Clash of the HDR Titans: Photomatix Pro versus Nik's HDR Efex Pro

Share

High-dynamic range imaging (HDR) is the fastest growing and perhaps the trendiest new technique in photography. By combining several images with different exposures the photographer can capture scenes which are beyond the dynamic range of their camera. The trick is that HDR scenes not only can't be captured in a single image, they also can't be fully displayed or printed in their native form. That means additional processing is required to turn the photo into one which can be used.

Unless you're using an iPhone 4 or one of the few point and shoots which can do a version of this automatically this means using a software tool. Beginning in Photoshop CS5, Adobe has begun adding HDR "Toning" to its flagship image processor, but anyone serious about HDR photography is likely to use a dedicated piece of software for more and more powerful options.

Capturing the vivid colors and many reflections of Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone on a summer day is a great job for HDR processing. Unlike many other natural scenes this one looks best under the direct summer sun so HDR really helps to save the day in those harsh lighting conditions.

Until recently HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro was the only game in town. While a little rough in its early versions it has rapidly evolved into a full-fledged and very powerful and useful tool, now at version 4.0.2. But late last year Nik Software—best known for its large filter library and other Photoshop plug-ins—released HDR Efex Pro to round out their tools suite. Like many 1.0 releases the initial version was missing some key pieces but nik quickly moved to address any shortcomings with the current version, 1.1.

So now that we have a choice of two well put together HDR software offerings the next step is figuring out which one to use. Or if we're fortunate enough to be able to acquire both, which one to use when. In this face-off we'll cover the major elements of the two pieces of software using real world images and you can draw your own conclusions about how to proceed.

Comparing the Workflow

The first big difference between the products is their workflow. Photomatix Pro is most powerful when used as a stand-alone product which saves it output and launches Photoshop or your choice of other photo editor. By contrast HDR Efex is built entirely as a plug-in for either Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture. The result is a very different approach to processing your images.

With Photomatix Pro the quickest way to get started is to select the set of HDR images composing your scene in your image management tool and launch them into Photomatix Pro as a group (In my case I use the Batch Edit command in DigitalPro for Windows, which does it in a single click). Then, like any HDR processing workflow, the software first processes the images into a composite HDR image and then offers you a wide variety of choices for the "tone mapping" operation (tone mapping is the term for processing the full HDR scene down into something that can be displayed or printed).

Photomatix Pro operates best as a "pre-processor" for Photoshop or Lightroom with its own user interface

By contrast with HDR Efex Pro you work from within your image editor and then launch the plug-in and select the images you wish to make into an HDR image. This process is a little painful but fortunately nik has created a plug-in for Bridge that allows you to select your images in Bridge and load them directly into HDR Efex as an alternative for Bridge users. However it'll be a welcome addition when they implement an "Add Open Files" option like the one available with Adobe's own HDR command.

By contrast HDR Efex Pro is a plug-in to Photoshop which assumes acts as a step in your image editing process.

Presets

Both products offer a nice selection of presets for common HDR treatments—which is a really good thing because there is such a bewildering variety of alternatives for processing that it is easy to get lost without a good place to start. Both allow you to create your own presets as well but Nik goes a little further by having a useful categories for their presets that correspond to different types of images such as Landscape, Architecture and Artistic. Photomatix Pro groups their presets into different processing types—Enhancer, Compressor, and Fusion—which is helpful but not quite as handy.

In their current versions both products now also offer a "filmstrip" display of previews for each of their previews. This is a huge timesaver as it is very hard to guess what a particular scene will look like in a specific preset without looking. Let's use a set of images of the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls I took last year on our photo safari to Zambia and Botswana. Here are thumbnails from the original Raw files taken with my Nikon D700:

I'm looking forward to returning in May with another group when the Falls and River are at their peak flow and capturing images from similar vantage points for comparison. (If you want to join us we still have a couple spaces left!

Final Results

Obviously there are a nearly infinite number of potential finished images you can create with either of these tools, but for comparison here is a head to head comparison of a fairly "straight" output of the Zambezi River scene using the Realistic preset from HDR Efex and a similar Fusion preset from Photomatix Pro:

Bridge at Victoria Falls famous for bungee jumpers rendered with nik HDR Efex Pro 1.1 using the "Realistic (Balanced)" Preset
nik HDR Efex Pro "Realistic" version

Bridge at Victoria Falls famous for bungee jumpers rendered with Photomatix Pro from HDRSoft using the Fusion preset.
HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro "Fusion" version

Pushing The Limits

There are increasing extremes of presets ranging from the subtle like the ones I used on the image above to the whimsical "Granny's Attic" Nik offers shown below:

Both products offer "extreme" effects like the one shown in this "Granny's Attic" preset from HDR Efex Pro

Photomatix Pro also offers a variety of options for "enhancing" the image like the one I used for this image of the Mojave Desert: 

View from Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert showing how HDR can bring drama even to a mid-day desert scene.

The enhanced processing can make your image look almost like a painting when printed on high-quality art paper or canvas. 

Fine-tuning Your Image

For most images one of the provided presets is likely to do an excellent job. But of course there is always room for tweaking. Both products offer a large array of ways to accomplish that. Nik does a much better job of using comprehensible terms that don't require a deep knowledge of image processing to understand—such as Exposure, Contrast, Structures, Blacks, Whites, Warmth and then a drop-down for choice of HDR methods like Dark Soft, Clean, Crisp and Subtle as well as a slider for strength of the HDR effect. 

By contrast Photomatix Pro lets you dive right in to the nuts and bolts of their conversion with sliders for white point, black point, gamma and others. One real difference here is that HDR Efex Pro relies on the underlying Raw processing of Photoshop or Lightroom while Photomatix Pro can operate in either mode—running stand-alone with its own Raw processing or as an Adobe plug-in taking advantage of Adobe's ACR Raw processor.

Photomatix Pro's User Assisted Ghost Removal

One of the bugaboos of HDR is moving objects. If people are moving while you take your series of images for example they will appear "ghosted" or smeared in a simple merge of the images. So HDR software packages provide "ghost removal" tools to help alleviate this issue. Both products have automatic ghost removal which often does a good job. But of course it is impossible for the tools to know exactly what is ghosted or how you want to handle it. So HDRSoft has added a nice feature to Photomatix Pro where you can outline the areas ghosted and choose which of your exposures you want to use for that area. It is a big help especially when there are people moving in the scene. 

Photomatix Pro also does a great job aligning images. You can see some of the results in my earlier blog post Fixing A Perfect Morning: Making Your Sunrise Image Match Your Eyes

Nik's U-Point Selective Adjustments

Nik's patented "U Point" technology adds an additional dimension to their solution. In addition to the global adjustments on the image you can create control points to affect the exposure, contrast and saturation for specific areas in your image. This isn't that important to me as of course the same adjustments can be done later in Photoshop but it is nice to be able to do it all at once and it can be used to help prevent blowouts which are hard to fix later. Nik also offers vignette correction and levels and curves adjustments.

What About The Results?

The truth is that both packages are incredibly fun to experiment with and can produce a large variety of amazing output images. After having processed many images with both packages I'd be hard pressed to pick one over the other as far as the quality of their output. Personally I prefer the workflow of Photomatix Pro and have found the user-assisted ghost removal a real benefit, but I do like the logically categorized presets with HDR Efex Pro.

Below is an image taken from a hot air balloon rendered in both products for you to compare. It was taken over Bagan in Myanmar on our recent photo tour there. We hope you can join us in December on our next one!

Aerial HDR Photograph Rendered with HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro

Aerial HDR Photograph Rendered with HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro

Aerial HDR Photograph Rendered with nik Software's HDR Efex Pro using the Realistic (Balanced) Preset

Aerial HDR Photograph Rendered with Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro using the Realistic (Balanced) Preset

Like many head to head rivalries there is also a back and forth between the two products as one or the other is updated and new features are introduced which may then shortly arrive in the other. Personally I'm happy to have access to both of them and recommend you consider trying each of them out and deciding which one is right for you. 

You can purchase HDR Efex Pro right here from B&H for $129, or Photomatix Pro directly from HDRSoft for $99. They also offer a "Light" version for $39. Both companies offer trial downloads. 

Learning More…

I've written a number of articles on making use of HDR in addition to my blog posts, including HDR: When Even Magic Has its Limits, Create Better Panoramas using HDR Photography, Making Grunge Work for your Photographs, and Sour Grapes--A Morning in the Vineyard

And of course, if you'd like to learn more about digital photography or about HDR we encourage you to visit our site, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow us on Facebook or join us on one of our Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience and instruction in the field.

An HDR Image of early spring grapes.

Add new comment

 I have both products and I'm still tweaking how they fit into my workflow.  For brackets, I still prefer Photomatix as a starting point, but then use the result & my brackets in Photoshop to composite a finished result. That method seems a bit more cumbersome with HDR Efex Pro, but perhaps that's just me.

However, I find that I like HDR Efex Pro more for a 1-shot HDR image. Even using it on an old JPG breathes new life into some images.  It's an interesting product and I'll keep playing with it.

William--Thanks for the insight about using HDR Efex for single shot HDR. I haven't gotten around to comparing the two products for that--and Photoshop CS5 itself actually does some cool single shot HDR with a no-brainer workflow so really it's a 3-way faceoff for that feature. Perhaps a future blog post!--David

David, I am quite surprised to see such a curt dismissal of Adobe Photoshop CS5 in this piece as Adobe Photoshop CS5 is now one of the most powerful and flexible programs for 32-bit workflows, as I describe in great detail in my book, Practical HDRI, 2nd Edition, High Dynamic Range Imaging Using Photoshop CS5 and Other Tools. (available through B&H, and many other places ;)   )

Not to take anything away from Photomatix or Nik's HDR Efex Pro, but Photoshop CS5 can do a number of things these programs simply cannot.

  • CS5 has a powerful set of tools available both in the toolbar and under Image>Adjustments including saturation, exposure, gradient, levels, and fill masks, and much more.
  •  
  • CS5 allows for local adjustments to selections and layer masks created from selection tools, pen and vector-based path tools, and with some easy workarounds, from the full set of local selection tools available in 8 and 16-bit space for all the soft-tone mapping adjustments mentioned in bullet point 1.
  •  
  • CS5 allows for paintbrush-based dodging and burning of 32-bit color values.

Honestly, for the "serious user" with a good degree of on-image local and global editing, CS5 is in a class of its own. You can search Google for: "youtube jack howard hdri" for a 60-minute screencast I've presented showcasing some of the unique strengths of Photoshop CS5 for HDRI for photographers.

As it stands, I think Mr. Cardinal did a very nice job in this article comparing Photomatix to HDR Efex, but I do think Mr. Cardinal owes it to himself to dig a bit deeper into the possibilities that Photoshop CS5 offers the HDR photographer for a follow-up piece if he thinks the HDR Toning command is the sum of CS5's potential for tone mapping 32-bit images.

Jack Howard

Author of Practical HDRI, 2nd Edition

Jack, you make some great points about Photoshop. The intent was not to dismiss the built-in HDR in CS5 as it is a powerful and integrated capability, but to compare the two dedicated products since they go head to head with each other while Photoshop handles things quite differently.

Your resources make a good complement to the face-off, especially for anyone not interested in purchasing an additional piece of software. I'll definitely look at creating a new review piece that includes all three options in the future and should probably do a review of your book at some point as well.--David

Oh my god! It is people like you that give HDR a bad name.

HDR is NOT about oversaturation - which all images in this article are. This is a perfect example of how NOT to do HDR!

Dear Unregistered--You are of course entitled to your opinion and indeed a couple of the "fun" images in the article have been saturated--making them quite saleable and popular at art shows for example, but the actual review and comparison images are plain vanilla Raw files with the Realistic presets applied and no other further processing done (and alternative presets shown in the screen shots) from the two products in question--which is pretty much the point of a review.

Use of the more aggressive presets was avoided on purpose as they get increasingly "dramatic" and that isn't what everyone wants.

I began with Photomatrix and switched to NIK HDR.

I do all black and white photography - both from film, and from digital and I much prefer NIK.  I don't really believe that the average person, or even the pro HDR expert is going to know for sure which shots are HDR and which aren't.

Here's an example of an HDR shot (shhh, don't tell anyone)

http://www.beckermanphoto.com/central-park-lake-blizzard-of-2011.html

There are lots more in my blog at: www.beckermanphoto.com/blog

I think that when things in the scene are moving, Photomatix was better at dealing with merging the various images.

However, NIK has more intuitive controls, and as part of an entire suite - I end up going something like this:

- dfine

- presharp

- hdr (still in color if it was a raw file) do a touch of compression or expansion as needed, and or texture

- then into NIK silver bw conversion

- and then into viveza

(excuse me if I'm not getting the names exactly right) but if you're a NIK user you'll see what I mean hopefully. 

I've used NIK HDR for one shot negatives as well, with equally subtle results. 

That's my two and a half cents.

http://www.beckermanphoto.com

Dave--Those are some very nice and highly creative shots. With the people it's obvious why good "anti-ghosting" is crucial. I decided not to tread on black and white in the article since like you I use nik's Silver Efex for the actual conversion and including another section on it would have started making the article incredibly long, but I agree it is a powerful technique.

I've actually also had some very dramatic successes combining HDR with Infrared to produce black and whites. The combination works particularly well on some of the temples in southeast Asia and scenes of foliage. That's probably a good subject for another article since Infrared, like HDR, continues to grow in popularity.--David

I'll have to disagree with your positive assessment of Nik's product.  I found it less than pleasing to work with and I'm not a fan of Nik's implementation of control point technology (preferring the LR version).  I also found the speed of the Nik product to be severely lacking relative to the other major competitors (PM, PS CS5).  Personally, I found it more slanted toward the surreal/grunge end of the pool and more difficult to get a truly natural/realistic interpretation with it.  I've reviewed 11 different HDR apps on my blog and have to put Nik at the bottom of the list when both price and results are considered.

The list of reviews is here, http://rf-photography.ca/reviews/, please feel free to remove it if this is considered too much of a shill.

Bob--The more perspectives the better. I did notice nik was somewhat slower than Photomatix (presumably because it uses more of Photoshop's scripting and less of its own optimized code) but it wasn't a big deal for me on my dual core Windows machine.

What I think would be a cool enhancement for U-point would be more of an ability to control which settings were affected by each point. Otherwise I do find it somewhat limited for this usage so I mostly ignore it and do my other (non-HDR) adjustments in Photoshop or in a different plug-in.

 Very cool!

Photomatix has the edge as a stand-alone application, but I find I get cleaner HDR results with HDR Efex Pro. I don't see the uneven skies in landscape shots that I sometimes got with Photomatix. The addition of Control Points makes HDR Efex Pro really tough to beat.

I also recently compared the two applications and came to similar conclusions. The biggest speed difference is the initial loading of images into Photoshop.

Another trick with HDR Efex Pro is to preview your images at 100% before saving them. The "fit to window" preview is not as accurate. I think many people are getting results with HDR Efex Pro that are too strong because the preview window tends to soften the effect of some tone-mapping methods.

-Jason

Jason--Thanks for the tip about the more even skies in HDR Efex Pro. I've certainly noticed that skies can be surprisingly tricky with any HDR tool--with seemingly innocent blue skies turning into raging noise dragons after processing.--David

Please put me on your email list.

To sign up for B&H news and special offers please go here and enter your email address: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/newsletterEmailRequest.jsp/unsubscribe/Y

To subscribe to our Explora blog just click on the "Subscribe" button at the bottom of the page in the Explora article.

You can subscribe to our Youtube Channel which contains a growing library of over 970 free to view educational and product related videos with several new videos added each week:

https://www.youtube.com/user/BHPhotoVideoProAudio

We invite you to join in on the conversation and post comments.