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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

HDR Software Roundup And Review

The technology has matured beyond a gee-whiz bit of digital trickery into a full-fledged tool that nature photographers can use to overcome the limitations of the image sensor

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Sunset over Pigeon Peak from the summit of Mount Eolus, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

Raw—Best image possible from a single raw capture, processed with Adobe Camera Raw.

HDR Efex Pro
Processed with Nik Software HDR Efex Pro.

HDR Expose
Processed with Unified Color Technologies HDR Expose.

HDR Photomatix—Processed with HDRsoft Photomatix Pro 4.0 using Tone Compressor.
Unified Color Technologies HDR Expose
Let’s start with HDR Expose and its companion 32 Float, which share the same interface and processing engine. One of the major problems for HDR software is maintaining good local contrast within the shadows. Often, the shadows look like you’re viewing them through a thick blanket of smog. Here, HDR Expose excels with a feature called Veiling Glare that beautifully restores believable contrast to the shadows. Using Veiling Glare is simple: Click on a near-black area with an eyedropper and adjust a slider to taste.

Another standout feature of HDR Expose that’s unique among the packages I tried is Color Tuning, which allows you to tweak individual colors separately from the overall color balance. You start by clicking on the errant color with an eyedropper. HDR Expose then displays a color-picker panel showing the original color as well as closely related colors. Drag a marker to the new color, and HDR Expose updates the old color to the new throughout the image without creating harsh transitions between colors.

Although HDR Expose has several strengths, it’s not perfect. The workflow feels cumbersome and the previews update more slowly than any other program I tested. HDR Expose’s workflow uses a series of operations (Brightness/Contrast, Shadow/Highlight, Veiling Glare, etc.). Each operation appears sequentially in a panel that resembles Photoshop’s History panel. If you want to revisit an earlier step, the software disables subsequent operations temporarily, which makes it hard to judge what changes you should make to the earlier operation. You have to re-enable the subsequent steps to see the full effect of all your changes—a process that can take a minute or more even on my 64-bit, quad-core Windows 7 system with 8 gigabytes of RAM. You can repeat an operation (for example, using Veiling Glare, then Shadow-Highlight, then Veiling Glare again) rather than revisiting an earlier one, but then you’re stacking the same adjustments on top of each other—an imperfect solution. Although HDR Expose produced some harsh transitions around the sun in my first test image, I got excellent image quality in my shot of Longs Peak.

Nik Software HDR Efex Pro
Nik Software HDR Efex Pro is a new entry in the HDR marketplace. In my opinion, it’s a winner. HDR Efex Pro has the fastest, most fluid interface of the three programs that I tested. It’s also easy to understand—which is a good thing because the current user guide is light on details. For example, the first slider in the Nik interface bears the straightforward name Tone Compression. Values greater than zero compress the tones (reduce overall contrast); negative values expand the tones. (By comparison, one of the sliders in Photomatix Pro’s Tone Compressor option is labeled Contrast Adaptation, which their manual says “adjusts the influence of the average brightness in relation to the intensity of the processed pixel.”)

HDR Efex Pro’s second great virtue is the ability to make local adjustments while still in 32-bit mode through the same kind of Control Points employed in other Nik programs. Using Control Points, you can adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, microcontrast and several other parameters within specific regions of the image. HDR Efex Pro’s power to adjust the image precisely, easily and flexibly is unmatched among the HDR packages I’ve tried. It handled the sun in the frame in my Pigeon Peak image more gracefully than any other HDR utility while preserving crisp contrast in the backlit mountain slopes.

Is it perfect? Not completely. For one thing, it lacks a batch feature, which is particularly useful if you’re working on a panorama and need to merge several sets of images with exactly the same settings prior to stitching them together into the final panorama. I also found that HDR Efex Pro has a tendency to accentuate any noise present in the original image, and there’s no noise-reduction feature built in. For example, my Canon EOS-1DS Mark III produces very slight noise at ISO 400. It’s generally only visible in images viewed at 100%. After processing through HDR Efex Pro, the noise is visible even in screen-size images. Be prepared to do noise reduction on either the source images or the final output if your originals have even minor noise. And note that you must be running a 64-bit version of Photoshop (CS4 or CS5 on a PC, CS5 only on a Mac) to use HDR Efex Pro as a Photoshop plug-in. For Lightroom and Aperture, you can use either a 32-bit or 64-bit version.


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