REVIEW – Nik Software Complete Collection for Aperture and Lightroom

by Mike on December 16, 2010

(Shot on film? Nope  – Silver Efex Pro Baby! Click to make bigger)

 

Quite a few readers have expressed interest in Nik Software’s Complete Collection for Lightroom and Aperture, so I slammed my credit card down and picked up a copy.

Now I can’t live without it.

And I’m glad I did, as you’ll read below.

The Complete Collection consists of Nik’s entire suite of photo-editing plugins, and includes the following tools:

Silver Efex Pro 2 – black and white conversion, including Fuji, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford film emulation (note: if you buy the Nik Complete Collection or Silver Efex Pro 1 now you get a free upgrade to SEP2)

Color Efex Pro 4.0 – digital color, light and toning filters, special effects (Holga/Polaroid/Infrared etc.), also including film emulation

Dfine 2.0 – noise reduction

Sharpener Pro – sharpening

Viveza 2 – selectively control light and color

HDR Efex Pro – high-dynamic range (HDR) imaging

Quick Conclusion

Pros:

  • IT IS FUN!
  • Enormous bang for the buck
  • Easy to get great results quickly
  • Effects are fun, but highly-useful and practical
  • Silver Efex Pro offers stunning black & white conversion – WAY better than Aperture, Lightroom, and Photoshop
  • Emulation of countless classic films from Kodak, Fuji, Agfa, and Ilford – seriously, no product does it better
  • It’s fun!
  • Sharpener Pro and Dfine blow Aperture away at sharpening and noise reduction
  • Tons and tons and tons of free educational content at NikSoftware.com, including regularly-scheduled live webinars
  • More free presets and filters available free from Nik
  • Incredible customer service – Nik answers questions FAST
  • It’s fun. Really really fun. Wasn’t post-processing supposed to suck?

Cons

  • Can’t stack multiple effects at once
  • Once you try it, you won’t want to live without it
  • No option to install all plugins at once

As you can probably tell, my favorite thing about Nik’s Complete Collection is that it’s fun. Yes, fun.

Post-processing images normally isn’t exactly my idea of  a good time, but Nik’s Complete Collection makes playing with pixels pretty darn enjoyable.

Yes, you can make brightness and contrast and saturation adjustments in Aperture.

But, can you make a photo look like it was taken in 1970? Or 1890?

Can you emulate the look of Kodachrome film? Or Fuji Velvia?

Can you add fog to a landscape?

Can you toss in a ray of sunshine?

And can you do any of these things with a few clicks of your mouse? And do them well?

The software-engineering team at Nik deserves a lot of praise, because this product suite kicks butt.

Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro are officially indispensable parts of my normal workflow. While I primarily use them for film emulation, they also include an absolutely insane number of effects and filters to make your pictures pop right off the screen – everything from infrared film to skin softening to fogs to glows to high key lighting to low key lighting to soft focus.

As for things like vignettes and blurs and glows – Aperture has NOTHING on the quality and breadth of features that Nik’s plugins offer.

And while I don’t go heavy on noise reduction and sharpening, Dfine and Sharpener Pro destroy Aperture’s built-in capabilities – it’s not even close, and I pretty much only played with the default settings.

I was not crazy about Viveza at first, but I am quickly warming up to it. Nik’s control-point system (more info below in this review) can actually be much more accurate than Aperture’s brushes when it comes to making selective edits – especially for those of us that are stuck with a notebook trackpad most of the time.

I haven’t played with HDR Efex Pro yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it from other users. I’ll be doing a full review of HDR Efex Pro in the future, but the consensus seems to be that it is a very worthy alternative to Photomatix, which runs about $100.

My recommendation is to just go for the whole Complete Collection package – the individual plug-ins are expensive enough to make the Complete Collection a great buy for the money. Silver Efex Pro, my favorite plug-in, goes for about $169, while the Complete Collection is just under $230.

There’s really no reason not to go for the whole shebang. I’d pay $230 just for the film emulations in Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro.

However, if you are a heavy Photoshop user, consider the Complete Collection for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture. It’s more expensive than the Lightroom/Aperture-only version, but the ability to brush Nik adjustments in, and use multiple effects in layers is a big, big plus for PS users.

Now, let’s get down the nitty gritty!

My test machine is a 2011 iMac with an Intel Core i5 processor and 4 gigabytes of RAM, running Aperture 3. I have not sampled the Lightroom or Photoshop versions, though I would assume the image-processing characteristics of the Nik plugins is the same. Obviously, there will be some workflow differences, but hopefully, Lightroom and Photoshop users will see some value in reading this review.

Here we go, for real this time.

Installation

The installation process went fairly smoothly. Unfortunately, each plugin must be installed individually. There was no option to install them all at once, and that means entering 6 different activation codes. Nonetheless, the whole process took less than 20 minutes.

Everything worked just fine and jiffy right out of the box – all the plug-ins loaded correctly the first time after installation with zero issues.

The Basics

Nik’s plugins work like this. When you have an image you’d like to edit using a Nik plugin, simply right-click on it (or hit control + click) and select the plugin you’d like to use:

I selected an image, control-clicked, and powered up the almighty Silver Efex Pro.

Here’s what the screen looks like when you open an image file with the Silver Efex Pro plugin:

While each Nik plugin operates differently, the interface screen  is similar for all of them. Presets are on the left, image is in the middle, and adjustments and loupe (which is closed in this screen grab) are on the right. Some adjustments (like brightness/contrast/saturation/curves) show up in multiple Nik plugins, and there are multiple options for doing before/after comparisons. You can also save new presets in a jiffy.

On the right-side adjustments panel, you can see a button that says “Add Control Point.” Control points are used in Nik plugins to make localized adjustments. A control point basically tells Nik to make a certain adjustment within a certain area based up on the content of the control point’s adjustable size.

To darken a sky, all you have to do is blend together a few control points of whatever size you need, which is a lot simpler than it seems at first. It does take some practice, but it gets easy quickly. You can also apply negative control points to tell the active plugin where not to affect an image. This is particularly helpful when putting effects on portraits. For example, if I’m using a soft-focus effect on a face, I will drop negative control points on the eyes to keep them sharp and in focus – that’s just my prerogative.

This video does a great job of explaining how control points affect what you want, and ignore what you want left alone:

If you like your adjustments, hit save on the bottom right-hand corner. The plugin will then create a new TIFF file with your edits from which you can make prints or JPEG exports. If you don’t like what you see, just hit cancel and you’re back in Aperture in a jiffy.

Unfortunately, you can’t use multiple effects from each plugin at once, so you have to apply one, save it, and then launch the plugin again if you want to stack effects. I found this annoying at first, but I can’t remember many time where I’ve wanted to use multiple effects anyway.

And since the Nik Plugins operate in a destructive environment, the changes to those TIFF files are permanent. So it may make sense to edit a new copy of each file as you add new effects, because you can’t go back. The Photoshop version allows you to use Nik’s plugins in layers, which is an easy work-around for this issue.

Overall, I find these issues to be minor nuisances.

That’s pretty much the basics of operating a Nik plugin – easy stuff.

Stability and Performance

I’ve read on forums and blogs that some people experience crashes and hang-ups when using Nik’s plugins. I personally haven’t experienced any, though it should be noted that I am running the latest versions of Mac OS, Aperture, and Nik’s plugins.

As far as performance goes, I was worried that Nik’s plugins would run slow, but this wasn’t the case – everything stayed pretty snappy. They actually operate even more smoothly than Aperture 3 itself. Even when I was using a three-year old Macbook, Nik’s plugins worked pretty darn fast.

Now, let’s get down to the individual plugins.

Silver Efex Pro 2

I am in love with Silver Efex Pro – it alone makes the Complete Collection package worth buying. I started shooting film again earlier in the year, but have since dropped that because Silver Efex Pro does such a good job at emulating classic films.

While I like Aperture’s black and white conversion capabilities, there is absolutely nothing in it that can emulate the look of film grain. I spend a lot of time in bookstores admiring the gorgeous black and white images of photographers like Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Sebastião Salgado, and Helmut Newton.

My Canon Rebel and Fuji X100 digital cameras clearly aren’t ideal tools for classic B&W photos, but Silver Efex Pro does help me get what I want with emulations of famous Kodak, Fuji, Agford, and Ilford films.

And obviously, all of these film emulations can be altered and saved as presets. For example, you can take Fuji Neopan, make it grainer and more contrasty, add vignetting, and save all that as a preset.

Silver Efex Pro also has a number of special-effects settings like Holga simulation, vintage/antique modes, infrared films, and pulled/pushed processes. There are also plenty of stylizing features like vignetting (way, way, way more flexible than Aperture’s built-in vignette feature), and edge burning. This gives you a huge amount of flexibility.

Plus, there’s a really cool control called Structure that allows you to add/subtract fine detail in your image, allowing you to add grit or smoothness.

But enough talk, let’s look at some samples. Note that you can make all of these images bigger by clicking on them.

This is the Kodak 100 Tmax Pro:

Ilford 100, with added contrast and structure:

Agfa APX 400, grain slighty reduced, red filter:

 

High Contrast Orange Filter Preset:

Again, I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with Silver Efex Pro – it’s the star of the show here. Now can it perfectly emulate true black & white film? I don’t know. But I do know that oll of my straight-from-Aperture B&W conversions look completely flat and digital.

It makes Nik’s Complete Collection a must-own for Aperture users.

Color Efex Pro

Color Efex Pro is my second favorite plugin included with the Nik Software Complete Collection. CEP includes 52 filters and over 250 effects that allow you to make your color images jump right at you. This includes everything from skin softening to film emulation to high-key/low-key lighting effects to graduated filters to fog to soft focus to thermal camera to, well, you get the point.

Let’s just get to the images so you’ll have an idea of how much you can achieve with CEP right out of the box with minimal tweaking – I’m talking less than 30 seconds per image. Please note that I cranked the settings up in most cases so you can get a clear idea of what they do – you can obviously be a lot more subtle in your own work.

Kodachrome Portra 160VC film:

 

Kodak Portra 160NC Film:

Glamour Glow:

Glamour Glow again: (note: this works awesome on landscapes)

Vignette Blur:

Graduated Fog:

Fuji Velvia 100:

Duplex:

Yes, you can create similar effects in Aperture. However, you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time tweaking to get even remotely close to what Color Efex Pro can do right out of the box.

What else can I say? The magical powers of Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro make Nik’s Complete Collection for Lightroom and Aperture an amazing bargain.

Dfine

Dfine is Nik’s noise-reduction plugin. Now, as I said above, I’m not a big noise reduction guy. I’m perfectly satisfied with my Canon DSLR’s high-ISO performance, though now that I’m using my Panasonic LX5 more often, I’ll probably be using Dfine to cut the noise at ISO 800 and above.

I absolutely hate pixel peeping, which may explain my no-noise-reduction policy, but I’ll do it here anyway to demonstrate Dfine’s superiority to Aperture’s built-in noise reduction capabilities.

Here’s a 200% crop of an image taken at ISO 3200 on my DSLR:

And here’s how Aperture’s noise-reduction performed with the settings cranked to the max:

A good deal of noise is gone, but let’s see what Dfine can do on it’s automatic setting:

There’s obviously less noise and much, much better retention of detail with Dfine. Remember – I just used the default automatic setting with Dfine – you can probably improve your results by tweaking the settings, which are pretty numerous.

Okay, so not only do Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro alone make the Nik Complete Collection worth the money, but we’re getting some pretty impressive noise-reduction capabilities with Dfine as well. Can’t complain about that, even though I doubt I’ll be using Dfine’s 58,000 options (chroma, luminance, selective NR, blah blah blah) very much.

Sharpener Pro

See Dfine review. It’s the same story. Sharpener Pro blows away Aperture’s built-in sharpening capabilities away. I’m not a major tweaker, but Sharpener Pro has vastly more options (including two separate modes for post-RAW, and pre-output, sharpening), and simply gives you better sharpening results with more retention of fine detail than from what you’ll see with Aperture.

You have no idea how bored I was writing the Dfine section above.

So yes, Sharpener Pro works really, really well and really makes your images, I don’t know sharp.

Here’s a sample:


Is this baby sharp enough? I don’t really care. This little guy was just as adorable when he was a tiny bit less sharp. Sharpener Pro is not as much fun as Color Efex Pro or Silver Efex Pro, but it’s like a Volvo – it gets the job done. Or something. There was supposed be a joke in there somewhere.

Was that funny? Whatever. I went past 2,000 words in this review a while ago, so if you’re still here, you must find me at least a little bit charming. I don’t know how Ken Rockwell can do this sort of thing on a regular basis. This review is turning into an endurance trial!

Viveza 2

As you can probably tell, I’m starting to get a little cranky. But how would you feel if you just went through a night during which a loud car alarm went off right outside your window every 20 minutes? And what if that car alarm was attached to a total piece of crap that nobody in their right mind would steal, not even for the parts?

Okay, on to Viveza 2. Viveza was built to allow photographers to selectively control color and light within their images.

When I first started playing with Viveza, I found it pretty useless. I figured that Aperture’s adjustment brushes could handle all my needs without much trouble.

However, I’ve generally found that Viveza’s control-point system is simply faster and neater than Aperture’s brushes. With Aperture’s brushes, I’ve generally found that everything gets a bit sloppy – things that I don’t want affected get changed if I’m not exact with my movements. This is especially difficult when I’m not using a mouse.

Just watch this video – it can explain Viveza a heck of a lot better than I can:

HDR Efex Pro

As I noted above, I haven’t played with HDR Efex Pro yet. I’m primarily a street photographer and so I literally don’t have a single bracketed shot among my thousands and thousands of images. However, I plan on going out with a tripod at some point in the next week so I’ll have some stuff to work with for HDR Efex Pro. I can say though that I’ve never heard a single bad thing about HDR Efex Pro, and it apparently stacks up pretty well against Photomatix.

Here’s one of Nik’s HDR Efex Pro promo videos, starring Trey Ratcliff of StuckInCustoms.com, among others:

The Ultimate Conclusion

What? Can’t you tell that I love the Nik Complete Collection? My recommendation is buy it, it’s freaking awesome.

Photoshop folks, check out the PS/Lightroom/Aperture version.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

bdeckert December 20, 2010 at 10:56 am

Had a question about the complete Aperture/Lightroom package offered on Amazon. I see in your review that you refer to Viveza 2, but the the Amazon page says it just comes with Viveza… Is that the case? If you want to have Viveza 2 do you have to upgrade?

JOHN STICKNEY January 7, 2011 at 11:05 am

IF I HAVEN’T SHOT AN IMAGE IN HDR, CAN I STILL USE HDR EFFEX PRO TO GIVE THE PICTURE THE HDR APPERIENCE?
THIS WAS A GREAT INTRO. TO THE NIK SUITE!!!

Daniel Buergi January 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

Thanks for a very informative review. We do appreciate the “light” humor; but there are a few of us that actually have a Volvo! XC90Sport is the safest wolf in any sheep’s clothing!

Mike January 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

Daniel, I have nothing but the upmost respect for Volvos and their owners. My ex-girlfriend owned a 240 wagon from the late 80’s and the thing was an absolute beast. The odometer broke at 217K miles and it drove like it was brand new. And it was comfy as all get out – the seats were more comfortable than my couch!

Mike January 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

John, HDR Efex Pro has a single-shot HDR setting to make HDR-style images from one photo. I haven’t played much with it yet.

Scott Mccarthy January 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks for the great info on this product. I have a question which requires a bit of an intro to explain where I’m going. I’ve read that some people are a little miffed at the fact that for instance, CEP will only let you apply one filter at a time before having to save and exit. I realize that the package for Aperture / LR is much less than that for PS, but I would think this to be annoying and a damper in the work flow. How does this effect the other plugins? Can I not go start to finish with an image in Silver Efex Pro without having to save and exit 3 or 4 times? Just how cumbersome is this? I get the feeling from your review that it not an issue at all, but I’m leery, and finding it difficult to pull the trigger on a purchase for LR because of it. Any thoughts? Again, thanks for the taking the time to post up this helpful review.

BJ McCradle February 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm

is it possible to use canon cameras with this software, i know it sounds like a stupid qerustion but i just want to make sure before i buy it.

Mike September 22, 2011 at 8:58 am

Scott, you can only apply one filter at a time, but it’s not a terrible hindrance. I’ve only used more than filter a few times.

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