Another Nail in the Coffin of Photography Software

Here’s some worrying news: Google just abandoned Nik’s software suite — the same Nik suite that it bought five years ago, and the same Nik suite that it started offering for free in March of 2016. What does this mean for the world of photography software? One discontinued product might not seem like a big deal, and you may not even be a Nik user, but this development should worry any digital photographer.

1) What Exactly Happened?

With a new banner at the top of the Nik website, Google just announced that they’ve stopped development on the Nik software suite. Specifically, “We have no plans to update the Collection or add new features over time.”

If you use the Nik suite for your photography, that’s a bad sign. What does this mean for the future?

It starts slow. For a while, nothing will change, and Nik will work perfectly fine. In fact, it’s been more than a year since Google’s last update of the Nik package, and, clearly, it hasn’t fallen apart on a wide scale yet.

Then, one day, you’ll update Lightroom, Photoshop, or your operating system to the newest version (which may happen automatically), and Nik abruptly will stop working. There won’t be anything you can do.

The same goes for everyone. Even if you bought the Nik suite at full price (back when it cost a full $500) you’ll lose compatibility just like the rest of us.

When Google bought Nik in 2012, a lot of photographers were optimistic that they were going to use it as a springboard for a photo editing software that could challenge Adobe and add some much-needed competition to the professional photo software industry. When Google offered Nik for free in 2016, it started looking like the opposite would happen. Google didn’t want to develop Nik; they wanted to scrape up the useful code, then discard it.

With this announcement, they discarded it.

Sure, Google owns Nik, and they’re free to do what they want with it. But this decision disrupts the workflow of countless photographers, and it’s easy to see why a lot of people are getting angry. If you offer high-end software for free, don’t be surprised when tons of people download it — and don’t be surprised when so many of them make it an irreplaceable part of their workflow.

That’s not a good recipe for Google, and it’s not a good recipe for us.

2) What are the implications?

Nik software is a great product; it offers features — control points, unorthodox sliders, etc. — that other software does not, and it makes it easier to edit your photos in ways that aren’t easy, or possible, anywhere else. The fact that it’s no longer supported by Google is an ominous sign for the rest of the photo editing world.

2.1) Small Companies Aren’t Safe

In 2012, Nik’s original owners made a smart business decision. Google came knocking at their door, and Nik walked away with a lot of reward for their hard work. Very, very few people will say no when Google asks to buy your company. I would have done the same.

But this is a stark reminder that any low- to mid-popularity photo software you rely upon could face the same pressure, and you never know when another one will be bought and dismantled, too. The world of photography is filled with targets for much larger industries — especially social media giants and smartphone companies — to chase. Nik will not be the last one to follow this path.

I wouldn’t worry, for now, about losing larger products like Capture One (owned by Phase One), Adobe Lightroom, or Adobe Photoshop. They’re much bigger fish than the Nik suite, and they’re more insulated against low-level acquisitions like this (and, compared Google, Nik was almost invisibly low-level). But the lesson here is simple: Keep your options open. No part of your workflow should be irreplaceable, because it’s impossible to know how long any of it will last in such a quickly-changing industry.

2.2) The Adobe Monopoly Tightens

Nikon Capture NX 2; Apple Aperture; Google Nik. Which professional photography software will fall next?

Adobe is looking like the last company left. Its closest challengers — GIMP and Capture One — are miles behind in market share. Whether or not you like Adobe’s software, that’s not a good sign for anyone.

Take Creative Cloud, for example. Adobe’s subscription model no longer relies solely on carrots (new features) to earn your money in the future. Instead, it offers the stick. If you don’t keep paying, you lose access to crucial, irreplaceable parts of your work, such the ability to access any of your Lightroom edits, until you subscribe again. Very few people want to enter a deal like that, but we were enticed in by good prices (for now) and a lack of other options.

Adobe knew they could make a bold move like that because they didn’t feel threatened — and they shouldn’t. Nik may not have been a massive company, but it represents yet another bubble of customers that Adobe will reel back in — and there will be more. What if Zerene Stacker and Helicon Focus fade away in the next ten years, and the only focus stacking software left is Photoshop? What if Hugin and PTGui are acquired by Google, and Adobe is the only place that lets you stitch a panorama? I certainly don’t see either of these scenarios as likely, but no one thought Nik or Aperture would go out, either. Things like this are unpredictable.

3) What You Need to Do

Google signaled today that Nik will be incompatible with some operating system in the future, but it hasn’t stopped working yet. Depending upon how desperate you are, you can still cobble together a long-term solution that keeps Nik up and running indefinitely.

First, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and download Nik for free while it still exists. I don’t expect Google to remove their download link any time soon, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you do own Nik, ask yourself this: Is it a crucial, unavoidable part of your workflow? And, if so, are you willing to dedicate a second computer (even an extra one you already have) entirely to using this software?

I expect that most people answered no to one or both of those questions. Personally, I use Nik for a lot of my photos, but it doesn’t happen to be the centerpiece of my post-processing workflow. When it no longer works, I won’t feel like I’ve hit a wall. But other photographers will.

The good news is that Nik could last for a long, long time before it loses compatibility. The bad news is that it’s impossible to know exactly how many more weeks, months, or years it will continue to work, but, some day, it will stop.

When that happens, you may want to have a plan in place. Here’s what that could look like:

Yes, it’s cumbersome. It will take time to go through this process for every photo you edit with Nik, and it also can cost some money if you don’t already have a second computer that can work for this purpose. But if you need it, you need it.

Hopefully, of course, you won’t run into compatibility issues for a long time. If Nik is a crucial part of your work, though, you’ll want to do this sooner rather than later. I do predict that the Nik suite will continue working fine for a while, even as you update your operating system and other software, but no one really has any clue if that’s true.

Here’s what you don’t need to worry about: incompatibility if you buy a new camera. Other discontinued software, like Capture NX 2, isn’t able to read today’s RAW files, making it tricky (though not impossible) to use with recent cameras. Nik doesn’t have that problem, since it only ever worked with TIFFs and JPEGs anyway, and the compatibility of those files doesn’t depend upon the camera that they’re from.

Instead, the life expectancy of Nik depends upon the operating system updates that appear in the future. One day, an update will render Nik useless, and we should hope that happens as late as possible.

(Side note: It’s also possible that Nik will lose compatibility with Lightroom or Photoshop before it loses compatibility with your operating system. Although that would be annoying, it wouldn’t be the end of the world; you could always export your photo as a TIFF file, edit it in the standalone version of Nik software on your computer, and then reopen it in Photoshop or Lightroom if necessary. It’s inconvenient, but it’s not as bad as an incompatible operating system.)

NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 8/10, f/16.0

4) Conclusion

There aren’t any great options left here. While I’m sure that Google abandoned Nik for economically justifiable reasons, that decision will eventually leave thousands of photographers grasping for a solution — if not tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands.

As someone who uses Nik for many of my landscape photos, I’m obviously worried by this development. At the same time, it’s also an important wakeup call. When you’re putting together a workflow, no part of it should be irreplaceable. This industry is changing very quickly, and you can’t know which software will survive another year, or even another month.

In the end, we all have to adopt a much more flexible mindset. The start point of a photo (your mind) and the end point (your display) are likely to remain similar for now, but everything in the middle is constantly in flux. Going forward, it’s crucial that photographers adapt to these changes quickly. If not, like Nik software, we eventually will find ourselves left in the dust.