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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
HDRsoft Photomatix Pro
Photomatix Pro was the first widely popular HDR program. Now in version 4.0, the great strength of Photomatix Pro is that it contains three very different methods in one package and makes it easy to compare one to the other. (HDR Efex Pro also contains numerous preset HDR methods, but in my testing, only Natural produces the sort of natural-looking results that I find acceptable.) Think of Photomatix’s three methods as increasingly heavy hammers.

Exposure Fusion is the light-duty tool; it’s not actually a true HDR utility. It comes in several configurations, of which Adjust gives the user the most control. Exposure Fusion-Adjust produces very natural results quickly and intuitively when used on scenes with moderately high contrast—perhaps a four- or five-stop difference between important highlights and shadows.

Nik Software
Unified Color Technologies
Tone Compressor is the next bigger hammer. It can retain good detail in the highlights and shadows of higher-contrast scenes, but it has a tendency to shift and oversaturate colors, requiring more work to retain a natural appearance.

Details Enhancer is the sledgehammer method, able to handle the highest-contrast scenes, but it has a bewildering array of sliders that interact with each other in complex ways. It takes considerable time and experience to master the various controls so you can achieve the look you want without endless trial-and-error. Details Enhancer came in second in its ability to handle the sun in the frame in my Pigeon Peak test shots, but sometimes came in first when used on other scenes containing the sun.

So which HDR program is best? For overall ease of use, ability to fine-tune an image to perfection and a believable final product, I would have to pick HDR Efex Pro as long as the source images were shot at ISO 100. Photomatix Pro has effective noise reduction built-in, making it a good choice for high-ISO images, so it has earned a place on my hard drive as well. All three of these packages have more features, quirks and caveats than I have space to describe. In truth, I don’t think you can go wrong. Each of these programs will expand your horizons and let you photograph high-contrast scenes in ways once considered impossible. Give HDR a try. Download a trial version and see for yourself.

You can see more of Glenn Randall’s work, read his new landscape photography blog, sign up for his newsletter and learn about upcoming workshops at www.glennrandall.com.


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