HDR Software Review Part Two-NIK Software HDR Efex Pro

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Welcome to part two of my series of reviews of HDR software. If you want to read more about why (and how) I’ll be doing these, you can read My Introductory Post. You can also read:

Part one-my review of the Lightroom Enfuse Plugin.

Next on my list of HDR software reviews is NIK Software’s HDR Efex Pro.  HDR Efex Pro was released in October, 2010 and since then it has built a large and enthusiastic following.

Before I get into the review I want to quickly review the sample images I’ll use to run through the various applications. Instead of my driveway shot (which I talked about in my intro post) I’m adding a set of shots from my parking lot at work that I took with my little Canon S95. I’m also adding a series of 7 images from RC Conception, a popular photographer/Photoshop expert that you can follow on Google +. He uploaded some RAW files (I’m using seven of the nine) from a nighttime shot of San Francisco(you can view/download them here) and asked people to process them on their own to see what they could get. I think it will be a good test of the various applications, especially in seeing how long it takes to render the image. Also, RC uses a Nikon, so this way I can’t be accused of bias towards Canon :-) So, here are the two image sets I’ll be using (I’ll just show the San Francisco image after merging):

Set 1-The Fire Truck

2-Stops Under-Exposed

Properly Exposed

2-Stops Over-Exposed

Set 2-The Parking Lot

2-Stops Under-Exposed

Properly Exposed

2-Stops Over-Exposed

Ok, on to the HDR Efex Pro review:

HDR Efex Pro is designed to operate primarily in conjunction with Lightroom, Photoshop, Bridge or Aperture. I believe you can use it as a stand alone app but it will only work with TIFF and JPEG in that setup. Most people probably will use this as a plugin.

To open HDR Efex from Lightroom, select the images you want and then right-click and select “export”. You should see something like the screenshot below:

Once you click the “export” button HDR Efex goes to work. Here’s how long it took to generate the combined image:

  • fire truck set w/align images checked- 42 seconds
  • fire truck set w/align images unchecked- 29 seconds
  • parking lot w/align checked- 28 seconds
  • parking lot w/align images unchecked- 20 seconds
  • San Francisco w/align checked- 1 minute 10 seconds
  • San Francisco w/align unchecked- 46 seconds
Once the file is generated (based on the settings you select) You are presented with this screen:
As you can see in the above image (you can click on it for a larger version) HDR Efex Pro presents you with an “HDR” file in the “Default” style. Before we get into all the adjustments available to you I want to show you what the settings screens look like:
The Settings dialog (which you access by clicking the “settings” button on the lower left of the screen) allows you to configure many of the functions to your own liking. Let’s go through them quickly. I won’t show every screen but I’ll describe the options below:
  • Interface Settings- this allows you to set up the default language, preview mode, background color and default zoom state when the application is opened.
  • Alignment & Ghost Reduction-HDR Efex Pro can automatically align your images. As in other HDR applications, using a sturdy tripod should eliminate the need for alignment. Ghost reduction is used to remove the artifacts of movement as you are shooting your bracketed images. Things like people, animals, and the effects of wind can all create “ghosts” in the image. HDR Efex Pro offers a couple different methods of removing ghosting, and the effectiveness of each will probably depend on the situation. All the methods are automatic, however, and don’t allow for any type of selective ghost removal.
  • Software Update Settings- This determines the interval that HDR Efex Pro checks for any product updates
  • Image Output Settings- You can choose to save the completed file as either JPG or TIFF. I choose 16 bit TIFF for the most flexibility in any additional post processing
  • Stacking- You can choose to automatically re-import the image into Lightroom as well as add the image to the existing image stack, if you have one
Ok, you’ve generated the initial image that appears on the main screen. The software presents you with a lot of choices at this point. HDR Efex Pro come with a number of “factory presets” that will all present your image in a slightly differnt manner. Here is a screenshot of the left side of the main screen:
Working from top to bottom you can see that you have a few different choices in showing the before and after images. The default is to show the “after” but you can choose to view a side-by-side or an image that has a moveable divider, showing the difference between the two images. Below that there are a whole bunch of presets. The presets are organized by the general “style” that is applied to the image, like “Realistic”, “Artistic”, “Landscape”, “Surreal”, and “Architecture”. Under each of these there are a number of alternatives. You’ll also notice that there is a “Favorites” heading. That is where you can add your particular favorite presets so you don’t have to scroll through everything to find the few that you use all of the time. You can also tweak any of these presets to create a “Custom” preset that can be stored under the “Custom” heading.
On the right side of the screen you will find all of the adjustment sliders:

This is where all of the adjusting and tweaking of the images takes place. Based on the preset you select, the sliders will reflect the adjustments to the image. You have a lot of control over the processing, basically unlimited options. In the time that I have used HDR Efex Pro I have found that the initial presets offer more than enough options for all but the most ardent “tweaker”.
A neat feature that NIK Software emphasizes is the ability to locally adjust specific areas of an image using something they call “Control Points”. The screenshot below shows an example of this:
In the above example I’ve added a single control point and increased the exposure (so much so that the color is completely washed out). You can adjust many aspects including contrast,  saturation,exposure, whites, blacks and more. The adjustment(s) apply to only the area covered by the particular control point. The size of the control point (always circular in shape) can be enlarged or reduced. You can add multiple control points to an image. If you look at the bottom of the panel (below the Control Point) you will also see that you can add Vignttes and adjust the levels.
Here is a link to the HDR Efex Pro Quickstart Manual if you want to read more about making adjustments.
Once you’re finished making your adjustments, click “Save” (on the lower right) and your image is saved in the format you indicated in the settings.

The Results

Let’s see how the  images turned out. In all cases I’ll be comparing the “properly exposed” image (shown 1st-the one without any exposure compensation) to the initial output (default) image from the software.

Fire Truck:

Base:

HDR Efex:

Analysis: The default setting in HDR Efex Pro did a good job of bringing out the hidden detail in the image. The roof of the shed really came to life (especially in the metal), as did the interior of the engine compartment. The undercarriage of the truck is also more detailed. Overall, the result is fairly natural.

Parking Lot:

Base:

 

HDR Efex:

Analysis: The 1st thing I noticed in comparing the “after” image is the detail in the clouds and sky compared to the base image. Color saturation is nice and nothing seems blown out or under-exposed.

San Francisco:

Base:

HDR Efex:

Analysis: Once again, the “default” setting on HDR Efex Pro did a good job. I like how the detail in the rooftops came out. The sky-glow is evident as well. The image seems a little too “light” to me so I might reduce that a bit.

Conclusion

HDR Efex Pro is a powerful and easy to use piece of software. There are an almost unlimited amount of possibilities but the design and layout of the software allows the user to get good results without having to learn how every button and slider works. In the short amount of time that I have used it, I have really enjoyed it. Producing a natural looking HDR image is very easy to do. If you want to go over the top and generate a more artistic/grungy/surreal interpretation, you can play to your heart’s content. Here’s a quick alternative image I created by using one of the “Artistic” presets. It took me all of 10 seconds to produce:

As you can see, the image has a definite “Grunge” look to it. The details are exaggerated and the saturation is increased. For the subject, I could see myself using this type of image, even though it isn’t a “realistic” representation.

The positives of HDR Efex Pro:

  • Smooth integration with Lightroom.
  • Fast processing of images, no waiting required!
  • Ability to selectively edit the image-a nice bonus to reduce additional editing
  • Logical control layout with large number of useful presets.
The negative:
  • No manual removal of “ghosting” artifacts.
That’s honestly the only negative I can find about HDR Efex Pro at this point.  Everything else seems very intuitive and easy to use. I can see why it has taken a significant bite out of the HDR software market. The price of $99 seems reasonable for what you get.
You can download a free 15 day trial of the software HERE.
The bottom line is that I am going to have to strongly consider this application when it comes down to the final decision.
Let’s see how it stands up to the other contenders! Next up is Oleano.
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