The HDR Learning Curve

Smugglers Notch Foliage Boulders HDR Final
Comparing HDR Expose, Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro


This all started with a photo of a house in Cape May, NJ. Due to the lighting conditions, I bracketed the exposure with the intention of rendering a natural looking HDR. “Natural looking” isn’t generally the first thing to come to mind when HDR is involved, granted, but rather than mask in bits of different exposures manually in Photoshop, I wanted to see how close Photomatix would come. It was almost immediate that I noticed the color shift in the resulting images, one processed via tone mapping, the other via the fusion process. After a quick Google search, it became clear that color shifts, as well as halos, are common problems because luminosity and color are not treated separately. I’ve long been removing halos by masking in bits of the original photo and dealing with the color shifts with adjustment layers in Photoshop. My new idea was thus to compare how different HDR tone mapping software would handle an image, so I rendered examples out of HDR Expose 3, Photomatix Pro 4, and HDR Efex Pro 2 to compare to the original RAW file as well as my finished result. On a side note, the white balance was correct. The rollover images below will show the examples against the original base exposure. Larger versions of the final images are at the end of the post.

Cape May House HDR Photomatix Fusion

Photomatix Fusion vs Original – Major colorshift & haloing


Cape May House HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Major colorshift & haloing, artsy feel, not natural


Cape May House HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Halos, less color shift


Cape May House HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Flat, most natural, no halos or shifts


Cape May House HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Based on HDR Expose Image



I decided to repeat the process for a series of foliage images that I shot in Smugglers Notch, VT. It was a beautiful landscape of vibrant leaves, blue skies, bright sun, and deep shadows far beyond what my sensor was able to capture. The 14-stops of dynamic range on the D800 versus my 12 would have been nice (along with the megapixels), as well as an ultra-wide angle lens with some degree of sharpness.

Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, uneven skies, halos & artistic


Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow colorshift, uneven skies, halos, bright but still unnatural


Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Best sky, a little flat, no major colorshift


Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Combined Photomatix & HDR Expose Images


Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, reigned in halos with sliders, not bad


Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Very yellow and flat, unsaturated


Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – A little flat, again no major colorshift, not bad


Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Combined Photomatix & HDR Expose Images, then Color Efex Pro


Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, uneven skies, halos, artistic, not good


Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow shift, flat, uneven skies, some halos, still unnatural


Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Again, best sky, no major colorshift, probably best overall


Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Merged Photomatix & HDR Expose Images in Photoshop, etc


At this point I wanted to look at an older image, re-process it, and compare the old version to the new. The gnarly tree on a Cape Cod golf course seemed to fit in with the rest of theses images, and the second I opened it, I saw it had a horrible red cast. This was shot mid-April of 2012 and showed up in my Post Processing post, but this time around I wanted to improve upon it and try for something a lot more natural.

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Strong, warm colorshift, uneven sky, halos around tree


Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow cast, uneven sky, strange tone mapping


Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Best by far, tree is maybe a tad yellow


Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Old Final

Old Final Image vs Original – Definition of bad HDR emphasized with a glow


Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Revised Final

Revised Final Image vs Original – Worked off of the HDR Expose version


Conclusion

  • HDR Expose consistently created the most natural looking HDR image, and stands out because it handles the luminosity separately from the color information. That is something none of the other applications do.
  • Photomatix adds a warm colorcast that can be dialed back with the temperature slider at the expense of other colors. Photomatix also adds halos around edges and is not great with skies, but is great at enhancing details. I read numerous recommendations to use the default settings which yields a flat unappealing image.
  • HDR Efex Pro doesn’t have enough versatility in the settings and is probably why I rarely use it. It seemed to give a yellow cast to images.
  • Photoshop has the ability to merge and tonemap HDR images, but I much prefer my other options.
  • Any tone mapped image is simply a starting point. The rest of the work is done in Photoshop.
  • The best option is to process an image multiple times and merge the best parts of each, including some of the original exposures. Natural looking HDR isn’t simple. It’s time consuming.

2 Comments on “The HDR Learning Curve

  1. You mentioned in a couple of the examples that your end product was a merge in Photoshop of a samples from two different products. Was that just a simple merge, or any tips on how to do that merge such that the best from both photos is retained?

    • When I combine two (or more) HDR images in Photoshop, I tend to go about it in one of two ways. Both methods involve placing each image on its own layer and aligning them via Edit > Auto-Align Layers. From there, I will either use the layer blend modes such as Luminosity and adjust the transparency, or I will apply a layer mask and selectively include or hide parts of a layer until I have a result that I like. Masking can be tedious, however I find that it results in a better image when parts of the original exposure are painted back in.

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