The latest rage these days is High Dynamic Range (HDR) image processing, and the product that all the real experts in this field recommend is HDRSoft Photomatix Pro Plus for Windows (or Mac). In this review I’ll compare it to some alternatives to see if it really helps or if it is just another way to get into the wallets of photographers.
The User Interface
Here’s a quick look at the stand-alone Windows user interface:
Basically the way this product works is you choose Generate HDR image and select one (yes, multiple images are not required) or more images to convert into a high dynamic range (HDR) image. Next, you choose Tone Mapping to convert that image into something that isn’t hideous looking because your display can’t display all of the colors found in a HDR image. Some users may wish to skip the whole HDR/Tone Mapping phase and simply blend multiple exposures into one properly exposed image so you just need to use Exposure Blending to accomplish that objective.
You’ll spend most of your time in the Tone Mapping section when you use this product, so the image on the right shows what it looks like. Scott Kelby offers a decent explanation of Tone Mapping with Photomatix in his book The Adobe Photoshop CS4 Book for Digital Photographers, and there’s a great tutorial included in the product, so I’ll not dive to deep into Tone Mapping in this review.
The cool thing about this product is that they also make a Lightroom add-in which works very well from my experience. Here’s a shot of what you get when you generate a HDR image from within the stand-alone user-interface on the left, and from Lightroom 2.4 on the right:
As you can see the Lightroom version also includes the Blend Exposures option built right in and has a cool option to re-import the newly created output file back into Lightroom. The only awkward thing I noticed is that you have to go File | Export with Preset and choose Photomatix Pro from the menu (or directly in the export dialog) to get to this option. This is a bit different than other add-ins I’ve used in Lightroom.
To determine just how Photomatix compares to my normal processing methods, I processed this photo in 6 different ways to and compare them below. Here’s quick summary of what was done with each version:
Original – This is the photo as it came out of the camera with default camera settings in Av mode on a Canon 1D-Mark III at f/9.0, 1/200 sec, ISO 200 and 0 exposure compensation using a EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens zoomed to 19mm (24.7mm effective). It was processed with Adobe Camera Raw 5.3.021 with no modifications and the sharpening amount was set to 0.
Lightroom 2.4 – In this version I made a virtual copy of the original and then processed it the way I’d typically process a photo. I made exposure, recovery, fill light, and blacks adjustments, applied the Punch preset, adjusted the clarity a little more and then chose the Sharpen Landscape preset.
Photoshop CS4 Extended Processing of Original - In this version I opened the original in Adobe Camera Raw and then imported it into Photoshop. I did a noise reduction using the Landscape setting with Imagenomic Noiseware Pro, applied curves adjustment using the eyedropper on the black, gray and white points, did a LAB Color Apply Image adjustment to give the colors more punch, and finally did a LAB lightness channel sharpening using the Unsharp Mask Filter.
Photoshop CS4 Extended HDR Processing of 3 CR2 Originals – In this version I took the 3 CR2 originals and let Photoshop merge them in as a 32-bit image using its HDR Merge feature. I then did a Local Adaptation conversion to a 8-bit sRGB image and then went through the same processing as above (except no noise reduction was necessary).
Photomatix Pro Plus Processing of 3 CR2 Originals – Using the stand-alone (built-in Lightroom 2.4 add-in produced identical results) I took my best stab at tone mapping based on what I learned from the tutorial and Scott Kelby’s book. The results aren’t as good as I would have liked, but they are very good for my first attempt. I played with the controls enough to see that I need to understand a little better how they impact each other, but that some very cool effects are possible.
Photomatix Pro Plus Processing further enhanced in Photoshop CS4 Extended – I opened the TIF created from above in Adobe Camera Raw, made some modifications. Next I did a noise reduction using the Landscape setting with Imagenomic Noiseware Pro, applied curves adjustment using the eyedropper on the black, gray and white points, did a LAB Color Apply Image adjustment to give the colors more punch, and finally did a LAB lightness channel sharpening using the Unsharp Mask Filter.
Here’s the images of each of the 6 versions: (click for a larger view)
|Photoshop CS4 Extended Standard Processing||Photoshop CS4 Extended HDR Processed|
|Photomatix Pro Plus Exported Version||Photomatix after Photoshop CS4 Processing|
Interpreting the Results
The way you interpret the results for something like this is rather subjective because there are so many variables that come into play when one decides which photo is better. In addition, I did a fairly quick processing of these photos, so with more knowledge of the product or processing them again on a different day might result in different output. Rather than focusing on things like the fact that the HDR versions are way oversaturated to the point of being garish (which is really my fault), I’ll focus on some of the facts I noticed about this process based on each method applied:
Original – The original here isn’t too bad because it does a reasonable job of balancing the dark foreground with the bright background and not losing all of the detail from the clouds. It’s a bit blah, but not too bad. (Time spent: < 1 minute)
Lightroom 2.4 – Just doing quick adjustments in Lightroom helps this photo a lot. I was able to remove the shadow, bring detail back to the clouds and bricks and it all sharpened up fairly nicely. The result is a photo that is very print-worthy and avoids losing little details like the bars in the windows of the tower (you must view at large size by clicking the image to see this detail). (Time spent: < 2 minutes)
Photoshop CS4 Extended Processing of Original – People have different workflows in Photoshop so this is just my quick interpretation. I didn’t do any masking or apply Scott Kelby's 7 Point System, so naturally these results would improve with more effort. (Time Spent: < 10 minutes)
Photoshop CS4 Extended HDR Processing of 3 CR2 Originals – This version retains much more detail (must view a large size to see) than the Lightroom and single-exposure versions, but it suffers from a darker overall appearance. This is clearly user error, but this is how I would have processed the photo had I not been doing this review, so this is the result I would have ended up with. The result confirms why I typically don’t bother with HDR and just process the best exposed RAW image in Lightroom and then modify it from there (if necessary) in Photoshop.(Time Spent: < 30 minutes)
Photomatix Pro Plus Processing of 3 CR2 Originals – This versions brings a whole new level of detail to the image – especially in the clouds – that really help you get a better sense of depth with the textures. While my processing isn’t the best because I oversaturated it a bit, the default processing isn’t too bad. In fact, some might say it is good enough that further Photoshop isn’t necessary. That is of course until you pay close attention to some of the details like the blown out area in the bottom left corner and above the doorway to the tower. These are best fixed directly in Photoshop with additional masking or in Lightroom using the Exposure adjustment brush. (Time Spent: < 30 minutes, but some of that was new product experimentation – experienced users will need less than 5 minutes)
Photomatix Pro Plus Processing further enhanced in Photoshop CS4 Extended – This version removes some of the noise introduced by Photomatix and takes advantage of curves to remove the muddy appearance of the exported version. Had I not oversaturated it and I spent a little time addressing the blown highlights, I believe this would have easily been my favorite shot of the bunch. The detail in the clouds is excellent and the brighter appearance of the doorway more closely represents what I saw in real life. (Time Spent: 30 minutes above plus another 10 minutes in Photoshop)
Photomatix definitely generates a lot of noise (think ISO 3200 levels), so you’ll do well to use some noise reduction software. However, it cleans up nicely and the detail added by this process means you don’t lose anything important after cleaning up the image. Merging is fairly quick and won’t bog down your system the way Photoshop does when it merges images. However, I’ve found that you must Align by matching features and Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts options if you don’t shoot with a tripod or else your images will contain massive ghosting. For best results always use a tripod or stationary location (i.e., set your camera on a rock) rather than shooting hand-held as I did for this. The hand-held shooting did result in a minor misalignment on the railing shown below:
in the Photomatix version, but ironically it didn’t show up in the Photoshop version. I wonder if I had chosen different alignment options if I could have made this anomaly go away. However, this problem was so minor, and not seen on the other images I tested before selecting this one for the review that I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. In addition, it would be very easy to fix this with cloning.
Here’s four exposures of a tough cathedral shot I took while in Ireland that seemed beyond saving because even my darkest exposure was a bit overblown for the stained glass, and my brightest exposure was still way too dark for the foreground. I screwed up big time from start to finish so this was pretty much in my dung heap of photos I’ll never bother with:
There’s clipping on both ends of the spectrum with this one so there’s a lot of work required to save it, but in 10 minutes using Photomatix I was able generate this version which has potential. The ceiling is toast and there’s obvious perspective distortion due to the 16mm lens I used being set to 16mm, but WOW what an improvement! Heck, I hadn’t even noticed the little green billboard on the lower left with the white cotton ball sheep on it when I was there in real life! This is WAY better than what I could see in this cathedral that is several hundred years old!
I’m still not happy with the stained glass, but I know that I could manually save that one with a little effort using masks and the original dark exposure image. However I now see detail I never saw in real life like the fact that the wall is actually a mosaic and not just painted! This is very cool and makes me jazzed about the possibilities Photomatix offers for difficult situations like this!
I wish I had the time to do more samples and show some of the cool things I did when playing around with this product because I really enjoyed seeing what I could do. I have been very frustrated and disappointed with the results I would get from Photoshop (although CS4 is MUCH better than CS3), and no amount of tutorial reading has seemed to help. Now I actually enjoy doing the HDR work and see value in doing it rather than just going to the default of using my best image and processing it. Sure, it isn’t for every image, but for those difficult double exposure scenarios it might be quicker than masking out areas to double expose the shot to create a balanced image as I typically do using the 7 Point System.
I like this product and highly recommend it for what it does. I think the user-interface is a bit rough and the learning curve is a bit steep, but the online tutorials and examples really help to get you up to speed quickly. It’s also fast enough to encourage experimentation so go ahead and just slide those sliders all the way to the left and right (one at a time of course) and just see what happens!
DISCOUNT COUPON CODE: For the latest discount offered to readers of this blog for HDRSoft Photomatix, please visit the Discount Coupon Code page on this blog. As of the time of this writing it was 15%, but that figure is subject to change without notice. To see how to properly use the discount coupon code please check out the screen shot in this article.