Thursday, 26 May 2011

100th Post and HDR!

According to blogger, this is my 100th post! Yippeee!!!

Over the last few days I've been using HDR software, with an eye to writing a review/article for publication. I've pitched the idea at a couple of editors, but they haven't gotten back to me yet. But it's early days.

I have stayed clear of HDR (High Dynamic Range) Software in the past, but have grown increasingly more interested in what is out there. As someone who uses Photoshop extensively, I'm certainly not adverse to manipulating pixels for a HDR 'look'. Yet until relatively recently, the options were limited. But in the last year some major software developers have released HDR programs (including Adobe with CS5), so I figured it might be time to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

'True' HDR uses a range of exposures (at least three and up to five) that expose for both highlight and shadow detail. These are then 'blended' (more correctly referred to as Tone Mapping) together to create one HDR exposure. Some argue this is cheating. Others claim it better represents what our eye actually sees when we take a photograph. I don't know that I quite agree with either side of the debate - and I'm not sure I care. It's my photo, and I'll do what I want with it, thank you very much. And if that means HDR, then so be it.

Anyway - you can also create an HDR image with just one RAW photo - and that's what I'm going to show here in this post.

First - the original image, as captured. Yes, its a little dark - and so that's why I used it, to see what these HDR programs could get out of it.

Original image - as shot.

To get the ball rolling, I downloaded the 'grandaddy' of all HDR programs - the one that started it all - Photomatix. Anyone who has played around with HDR has probably used Photomatix at some stage, and it remains a strong player in the market.

Processed with Photomatix
As you can see, it does a good job of pulling detail out of the shadows, but retaining it in the highlights, while adding that HDR 'punch' that this process is (infamously) known for. It is only a small program (7MB) compared with some of the others, and doesn't offer as many pre-defined styles or tweakable sliders, but there is enough, and I really liked the result I got using Photomatix. So far so good.

As a side note: I downloaded trial versions of the software discussed here - bar one (which was a free, but limited program). Photomatix is the only company that insists on placing a watermark over the image until you purchase the full product. Boo hiss. Shame on you Photomatix!

Anyway, onwards and upwards.

Next is HDR Efex Pro, from Nik Software -  a giant in the software plug-in industry. I was very excited about this product, and was expecting big things. They pioneered 'U-Point' technology that I first saw in Capture NX software for Nikon cameras, and with big names like Tony Corbell behind them, I hoped it would be a winner.

Processed with HDR Efex Pro
Efex Pro certainly goes all out with its pre-sets and styles to give you the HDR look, which it achieves often at the sake of detail. Try as I might, I couldn't get any detail out of the trees at top left of the image - which wasn't an issue with any of the other programs I tested. Having said that, I like the dramatic look you get using HDR Efex Pro, even though I struggled to get the detail I wanted out of it - even with U-Point technology.

Third on the list is HDR Express, touted as giving a more realistic HDR look to its Tone Mapping algorithms.

Processed with HDR Express
I processed the image using a 'Cool' pre-set, simply because I liked to look. True to its marketing hype, all the set styles looked more natural as a starting point than you get from HDR Efex Pro. It also has fewer sliders or style options, but I found this a good thing. Results can be tweaked, but there is no doubt that HDR Express gives a more subdued HDR result that Nik's offering. Depends what you are after.

And finally, I checked out a FREE application specifically for Mac users - HDRtist. As files go, it's even smaller than Photomatix (5MB), and has basically no options whatsoever - save for a 'Strength' slider. Surprisingly, though, it actually did a pretty decent job - especially for FREE.

Processed with HDRtist
You can spend a little more (US$29.99) for the PRO version, which does give you styles and sliders so you can customise the look. And considering it is at least US$60 cheaper than the other offerings, might be worthwhile if you only wanted to do HDR very infrequently. It definitely works, and has to get the 'bargain' award for HDR software if nothing else.

Which do you like? What would suit your needs or budget? If you like a more natural HDR effect, then HDR Express might be fore you. Looking for something more gutsy and in-your-face for your images? Check out Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro. Want to use the tried and true software that started it all - and produces really great results - look no further than Photomatix. Then, of course, there's HDRtist for FREE if you use a Mac - and there are certainly others out there for you poor Windows users. So, something for everyone.

More importantly, I've discovered that converting images to HDR is a lot of fun? Of course you can do what I did, and try them all for free (trial versions range from 15 days to 1 month). I'm sure you will create some truly stunning images with any of these programs. I know I did.

Decisions, decisions. For me, the question remains. Which one will I choose...?

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