Nik HDR Efex Pro First Impressions

Sunrise in Canyonlands, processed in Nik HDR Efex Pro

Nik Software has recently announced HDR Efex Pro, a new application for creating high dynamic range images.  The new software functions either as a stand-alone application or as a Photoshop/Lightroom/Aperture plug-in.  I’ve had a chance to demo the release (1.0) version of this software; this is my initial report.

Compatibility

Nik HDR Efex Pro is a native 64-bit application. It is not guaranteed to work under 32-bit operating systems, so be sure to download the demo before purchasing.

Interface

The HDR Efex Pro interface will be very familiar to users of other Nik plug-ins.  The left-hand side of the window contains a listing of starting point presets (with thumbnails), while editing controls are on the right.   There is a zoom (loupe) window in the lower right-hand corner that allows you to see your image at 100% as you move the cursor over the image.

The Nik HDR Efex Interface

Controls

In addition to the standard “Tone Compression” Slider, HDR Efex offers a lot of controls over your image, including Global and Local Adjustments.  Unlike other HDR programs, the controls in HDR Efex Pro are logically named and laid out.  You can modify exposure, contrast, saturation, structure, blacks, whites and warmth globally.  Moreover, you can choose from 20 different HDR compression techniques “HDR Methods” to fine-tune the look you want.  This will enable photographers to get anything from a subtle (natural) look to the high-contrast “grunge” effect.

Local Adjustments with Control Points

Unique to HDR Efex Pro is Nik Software’s proprietary U Point technology in the form of Control Points.  While most HDR applications only allow global adjustments, HDR Efex Pro allows the photographer to make localized adjustments directly on the HDR image.  This is an incredibly powerful tool, because you can modify exposure, contrast, saturation, structure, blacks, whites, warmth and HDR Method Strength on a smart selection using a Control Point.  This feature, coupled with the powerful global adjustments is sure to be a major time-saver for working with HDR images, because it minimizes the need for further post-processing in other applications.  For many of us, the only thing left after HDR Efex Pro will be sharpening.

Control Points make "Smart" selections for local editing
Modify exposure, tone compression and more on local regions with Control Points

Other tools

HDR Efex Pro also includes a section called “Finishing Adjustments” that offers vignette effects and a levels/curves tool.  I probably would have put the levels/curves tool into the Global Adjustments section, but it is a worthy addition to the application either way.

Conclusions

Compared to other HDR applications, HDR Efex Pro is a worthy addition to my software toolbox.  I’m still spending time dialing in settings that work best for my landscape images, so I expect my results with HDR Efex Pro to continually improve.   I have run into some situations were the HDR blending mode left some ghosting artifacts and there was a hint of noise (grain) in smooth skies.  While this is pretty normal for all HDR programs, I’d like to see a Noise Reduction option offered in future updates to the software.  Until then, you’ll want to use your NR tools in your editing software after running HDR Efex Pro if your images get too much grain for your liking.  For producing natural-looking HDR images, there are situations where the “Exposure Fusion” option in Photomatix Pro 4.0 provides a slightly cleaner result.  Again, I’m still working out the optimal settings for the software, so I expect to get better results as I learn it more.  My suggestion would be for you to download the free trial version of HDR Efex Pro and see if you like it before you buy.

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17 thoughts on “Nik HDR Efex Pro First Impressions”

  1. Jason, you spiked my interest with your comment about HDR EP being a stand alone product? Did Nik toss us CNX2 users a bone? Allowing us to use this product without having to plug into Adobe or Ap? Please let it be true…

  2. There is a stand-alone module you can use. It might not be stable under 32-bit OS, but it is working for me so far. In fact, it’s a little faster than using in in PS CS5.

  3. Jason,

    I just purchased the new Lightroom 3. Would you recommend getting the stand-alone version of
    HDR Efex Pro or getting the plug-in for LR??

  4. I think the stand-alone module is included with the purchase of the plug-in, but you’ll need to check the Nik website once the software is available for purchase and demo. Again, I would try the demo to see if you like it. With LR, chances are you’ll want to use the plug-in version most of the time. The stand-alone implementation works best for people who use RAW converters other than ACR or Aperture.

  5. Once you get all the tweaking worked out, I hope we can expect “A Photographer”s Guide to HDR Efex Pro” soon! Those things double the value of the software!

  6. As a CNX2 user I am very pleased that there is a stand-alone module. I am also surprised: I called Nik Software last month, after the Nik HDR Efex Pro announcement and asked if there would be a plug-in for CNX2 or a stand-alone program and was told ‘No’ to both questions.

    I also note that the Nik Software web site, http://www.niksoftware.com/hdrefexpro/usa/entry.php only lists the plugins to PhotoShop, etc. No mention of a stand-alone …

    Because of the local control-points I really hope that there is a stand-alone module. Otherwise it is back to Picturenaut: http://www.hdrlabs.com/picturenaut/

  7. The following does not look good for Win7 users looking for stand-alone use of HDR Efex Pro. It also explains why Nik’s demo download page requires Windows users to select a plugin. (I just tried it.)

    Quoted from Flickr’s Nik Software group:

    ========
    Josh Haftel answered this in a post on our Facebook – I think it is relevant to your question. Kevin

    *****************
    Josh Haftel
    The standalone functionality is actually more of an unofficial mode and is there only because it’s the way that Lightroom works. We don’t have RAW compatibility, which is one of the reasons the standalone isn’t really pushed. If you were to… work with the software in this mode, you’d have to convert from RAW and place the JPEGs or TIFF files on your desktop (or some other folder) and then use the File > Open to open the series.

    You can get to the help from within the interface by clicking on the Help button, however the standalone functionality isn’t covered in there, again since it’s not a recommended workflow.

    We are certainly looking into how we can provide support for Photoshop Elements users in the future, but as you said, you can use the standalone provided you’re OK with converting the RAW files and going through the steps described above.
    ===========

  8. I second Jason on the stand-alone. But: The stand-alone does not recognize NEF. At least not on my MacbookPro. When I use the Photoshop CS5 and Aperture plugins, the NEF and TIFF are available.

    Wattfly

  9. I had very high hopes that Nik’s HDR Efex Pro was going to be a fantastic program; however, after working with it for almost a day and then running the same images through Photomatix for comparison, it is my conclusion that Nik really dropped the ball on this one.

    Paul Bonnichsen

  10. I’m not sure what look you’re going for, but I think it does a very good job. The only thing that is missing, IMO, is the “Exposure Fusion” option. That’s something that Photomatix does really well and helps to mitigate noise in “natural” HDR images.

  11. Yes the standalone HDR Efex Pro executable works if you use TIFF. I use batch processing in CNX2 to save my NEFs as 16-bit TIFF images, then I use HDR Efex Pro.

  12. I purchased after trial and am very disappointed with results as well as with any kind of response from Nik to problems with the software. It is the slowest of all the HDR software programs I own (5 min to render) and I have a very high end graphics computer. “Buyer Beware”

  13. Joseph-
    I have been told to expect a 1.1 update to HDR Efex Pro very soon that will speed up the application significantly.
    I don’t, however, share your opinion on image quality results. If you give it a good 5-shot exposure series (1-stop apart), you can produce fantastic HDR tone-maps.

    I agree that while HDR Efex Pro is different than say, Photomatix Pro, both have their strengths and weaknesses.

    -Jason

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