Friday, December 3, 2010

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Processing

Because of limits in what the camera can capture, details in highlights and shadows are often invisible because the highlights are too white or the shadows are too black.  High Dynamic Range (HDR) Processing has been around for years as a means to take several images (under exposed, normal and over exposed) and merge them together into a single image while preserving the details in the highlights (from the under exposed image) as well as the details in the shadows (obtained from the over exposed image).

I don't consider myself an expert at HDR Processing, but I have long been a fan of HDR Soft's Photomatix Pro and have used it from time to time as I felt appropriate for specific kinds of images.  

Recently Nik Software, a well respected author of many image manipulation tools, released their own HDR software called HDR Efex Pro and I've been anxious to try it out.  I finally had time to do a short comparision between Photomatix 4.0 and the new HDR Efex Pro 1.0.

Let me briefly summarize my findings first and then let you examine the photos:

  • I don't believe there is any "one true way" to do HDR processing.  There are many interpretations, from realistic to artistic to surrealistic and everything in between.
  • The one big advantage that Photomatix always had for me (as compared to Photoshop's own built-in HDR processing capabilities) was the ease with which I could deliver something "usable" (as a side note: I never once produced anything that I liked using Photoshop's HDR capability).  Photomatix 4.0 adds the notion of Presets which quickly allows one to home in on the "look" he or she is trying to achieve (or to simply experiment with an image) by clicking on each of the presets and then playing with the sliders to fine tune the results.
  • HDR Efex Pro 1.0, right from this first release, comes with presets as well - and has many more than presets than are found in the new Photomatix release (and showing a wider variety to begin your experimentation).
So now that I've played with both, which do I prefer?  I have to say Nik HDR Efex Pro!  And the thing that wins it for me are the presets because, once again, a new tool has made it "easier" for me to arrive at an interpretation of an image that I find pleasing to the eye.  But I also think that the quality of the output I got from HDR Efex Pro beats the output I got from Photomatix Pro.

So I started by capturing 3 images (under exposed by 2 stops, normal exposure and over exposed by 2 stops).  I used a tripod so that all three images would align well and easily merge in an HDR tool.

The images below are simply INTERPRETATIONS of those three images.  Both HDR Efex and Photomatix offer a wide variety of interpretations and these are but two from each.  So don't take these as the "final word" on what either tool can accomplish.  I merely show them to help you see the images I used when evaluating the capabilities of both tools.

Click each image to view large.

Nik HDR Efex Pro:

Photomatix Pro:

Nik HDR Efex Pro:

Photomatix Pro:

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