Normally, programs I review are not "learning experiences." Having been reviewing for over 20 years now, I have by now experienced previous versions of a program or similar programs. However, I have not found a need to utilize the concept of merging different exposures into a (High Dynamic Range) HDR image. I have seen excellent HDR images, but I have created only a few HDR images in the past using Photoshop. Now I decided to specifically go out and shoot to create HDR images for this review. I will be using Photoshop CS5 or Lightroom 4 as my host program on a Windows 7 64-bit machine.
There are two main sections to this program: Merge (Multiple Image Series) and Tone Mapping (Single Image.) I will discuss them separately. The first part of this review will deal with merging multiple exposures of the same image to create a High Dynamic Range composite.
Before I went out to take images for this review, I decided to use a set of images I had taken a few years ago. I loved this structure but was never able to photograph it when the light was correct. Here the light was behind the tree on the left. I have worked with this image on and off for years. So I decided to explore Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro initially with this poor set of images. The three exposures were normal, -1 stop, and + 1 stop. Here is my first set of results. This was done without reading the directions. I wanted to see how intuitive the program was. I found that I could quickly and easily figure out most of the controls. The program is very intuitive.
Above is just one of the examples I could have used. There are so many presets to use when creating the HDR composited image and so many ways to modify an image that the choices are almost boundless. In the above image, I had to ask myself initially what I first needed to do to merge it (alignment, ghosting choices, etc.) and, then, how I wanted the image to look when finished. Again, the program offers many choices which I will document as I continue this review. Nik Software's manual for this program offers some good advice on how to shoot an image. I will print it later. This image was hand held and when it was shot, according to the metadata, the f stops varied from f8 to f11 since the time, also, varied. I knew these were not ideal conditions, but at the time I didn't have a tripod with me and did not think of the f stop variations as they relate to depth of field.
Below are the features of Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro:
• Complete all-in-one HDR imaging toolkit with intuitive, fast, and easy operation.
• U Point technology powered selection tools for fast precise enhancements of contrast, shadow, structure, and saturation adjustments permit localized fine-tuning for a completely finished look.
• Multiple proprietary tone mapping algorithms with powerful adjustment controls yield a wide variety of HDR styles and superior results.
• Scores of presets organized into categories enable amazing one-click HDR image processing.
• Advanced technology for automatic image alignment and ghosting removal.
• Ability to create the HDR "look" from single images.
Let's look at the controls and interface. The U Point technology powered selection tools are a great plus in Nik Software because they allow for the manipulation of small areas of an image. Thus, you can create a global change and, then, manipulate small sections. Below is a screen capture of the interface.
The left panels show the individual presets. Custom refers to those presets that are user created. If you look at the bottom of the left panel, you will see that you can create as well as import presets. The right panel shows the different ways you can control how the image looks once you have chosen a preset. There are so many choices.
The first menu is the basic screen to start the process. If you are not familiar with all the terms when you start to use the program, you can download a very informative manual.
I normally checked Alignment, but I only had to check Ghost reduction with very few images, probably because there was wind that moved grass and trees and I was hand holding the camera.
The Smart Object option allows the user to open and adjust edits at a later date, including the position and adjustments made with control points.
The next group of images show the right panel with all the options expanded. The control settings will automatically change with the preset that is chosen. This includes the HDR Method which you can, also, set as you wish. You can choose a new preset for Levels and Curves or set it manually. You can change the tone by using individual colors as well as RGB.
The Tone Compression slider increases or decreases the Dynamic Range of the image. If you move the slider to the right, it compresses the tonality - lightening dark values and darkening bright values.
Lastly, in dealing with Right Panel settings, is the settings for the U Point controls. These are really amazing. You can set up one control and duplicate it or set up individual ones. Often if I am wanting a change in the sky, for example, I will duplicate one control point and then change the others a little. The top control shows the circle (area) that will be changed. It is not shown in the image below.
The manual gives hints for getting the best results when taking pictures to be used in HDR compositing. I have reprinted them here.
Camera Setup (quoted directly
from page 20 of the Nik HDR Efex Pro User Guide)
"Mount Camera on Tripod
The best results will be achieved if the camera is steady and does not move during the exposure series.
TIP: A cable release or remote control camera release will limit camera shake, optimizing your image in the combined exposure(s) and minimize any potential alignment problems during the edit process.
- Switch settings to manual such as white balance, flash, autofocus etc.
- Set camera in Auto Exposure Bracketing (A.E.B.) mode
xxxxxa. Choose number of exposures in the series.
xxxxxb. Typically a series of 3 exposures (-2...0...+2) is sufficient.
- Shoot in Aperture Priority mode. Aperture Priority mode ensures that the depth of field remains consistent throughout the entire exposure series.
- Turn on Continuous Shooting Mode for fastest shooting.
- Set the ISO to as low a setting as possible to help control noise."
In the beginning of this review, I stated that I had done very little with HDR. The following pictures are a result of going out and photographing a series of images. I hand held the camera, but I set it for aperture priority and set the AEB for -1, 0, +1. I will print a few of the results. Even hand held, I had very little ghosting. The slight ghosting of background trees in one image could have been a result of wind. The only way I could even see it was to magnify the image a lot. My first impression was that the colors using the default preset were too vibrant so I set out to see how I could tone them down and still get a wider range than I did with a "normally" exposed image. Below is the house with the custom preset I created. Below the screen capture are the three images that were taken. My goal was to approximate the middle image, but increase my range. I did not want to increase the intensity of the colors. The final image is much crisper and the details are more obvious than on any of the original photos.
Below I used the same preset that I created for the above image. To me the HDR added an interesting sense of space to the image.
In the image above, I used my custom preset; below are examples of some of the 33 presets that are already a part of the program.
The only postwork I did was to crop and rotate the HDR image a little. The increased range, I believe, adds a depth to this porch. The trees in the back of the swing had actually grown into the porch. Otherwise I might have blurred them a little in postwork.
You can, also, use Tone Mapping for individual images.
Below are examples of the Original Image (see above) tone mapped. Remember this image was exposed according to the light meter.
As I got used to working in HDR, I saw its possibilities more and more. It definitely added a depth to the images that I shot when I went out to specifically experiment. I just had to be careful not to get my image too vibrant since I don't like vibrant colors. That is a matter of personal opinion. It is easy to have the HDR image look artificial, but with the controls in Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro, it is very easy to control this and make use of the added range. Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro worked very well. Since I never used it before nor did much HDR, I found it very easy to understand and use. I certainly could see the benefits of taking multiple images, especially on a contrasty day. Even with a slight wind, I could control the ghosting. After I had used the program for this review, I needed to take a photo of a room with very bright grow lights. I did not want to use flash. So I decided to use Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro because part of the image was washed out and part too dark. I now have greatly widened my digital tool kit.
The program can be downloaded for a 15 day free trial. It costs $99.95. To learn more about it, go to Learn More. You can download free presets, also. And to see all the Nik Software, go to http://www.niksoftware.com.