I’ve been dabbling in high dynamic range (HDR) photography since 2005, when Adobe released Photoshop CS2 and the “merge to HDR” command. The big challenge with HDR in Photoshop has always been the tone-mapping step. Tone-mapping is where you tell the software how to squish the 32-bit/channel (HDR) image into a 16-bit/channel color space. Tone-mapping controls not only the global image contrast, but also local contrast (micro-contrast) between adjacent tones. I’ve seen a lot of bad attempts at tone-mapping, and part of the reason is that the on-board Photoshop tools just aren’t very easy to use.
While there are lots of HDR software options available today, I have always gravitated towards using Photomatix Pro (www.hdrsoft.com) for my images, because I was able to get good results for my natural landscapes. In October, 2010, Nik Software released HDR Efex Pro, a plug-in for Photoshop/Lightroom/Aperture that performs HDR tone-mapping. I like both programs, so here’s a quick comparison and review.
Both HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix Pro are available as plug-ins for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture. Photomatix Pro is also available as a stand-alone application, and it supports drag and drop file loading (which is very convenient). You can run HDR Efex Pro as a stand-alone program, too, but it is not designed with this workflow in mind. Both HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix Pro support 32-bit smart objects with Photoshop CS4/5 Extended. HDR Efex Pro does not currently operate within 32-bit versions of Photoshop (you need CS4 or higher on PCs, CS5 on Macs, and a 64-bit OS). Nik Software has announced that an update to offer 32-bit Photoshop support is due in early 2011.
Interface and Controls
Nik Software has applied a unified graphical user interface for HDR Efex Pro. All of the controls are within the same window, as are image previews, histograms, and preset thumbnails. Photomatix uses a multiple menu approach to its interface, and sometimes you can accidentally bury menus underneath other windows on your computer screen. With HDR Efex Pro, the tool set remains the same regardless of the tone-mapping options you choose. The tools are slider-based, and will be very familiar to anyone who has used other Nik products (or any other image editor, for that matter).
The Photomatix controls are also slider-based, but the controls themselves differ between tone-mapping modules. For example, you get a different set of controls when choosing between the Tone Mapping and Exposure Fusion options, and still another set of controls when you choose between the Details Enhancer and Tone Compressor options within the Tone Mapping module. Users will need to spend more time learning the Photomatix controls to properly fine-tune their images. One thing I do like about the Photomatix controls, however, is that they are “sticky.” In other words, when you open the application, the control sliders are default to your last used settings. This is useful when you are working with panoramic images and you want to apply identical tone-mapping settings across numerous files.
HDR Efex Pro offers a couple of controls that Photomatix does not. First, you get a levels and curves tool. For advanced users, this is a great tool for adjusting image contrast and color. Second, HDR Efex Pro users gain selective adjustments via Control Points. For those unfamiliar with Nik Software’s U Point technology, Control Points are a way of making “smart” selections within your image without the need for brushes or masks, and they work remarkably well. This feature alone may make the price of HDR Efex Pro worth it– you gain a tremendous workflow advantage by being able to make local adjustments to your image without having to change software applications. HDR Efex Pro users can modify color, brightness and contrast on local areas quickly and easily without leaving the plug-in interface. Lastly, HDR Efex Pro gives the user a vignette effect tool to create interesting creative looks.
Photomatix Pro offers three primary options for working with merged images. In Exposure Fusion mode, images are blended together to preserve highlight and shadow details, but a 32-bit intermediate image is not used. This method is great for producing “natural” images that don’t scream “HDR.” Exposure Fusion is my go-to method for HDR landscapes when I use Photomatix Pro, but it is not available in the Photoshop plug-in version of the software. Photomatix users can also perform true 32-bit Tone Mapping, and have two different options to choose from: Details Enhancer and Tone Compressor. Both options have numerous controls that allow the user to customize their HDR experience. Unfortunately, the control set differs depending on which tool you use. I tend to prefer the Details Enhancer tool when using Photomatix in Tone Mapping mode, but experimentation is usually best to find what works for you. The default settings for Photomatix Pro offer a very flat, low-contrast image that will require some tweaking to get a final product.
HDR Efex Pro only performs 32-bit tone-mapping (no “fusion” mode), but it offers users 20 different HDR Methods. HDR Methods are a combination of different tone-mapping and microcontrast algorithms, and each one can be modified via a strength slider. Some of the HDR Methods have intuitive names (Natural), while others can seem confusing (Gradual Large). I recommend finding a few Methods that you like, and then getting to know them well. One thing I learned the hard way: Preview your tone-mapped image at 100% before you save it. The preview window in “fit to window” mode is not accurate at showing the microcontrast effects and you can easily overdo it if you aren’t paying close attention. The default settings of HDR Efex Pro provide a very natural, realistic look out of the box that does not need much adjusting (if you want a realistic image).
Both HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix Pro come with a set of tone-mapping presets. HDR Efex Pro offers 32 presets, but many of them are so image-specific as to be poor starting points for a wide range of images. Photomatix Pro offers 12 presets, but many of them are so “over the top” that I wouldn’t use them except to get an idea of how the different control sliders affect an image. Both applications allow you to create your own presets, which is something I would recommend doing. Tony Sweet and I have created a set of 14 free presets for HDR Efex Pro which we feel offer better jumping-off points for just about any image.
With each of these programs, performance will depend on what options you choose and what environment you run it in. I did some comparisons using my Mac Pro (2010) model (Single 3.33GHz Xeon Processor with 6 total processor cores and 12 GB RAM). I loaded the same set of 5 TIFF images (12MP, 16-bit) into each application. In the case of the applications running in Photoshop, times include the full set of steps required to obtain a tone-mapped image– for Photomatix Pro, this means using Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro option before launching the plug-in. Only HDR Efex Pro offers built-in image merging from the Photoshop plug-in.
As you can see from the chart above, application performance is fairly comparable when using the applications in stand-alone mode. HDR Efex Pro is slightly slower when using image alignment and ghost removal options, but not so much as to be an issue. HDR Efex Pro is much slower when using its built-in 32-bit file merge option within Photoshop; Photomatix Pro requires that you use Photoshop’s merge to HDR feature first.
Despite minor differences in application performance, you also should consider overall workflow when choosing image editing software. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest differences between the two programs. When I use Photomatix Pro, I find that I got the best control over my results by sending my tone-mapped images to another application (usually Capture NX2) for final processing. This is because Photomatix lacks some of the tools that I like to use in my everyday image editing, like Levels/Curves, sharpening, and other effects. For me, tone-mapping my images in Photomatix was simply the first step in a multiple application workflow.
With HDR Efex Pro, I’ve found that I can get a 95% solution directly within the application. Many of my HDR images only need a final round of sharpening to be completely processed. This saves time in the long run, because I can get the look I want right up front, whether it’s natural, grunge, or black and white. Does this mean that I couldn’t get these looks from Photomatix? Absolutely not. It’s just that I find the HDR Efex Pro control set to be far more user-friendly than the Photomatix control sliders. Add in the ability to do local adjustments with Control Points, and you have a soup to nuts solution for HDR image processing.
One other note about workflow: Photomatix Pro allows you to save 32-bit “radiance” images directly from its stand-alone application. This is a useful feature if you want to share 32-bit files with others. HDR Efex Pro does not offer this option, but will open radiance files if you use it within Adobe Photoshop.
Other Features of Note
Photomatix Pro (standalone) offers a built-in RAW converter. You can send it RAW files directly and have it process them. However, it is a best practice to use your own RAW converter and batch out 16-bit TIFFs for tone-mapping; you’ll have more control over features such as color, contrast and lens distortion correction. Photomatix Pro also offers built-in noise reduction algorithms, which can be very useful in removing shadow noise from high ISO images. With all HDR tone-mapping programs, you’ll quickly discover any noise or dust in your images, so be prepared to do a little sensor cleaning!
Photomatix Pro and HDR Efex Pro are both fantastic applications for creating stunning high dynamic range images. I can highly recommend both products in terms of the results they are capable of delivering. That being said, I find myself using HDR Efex Pro more and more these days. I think that’s because the Nik developers designed HDR Efex Pro as a creative tool with controls that most creative photographers will be comfortable with. The Photomatix controls are more “technical” in flavor– something that engineers might easily understand but might confuse the average photographer. Because HDR Efex Pro offers a nearly complete self-contained workflow, it makes it easy for me to do almost all my image editing within its boundaries rather than just use it to create “starting point” images. My only beef with HDR Efex Pro in its current form is that it really isn’t designed for stand-alone use. The Photomatix interface is much easier to use as a stand-alone product; HDR Efex Pro is meant to be used with Bridge, Lightroom, or Aperture as the front-end interface.
Availability and Pricing
Photomatix Pro is available from www.hdrsoft.com as a stand-alone application for $79 or as a Photoshop plug-in for $119 (includes stand-alone).
HDR Efex Pro is available from www.niksoftware.com and includes Photoshop/Lightroom and Aperture versions for $159.95.