Friday, February 28, 2014

HDR Efex Pro 2 vs (Photomatix 4.2.3, Photoshop CS6, Canon 5D Mark III In-Camera HDR and HDR Efex Pro 1)

Use coupon code RonMartBlog to save 15% off Photomatix products. See more offer details at the bottom of this article.

Test System Information

All tests were done on 64-bit Windows 7 with the 64-bit version of Photoshop CS6 (13.0). Here are more details and the Windows Experience Index Score (0 – 7.9 scale):

Test Machine

All of my plugins run on a standalone SSD drive and my caches are on dedicated SSD drives. My slowest drive is my primary hard disk which is a 7200 RPM SSD and Mechanical Hybrid SATA drive.

Original Images

Visit my HDR Efex Pro 2 review and see the Original Images section to see which images were used for this test. They were three CR2 RAW files taken with a Canon 5D Mark III at -3, 0, and +3 exposure values (EV). The total size of these three exposures was 83.9 megabytes.

Canon 5D Mark III In-Camera HDR Processing

Canon 5D Mark III In-Camera HDR processing of all three exposures

In my May 16, 2012 article I declared that Canon 5D Mark III HDR is good, but Photomatix Pro 4.2 is still the king of HDR. At that point in time the HDR Efex Pro 2 beta was still pretty rough around the edges, so Photomatix really was still the king.

Speedwise, the Canon 5D Mark III wins because only takes a few seconds for it to create an in-camera JPEG of your bracketed shots. For the HDR Mode feature of this camera, I use the following settings:

  • Adjust dyn range: +/- 3 EV
  • Effect: Natural (I’d rather do my post processing on the computer)
  • Continuous HDR: Every shot
  • Auto Image Align: Enable (never, ever disable this – even with at tripod)
  • Save source imgs: All Images

The final JPEG is impacted by the cameras picture style (I use standard) as well as other settings, but this shot was most hurt by my using the auto white balance (AWB) instead of warmer white balance like cloudy.

I really like the in-camera results and use them often, but the limitation is that it doesn’t to ghosting well (and you can’t control manually) and it tends to crop the image even when it seems that it isn’t necessary (i.e., a tripod was used).

I think the value of tone mapping and tone compression still favors the computer over the in-camera HDR, but it does a damn good job that might be “good enough” for some of your non-business critical work. I should also note that Canon point and shoots do terrible for this unless you are shooting a static subject using a tripod, but the DSLR’s really seem to do HDR very well.

For what it’s worth, I’ve processed the images used in the 5D Mark III HDR article in both Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro 2. Each time I process a photo start to end, I do different things with it, but it’s interesting to see how well both products did here in a head-to-head comparison:

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Mouse over for the Photomatix 4.2 version
Mouse out for the HDR Efex Pro 2 version

Both final results feature some post-processing using other Nik Software and Imagenomic products.

Performance Comparison

This section discusses the time it took to render the bracketed raw test images using default processing.

Photomatix Pro 4.2.3 (Review) – 56.8 seconds max

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Photomatix 4.2.3 Edited Version (mouse over to see default version)

Click here to see the large size edited version, and click here to see the full-size default processed version.

Image Merge Time (47.9 seconds MAX)

Here is the amount time it took from the moment the OK button was clicked in the Preprocessing Options dialog:

47.9 sec with everything checked like this:

Photomatix Prerocessing Options Dialog

42.9 sec with no noise reduction as follows:

Photomatix Prerocessing Options Dialog (No noise reduction)
26.0 sec only ghosting high as follows:

Photomatix Prerocessing Options Dialog (Only ghosting support)
and 12.2 sec with no options checked.

Tone Mapping Processing (5.7 seconds)

HDRSoft Photomatix 4.2.3 Tone Mapping UI

After your images are merged, you end up in the tone mapping user-interface where you do the real work. Once you are ready to have an image to edit in Photoshop, you click on the Process button. To get this image ready for editing elsewhere took only 5.7 seconds.

Ready in Photoshop CS6 (3.2 seconds)

Since the merge processing has to occur in the stand alone app, a true fair comparison should include the time it takes to save the intermediate file in Photomatix 4.2.3 and load that file in Photoshop (to have parity with the other tested apps). While Photomatix does offer a tone mapping Photoshop plug-in, the real work is done in the stand-alone app. Fortunately Photomatix makes this process easy using the “Open saved images with” option in its Save As dialog, so this process only took 3.2 seconds.

Photomatix Save As Dialog

The maximum total time it took from start to finish in HDRSoft Photomatix 4.2.3 was 56.8 seconds.

HDR Efex Pro 2 (RC1) (Review) – 79 seconds max

DISCLAIMER: I was using pre-released software so final times may be faster

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
HDR Efex Pro 2 Processing
(with some Content Aware Fill on the ceiling)
Mouse over to see the 0EV exposure and mouse out to see the processed version

Visit my HDR Efex Pro 2 full review for more info about this product, but the bottom line is that the image selection dialog took 24.6 seconds to load the images into the merge dialog. This was really the process of doing a batch processing of the raw files and getting them created as TIFF images that are then used for the merge dialog. RAW files or going straight from Lightroom 4.x speeds this up, but this is definitely one of the bottle necks.

Once you have the merge dialog up you make your adjustments and then hit the create HDR. This is much like the pre-processing options for Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro 1. To do this it took 24.1 seconds after hitting Create HDR button (with all options checked). If I only did ghosting control then it only 16.1 seconds after hitting Create HDR button.

The real pain point is that once you are done you have to send the file to Photoshop for further editing (or back to Lightroom). This is took a staggering 30.3 seconds after hitting OK.

At first this all sounds really slow, but the all important “time before you can start tone mapping” was 48.7 seconds. This puts it on par with Photomatix, but it feels faster because of the interruption of the merge dialog.

You still have to pay the tax at the end, but the good news is that even with that it’s faster than its predecessor.

HDR Efex Pro 1.203 – 96.1 seconds max

HDR Efex Pro 1

The number one thing I hated about this product was its horrible performance, and doing this testing reminded me why. It took 65.8 seconds after hitting Create HDR button (all options checked) (or 9.0 seconds after hitting Create HDR button with just ghosting checked). Of course, the ghosting support in this product was as bad as the in-camera result, so some probably found it better to run it with no options. 

Once you are done tone mapping then it took 30.3 seconds after hitting OK before you were ready to work in Photoshop.

This app is just a slow turd that is a headache to use, so I’m glad to bid it farewell in favor of its faster and much better replacement.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 Merge to HDR Pro Feature – 31.3 seconds max

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Photoshop CS6 Photorealistic Edited Version (mouse over to see default version)

Click here to see the large size edited version, and click here to see the full-size default processed version.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 Merge to HDR Pro Dialog

It took about 19.6 seconds to get from the dialog above to the Merge to HDR Pro tone mapping UI (which has to be the worst ever user-interface in my opinion).

Ghost reference image feature exists here too (notice the green box around 0 EV)

After clicking OK here it took another 11.7 seconds before I could work on the image in Photoshop. This makes Photoshop the fastest thing outside of the camera processor to make an HDR image. Its feature set and usability suck, but if you are tight on cash then it can get the job done in a hurry. Personally I never use it though.


After spending time with all of these products, I still respect what Photomatix brings to the table but HDR Efex Pro 2 isn’t terrible anymore. This is a big statement too because I didn’t care for HDR Efex Pro 1 due to its complex UI and sluggish performance. Those issues have been addressed such that it’s now my go to product. Photomatix still does a great job and its ghost selection mode feature shown below is something I really wish Nik would have added to HDR Efex Pro using U-Point controls:


I’m finding myself doing more HDR’s now thanks to the Canon 5D Mark III’s built-in HDR feature which keeps the bracketed exposures (in JPEG + RAW if you want) in addition to the file it creates. The in-camera file gives me an idea of issues I might run into at home using software, so I can identify issues in the field that I’d normally miss (i.e., gross alignment issues like the one below):

In-camera HDR is no gimmick – it can help you spot alignment issues in the field

Photoshop CS6’s speed makes it an option for those who are on a tight budget or who enjoy its nasty sliders, but realistically it’s just not for me. It may be fast, but I just take longer to get the results I want with it which negates its performance benefit and I’m rarely happy with the final result.

Special Offer (15% Discount)

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Anonymous said...

Hello Ron-

As an avid reader of your blog, I enjoy your articles on HDR. Question: have you ever played with Oloneo's PhotoEngine? I've used Photomatix, Photoshop, and now PhotoEngine. You must try Oloneo if you wish to create more realistic HDR and with greater ease than in Photomatix. If you wish grunge, PhotoEngine will oblige there too. I'm amazed at how mature this software is for version 1.1! It is more expensive than most of its competitors, but the ease of use, the many tweak options (without getting confusing) and the output are marvelous.
Try it; you'll like it! I would be curious to read your thoughts of it in a review.

-Andrew Kliss said...

Hi Andrew,

I've done a little research on Oloneo's PhotoEngine, and I think they asked me to review their product. It's just in the long line of products in the queue that i haven't been able to get to yet.