Monday, November 29, 2010

Nik Software HDR Efex Pro Reviewed

Over the past several years HDR photography went from a trendy editing style, all the way to a realistic look that allows images to showcase far more detail and dynamic range than ever before.  Programs have been making this process easier all the time, and Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro takes this process to a whole new level.  I was immediately impressed with how quick and simple the program was to use. 

Before HDR Efex Pro, I used PhotoMatix Pro which did a great job of rendering the HDR, but to make the image look good, I had to spend a lot of time in photoshop.  Finally there is a solution that makes this workflow simpler, and more real looking than ever before!

(HDR Image from Moab, UT created from 7 exposures using Nik Software HDR Efex Pro.  Click to Go Bigger)

 (Correct original exposure of scene combined with 6 other exposures to create HDR above.  Click to Go Bigger.)

For an explanation on dynamic range, please skip to the bottom of the article before reading the review.
Here's a great article from PhotoTut's+ that goes in depth for those just learning how to capture HDR images.

Using HDR Efex Pro

HDR images begin at capture.  Typically you’ll want at least 3 exposures, 1 over-exposed, 1 under-exposed, and 1 correct exposure.  This is where bracket mode in your camera comes in handy.  It’s also best to shoot HDR’s on a tripod, but not fully mandatory since the program auto-aligns your images very well.  The more images you bracket, the more dynamic range for your final image.

The other way to create an HDR, is to open one image multiple times in RAW, and save copies of it with it’s correct exposure, 1 over, and 1 stop under.  Then merge them in HDR Efex Pro.  It’s a faux HDR but the results can be incredible.  No other HDR program that I’ve used can render faux HDR’s as well as HDR Efex Pro.  Below is a video demonstrating the software, and how to render one image multiple times with Adobe Lightroom 3 and HDR Efex Pro.

(HDR Image from video made from multiple copies of single exposure below, notice how much more detail is visible in snow while still retaining a realistic look.  Click to go bigger)

 (Original Image.  Click to Go Bigger.)

There are several different ways to run the program, but I’ve found Lightroom or Bridge to work best.  In bridge, click “tools-nik software-Merge to HDR Efex Pro” in the top menu after selecting the images you want to merge.  For Lightroom users, simply select all images you want merged, right click on one, and choose “export-Nik Software HDR Efex Pro.  Aperture and Photoshop also incorporate HDR Efex Pro in their export options once installed.   This way you can access and run the program through whichever editor/file manager you prefer.

It will take a minute or so for the images to be processed and the HDR Efex Interface to load the preview. With previous HDR Software, I had to spend time changing all kinds of settings (most of which were hard to understand or remember what the function of each setting was).  And even with as much tweaking as possible, the image still looked pretty rough.  The programs also ran fairly slow.  This is not the case with HDR Efex Pro, which results in much faster processing times for photographers with a far simpler and more easily understandable adjustments.

(Click image to view HDR Efex Pro interface larger)

The interface is incredibly simple to understand right from the start.  The left side displays all the different presets that will automatically change the way the image is rendered.  There are plenty of cool presets in here, and just like lightroom you can create and save your own!  This works great if you want to render a couple different angles of the same shot since you can run them all through the same preset.  The presets load very fast and previews are displayed in the middle.  There are also filters to help you find presets for the specific style of image your working on.  I find that these can help narrow down the selection but for most images I rely on the most realistic settings.

Once you’ve chosen a preset that looks good, navigate to the right panel and play with tone compression.  Typically setting the slider to the left renders more realistic, while a shift to the right gives that artistic HDR style that is very popular right now.

Below that is your global adjustments, here you can modify basic settings as if you were processing a RAW image.  This is where the magic happens since most programs don’t go this in depth.  Global adjustments help make it so that the images won’t need any additional editing after HDR Efex Pro

After you’ve set your global adjustments, you can modify the HDR method.  This is basically the “style” of your image and the amount you want that “style” applied.  It’s easy to create some really cool looks with these settings!

(HDR created with 6 original exposures, black vignette and bright contrast curves added in HDR Efex Pro.  Uses realistic strong preset. Click to Go Bigger.)

(Original median exposure combined with 5 other exposures to create HDR above this image. Click to Go Bigger.)

If you’ve ever used any of Nik Software’s programs before (and I highly recommend you start if you have not), then the selective adjustments will be easy to understand.  If you haven’t, simply click “add control point” and place the point on an area of your image that you would like to modify.  The point will have sliders including one that adjusts the size of the area affected.  Move the setting sliders and the specific area is instantly affected!  It’s really simple, and when used correctly will look completely natural without any weird blend markings.  You can add as many control points as you would like to an image.  This kind of control makes it possible for any user to edit like a professional re-toucher with ease.

Finally, you move on to finishing adjustments.  Here you’ll find options for vignette, levels, and curves.  Everything you could need to even out the toning and contrast of the image, plus vignettes to add some style and depth.

That’s it!  No photoshop needed aside from selective sharpening.  It seems like a lot of settings to work through at first (that's a good thing!), but if you work through them in this order it all makes sense quickly.  If you create a really cool look, save it as a preset, and you can export and share the preset with other photographers, or apply it to your other images!

My Final Opinions:

As an architectural and action sports photographer who often shoots several exposures to create one perfect image, I’ve been looking for a well-built solution to edit quickly and precisely.  Programs in the past have done a good job, but with little control and a lot to be desired.  Before, I would often find myself making my own blends in photoshop since the programs could not render images to my liking.  This is not the case with HDR Efex Pro.

HDR Efex Pro is the answer to all of my complaints about previous HDR software.  It’s incredibly powerful, customizable, and easy to use.  I highly recommend it for any photographer that’s interested in shooting HDR, learning how to shoot HDR’s, or hoping to achieve the HDR look by merging different exposures of a single image.  It’s a tool that I find myself drawn to more and more and continue to discover new uses for.  HDR Efex Pro has dramatically shortened my edit times and given me far more control with it’s selective editing.  I’m now much more comfortable shooting HDR’s for clients because I know that I can render a usable version in a reliable manner.

This is one of the most useful tools for any landscape and architectural photography that I have found.  My only complaints are that the default realistic presets tend to look over-rendered, or under-rendered with no real median.  However, this is a very minor issue since I was able to create my own to my specific specs.

Try it out for yourself with a free 15 day trial, and see if it’s right for what you do.

(HDR image created from 3 original images.  Notice detail in clouds and stone work, also trees are lighter while still retaining a natural real look.  Click to Go Bigger.)

 (Original median exposure combined with 2 others to create above image.  Lacks level of detail seen in final HDR.  Click to Go Bigger.)

Brief Explanation of Dynamic Range: 

Dynamic Range is the latitude with which an image shows detail.  The more detail in the shadows and highlights, the higher the dynamic range and vice-versa.  The human eye can see a range of nearly 24  f-stops of light (though there is some debate over this).  Most DSLR’s fall into the range of 10-12 stops of light, with the best ones coming in at about 14 according to DXO Marks.  This explains the loss of detail in shadows and highlights from what your eye can see.  If you are sitting inside and look outside, your eyes can see all the detail outside, along with everything inside. 

A picture from your camera will render the inside as completely dark, or the outside as blown-out depending on what you expose for.  HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range” meaning that the image showcases far more dynamic range than a typical photo.  This is accomplished by combining several exposures such as the outside and inside exposure to create one image with both areas perfectly exposed.

No longer just a common trend or artistic editing style.  HDR is quickly becoming a very important photography method for showcasing all the detail available on a particular subject.

(HDR image created from 3 original exposures.  Click to Go Bigger.)

 (Original median image combined with other two images to create image above.  Click to Go Bigger.)


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