection has them all trumped for the scope, power, variety and sheer inspiration of its presets.
DxO PhotoLab Essential 2.3
DxO PhotoLab Essential 2.3 is the lower-cost version of DxO PhotoLab. It doesn’t have some of the more advanced tools in the Elite edition, including ClearView Plus (DxO’s equivalent to Lightroom’s DeHaze tool), the excellent PRIME denoise tool or some of the Elite edition’s colour management options, but as a general purpose image browser, RAW processor and ‘host’ program for the Nik Collection plug-ins, it’s terrific.
There are a few things to know about DxO PhotoLab. On the downside, it’s not very fast to load, its image browsing and filtering tools are good, but its search tools are basic. If you want perspective correction tools as well as lens correction tools you need to pay extra for the DxO ViewPoint add-on, and some of the nicer image presets and effects need the DxO FilmPack add-on (though the Nik Collection now takes care of this side of things very well). It’s also not compatible with Fujifilm X-Trans RAW files.
On the upside, DxO’s RAW processing and lens corrections are the best there are. If you have a Fujifilm camera, Phase One Capture One Pro would be my recommendation, but for any other type, as long as PhotoLab supports it, you’ll get superb definition, noise control and lens corrections – including correction for edge softening with lower-end lenses.
DxO PhotoLab does not support all cameras, it can require extra investment to get all the tools you want, and it’s no ball of fire to use, but its results are second to none – and it produces the best possible images for the Nik Collection plug-ins to work from.
For many, the Nik Collection has remained a go-to plug-ins suite through the whole of its history and changes of ownership. Not all of its plug-ins are useful today, notably Sharpener Pro, Dfine and perhaps Viveza, but the rest have a quality, a depth of control and a creative potential that are still largely unrivalled.
Analog Efex Pro 2 is brilliant at recreating the look of old film, cheap cameras, faded snapshots or antique imagery. Color Efex Pro has so much potential that you may never get to the bottom of what it can do, Silver Efex Pro is still my favourite black and white tool and HDR Efex Pro 2 is a versatile and effective HDR plug-in with some great presets.
The Nik plug-ins are as breathtakingly brilliant as ever (they seem quite ageless), even if it’s really the top four that carry the rest., and with the inclusion of DxO PhotoLab 2.3, the Nik Collection takes a step away from being simply a plug-in collection, and becomes instead more of an all-in-one creative tool. You don’t need Photoshop or Lightroom any more (and all the subscription hassles that go with them).
But while it’s easy to recommend the new Nik Collection 2 package to new users, things become more complicated for existing DxO PhotoLab or Nik Collection owners. There is a reduced-price upgrade option, but you’re still going to have to balance up the costs and benefits of getting a new ‘integrated’ set of plug-ins you might have already, or paying for PhotoLab again when you’ve already got it, just to get the Nik Collection. This is where it could start to get a bit messy, so it’s a bit disappointing there’s no option any more to get the Nik Collection on its own.
The Nik Collection 2 is available direct from the DxO website.