HDR Comparison Revisited

What follows doesn’t apply to anyone who uses HDR for its ability to create non-realistic, unnatural images. Many like the “HDR-look” and that’s fine.

I’m not a big fan of HDR – except when it’s actually required. It’s required when the dynamic range of the image is high. It’s high when it exceeds the camera’s ability to capture it from the darkest darks to the brightest brights in a single exposure. That’s why it’s called HDR!

If the scene doesn’t require HDR processing AND you want a natural looking result then you may be asking for trouble if you go straight to HDR processing without first giving your in camera capture a chance. First – capture the best in-camera single exposure result that you can. Next, and only then – fire off a set of auto-exposure bracketed shots (as a fall back, not your primary option).

If your camera is capable of capturing the full tonal range of the scene and you want a natural looking result, why would you resort to HDR and leave the important processing decisions to some unknown programmer?

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I previously wrote a post comparing several HDR programs. The comparison involved a scene that absolutely could not be captured in a single exposure. The comparison showed that all HDR programs do not handle true HDR scenes equally well.

Today’s post compares the same programs. This time, however, the comparison uses a scene which can be captured with a single exposure – albeit with a full tonal range from dark to bright, but, hey, that’s what natural scenes are and what camera’s do.

For the HDR image, I made three exposures. One was the “proper” exposure as metered by the camera and the other two were one stop above and below the correct exposure. Why do this, you say? First, because so many folks do it; I’m astounded when looking at example HDR images how many are of scenes that have absolutely no need of HDR processing (such as my example below). Second, to demonstrate that given an “easy” scene all decent HDR programs can produce an acceptable result (BUT not so with a scene that actually needs HDR as in the previous post).

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Here’s my example. In order going clockwise from the upper left –

  1. Single Exposure – This is what you get with an in-camera single exposure non-HDR image. Processed in Capture NX2 to convert from RAW to JPEG plus NX2’s D-Lighting adjustment to adjust the shadows and highlights.
  2. Photomatix Pro 4 – Default (input was 3 RAW files)
  3. HDR Photo Pro – Default (input was 3 RAW files)
  4. HDR Efex Pro – Default (input was 3 unadjusted JPEG files produced by NX2 – HEP has no built in RAW>JPEG converter; it’s a plug in & depends on its host program for conversion)

Click image to enlarge

You can see that all three HDR programs do an adequate job with their default settings. They can be adjusted further, to suit, either in the HDR program, in another post-process program, or both – but why bother if you’re looking for a natural result. It’s a lot easier and faster (both capture and post-process), in this case, to do it correctly in camera.

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A final thought – when doing trial tests of HDR programs test them on true HDR scenes. Bells and whistles aside, the only true measure of an HDR program is the result it produces when given a set of exposures taken of a true HDR scene (tonal range greater than the camera can capture in a single exposure). Tests on scenes like this post’s example are meaningless.

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