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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.
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).
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.
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!)
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:
nik HDR Efex Pro "Realistic" version
HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro "Fusion" version
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:
Photomatix Pro also offers a variety of options for "enhancing" the image like the one I used for this image of the Mojave Desert:
The enhanced processing can make your image look almost like a painting when printed on high-quality art paper or canvas.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.