Are Photo Plug-ins Dead? My Thoughts On Nik Being Free

In Featured by Matt K21 Comments

A few weeks ago, Google announced the Nik Collection of plug-ins—which Google has owned since buying Nik Software in 2012—was now free. This sent a few shock waves through the photo industry, and in the last few weeks, I’ve had a bunch people asking if we’d follow (meaning us at ON1, since I work there full time),  Google/Nik by making ON1 plug-ins free too. How would we compete? What was the plan?

At first I thought, well, I’m not sure this is something to talk about publicly. It has a lot to do with business decisions, and future technologies, so it’d be easy to just keep quiet. Also, to me personally, I thought this was the final nail in the Nik coffin. I really didn’t want to say that publicly (I guess I just did), because I know many people have spent good money on those apps.

But then I started realizing that people care about the apps they use for their photography. And I think a lot of you have a genuine interest to see what the future holds. ON1 isn’t some giant software conglomerate. We’re made up of photographers, and people that really want to help you edit photos. And I think that shows through, and most of you reading this actually care. So that’s were this post was born. And it’s got some pretty cool history in it, because the Google/Nik story is how I started using ON1 apps in the first place years ago.


Google/Nik Is Actually How I Started Using ON1

The Nik story is pretty interesting for me personally, because the history has quite a bit to do with some big changes in my life believe it or not. Google/Nik is how I ended up using ON1 in the first place. Years ago, when I was teaching folks how to use Photoshop®, I was a happy Nik user. But software education was a bit different five to seven years ago. Whenever I showed people a plug-in, they’d get mad because it meant spending more money. Plug-ins weren’t cheap back then: Most packages cost over $300 and some $500-$600. Not to mention, a lot of people felt it was cheating. Kinda like, “if you’re going to get a cool effect, you should get it the hard way by knowing the 10 Photoshop filters, 13 layer blend modes, the Channel Mixer, Calculations dialog, and masking that make that happen.”

Fast forward a few years. Once people realized that a lot of those plug-ins were the secret sauce to most of the photos that inspired them, they embraced them. Prices came down, and more people jumped on board the plug-in train.

Then, four years ago, Google acquired Nik. This was right around the time where Nik’s Snapseed was one of the most popular iPhone apps out there. Knowing that Google had a history of killing all desktop software they came in contact with, most of us thought that meant the Nik products were slowly going to die. But we were assured by some people on the inside, that Nik was alive and kicking.

As time went on it became pretty clear Google didn’t seem to care about the desktop photo-editing plug-ins for photographers. At this time, of course, Google was WAY in to the Google+ platform and mobile technology. Any photo editing they did happened online with the auto-magic stuff in their uploader for Google+. Professional and semi-pro/enthusiastic photographers editing on the desktop weren’t really Google’s target audience. My sister, for example, was their audience. She doesn’t want to lift a finger on any of her cell phone photos of her kids at dance class, but still wants them to look good. So the apps didn’t seem to have a home, and we never saw or heard much from them after the acquisition.

Enter ON1

At this point I was pretty disappointed. I liked my desktop apps, but it became clear to me that they were no longer a priority under the Google umbrella. They’d see minor updates to keep them current on the latest OS, but no big feature updates were released. Lightroom and Photoshop had rendered their Noise and Sharpening plug-ins pretty much useless. I wasn’t much in to HDR or Black and White. So really, the only app that I needed was the app that made me fall in love with Nik in the first place – Color Efex Pro 4. That’s where I felt I got the “style” in my photos after editing in Lightroom.

But by this point, Color Efex had already been out for a couple of years (it came out in 2011), and it became clear we were never going to see a major update again. That’s when I started looking elsewhere for an effects app that could get me the “style” I look for in my photos, and actually grow and get updated as technology improved.

I tried ON1 more seriously and eventually fell in love with the ON1 Effects app. So in a weird crazy way, Google/Nik basically giving up on the pro, semi-pro and enthusiast photography market is actually how I ended up using ON1 apps in the first place. I refused to invest any more time and energy in software I felt wouldn’t improve technically or expand my creative stylization, and most likely eventually die.

More Than Effects

As I dove more and more into the ON1 apps, I noticed there was a lot more to them. First, there were actual brushing and masking tools in all the apps. Which made it easy to apply effects in places I wanted, while hiding them from the parts I didn’t want them in.

If you’re not a big Photoshop user (I personally am), ON1 has layers that’ll get a lot of the photography tasks done without jumping to Photoshop. There’s a ton of presets, it works as an Apple Photos extension, and has the standard for upsizing photos for big prints.

And finally, a big change for me is what’s happened over the last couple of years with the introduction of ON1 Browse. These days I tend to use ON1 as a standalone browser for my photos that I don’t want to formally “catalog”. Sometimes I have a group of photos that I simply want to look at. Maybe they’re on an old drive, or maybe I only have a few minutes after a photo shoot. It’s super fast, requires no importing or cataloging, and simply let’s me look at a folder of photos on my computer at lightning speed. Then, when I’m ready to edit, I can take those photos in to Lightroom, Photoshop, or (if you’re an ON1 only user) ON1 Enhance/Effects/Portrait.

This is How I Have a Job!

I know some of you are thinking “Well Matt, you work for ON1 and of course you’re going to say good things” Abso-freaking-lutely! But hopefully most of you reading here know that I’m pretty down to earth and shoot you straight – this is really a response to the questions I’ve seen out there. We can’t hide from it. It makes sense. So I figured why not hit it head on? The reality is, if ON1 were just an effects company, we would be in serious trouble right now.

But we’re not. We saw moves like this coming a while back and it’s kinda what led me to have a job there right now. Effects were becoming (and probably are now) commoditized. They’re free on the phone, and now most of them are free on the desktop too.

A while back, ON1 realized if they’re going to remain competitive they need more. They started the monthly loyalty rewards years ago. If you’re a customer, every month you get free stuff. There’s a huge training library on the public website. And they hired me on to round out the educational aspect of the company so that the apps didn’t just sit on your computer, but so you actually had some one to show you how to use all of them in your workflow with Lightroom and Photoshop.

I don’t write code. I’m not a salesperson. I’m an educator who shoots a lot, teaches a lot, spends a ton of time chatting with photographers, and is out there talking to people about what they want in their photo editing apps.

The future is bright for ON1…like really bright. There’s some VERY exciting stuff coming later this year that’s a direct response to what customers (and a lot of other people) have been saying they want. It’s got the entire team more excited than ever. And I can honestly tell you it’s got me chomping at the bit because I want to use this stuff right now.

So, make sure you stay tuned over the next few weeks.

– Matt K


  1. Ryan Cooper

    The thing for me that always sends me away from these plugins is their poor performance. If a plugin is frustratingly slow to use then I’m not going to use it. Unfortunately its that simple. Nik fails that test pretty handedly. My computer is no slouch yet it runs like molasses when Nik is open. For that reason. I uninstalled it quite quickly. I evaluated On1 about a year ago and ran into the same thing. In my opinion, for a plugin to make it into my workflow it needs to run as fast or faster than Photoshop or il never bother launching it.

    1. Viv

      I agree but for me it’s the opposite. Nik works fast and seamlessly on my PC and so does Topaz. For some reason, however, On1 crashes and slows me down with other frustrating issues. It got bad enough that I simply uninstalled the program and chalked the expense up to a loss.

  2. Patrick G.

    Thanks for the insight.

    I had no time to look into ON1’s offering for some time, but really I need to give it another try it seems. ON1 Photo 10 really looks great now, especially the improved stand-alone functionality / browser and tuned GUI. And Filter quality & performance was always very good anyway.

    Right now I still use the Nik Collection I bought a few years back (as standalone too, with some tricks), their workflow and filters always felt right for me and I love their local contrast filter programming. But as you wrote, it’s a dead-end thanks to Big-G. 🙁

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Thanks for letting me know Wade. I’m using a plug-in that seems to be acting up, and it’s really hard to test because when I dismiss it, it’s gone. It shouldn’t pop up again at least until the cookie on your computer runs out which is a week I think. t’ll look in to it though. Thanks.

      1. Wade Brooks



        It may be that it only occurs once a week or so.

        BTW, I do enjoy your posts and have learned a few things over the years.


  3. Steven

    Everything you wrote above should be quite obvious although some clarification was due for photographers to understand what’s going on.
    I also found plugins to run quite slow but kept using them when required, both Nik and On1, for several years. I would use plugins more often if they run faster.
    It seems to me that On1 has a clear vision because they hired you, not just because of you, but because what you are: an educator.
    A few days ago I purchased the update to v.10 for 69.99; considering what you get, and even for the most budget minded photographer, I believe this is pretty affordable.
    I hope that On1 developing work will focus on making plugins run faster and I remain enthusiastic about you future new stuff.

  4. David

    Hi Matt,

    As others have commented, I bought the Nik suite of plugins several years ago, long before Google bought the company. In fact, so long ago the price was $400+. But I have found Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro to be invaluable and, though I also own and use the On1 suite, I can’t imagine having to work without the Nik plugins. Among the many great features of SEP and CEP, for me the U-Point technology is extremely helpful and unavailable anywhere else.

    Which brings me to a suggestion — Surely I’m not the only person who finds U-Point to be an extremely valuable feature of Nik. And so as it appears that Google doesn’t have much interest in the Nik Collection, perhaps On1 might consider buying Nik from Google, as incorporating the best of the Nik technology into the On1 suite can only make On1’s product even better than it already is.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Hey David – a few things:
      1) I’m not a fan of U-point. I’d rather a brush with great edge detection which I think ON1 already has, and I believe it’s better than U-point which is old technology that hasn’t been improved on in years.
      2) When was the last time you heard Google sell something. Especially something this small. I’d have to imagine it’s not even worth their time in legal fees to do such a deal.
      3) And this is the deal breaker I believe. Snapseed is the app that’s still very much alive. They use uPoint technology in it, which probably means it’s not going to get sold.

    2. Dave Kinnear

      Capture One Pro 9 can approximate U-Point technology. Try the Color Editor. You can select a color or a color range and perform many moves on the selection. Masking tools allow you to protect portions of your image from any changes.

  5. Don

    I am interested in knowing when I can drop lightroom and just use ON1. That will be a good day. I have been using ON1 for a while I am happy with the direction they are heading in.

  6. JW Smith

    Matt (& Craig K by reference),
    As I think I mentioned to Craig one time at PSWorld, I have been a Nik customer/user (read that as “avid”) since long ago. I was impressed with Craig’s answer of “You, know, Nik is a great software (pre-Google), but just give us time. Right now (then) we (On1) are Avis, but we plan to be Hertz. We’ll make a loyal believer out of you.”
    Shortly thereafter, Google acquired Nik, and here we are. I still use both but the reason for heading down the On1 path has been responsiveness to the loyal fan base of users who will pay, and continue to pay, reasonably good charges for very good applications not to mention the focus on photographers over phone editors.
    I have been a Resize user since long before it was On1’s Resize (anyone remember Genuine Fractals by LizardTech?)
    So now I am almost totally On1, and near-addicted to the app and instuctional/inspirational content (thanks for bringing back Inspiration & Brian).
    But I’ll give just one example of how best to loose the loyalty of longtime customers one instance at a time. Sometime several versions back (Suite 9 I think), On1 dropped support for non-constained Resize. When I first noticed it, I thought I just missed it in the newer interfaces. On asking Support, the “definitive” answer I got back was, “On1 is no longer supporting that feature.”
    Really, that’s the explanation? Not to mention the seemingly minimal effort to retain it.
    So I, and maybe only a few olf GenFractals devotees, still keep On1Suite 8 (get that – two versions or more ago) nstalled just for the sole purpose of being able to resize in non-constrained proportions outside of Photoshop or Lightroom.
    I know I may be in a minority here, but the purpose of this is to remind On1 that we, regardless of tenure, deserve more than a canned answer, and further that someday, a new new kid on the block will be telling users like me to hang in there until they are longer the “Avis”.
    So please listen, because you have my loyalty, for now.
    Craig, I’m just sayin’

  7. steveb


    I appreciate where you’re coming from on NIK but there is an awful lot to be said for ease of processing through familiarity with the plugins (especially silver efex for me) and the time one needs to invest if one moves to a new ‘collection’.

    That said I’ve begun to make the move to ON1 (and thanks for all the educational material) in the belief that ON will extend my processing horizons and in the long term replace other plugins AND Photoshop in my workflow – the main concern I have though is whether ON will jump on the current bandwagon of ‘monthly payments’ rather than purchasing a product.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Totally get it Steve – if you’re happy with ’em I say stay with what you’ve got since it works. My main rule about post-processing is do what works for you 🙂

  8. Barb White

    I am very disappointed with Google for their handling of the NIK products. No updates and now one of my favourite applications SilverEfex Pro often does not work properly with my PhotoShop CC. Using the filters helped me greatly understand Photoshop and what would change what as I was doing my post processing. I was an early adopter and dove right in but only used the filters so that their effect was barely noticeable. I applied them especially Color Efex Pro like classy makeup. Not an application that was a garish change resembling over the top show makeup on stage actors. The control at the pixel level is stunning and I am not too sure that I see the same elegant technology in use in other applications. I don’t find there is the same control or the plethora of filters available in other software.

  9. Lars Lentz

    Without knowing your story Matt, I’ve done a similar thing. In 2012 when Nik looked like it wasn’t going to be supported, I went with On1. I love On1 products and I’m in the process of converting my Nik recipe to an On1 photo recipe. On1 software has so much more potential in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your story.


    Hi Matt, I, like many others probably own a slew of raw processors and as a Mac user and Fuji X user it has been hard to find just one that would suit the fuji Raw Files. I ultimately used both Iridient Developer and Lightroom CC together, and only bothered with Lightroom for the Niko plug ins. I have been using Nik since they were marketed as a product and probably before that in Nikon Raw Software. I seem to remember spending hundreds of dollars for Nik products. Now it is free. Free boils down to lack of support because support costs money and Google is a money machine.

    I doubt that any improvements will be made and that is what ultimately led my to On1 which I have been using as a stand alone piece of software together with presets I have purchased from Photomorphis and have really fallen in love with the software.

    I am on pins and needles waiting for the new Raw Processor.

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