12/27/10 Update #2 – here is a comparison of four leading HDR programs as of this date.
I discussed HDR in a previous post. Although I don’t use HDR that often, it is an important tool for the digital darkroom – when you need it you really, really need it. That said, I try to keep track of the HDR tools in the evolving market place. When something new comes along I download the trial version (no trial version, no interest) and compare its results against my current favorites. Currently the reigning champion at Chez Knepley is Photomatix Pro. The runner up is a beta version of HDR Darkroom Pro.
My HDR goal is to achieve an image which is close to what I saw when capturing the image – and not the often cartoon-like HDR effect that many like. When I have a HDR image to process I run the bracketed exposures through both Photomatix and Darkroom. Neither program is consistently best – else I wouldn’t bother with a second. I usually go with the Photomatix result but there was one situation that often gave it problems (but not so HDR Darkroom) – that was gray cloudy skies (and other similar tonal gradation situations) where the gradation in the resulting image was actually “stepped” as opposed to smooth. As an outdoor photographer this was a problem all too often. Here’s an example cropped from an image presented later – and those skies are ugly (made with PM Pro v3.2 with default settings). With enough time and effort the problem could be fixed, but………
The reason for this post is to suggest downloading the recently released major upgrade to Photomatix Pro (from v3.x to v4). It has solved the image quality issues I had with previous versions and is easier to use (although still replete with more controls and options than you can master in a short time). In the same time frame, a beta version of a new ground up rebuild of Darkroom, HDR Darkroom Pro, was released. These two simultaneous releases sent me back to the drawing board for a new set of comparison tests. Below is a sampling of what I found using the above image as the test specimen.
(NOTE – I rarely use HDR for outdoor shots. I feel that a graduated neutral density filter, tripod, and good technique coupled with natural light come closer to the natural appearing results that I want.This image was shot looking directly at the brightest part of the sky – sun directly behind the clouds – and the opposite hillside was heavily shaded which resulting in a dynamic range far greater than the camera could handle so I decided to give HDR a try. I left my neutral density filter in the car – dummy!)
Click to enlarge
From left to right we have the results (default tone enhance settings) from Photomatix Pro v3.2 (the above ugly sky example is a crop of this image), PMP v4, and HDR Darkroom Pro (beta). PMP v4 has solved the sky tonal gradation problem but Darkroom’s sky still appears more natural to my eye. PMP results are brighter and have better tonal contrast than the Darkroom result – but that’s OK by me since what I want from the HDR software is a natural looking starting point for me to use in my post-processing program of choice, Capture NX2 with the Nik Color Efex Pro 3 plug-in. I use this post-process combination with every image, HDR or not, to adjust color and tonal contrast. The result of that adjustment on the middle and right images (the left is beyond redemption) is shown next (click to enlarge)
Here we see the PMP4 and Darkroom results from above after a bit of post-process clean up; depending on the intended usage more could be done but this is fine for now. Which is better? Better than what? It depends on your taste. To me, the PMP4 results still looks like it was born in an HDR program and the Darkroom result appears more natural – but that may be fine.
I’m going to close with one final comparison. PMP4 offers two basic options – Tone Mapping (that is, HDR as shown above) and Exposure Fusion (blending). The latter is advertised to provide more natural results than tone mapping. (Darkroom doesn’t provide this option.)
Click to enlarge
From left to right we have PMP4 Exposure Fusion, PMP4 HDR Tone Mapping, and HDR Darkroom Pro Tone Mapping. They are all straight from their respective programs with no subsequent post processing. Which is better? Again, better than what? To my eye the PMP4 Exposure Fusion looks more natural than the PMP4 tone mapped version. The Darkroom tone mapped image also appears more natural than the PMP4 version.
If you look at the earlier HDR post, this same image is used as an example and includes the five bracketed input exposures (-4, -2, 0, +2, +4 EV).