Thursday, February 14, 2013

REVIEW: Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2 (Discount Offer)

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HDR Efex Pro 2

Introduction

Despite being a huge fan of Nik Software products, I wasn’t much of a fan of HDR Efex Pro. I just felt Photomatix was the better product so I didn’t see the advantage of using something that was slower and less effective. Sure it had some nice UI features like presets, but Photomatix just did HDR better – until now.

Nik Software has worked hard to get this product on par with all of their other industry leading products, so I’m pleased to report this is now my first choice product for doing HDR work. It’s awesome, so I hope you enjoy my long-winded to review to see why I’ve gone from hater to fanboy for this HDR product.

Oh and for those who hate cheesy Harry Potter looking HDR images, this product is one that makes creating realistic looking images easier than anything else on the market. HDR doesn’t have to be cheesy, and HDR Efex Pro 2 makes getting realistic results much easier!

Original Images

Here are the original in-camera JPEG’s (although for this review I used the CR2 RAW files) that were captured with a Canon 5D Mark III using its in-camera HDR feature. This feature captures three bracketed photos (in this case using 0, +3 and -3EV) preserving the RAW and JPEG’s and then does an in-camera HDR (featured in the follow-up article after this one).

The total file size of the RAW images combined is 83.9mb, so all time measurements in this and related articles assume this size workload.

All images used in this article are Copyright © 2012 by Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. You may only use these images for your personal viewing, but you may not print or redistribute any images found in this article.

Pre-Release Software Disclaimer

NOTE: This article was done using the Release Candidate 1 of HDR Efex Pro 2. Results of the final released product may be improved over what’s featured here.


0EV – f/8 for 0.6 sec at ISO 100
Pretty good, but has blown highlights in the back and his hot on the left and right sides

Take note of this original exposure above because you’ll see how the head of the person behind the counter is a bit messed up. This is the case in-camera because this persons head was moving during this long exposure. This is not a camera or software defect – it’s just what happens if you have movement in a long exposure.


-3EV– f/8 for 1/13 sec at ISO 100
Brings back the lost detail in the hotspots – especially on the back wall


+3EV– f/8 for 5 seconds at ISO 100
Brings back detail lost in the shadows

HDR Efex Pro 2 Image Processing

HDR Efex Pro 2 has received a great new user-interface overhaul that I absolutely love. Everything is very clear and easy to understand every step of the way. It begins here with the image selection dialog (shown from Photoshop’s File | Automate | Merge to HDR Efex Pro 2 menu):


Image Selection Dialog
Create Smart Object means you can go back and make changes in HDR Efex Pro 2 later

Lightroom users won’t see this dialog because they only need to select the files to merge and go to the File menu then choose Export with Preset then HDR Efex Pro 2.

Merge Dialog

Once the files are selected you see the all important merge dialog:


Merge Dialog – totally worth the upgrade right here!

This dialog rocks and is really reason enough alone to upgrade. The big reason why is that you can now easily adjust some critical features using more than just checkboxes – you can do a real-time preview of what will happen based on your selection. This is something that Photomatix & HDR Efex Pro 1 sorely lack, so this is a big win in ease of use.

Here’s some of the things you can adjust in real-time:

image
Merge Dialog Real-Time Adjustments

Ghost Reference Image Selection

The most impressive of these has to be Ghost Reduction where you can now not only choose the strength, but you can also choose the ghost reference image for ghost reduction. The reason why this is important is because if you have movement in the photo (i.e., a person moving around in my example) then you can choose which frame has the person you want to use. Notice in the samples below how this works:


0 Ev
This my winner because I’m happy with the person behind the counter
NOTE: His head is blurred in camera due to the long exposure


+3 EV
I’ve got double ghosting here due to the 5 second exposure


-3 EV
The person moved so much that they are ghosted in the body in-camera

Ghost Reduction Loupe

Being able to see this in real time is a HUGE time saver! To make it even easier, you can click on the magnifying glass and get a loop to examine your image to see how your different ghosting strengths or “reference image” selection impacts your shot:


Ghost Reduction OFF

Ghost Reduction ON (0EV Ref Image)

The same can be done with chromatic aberration correction as well.

Brightness Slider

This slider affects the 32-bit preview only and can be used to adjust the preview image in order to properly see and remove all Ghost artifacts. Moving the slider to the right will brighten the preview, and moving the slider to the left will darken the preview. Moving the brightness slider in the Image Merge Dialog will not change the final merged image.

This can also be useful for determining if you have enough range in your bracketed shots to get the detail in the highlights and shadows. Sometimes you may have other bracketed sets that are a better candidate so you can quickly determine that here before moving on to full processing.

Merging Your Images

All HDR software creates a pretty ugly image using its default settings, but HDR Efex Pro 2 does a great job of having a great very usable starting point:


Default Processing
Nice balance of the three exposures

After merging you enter a user-inferace that should feel familiar if you’ve used Color Efex, Silver Efex, etc… where presets and history are on the left and controls are on the right:


HDR Efex Pro 2 User Interface

After dialing in your settings (more on that later) I came up with this as my first interpretation of this photo:

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

Everything except the content aware fill on the ceiling was done in HDR Efex Pro 2. I’d probably crop the foreground out more and make some other edits on the final photo, but this is a great starting point for more hardcore work. You can mouse over to see the in-camera 0EV exposure before image and mouse out to see the photo after it has been processed in HDR Efex Pro. Click the image to see a larger version.

The main improvement to the user interface comes in the re-design of the formerly confusing tone compression handling. It’s now a new pane that makes a lot more sense to me:

image

In HDR Efex Pro 2 you can do complex tone mapping without having to pick from a list of 20 different HDR methods (as was the case in HDR Efex Pro 1) without knowing what the heck each one meant. Now things are broken down first into tone compression and method strength. Dan Moughamian defines Tone Compression as:

Tone compression in HDR software is the process of taking all the raw data that was merged together from your bracketed shots, and combining it to create a “baseline exposure” that serves as the foundation for all of the remaining edits you make. Tone Compression also can help to create a balanced distribution across your Histogram, so that you have a range of very dark to very light tones to work with.

Nik Software further defines what it means for their slider here, but to dumb it down – you just drag this bar to the right to bring in more detail from your darker exposures.

Method Strength slide can be used to increase or decrease the HDR method defined below the method strength slider. This section is now logically grouped into depth, detail and drama using easy to grasp names for each setting. You spend a little time up front getting to know what each one does, but I found that I quickly got a handle on what I liked and didn’t here. This is was so much better than the mystery values in the previous version!

Click here for an interactive guide that goes into detail about the rest of the user-interface. I don’t rehash it all here because it’s all typical Nik Software features found in other products. If you love Color Efex Pro 4 or Silver Efex Pro 2, then you’ll be very happy with this user interface. It’s snappy and very user friendly.

What could be better

Overall I’m very pleased with this product and it’s performance is a huge improvement over its predecessor. With that said, there’s still a few things I”d like to see in the future:

  • I wish it had drag and drop into the merge dialog like Photomatix
  • Still wishing for Tone Compression on U-Point controls so I could fix hot spots like on the back wall of my sample photo without having to use complex masks in Photoshop
  • No redundant sliders for U-Point controls in the right hand pane like you have for Viveza. These U-Points are so big and overloaded that the cryptic shorthand names make them annoying to use directly on the U-Point control
  • Photoshop Processing time after hitting Ok from the main interface should be much faster (and perhaps it will be – I was using a pre-released version)

Conclusion

I upset my friends at Nik Software by bashing the first version of HDR Efex Pro as being slow and difficult to use. In typical Nik Software fashion they took those words to heart and came up with a new version that is a joy to use and much faster. In short, I really like this product a lot and highly recommend it! The ghosting and alignment improvements really put this product on par with Photomatix, and that wasn’t the case in the previous release.

Is it worth the upgrade? Heck yeah! The new merge dialog will help you get significantly better results especially with ghosting challenges. The performance improvements will keep you from pulling your hair out, and the user-interface improvements will help you to get much better results if you have to the courage to do more than accept the defaults. Of course, even if you do that then the wealth of presets are sure to please.

Click here to view some videos on HDR Efex Pro 2 to learn more about its features and how they work.

Related articles you might enjoy:

I also have done a HDR Software comparison article that sees how HDR Efex Pro 2 stacks up against:

Here’s my other Nik Software reviews:

and my popular What plug-ins should I buy? article.

Special Offer

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Disclosure

If you make a purchase using links in this article, I may make a commission. I was also given a free copy of this product for review in advance of the public release.

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2 comments:

Paul Klenk said...

Thank you for contacting Nik Software.  I asked to see if your system information would be helpful to our engineers, but they have said that the issue has been identified as an issue within Aperture itsself, and unfortunately your system information would not help.  What is happening is your system is running out of Graphics Memory, which is causing the scrambled previews in Aperture.  On the Mac system, once video memory is used (for example, for the processing with HDR Efex Pro 2 which uses a large amount of GPU processing and memory) it is not "released" even after you stop using the program, so your system runs out of the GPU memory which is what is used to update the Aperture previews

Paul Klenk said...

Thank you for contacting Nik Software.  I asked to see if your system information would be helpful to our engineers, but they have said that the issue has been identified as an issue within Aperture itsself, and unfortunately your system information would not help.  What is happening is your system is running out of Graphics Memory, which is causing the scrambled previews in Aperture.  On the Mac system, once video memory is used (for example, for the processing with HDR Efex Pro 2 which uses a large amount of GPU processing and memory) it is not "released" even after you stop using the program, so your system runs out of the GPU memory which is what is used to update the Aperture previews