HDR Efex Pro 2 Released

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I should have known this was going to happen. It always does as soon as I buy software, a new version is released :-) Well, today Nik Software has announced the release of HDR Efex Pro 2.

The good news is that since I purchased the software within the last 30 days, I can (and so can you0 upgrade for free. If its been more than 30 days, Nik is offering the software at a reduced upgrade price of $49.00

I plan on downloading the upgrade today and trying it out so I’ll post my impressions once I’ve had a chance to work with it a bit.

HDR Software Review Update And Recommendations

It’s been more than a few weeks since my last post on my HDR software review and I apologize for the delay.  But, as sometimes happens, life got in the way and I was caught up in a lot of other activities (some fun, some not so fun). Things seem to have calmed down  bit and I hope they will remain that way.

Even with the extra demands on my time I have managed to continue my evaluation of the HDR software, particularly Oleano, Photomatix and SNS-HDR. I have run my test images through these three applications and compared the same factors that I did in my Enfuse Lightroom Plugin review as well as my HDR Efex Pro review. I wanted to give you a summary of my findings as well as let you know what I’ve decided to use for my HDR processing moving forward.

Not One But Many

As I sit here today, my feeling is that I will probably end up using 2 to 3 tools to process my HDR images based on the situation. In my research on HDR imaging and processing it appears that there is no one perfect solution, but rather a combination of tools to address different situations. Here’s my summary of the various applications:

HDR Specific Software:

  1. Enfuse Lightroom Plugin (Will Use): This is such an easy to use plugin, at such a low cost, that everyone should have this at their disposal. It won’t give you the wild/edge-of-the-envelope HDR output but it does a great job of blending multiple images to give a realistic final product. If all you want is to do some simple bracketed shots and combine them to get some additional detail, this is something that you MUST have!
  2. HDR Efex Pro(Will Use): Nik Software has done a great job with this HDR software. It is easy to use and the output can cover a wide range of styles. The “control point” feature is really neat (and useful) and probably will eliminate the need(in many cases) for any additional processing in something like Photoshop.
  3. Photomatix(Will Use): This is the “800 pound Gorilla” of the HDR world, and for good reason. Photomatix offers a lot of options, is fast enough and arguably does the best job of removing “ghosts” from the image through the availability of a manual override.
  4. Oloneo: I enjoyed using this software but the version that includes the Lightroom plugin is $150 (on sale at $119 until July 15, 2012). It is fairly quick and offers a lot of options but in the end I personally didn’t find anything so compelling that I just had to buy it. If you are looking for a HDR app and don’t need/want the Lightroom functionality, their HDR Engine might be worthwhile and it’s only $59!
  5. SNS-HDR: I was impressed with this application but I found it fairly slow in the processing of the images. Maybe it was just my computer because others have said that it was fast enough. The price is right, at around $49 for the Home version. I have put this on my “to be revisited” list and will try it again in about 6 months.

Image Enhancement Software:

Once the HDR Image is created there is sometimes additional processing required. For that I plan on using a few different tools. I went ahead and took advantage of Nik Software’s July 4th sale and picked up their “Compete Collection” which includes HDR Efex Pro plus 5 other tools. The price was discounted $75 to $224 for the Lightroom compatible setup. Nik has received a lot of positive reviews and I have several friends who are big proponents of their tools. Here’s what I see myself using at this point:

  1. Color Efex Pro: Quite a few photographer friends have raved about this piece of software from Nik Software. It is similar to Topaz Adjust in that it offers a set of filters that can be applied to images.
  2. Viveza: This is another Nik Software product that offers selective photo adjustment. Like Color Efex, it has received very good reviews from a number of photographers.
  3. Dfine: This is Nik’s noise removal software and I plan on using it on many images.
  4. Sharpener Pro: This is Nik’s sharpening software. Lightroom does a pretty good job but this might be a nice tool to have.
  5. Topaz Adjust: I have had this since last Fall and really enjoy the various adjustments/filters that can be applied to images.
  6. Paintshop Pro: I purchased this back in the Fall and have used it a fair amount. My thinking is that in the future, it might not get used as much, especially since I picked up Nik’s suite of tools.

My Plans From This Point Forward

Now that I have the Nik Software set I will probably focus on them for the next month or so. I have quite a few images from our trip last Fall to Death Valley and Zion that I want to revisit and see how I can improve them. I also have a number of images from this year that I definitely need to spend some time on. Nik has a lot of resources for learning how to use their various tools.

After I have spent some time with the Nik products I plan on purchasing Photomatix as an alternative HDR option. I think it will offer some different functionality, especially if I run across “ghosting” in the images. I am really enjoying shooting HDR images and I think it is a valid technique when used properly.

I’m hoping to get a review of some of the Nik plugins posted in the next couple of months so stay tuned for that.

Help Your Fellow Photographers

If any of you have been using any of the Nik Software products and have some favorite settings, please share them with the rest of us. You can leave your tips/ suggestions in the Comments for this post.

Thanks, and Happy Shooting!

HDR Photograph: Pipe Corner Of The South

Happy 4th of July!

As I hinted at in yesterday’s post, I went ahead and purchased the “Complete Collection” from Nik Software. Here’s my first image HDR photograph post-processed using the package, specifically HDR Efex Pro:

Pipe Corner of The South

I took this photo on last Saturday’s Google+ 1st anniversary Atlanta photowalk. There were about 40 of us wandering around the city taking photographs. We came upon this sign and I thought it would make a good HDR. I took 3 bracketed images (-2, 0, +2) and combined them in HDR Efex Pro. Since I’m brand new to using the software, I didn’t try to get too fancy with it and instead used a more “natural” setting. I think it came out pretty well.

I plan on spending some time over the next few days trying out different HDR settings as well as familiarizing myself with all the other plugins in the package, including the much-praised Color Efex & Silver Efex Pro. I plan on putting together a little more comprehensive review of the plugins once I am familiar with them.

I am also finishing up my post that will “finalize” my HDR software review series. Look for that in the next couple of days.

PS If any of you have some preferred settings that work well for you with the various Nik plugins, feel free to share them with others in the comments!

 

Deal Alert: Nik Software July 4th Sale

If you are interested in the various software tools from Nik Software you might want to take advantage of their  Fourth of July sale on the “Complete Collection” which includes all of Nik Software’s plug-in software titles for Aperture™ or Lightroom® including:

  • Dfine® 2.0
  • Viveza® 2
  • HDR Efex Pro™ 2
  • Color Efex Pro™ 4 Complete Editon
  • Silver Efex Pro™ 2
  • Sharpener Pro™ 3.0
All of these plugins, in one package, are being offered at a very-tempting price. The package for Lightroom and Aperture is $75 off and the “Ultimate” version (for Photoshop as well as Lightroom and Aperture) is $150 off!
If you have been thinking about purchasing 2-3 (or more) of their plugins, the complete collection is the way to go as it gives you all six for less than the price of three! Just click on the banner below to be taken to Nik’s main page where you can then go to their store to see the special pricing. Or, you can use the following coupon code when you purchase:
“marksphotography”
Either way don’t delay, as the sale is for 5 days only, beginning on July 4th, 2012.

Nik Software

I am definitely going to take advantage of this deal as I’ve been considering getting a couple of their products myself.

HDR Software Review Part Two-NIK Software HDR Efex Pro

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.

Thoughts On HDR Photography And My Upcoming HDR Software Comparison

When I got back into photography last year after a fairly long absence from it I immediately noticed that many photographers were using a technique called HDR. I was intrigued by some of the images that HDR (high dynamic range) photography could produce but I was also turned of by many of the images that HDR photography produces. I’m sure many of you have seen examples of what I’m talking about. If not, just do a search for “bad HDR” on Google and you’ll find many examples like this. Seeing these over-saturated images with halos and ghosting all over the place was enough to make me say “thanks, but no thanks” to HDR at that point in time. I figured that I had enough to learn about making good photos that adding something like HDR to the mix would be a little too much.

A New Perspective on HDR

In the last year I have started to rethink my initial resistance to HDR photography. I have seen many examples of wonderful images, like this:

The Taj Mahal-Image by Trey Ratcliff http://www.stuckincustoms.com/hdr/

The Taj Mahal-Image by Trey Ratcliff http://www.stuckincustoms.com/hdr/

The above image may be one of the most-viewed HDR images ever. It was made by Trey Ratcliff, a very (if not the most) popular HDR photographers out there today.

The image shows what good HDR can do, which is bring out details in both the shadows and highlights. It also shows how the HDR process can create an image that has vivid colors (without being over-the-top). Trey has developed a fairly specific process to create his images, and as you can see, the results can be quite good.

I’m now at a point in my photography where I feel slightly confident in my ability to compose and capture decent images at least part of the time. I’ve also decided that I’d like to be able to produce images that get noticed like Trey’s do. :-)

So, I’ve decided to investigate the options in HDR software. I’m brand new to HDR but I figure I might as well dive right in and see what it’s all about. I’ve decided to demo a few different HDR software products and compare the results on a couple of different images that I’ve shot using the auto-bracket feature on my Canon T3i.

Software I’m Considering

I know there are a lot of HDR applications out there but I can’t try them all. In my research there were a couple of products that  a lot of people use. There are also quite a few that seem to fly “under the radar” but look interesting. I ended up picking two of the most popular applications along with a couple of others that get good reviews but are less used. I also came across an interesting alternative from Poland that I’ll be testing. All in all I think the 5 applications that I’ll be trying should offer a fair comparison of what is available:

  1. Photomatix-Probably the most popular HDR software out there. Photomatix has been around a long time and has a large, enthusiastic, user base. The software comes in and “essential” and “Pro” version. I’ll look at the Pro version (priced at $99) since it offers the most options as well as a Lightroom plugin.
  2. HDR Efex Pro-Nik Software’s entry into the HDR processing battle. It has quickly gained a loyal user base. It is designed to be used as a plugin for Lightroom & Photoshop. The cost is $99 but they offer a free 15 day trial.
  3. Oloneo PhotoEngine-A very complete RAW processing, HDR and noise reduction software package, PhotoEngine is also the most expensive option I’ll be trying (at $149). In my research it seems to get good reviews so I’ll be interested to see how it performs. They also make a more basic HDR only application, called HDRengine, that is $59.
  4. Enfuse LR Plugin-This is a “donationware” plugin for Lightroom based on the open-source Enfuse code. It isn’t technically an HDR application, but it does quickly combine multiple images to create a wider dynamic range final image. It is a low-cost option that many people seem to like.
  5. SNS-HDR-This is a bit of a wild-card for me. I discovered it while looking for HDR applications but it seems to be a solid product. SNS is developed & supported by a single individual from Poland (as far as I can tell) so it hasn’t received much press here but the interest it has received has been very positive. They have a “lite” version that is freeware (with limited functionality) but the full version of the software (for home use) is reasonably priced at 30 Euros (about $50). I’m going to take a flyer on this and see how it performs.

The Process

My plan is to run a couple of 3 exposure images through each application and compare the results. Since each product is different I won’t be able to do a pure “apples to apples” comparison but I think I can get close. I plan on using as neutral/natural a setting as possible for the comparison. My aim is to determine how easy each application is to use to create a natural looking final image. From that point I may experiment a bit to see what kind of image I can get that is more artistic/surreal/over-the-top. Based on what I find in these tests I’ll move forward with one or more of these applications for my own personal use.

Now I need to find some appropriate bracketed images to test with the different software packages. I haven’t done a lot of these types of shots but I think I have some that should give a decent test.

The first set is from a place North of Atlanta called “Old Car City” which is full of, you guessed it, old cars in relative states of decay. It’s a popular spot for photographers. We visited there in April and I shot a bunch of bracketed images. The set I picked are of an old fire truck that is under a shed. I focused on the grill of the truck but there was some detail in the shed roof that I wanted to get. Here are the “base” images:

Old Fire Truck 2-stops Under-Exposed

Old Fire Truck Properly Exposed

Old Fire Truck 2-stops Over-Exposed

The next set is from a very special place to us, our driveway. I took these images in the late afternoon as the sun was going down behind some clouds. The sky was bright but there was some detail in the shadows that was missing:

Driveway 2-stops Under-Exposed

Driveway No Exposure Compensation

Driveway 2-stops Over-Exposed

I will probably review the 5 different applications over a span of 2 or three posts. I’ll try and document the steps I use with an appropriate amount of screenshots. My major criteria in selecting the “winner” will be ease of use. I will also consider each application’s ability to go beyond the basics and allow the user to perform advanced edits on the images.

Look for the first review post early next week. If any of you have some “better” bracketed images (Canon RAW format) that would work in my test let me know and I’ll see about getting them from you to use. Email me at mark [at] marksphotographyspot [dot] com” target=”_blank”>mark [at] marksphotographyspot [dot] com