Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2.0 Hands-On Review

Badlands sunrise, processed in HDR Efex Pro 2.0

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve recently been posting a lot of HDR photographs here and on my G+ page lately. Part of the reason is because I enjoy being creative, and HDR is one of my creative outlets. The other reason is that I’ve had the opportunity to test the latest version of Nik Software’s HDR tone-mapping software, HDR Efex Pro 2.0, which was formally announced today and is available now.

At first glance, version 2.0 might seem like a minor revision, with subtle improvements to the interface and control sliders. However, I can honestly say that after testing HDR Efex Pro 2.0 for the last few months, I will not be going back to version 1. My HDR images are consistently better across the board with version 2.0; they have better color, better sharpness, and superior tone-mapping effects.

Continue to my hands-on review of Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2

Completely Revamped Tone Mapping Controls

The HDR Efex Pro 2.0 interface has subtle changes.

The HEP2 interface will look familiar to anyone who has used a Nik plug-in in the past. Controls are on the right, and each panel can be expanded or collapsed. The Control Panels include:

  • Tone Compression
  • Tonality
  • Color
  • Selective Adjustments
  • Finishing Adjustments

The major change here is that in the Tone Compression panel, Nik eliminated the cumbersome “HDR Method” pull-down menu from and replaced it with a simpler, refined panel. The HDR Method panel allows you to adjust tone-mapping (micro-contrast) using three control options:

  • Depth: Subtle shadow enhancement that provides depth cues in your image
  • Detail: Control over small-radius details
  • Drama: Control over medium to large radius details
The new Tone Compression panel has been completely re-worked for HDR Efex Pro 2.0.

Each of these options has four discrete settings which you can combine to create a variety of tone-mapping effects. Or, you can just leave the controls alone and get super-clean HDR images (perfect for landscapes).

Speaking of landscapes, Nik has also added a Graduated Neutral Density filter effect, which can be really helpful for scenes where you need to brighten a foreground or darken a sky. It’s hidden in the “Finishing Adjustments” panel.

The Graduated Neutral Density Filter, located in the Finishing Adjustments Panel, is useful for fine-tuning your image tonality.
The Graduated Neutral Density Filter option in HEP2 was useful for this image of the South Dakota Badlands. I used it to brighten the foreground while preserving the rich colors in the sky.

Better Merge Dialog and Ghost Removal Options

The first step for any HDR application is to merge the image files. During this step, the images are aligned and users can select ghost-reduction options. Here, Nik really made strides in improving their software. Instead of the “hit or miss” approach in version 1, HEP2 takes users to a preview panel where they can not only toggle alignment on and off, but you can also preview ghost reduction effects. The ghost-reduction process also got a lot simpler. You just select the amount you want (0-100%) and let the software go to work. But what’s even cooler is that you can choose from any of your source images as the “reference” frame and see which one gives you the best result.

The new Merge Dialog lets you preview ghosting and alignment before you merge your image sequence.

In my tests, I found the ghost reduction tools to be absolutely fantastic… from removing the motion of moving grass blades and even moving water! The image alignment is also substantially better. While HEP1 sometimes had problems aligning images, HEP2 does a great job, even with hand-held sequences. Nik also added a Chromatic Aberration Removal option in the merge dialog, so if your RAW converter didn’t already zap color-fringing from your files, you can correct it here as well.

Photoshop users will rejoice knowing that now they have the option of going back to the Merge Dialog to change their alignment/ ghosting options. In HEP1, if you wanted to change the alignment or ghosting settings from Photoshop, you had to re-merge all the files… a very tedious process.

The new ghost reduction algorithms in HDR Efex Pro 2.0 had no problem removing artifacts from the moving water in the foreground…something that is a challenge with HDR.

Superior Color and Contrast

When it comes to color, HDR images are always a bit of a crap-shoot. Every HDR program I’ve tried usually does some strange things to color, and HDR Efex Pro was no exception. HEP2 makes significant strides here, as the colors in default conversions look very good… not to gaudy, and not over-saturated. Of course, you can use the software controls to adjust color and contrast, too.

The Contrast slider is a tool that I usually avoid in most programs. That’s because traditional contrast controls affect RGB colors. That means a contrast adjustment also tends to make your colors shift. The Contrast slider in HEP2 is a huge improvement over most contrast sliders. It doesn’t create those crazy color shifts like you get in other programs. In fact, I can use quite strong settings with the Contrast slider and get results that look great.

HDR Efex Pro 2 does an outstanding job with color and contrast. Notice how the greens in this image look natural.

In addition to the traditional color adjustment tools (saturation and temperature), Nik added a tint slider to correct color shifts on the green-magenta axis. This is very useful when dealing with images that just need a little nudge to fix color casts.

The Tonality and Color Panels offer great control over color, contrast, and brightness.

Killer Feature: Method Strength and Control Points for Selective Tone Mapping

Anyone who has used a Nik product knows that Control Points are their bread and butter for creating local adjustments. HDR Efex Pro 2 also offers Control Points, just like its predecessor, HEP1. You can use Control Points to modify local brightness, contrast, and color, as you might expect. These tools allow you to make many adjustments to your image directly on the 32-bit HDR image without the need to go into other applications or use brushes. Of course, this is nothing new. What is new is the way that Nik Software implemented the “Method Strength” option, and I think it is absolutely a winner.

When you tone-map an image, you often end up with situations that create problems. The “rusty truck in a field” is a perfect example of this. When your image contains both a “grungy” subject and a sky, it’s really hard to create settings that work for both subjects. Strong settings for local contrast might make the textures in the truck look cool, but then your sky is totally abnormal. Likewise, settings that work for a clean sky won’t bring out the textures in the rusty truck. My traditional solution to this problem is to create the “hybrid HDR” using Photoshop Layers.

In HDR Efex Pro 2, Nik added a global “Method Strength” slider to the Tone Mapping Controls. In effect, it dials back the opacity of the Tone Mapping settings, similar to if you were using a layer in Photoshop. This slider lets you dial back the overall intensity of the local/microcontrast in your image to get pleasing results. But it doesn’t stop there. Control Points also offer a Method Strength slider. That means you can selectively control which areas of your image get strong local contrast. To me, that’s about as good as it gets without having to use Photoshop layers when creating hybrid HDR shots. The Method Strength sliders in HEP1 Control Points behave nothing like this, and don’t deliver the kind of results possible with HEP2.

The new implementation of Method Strength via Control Points lets you keep skies clean while making other elements highly textured (left image). Without the Method Strength controls, you’d have ugly skies (right).

What I’d Still Like to See

Of course, no program is 100% perfect. In the future, I’d really like to see HDR Efex Pro add noise reduction and spot removal options. Even images shot at base ISO can get grainy when you use aggressive local contrast settings. I’d also like to see finer detail control. Some of the detail settings are so aggressive that I really can’t use them without dialing back the Method Strength slider significantly. The Graduated ND filter option is very nice, but it is clumsy to visualize it for placement. It’s also hidden in the “Finishing Adjustments” Panel, making it easy to miss.

Conclusion: A Worthy Upgrade for Creative Professionals

When I first started testing HDR Efex Pro 2, I wasn’t sure how the new interface and control implementation would work out. I really liked the creative controls in HEP1, and it took me a while to get used to the new control options for tone-mapping. After rigorous use, however, I can honestly report that my HDR images are absolutely superior when I use HEP2, and I won’t be looking back. The alignment is better, the ghost removal is better, the color, contrast and sharpness are all better! Add in the amazing new Method Strength controls and this product is an absolute winner. Taken together, the numerous improvements to HDR Efex Pro 2 deliver images that are consistently superior to those produced in version 1.0.

If you enjoy making HDR images and want the utmost in creative control within the HDR environment as a start to finish option, then HDR Efex Pro 2.0 is an excellent choice. Current HDR Efex Pro users will really enjoy this upgrade, and photographers who have been hesitant to use HDR Efex Pro in the past should consider trying it out (Nik Software offers a free 15-day trial version for all of their plug-ins).

HDR Efex Pro 2 is available from Nik Software as a plug-in for Aperture, Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. The full version is $99.95 and upgrades from version 1 are $49. Users who purchased version 1.0 of HDR Efex Pro or the Nik Software Complete Collection on or after June 9th, 2012 are eligible for a free upgrade to version 2.0.

Save 15% off all Nik Software products, including upgrades by using discount code: JODELL at checkout (USA/Canada residents)

Master HDR Efex Pro 2 with my 200+ page guide

Example Images Created with HDR Efex Pro 2

Here are a few more images that I’ve processed with HDR Efex Pro 2, showing what it can do.

HDR Efex Pro 2 makes exceptionally clean indoor images. I never was happy with this file when I processed it in HEP1; now it looks great.
HDR Efex Pro 2 creates very clean landscape images without much hassle.
Control Points helped me make the sunbeams more dramatic in this landscape HDR image.
I used the “Soft” setting on the Detail control to make this image somewhat surreal.
Experiment with HDR Methods to get unusual looks.
Pressure gauge, Colorado Springs, CO. Use the different HDR Method options to really bring out details and textures.
Before I had HDR Efex Pro 2, I’d have had to create a “hybrid” HDR image using layers in Photoshop to preserve the clean sky while texturizing the truck.

47 thoughts on “Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2.0 Hands-On Review”

  1. I purchased the upgrade but the tif files produced by HDR Efex Pro 2 are not viewable with Nikon View NX or Nikon Capture NX. This was very disappointing since I always do my final processing in Capture NX. Is there a fix for this problem?

  2. HDR Efex Pro 1 allows me to launch it ‘stand-alone’. How do I launch HDR Efex Pro 2 stand-alone? (I post process using Capture NX 2 and export 16-bit tiff images for HDRI processing.)

  3. Richard-
    You should be able to install the Lightroom version of HEP2 and run it as a stand-alone application. You’ll need to send it pre-processed TIFF files. It’s a little tedious, but it works fine.

  4. Pentti-
    Check the settings within HEP2 to make sure the file output is set to 16-bit TIFF with no compression. LZW should work, too. Avoid ZIP compression.

  5. I tried both suggestions and they don’t work for me. In Nikon View NX I get the error message “unsupported file type”. Nikon Capture NX says it “cannot load file”.

  6. Hi Jason: Sorry to trouble you. My ‘The Photographer’s Guide to Nik
    HDR Efex Pro’ presents don’t seem to work under version 2. Will they be updated or do I need to try harder?!
    Thanks.

  7. Paul-
    That’s because HEP2 is a totally different program. The presets for HEP1 won’t function in HEP2, as the software is different.

  8. Jason, just listened to your recording of the Meetup on HEP2. Thank-you for the information both here in the review and the Meetup webinar. And thanks for the discount as I downloaded the upgrade yesterday. BTW, I ran it as a stand alone from NX2 generated TIFs with no problem.

  9. I am running HDR Efex Pro as a stand alone program, from Nikon View NX and from Nikon Capture NX and both Nikon View and Capture NX won’t load the tif file. I have tried converting the files to tif in View NX and Capture NX but I get the same result.

  10. > Richard-
    > You should be able to install the Lightroom version of
    > HEP2 and run it as a stand-alone application. You’ll
    > need to send it pre-processed TIFF files. It’s a
    > little tedious, but it works fine.

    I have been using HEP1 this way without issue for more than a year. (and thanks for your great e-book on HEP1) However, when I try to start up HEP2 by right clicking and selecting ‘open’ on the 64-bit app icon (Win7 – 64 bit Home Premium) no window opens. If I look in the task manager I see the HEP2 process but I see no way to access it as there is no window.

    Ideas?

  11. I have found that if I save as jpeg, file opens in NX2. (Setting set to Tiff in HEP2}.
    If I save as aTiff, file will not open in NX2. But if I then reload back in HEP2 and save again as a Tiff, file will open in NX2.
    Hope I have been clear because i am confused.
    Pleased to read you are writing new guide, Hep1 was great. Also rather hoping you will make new video, the HEP1 version was very informative

  12. Loading the tif file back into hep2 and saving again as a tiff creates a file that both View NX and Capture NX can load. This seems very strange to me. Does anyone have an explanation?

  13. Jason,
    I love Nik software, but HDR1 did not seem to do as good a job as Photomatrix, especially in extreme images. Have you compared this version to it?
    Thanks, I also enjoy your books.
    John

  14. I haven’t done a head to-head comparison yet, but I can say that while HDR Efex Pro 2 is a huge improvement in quality, it has its own personality, just as Photomatix does. Photomatix has a certain “look;” so does HDR Efex Pro. I do think that HDR Efex Pro 2 is a clear winner for super-clean images, though. You can look at the sample images on the review post and see if any of them are styles you prefer.

  15. Pentti-
    Did you check the TIFF compression settings in HEP2?
    I seem to be able to open TIFFs from it in CNX 2.3.2.

    -Jason

  16. Yes I did. Maybe I should try re-installing HEP2. CNX 2.3.2 won’t open the tif files for me.

  17. Since posting yesterday, I have downloaded the upgrade and used the upgrade and Photomatix to process four images of the exterior of a building in the shade from a commercial job I did yesterday. I’m not sure why, but the Nik software was what most complain about with HDR, it was way over processed using the default setting and the Photomatix image looked fine. I really liked the first version the Nik offered, but I most be missing something with this one. I have started watching the tutorials on the Nik site to get up to speed. I want to restate that I LOVE Nik softeare and I own all of their software. It is some of the best software I own.
    Thanks,
    John

  18. John-
    There are many variables that go into HDR… not the least of which is the RAW processing. Did you let Photomatix process your RAW files, or did you start with identical TIFFs? I seem to get very clean results by dialing back the Method Strength slider and using mild compression settings.

  19. Jason,

    Very good point, I used raw files. Normally I would process the raw files using NX2 or Adobe and then use a HDR program. I was in a hurry to try the new Nik software and forgot the basics. Thanks!
    I have not upgraded to CS 6 yet, but I have found in the past that depending on the subject matter sometimes I like the results from CS 5 and other times NX2. I do not do a large volume of work so even if NX2 is slower that is not a problem for me. I would think since Nikon and Nik are behind NX2 that it would the better raw converter.

  20. When will the new manual be out? You know how I feel about how much value they add to the software!

  21. Jason,

    I only have CNX2 and RawTherapee (both in newest version) to process the NEF from my D700, D7000 and D800E. How will I be able to use the Nik HDR Efex Pro 2.0 in both or each of them? (in detailed step-by-step please)

    Thank you very much,
    jaime

  22. Jaime-
    If you use CNX2 to save TIFF versions of your images, you can then open HDR Efex Pro 2, use the File–> Open command and select the TIFF image sequence. The resulting file will be saved as a TIFF, too.

  23. I am looking forward to your new book, I have ordered others. I do have a question, I used both HDR progams I mentioned earlier on some wide angle interiors used in a local mazazine and while the images looked great on an iMac they looked like overprocessed HDR images in the magazine. Is there a way to predict how they will turn out when converted to CMYK?

    Thanks,
    John

  24. John-
    My recommendation would be to soft-proof your images in Photoshop or other programs that can apply a CMYK profile.

  25. Good Morning Jason,

    I converted the five bracketed Nef files in PS CS5 to psd files and then processed the files using Nik HDR pro2. After the default processing I made a few tweaks and am very pleased with the results. I will be purchasing the upgrade using your code to get the discount on the upgrade. BTW, just purchased your e-book on CEP Pro 4, great price!

    Thanks again for the help.
    Best,
    John

  26. I’m having the same problem as several other folks. I’m trying to use HDR Efex Pro 2 as a stand alone with Capture NX 2. I make 16 bit TIFFs in NX 2 to send to Efex Pro 2. I also made sure my “Settings” were correct in Efex Pro 2. I saved it back as a TIFF file. If I open the folder in my pictures area the TIFF image looks just fine but NX 2 can’t open it. I called Nik Software looking for an answer. Their rep said he had never heard about this problem but he would talk to the people that set up the program and would try to get back to me. That hasn’t happened. Like many of you I had used the original version with no problem. It might help if more people would call Nik so they know there are a lot of us in trouble.

  27. Jason,
    Great review as always. I haven’t made the plunge yet due to the issues that seemed to be raised above regarding opening HDR TIFFs from HEF2 in NX2… that is my workflow, too. Have you had any contact/feedback with Nik about this issue?

    Hope this gets resolved, as it seems like a good upgrade to make to me.

    Also, I really wish they had incorporated an HEF-associated file type that would save your images and ALL your settings (including control points) for a given image set. Those of us who do not have a Lightroom or PS centered workflow seem to get forgotten by the software producers, and it doesn’t seem like it would be a hard thing to do, especially since Nik helped develop NX2 which saves all the info in the .nef file.

    -Mark

  28. I’m able to save TIFFs from HEP2 as a stand-alone application and open them in CNX 2.3.2. I’ve seen others having this problem, and I can’t pin down what the problem might be.

  29. Well, downloaded and installed the update to HEP2… have the same problem as others — HDR tiff (16-bit, no compression) created by HEP2 will NOT open in CNX2 (v2.3.1). And further, even after additional editing of the HDR using Color Efex Pro 4, the resulting tiff still will not open in CNX2. Very annoying. Submitted support request to Nik.

  30. quick update…. as a work-around until Nik addresses the problem… opening the TIFF using InfranView (v.4.32) and re-saving as a TIFF allows the file to be opened in CNX2… however, it will be reduced from 16-bit to 8-bit. hope this is useful.

  31. You can use GIMP to convert the tiff file to a file that NCX can open but I think the tiff file is 8 bits.

  32. well, looks like Nik has given the kiss-off to anyone who does not use Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture as the “host” program for HDR Efex Pro 2. Here is the response I got after submitting a support request:

    ================
    Thank you for contacting Nik Software. Neither HDR Efex Pro 2 or Color Efex Pro 4 are supported as stand alone programs, although HDR Efex Pro (original version) was supported as a stand alone, HDR Efex Pro 2 was not designed to work this way. We have had other customers experiencing this issue, who we have also advised that HDR Efex Pro 2 is not supported as a stand alone application. We can offer you a refund for HDR Efex Pro 2, however, since it is not designed to be used as a stand alone, this issue is not something that would likely be addressed, because we do not support using the program in this way.

    If you would like to return HDR Efex Pro 2, please complete and return the following letter for a refund [snip]
    =======================

    This is really disappointing, as I very much like Nik software. I assume at some point in the future any updates/upgrades of their software will not work at all as standalone programs. Very, very poor customer focus in my opinion.

    Now I’ll have to either continue with the workaround and end up with 8-bit images, or else have to put out more $$ and more time and incorporate some un-needed “host” program into my workflow.

    Does anyone know what the absolute minimum is in terms of cost and ease of use for an applicable “host” program?

    -Mark

  33. I was working another workaround for not being able to open the .tif created by HEP2 in CNX2. I noticed that if i re-opened the .tif in HEP2 and save it again, the resulting image WILL open in CNX2. Not sure what has changed, since all the file properties (right click) looked the same to me.

    Absolutely maddening!

    I am going to let Nik know that this seems to reflect that there is a glitch in their software regarding saving .tif files and see if they will budge and provide a patch. It is really ridiculous that we have to pass the images through the program twice (or through another program, see note below) to make the files compatible with ViewNX2/CNX2.

    If we all bug them maybe they will do something. Non-PS/LR users unite!

    -Mark

    NOTE: While trying to find a workaround, I was able to use ImageJ (free NIH image analysis software, http://rsbweb.nih.gov/ij/download.html) to open and re-save HEP2 .tif files. The 16-bit depth is preserved and the new .tif opens fine in CNX2.

  34. I have HEP 1 and purchased HEP2. On my mac I have both versions and their individual icons sit on my on my doc independent of any other program. I have Photoshop Elements 9 and HEP1 HEP2 do not load with these programs. That is fine with me. On my mac I can open HEP 1and 2 and use them as stand alone. On my PC running Windows XP I have HEP1 running as a stand alone program. By stand alone I mean that I do not need or use any other program to open or use it. That is what I would like to do with HEP2. I would like to be able to open HEP2 and not use any other program to do it on my PC like I am able to do with HEP1. I do not understand what others mean on this post by stand alone and then they say they use Light room or some other program to open HEP? That is not stand alone to me. Comments welcomed! Thanks in advance.

  35. +Jason What do you mean by “The LR version of HEP2?” As far as I can tell, there is only one version of HEP2 on the Nik site.

    I have been using HEP1 as a standalone with CNX2 on Windows 7 for a long time. After reading your great review, I purchased the HEP2 upgrade using my existing product key and installed it. During installation, the installer asked me to specify a host application. Since I’m not an adobe user, I did not specify one. The resulting installed executables (there are two) start processes, but do not launch application windows.

    As an experiment, I installed a trial version of Lightroom 4, then re-installed HEP2, specifying Lightroom as the host application. In lightroom, I selected three images and exported them to HEP2. Lightroom created three tiffs and started the HEP2 process, but then … nothing! No HEP2 application windiow appeared.

    Ironically, using the same export menu in Lightroom, I could export to HEP1 and this DID launch a HEP1 window.

    What’s your secret, Jason?

  36. Edit to my last post. On checking again, I saw that the Nik download site does allow you to check Lightroom as the host application. I did so, downloaded, and re-installed. The result is exactly the same!

    (1) Neither of the 64-bit executables launches a stand-alone application;

    (2) exporting to HEP2 from lightroom starts a process but does not launch a stand-alone window.

  37. John-
    I’m not sure what is causing the issue; I can use HEP2 on my Mac as a stand-alone application, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work that way on a PC, too. However, I have no way to test this.

  38. Thanks, Jason. I have heard from other Mac users who can run HEP2 standalone. I wonder if it’s a problem with their Windows 64-bit version.

    As a test, I installed a trial version of Lightroom 4.3 and exported 3 tiffs to HEP2. The same thing happens! An HEP2 process runs but it does not bring up an application window.

    Now waiting for a response from Nik support….

  39. Well, if it isn’t opening from Lightroom, then you have a problem. The stand-alone option is somewhat easier for Mac users (the application is less hidden), but the program is actually built to run stand-alone for Lightroom. All LR plug-ins actually operate as stand-alone apps (LR doesn’t support actual plug-ins).

  40. I finally got HEP2 running as a standalone on Windows by updating my graphics driver. But now I have the same problem as others are having: some tiffs written by HEP2 can be opened by NX2 and others cannot. There’s no apparent pattern, either. It’s maddening.

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