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Gadget Bag: HDR Software

When used in moderation, HDR software helps you maximize the dynamic range in your photos. Here’s a look at the tools that are available for doing it.
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Unified Color technologies HDR Expose 3 and 32 Float V3; Photomatix Pro 4

Photo manipulation has always been employed to enhance details, even out exposure and increase contrast. Local dodging and burning was done in film darkrooms, with Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith leading the way. Digital darkrooms, such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture and other processing software, use similar concepts in a different methodology to make similar enhancements and manipulations.

In essence, HDR (high dynamic range) photography focuses on more accurately representing the full spectrum of shadows and highlights that the human eye can see at one time instead of, for instance, the higher contrast (sometimes silhouetted) visuals that are a technicality of the camera’s optics. HDR achieves this eye-like field of vision by merging together several images at bracketed exposures. Similar to a collage, you’re able to capture details from both the shadows and highlights in the over- and underexposures, as well as choose the contrast, color, lighting and depth of field from each shot that work best together to create an overall image representative of the scene you visualized in the field.

Over the past few years, while HDR photography has gained public interest, it has also been engulfed in controversy over how much is too much. Once the technology became easily available to the public, it was liberally applied in degrees varying from slight adjustments for a natural look, to surreal explorations of hyperrealism, to synthetic-pop grunge art, creating a diverse field of art. For some, this artistic flair has caused a backlash, but for us as nature photographers, HDR is about matching the viewer’s eye, which can be done when maintaining a subtle hand with the technique. HDR is a tool for any photographer in situations where you’re dealing with difficult contrast, yet you still want to maintain a natural look.

Luminance HDR

Each person sees colors and light differently, and there will be varying opinions about when the limit or excess of HDR manipulation has been reached. Through experimentation and experience, you can develop your own technique and discerning eye to decide when your images have reached the perfect level for you.

As HDR software develops, new features are constantly being introduced. One challenge when merging photos is “ghosting,” which occurs when a subject doesn’t line up perfectly between multiple images. This could be due to shooting handheld instead of on a tripod, or wind blowing through trees. Some software auto-corrects for this issue locally.

Unified Color Technologies has upgraded the standalone software HDR Expose 3 and 32 Float V3 Photoshop plug-in to allow multiple frames to merge from handheld bracket shooting. The new file browser automatically detects bracketed exposures using thumbnails instead of filenames and can employ a batch-merge function. Upgraded alignment capabilities, including fully automatic and manual assist options, calculate proper fit, while the reengineered deghosting algorithms reduce movement in a scene by using a key frame for other frames to reference. New Adaptive Tone Mapping enhances local control of contrast, color and detail retention. List Price: $119 (HDR Expose 3); $89 (32 Float V3).

Color fringing, or chromatic aberration, is another problem that haunts HDR images more often than single images. Chromatic aberration is when a line of red, green, blue or magenta occurs at a boundary of contrast. This is magnified when working with HDR, since HDR is all about contrast. This is something to look out for when working with images, and your software should be able to help compensate for it.

Everimaging‘s standalone HDR Darkroom 2 Pro uses a clean interface for control over 30 parameters for local and global tone mapping, including lens correction for chromatic aberration, curve adjustments, color temperatures and full color space management, along with highlight/shadow adjustment and noise reduction. Alignment and ghost reduction are done easily upon import. Batch processing can be done with RAW files. Additionally, you can upload directly to social media. While easy to use, this level of custom control is great for those with some previous HDR experience. List Price: $89.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Photomatix from HDRsoft has been a go-to software choice for HDR enthusiasts for some time. Available as standalone software or as a plug-in for Lightroom or Aperture, Photomatix Pro 4 software merges multiple images with the ability to batch process. Auto alignment and selective ghosting make merging of handheld brackets quick and easy. Photomatix also features noise reduction and chromatic aberration reduction, as well as final adjustments of sharpening and contrast. List Price: $99.

Another software package that has gained a following among HDR enthusiasts is Topaz Adjust. This software makes HDR adjustments to one image instead of merging multiples. Using Intelligent Detail Enhancement, it enhances textures and details without boosting noise. Adaptive Exposure adds contrast to different areas of the image depending on the area’s tonality. Adaptive Color mode analyzes the entire image to determine color saturation. You have control over colors, curves, details, noise reduction and exposure, as well as local adjustments for dodging and burning. List Price: $49.

HDR Efex Pro from the Nik Collection

HDR Efex Pro from the Nik Collection of plug-ins easily integrates with Adobe and other Nik software to merge multiple images or make adjustments to a single image. Ranging from natural to artistic one-click presets, you can explore a diverse set of HDR looks, or customize tones and details for your preferences. A before-and-after button lets you take a quick look at the adjustments you’ve made. List Price: $149 (full Nik Collection).

For fans of open-source community-based software, Luminance HDR is a free (donation-based) software for Linux, Windows and iOS machines. The creators take improvement suggestions from the community, and the community also shares updates (for instance, HDR presets). While sticking mostly to the basics, Luminance HDR merges RAW files, allows tone mapping, rotating, sizing and cropping. It can copy EXIF data between images and has an antighosting mask. And a unique feature for Luminance is the Portable Mode (for Windows)—the ability to load and use the software on a USB drive.

In-Camera HDR
From the advanced DSLRs to the iPhone, companies are adding auto-HDR features to their cameras at an increasing rate. Depending on your situation, you may decide to take advantage of this feature or save your HDR for full software postprocessing.

The Pros
1. Each camera manufacturer is intimately familiar with the sensor they use in their cameras, knowing both the best selling points, as well as what areas may need improvement. Because of this, any in-camera HDR feature developed by the company should take these sensor factors into consideration and compensate for any contrast bias their sensor may have.
2. The auto HDR feature is also a huge convenience, saving you quite a bit of screen time by allowing you to experiment with the technology, with quick processing time instead of hours in front of your computer.
3. HDR may become a more utilitarian need, leading HDR for a high-contrast shot to be quickly shuffled in while shooting other wildlife or journalism shots, making the HDR button as necessary as an autofocus button.

The Cons
1. The ease of in-camera HDR processing is attractive, but there are some drawbacks. While this is a feature in flux, many in-camera HDR functions are only available with JPEG files, which may be a workflow hiccup for RAW shooters.
2. Depending on the camera, the feature uses only 2 to 3 images, while full postprocessing can entail 5, 7, 9 or more images, which brings up the issue of full customization.
3. If you want to work with and personalize your image to your eye’s vision to your full satisfaction (and on a screen larger than your camera’s LCD), then full postprocessing is your best bet.