HDR Update #2

I use several HDR programs. As new programs are introduced, and when updates to my current programs (Photomatix and HDR Darkroom) are released, I run a set of test images through them to see how they compare. My HDR goal is to produce a natural looking image with good contrast and details throughout the tonal range as captured in a set of bracketed exposures. This goal is reflected in my test; if you’re into HDR “grunge” my results may not apply.
HDR Update #1 was posted in October. Since then two new programs,  HDR Efex Pro and HDR Photo Pro, have appeared on the scene as well as an update to HDR Darkroom. Read on for the latest comparison.
See this earlier HDR post for a discussion of the what’s, why’s & wherefore’s of HDR. [Update – and this later post comparing the programs in this current post on a “easy subject”.] [And yet another update – Exposure Fusion instead of HDR for more natural looking results.] ________________________________________________________
Here are the 5 bracketed exposures that I use for my comparison test (-4, -2, 0, +2  & +4 EV). Click any image in this post to enlarge it.

The tonal range is about 13 stops. It is an extreme test but fair – typical of many architectural shots. It quickly shows weaknesses in a program’s ability to handle both ends of an extreme tonal range (high dynamic range, HDR, is the name of the game, after all). Of particular note is how the window and floor highlight details are handled.
Here are the comparative results – one program per row. From left to right the images are 1) program default, 2) after adjustment in the HDR program, 3) the center image after further post processing in Color Efex Pro to improve color and tonal contrast and details.
HDR Photo Pro 1.0 – This is a new release from Everimaging Ltd. It is not an update from their earlier program, HDR Darkroom, but in their words “We have built it completely new from the ground up so we could take HDR to a whole new level.” (HDR Darkroom is still sold).
For my style and needs HDR Photo Pro is my current favorite. It produces the most natural results -and – with the least effort (by far).

HDR Darkroom 2.2 – This is an relatively minor upgrade of version 2.1. I prefer the more powerful Photo Pro shown above, but this program is a very close 2nd in terms of results (but behind in terms of speed & control – you have to work harder).

Photomatix Pro 4 Tone Mapped – This is the program that, for years, has been synonymous with HDR and deservedly so. In the hands of a skilled practitioner it can provide almost any type of result – from natural to grunge. My main complaints – take with a grain of salt – is that the controls and their effect are not intuitive. As a result, the learning curve can be steep.

Photomatix Pro 4 Fused Exposures – Photomatix has two main processing options. One is Tone Mapping which is standard for HDR programs. The second is Fused-Exposures. Since the methods and results are different, I’m presenting the results as if they were different programs.

HDR Efex Pro 1.0 – Introduced in October 2010, this is the latest in Nik Software’s series of plug-in software (note that it can be run in a stand-alone mode even though not mentioned by Nik). (Full disclosure – I am a Nik beta tester.)
Currently, this is my least favorite of the four programs in this comparison simply because it does the poorest on this test image. My main objection is that the highlight detail, present in the -4 & -2 Ev exposures is mostly lost. Further, the final results – even with extensive adjustments – have a tendency to show smooth surfaces with “blotches”, i.e. not smooth gradations. Having said that, the available controls are second to none – especially the hallmark Nik UPoint technology that allows for selective adjustments, a feature available nowhere else. I have no doubt that by the time that HDR Efex Pro 2.0 is released (no idea when) it will be at, or near, the top of the class for HDR software.

Here is another view of the comparative results, this time a side by side comparison of the results from each program.

  1. The first group shows the default setting result from each program
  2. The second the results after in-program adjustments
  3. The third after Color Efex Pro post-processing

The program result layout is –

#1 HDR Photo Pro        #2 HDR Darkroom           #3 HDR Efex Pro
#4 Photomatix (PM)  Fused     #5 PM ToneMap V1    #6 PM ToneMap V2

For the PM versions above –

V1 -Per the recommended setting in a recent (2/11) article in Outdoor Photographer
V2 – An old custom preset of mine

Default setting results – I’ve been questioned about why I show default setting results when these aren’t (or don’t have to be) the final result. Simple – you have to start somewhere in each of these programs and this is “it”. And – if “it” is a far way from your goal, then you have more work cut out for you than otherwise. And – in some cases “it” may be so far from your goal that you can’t get there from here. If the default is touted to be “natural”, then what I see in the image should be roughly what I see with my eyes and, for example, neither of the right hand images in the two rows below satisfy that criteria.

After in-program adjustments – I tried to limit my time to no more than 5 minutes in each program. As a rough estimate here’s how they stacked up –
~1 min.                         ~ 1min.                            ~5 min.
~1 min.                         ~3 min.                            ~3 min.

After further post-processing in Color Efex Pro. The same adjustments were made to each image, Color Contrast and Tonal Contrast filters primarily, for a total post-processing time of less than a minute each.

The designers of the programs could probably do better in terms of the final results than I did. That’s not the point. We consumers are the users – and I’ve been at a computer for longer than many of the reader’s of this blog have been alive. I’ve written commercial software, have been a beta tester for several software developers – in general, I’m at least a representative user. The results that I got should be considered to be representative of those of a typical user (you?). If you like what you see then you’ll probably like the program. If not….
Caveat Emptor – When plunking down your hard earned money for an HDR program, do a little research. Besides reading reviews of the programs, check out the vendors. Convince yourself that not only is their product good BUT that there is a good chance that the company that produces it will be around for a while. My point is that HDR is a relatively new hot market and lots of folks see an opportunity to make a buck. Unfortunately (for the customer) some of these companies don’t last (even a year). Where does that leave you? Bug free software doesn’t exist – who’s going to fix the bugs? Technology advances – who’s going to update the software (of particular interest is the requirement to add RAW conversion for new cameras; you buy a new camera, not supported by your HDR program, and the vendor left town. What do you do? You buy a new program, that’s what).
Try this. Go to the vendor’s website. Look for a forum. None there, well maybe that’s not so good (but not necessarily). If there is a forum, check the posts – and especially the replies from the vendor. If you see very little activity (either user or vendor) think twice before going this route. For an example look here (check the forum under the Contact Us tab).
Also, consider that in a very few years much of what HDR programs do will be done in your camera. Several cameras already do this and you can read about this Canon patent to see what’s coming down the road. When we reach that point, the need for an HDR program is questionable.

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