Capture NX-D and the Future of Raw Conversion: Nikon and Nik Part Ways
Digital photography is a rapidly evolving field with many competing players, not all of which can be the best at everything. Nikon has clearly been a leader in terms of cameras and lenses but has had a rocky road on the software front with multiple course corrections. Now comes the latest change which is leaving some longtime fans more than a bit upset.
Back when "digital photography" meant scanning images shot on slide film and actual digital cameras weren't all that good even as they remained out of reach for most of us, Nikon made some of the best slide scanners around. Getting good film scans had previously meant paying for expensive drum scans but Nikon made quality desktop scanning at home possible for the first time. One of the features that made Nikon CoolScan scanners so good was a feature called Digital ICE (originally developed by Kodak) that utilized a scanned infrared channel to automatically detect and remove dust spots. For a long time, support for Digital ICE wasn't available with third-party software. Only Nikon's own NikonScan software supported Digital ICE. Even Cannon shooters used Nikon scanners even if some did cover the brand logo with duct tape to conceal the fact. Film was film, and few disagreed that Nikon made the best scanners. And only Nikon software could achieve the full potential of Nikon scanners.
Once affordable digital cameras came on the scene though, Nikon and Canon shooters each reverted to being brand loyalists again since only Nikon software could read Nikon raw files and only Canon software could read Canon raw files. No competitive third-party raw converters had made their debut yet. Like NikonScan, Nikon Capture had a somewhat quirky user interface but was well regarded. While Capture One from Phase One and a few other converters had their adherents, the real game changer was Adobe's introduction of Camera Raw, initially as a $99 add-on for Photoshop 7. Many users who had stuck by Nikon Capture began shifting to Adobe once the first Creative Suite bundle that came with Camera Raw was released in 2003. The release of Adobe Lightroom caused even more Nikon shooters to abandon Nikon Capture. Not only did Nikon have competition in the software realm, the competition was stiff, and gaining momentum.
Whether all this had anything to do with it or whether my version of history is missing a relevant factor, Nikon decided to join forced with Nik Software in 2006 to release a new version of Nikon Capture, dubbed Capture NX. As I see it, Nikon turned to Nik to help revamp their raw converter and Nik couldn't say no to the infusion of capital from Nikon's investment. Nikon was a camera company at heart, and Nik was a software company with a proven track record with Color Efex Pro and other offerings, and so they joined forces to produce Capture NX. The "NX" officially stood for "Next" according to Nikon, but it was clearly influenced by the shared first few letters of both company's names. Featuring Nik Software's proprietary "Control Point" technology, Capture NX was a hit with users, and the release of Capture NX2 in 2008 made a good thing even better.
But Nik Software got bought by Google in 2012. Reports at the time speculated that Google's expanding internet tentacles wanted Nik in order to get Snapseed, an Instagram competitor, now built into Google+. Questions regarding Google's plans for other Nik products have continued since. Proving the adage that all good things must come to an end, Nikon recently announced the successor to Capture NX2, but apparently minus the Nik Control Point technology. Nikon and Nik are parting ways. And Capture NX loyalists are none too pleased.
The announcement back in February of the upcoming Nikon Capture NX-D raw conversion software was initially short on specifics, and the beta version could be assumed to be a work in progress. But notably missing was any mention or evidence of the Nik Control Points. By now though, any ambiguity has evaporated. According to the Nikon Rumors website, the new NX-D release appears to have been created in conjunction with Ichikawa Soft Laboratory, makers of the Silkypix raw converter, and will not be including Nik features, even in the final release. Functionally, Capture NX-D is a lot like Nikon Capture was before the detour into Nik Software land. Seemingly all features added to Nikon Capture in the quite a few years are gone again. There appear to be no localized adjustments of any kind. It's like déjà vu all over again. According to Nikon, support for some of the missing features may get added to some degree by the time the product ships, but don't believe for a minute that this isn't a huge step backward for many users.
I was a dedicated Nikon Capture user early on. This probably isn't surprising since they were originally the only game in town. Although I paid my $99 for the Photoshop 7 version of Adobe Camera Raw, it was mainly out of curiosity and potential convenience. It worked well for many images, but for the hard ones I valued and used Nikon Capture. I upgraded to Capture NX when Nikon released it based on some time playing with the beta download of it. These days though, I've basically moved to Adobe Lightroom for most everything, with Photoshop taking over for those things Lightroom can't yet do on its own. So I'm personally affected that much by this change of direction from Nikon, but it does give me pause for thought.
Neither Nikon nor Canon has really been at the top of the pack in terms of raw conversion software. Canon's counterpart to Nikon Capture is known as Digital Photo Professional, or DPP. It's not an overly flashy program, nor one that includes many innovative features. I think many Canon users jumped ship to Adobe or other third parties more readily than did the typical Nikon user because of their hopes for what the future of Capture NX might mean. But while Nikon gambled on their partnership with Nik Software, Canon plodded along with DPP. Would Nikon users have been better off had Control Points never entered their Capture NX world, I don't know. In the end, many of the users who stuck with Nikon raw software in the face of the Adobe onslaught will probably switch to Lightroom in the end anyway. Either that or take their chances with a different non-Nikon alternative.
As I said at the outset, digital photography is a rapidly evolving field with lots of competing players. And sometimes more than a few users get caught in the middle. In a competition there will always be winners and losers. There are no easy answers sometimes.