Review

HDR Photography became pretty popular several years ago when software such as Photoshop, Photomatix, DynamicPhoto HDR, ect…., made it possible to combine multiple exposure’s and create HDR composite images with ease. Since then HDR Photography has taken off like a bandit and has been gaining mass popularity and criticism every since! If your not familiar with HDR Photography, I would recommend watching this HDR Photography Explained Video Tutorial I made a while back before continuing.

HDR Efex Pro:

As far as HDR Processing software goes, I usually prefer Photomatix Pro 4, but there is a new player in town called HDR Efex Pro!! Brought to us by the Nik Software company, and anybody that is familiar with the Nik software will attest that these guys don’t play games when it comes to software!! Needless to say I was extremely excited when I heard about software, and have been chomping at the bit to try it ever since the release date back in October 2010.

Well, I finally got the software and let me just start off by saying WOW!! For starters you can access the HDR Efex Pro software from Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture, or even as a stand alone program. I very much prefer using Lightroom 3 as my starting point so I can do a little pre-processing on my raw files. I like to apply the lens correction depending on the lens, and sometimes noise reduction, crop, sharpening, ect.. However, if you launch the HDR Efex Pro as a stand alone program you can just navigate to your files weather there raws, jpegs, or tiffs and open them like any other program.

Below are the 3 raw files of the Cat D8H I used in this review, and for reference I took these images with my Canon 5D mark II and the Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye. Hence the heavy distortion.

Raw Files: -2, 0,+2

Raw Files: -2, 0,+2

Below is what it looks like when you launch HDR Efex Pro from Lightroom 3. I have the 3 raw files selected and by simple right clicking on one of the selected files I can navigate to Export > HDR Efex Pro.

Exporting to HDR Efex Pro From Lightroom 3

Exporting to HDR Efex Pro From Lightroom 3

Once you click the HDR Efex Pro link, your files will be exported from Lightroom as 16-bit tiff files in the AdobeRGB 1998 colorspace by default. That can easily be changed though in the export presets area. To get there just right click on any photo and select Export > Export as shown in figure 1.

Once there you can change your export settings to whatever your wish. For the best quality possible I recommend setting this to ProPhoto RGB, 16-bit, Tiff as shown below in figure 2. This will insure you have the largest color gamut possible if you decide to print.

Export Settings

Export Settings

Once your files are launched HDR Efex Pro will go through it’s routine of alignment and calculating. This will take a little time depending on the size of the files your using as well as your computer hardware. Nik recommends you have at least 4gig of ram and running a 64-bit Operating System, but I think you need more ram. I’m running 8gig now and it works well. My old mac only had 4gig and it ran like garbage.

Once HDR Efex Pro is done compiling your composite preview image, you’re presented with nothing short of an Awesome Interface! Just Click the image for a full res version.

Presets:

leftside

Starting on the left side of the interface you have a boat load of presets grouped into 7 categories varying from Photo Realistic to Surreal. Additionally there is a favorites category for you to take advantage of similar to the other Nik Software.

Just above that there is a nice viewing options bar to help customize your interface to your liking.

On the bottom of the presets section you have the options to save or import presets. Very cool feature and I have utilized the save preset function often! I highly recommend going through the presets as they can inspire you to go in another direction with your edit, or just get you where you need to be faster. I usually start with the 01 Realistic (subtle) preset, and then work on the adjustments from there.

Moving on to the top of the interface you have Alignment and ghost reduction. Aligning works really good IMO, but the ghost reduction is hit or miss just like most other HDR processing programs. There is a bunch of different ghost reduction options so make sure to try them all to see which works best for any given HDR scene.

In the center of the screen we have the very large HDR composite preview. On the upper right of the preview area there a few few options for zooming, changing the background color, and a little button to hide the adjustment panels.Zoom

Adjustment Panels:

Moving on to the right side of the interface we have the adjustment panels which includes from top to bottom: Tone Compression, Global Adjustments, HDR Method, Selective Adjustments, and Finishing Adjustments. Each of these adjustments play a role in how your HDR composite is rendered, and if you scroll through the presets on the left you will see the adjustments on the right change to reflect the given preset.

The Tone Compressions is the most important adjustment imo, because it controls the dynamic range of the HDR. You can raise and lower it to max out the information, while retaining the details in the highlights and shadows.

Global Adjustments is where you can fine tune your image with pretty much every control you could possible need. I particularly like the structure for adding punch and micro contrast!

The HDR Method not only has several options, but it also has a strength slider. These different HDR Methods will effect how the color and detail are rendered, and I personal seem to use the crisp, clean, and natural methods the most. Be sure to try them all out on a variety of images though to get a feel for them.

If the amazing interface was not enough to make you drool, the Selective Adjustments and control points will!! Basically by using Control Points you can selectively edit and manipulate your HDR. This is absolutely incredible, and as far as I know there is no other hdr software out there that offers this type of processing power and precision. More on Control Points later…

The Finishing Adjustments section is also nice bonus for adding a vignette or manipulating the tone curve to get the contrast just right for output. Nik including this section with the assumption that you were not going to edit further in another program I believe. It’s great for an all in one solution, but I personally prefer to do the final adjustments in Photoshop CS5 and/or Lightroom.

All the way at the bottom is the Loupe and Histogram window. If you hover over the window a little sub menu comes up allowing you to select either the loupe or histogram. I really like this feature as it makes it easy and quick to see a 100% preview of a given area, without having to zoom the entire image. I also switch to the histogram frequently when pushing the Tone Compression and whites/ blacks.

More on Control Points:

The U Point powered Control Points let you identify and isolate objects within a photograph by placing a Control Point on the object or area to be affected. By analyzing the color, tonality, detail, and location, the Control Point automatically determines where and how to apply certain effects, based on your needs.

I added a total of seven control points in this hdr image. A few in the sky to selectively tone down the highlights, two cp’s on the cab area to brighten up a few spots, and then I added a cp to the dump truck in the background. Jacking up the structure to give the truck more punch. I then added 2 more on the actual tracks. In the image to the right, notice how each control point has a check box which allows you to turn it on an off. This is awesome for those frequent before and after comparisons when making questionable adjustments. The % is simply the size of the control point 0-100%. That other check box next to the percentage will toggle on and off the actually selection mask of the given control point. This is very helpful when trying to make precise selections!

In the image to the left, you can see what a CP looks like when it’s placed in the scene and selected. Notice there is another control point just to the right on the actual track, but it’s not currently selected. Looking at the slider options on the control, you will see it’s pretty much the same as the global adjustments. Amazingly though you are just effecting a selected area.

CP Selection View - On

CP Selection View – On

When you check the selection check box in the control points panel, your image will change to all black with just the current CP selection showing up in white. Very similar to how photoshop looks when Alt+clicking on a mask in the layers panel. I use this feature all the time when making precise selections. You can also move your CP’s around in this mode and watch the selection/ mask change on the fly! Very powerful and incredible easy to use. Especially compared to manually masking in Photoshop. I wonder if Photoshop will ever get Control Points?? Hint Hint….

Moving on from the interface I wanted to discuss more about the real world use of this software and give some examples of some HDR’s I processed with HDR Efex Pro.

 

Sample HDR Photos:

I took this image with the Canon 15mm Fisheye and the 5D Mark II, 3 Exposure’s at -2,0,+2. I used a control point on the dam house to brighten it up and another on the water to tone it down.

Wanasinink Dam

I took these two last year, but re-processed it and Love the results!

 

Conclusion:

HDR Efex Pro although a computer recourse hog, is nothing short of amazing imo. The control points really take it to the next level and beyond anything the competition currently offers. It is a tad weak on it’s ghost reduction options, but I’m sure that will be addressed in the next release. The fact that you can pretty much fully process the HDR image in one program is incredible appealing to a lot of people, and I bet the real estate photographers will be all over this program. I still use Photomatix Pro 4 from time to time depending, but HDR Efex Pro is definitely my 1st choice HDR Processing Software to Date! It does have a pretty hefty price tag at $159.95, however the amount of power it has compared to the competition is so worth it IMO.

I would usually create my own tutorials for this software, but the Nik people hired some great photogs and teachers. They created a killer tutorials on HDR Efex Pro already, and there so good it’s just not worth re-doing them. Usually the tutorials aren’t the greatest so I just make my own. Not the case here ;) Just scroll through the archives and there is a ton of great tutorials on HDR Efex Pro.

http://www.niksoftware.com/learnmore/usa/index.php/webinars/archives

If your interested in Purchasing HDR Efex Pro for the best price available, just click the link below ;)

HDR Efex Pro >>



About the Author

Jay
Hello, I'm the owner and operator of SonyAlphaLab.com. Please check out the About page for a full background on myself and the Lab ;) Google+ | Twitter | RSS-feed | Email Updates!!