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 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
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.