These days capabilities of photo-processing software are such that any resonably exposed shot can be turned into a brilliant one in post. Especially if you shoot in RAW, which gives you an ability to manipulate the entire data from your camera’s sensor. Nonetheless, the dynamic range that the sensor can capture in one shot is rarely able to cover everything from the darkest to the brightest bits of your composition. While your focal point may be exposed correctly, the sky beyond it may come out too white or a foreground shadow may come out too dark. You may be able to shift the exposure in post, reduce highlight clipping, recover some detail in shadows, but the overall dynamic range will remain constrained by your sensor’s abilities.
HDR processing is an effective way of overcoming this limitation. You take a bracketed set of exposures, telling you camera’s sensor to shift the range between exposures. Many mid-range cameras have automated bracketing functions, but you could manipulate exposure compensation controls manually if needed. You end up with 3, or 5, or even 7 different exposures of the same scene that you can then merge into a single file with significantly higher dynamic range than that of a single exposure. When processed, that resulting HDR file effectively retains the best-exposed pixels from each of its underlying exposures.
Photomatix Pro is a well-established and one of the best solutions on the market for HDR processing. It marries a relatively simple workflow with a wealth of options.
Photomatix can work as a standalone application or as a plugin to Lightroom. The workflow is very similar in both cases.
A number of preprocessing options is available when loading the bracketed files. Below is the plugin version of the screen, but standalone is not much different.
Although for best results you should use tripod and minimize possibility of camera movement between your HDR exposures, the algorithms are so advanced nowadays, that a hand-held bracketed set can produce excellent results (shoot in “burst” mode, of course). “Align Images” section of the settings screen allows you to specify how the shots were taken.
If “Show options to remove ghosts” is checked, there will be an intermediate subsequent screen allowing you to manage ghost removal in either automatic or manual fashion. I strongly recommend keeping this option checked and reviewing that screen, even if you do not expect any ghosting – you may be surprised.
“Reduce noise” and “Reduce chromatic aberrations” are self-explanatory. I recommend always leaving them checked.
Standalone version of the app does not offer any options for automatic re-importing of the processed image – you will simply save it as you would save any file in your system. Instead, standalone version offers an additional option of setting the appropriate white balance, with a pop-up preview screen. Lightroom plugin version assumes white balance to be set in Lightroom.
After the preprocessing options are set, the incoming files are merged into HDR which then opens up in the main work area screen.
There are 4 main panels here: Preview, Presets, Histogram, and Adjustments.
At the top of the Adjustments panel you can choose the process for HDR merge (Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion) and the method, which defines the specific merge algorithm within a process. In total, there are 9 different algorithms, each of which will produce a different result from your bracketed set – very powerful!
The options are specific to a selected method and will change with each change of a method. Some methods have comparatively few adjustment options, which may appear to be a relative limitation. The very neat thing is that hovering over each option gives you a definition of what it does at the bottom of the panel. (I was apparently hovering over Smooth Highlights option when I took the above screenshot.)
The preview can be dynamic in respect to dragging sliders or updated once you release the slider (as set in Preferences). Or you can click anywhere on a slider to adjust its value.
Histogram and Presets panels are self-explanatory, but note that creation of new presets (or deletion of unwanted ones) happens from the Preset drop-down on the Adjustments panel rather than in Presets panel. Built-in presets cover all different processes and methods and handily provide a thumbnail preview of what the image will look like if applied. As with presets everywhere, they are handy shortcuts but you may need to manipulate settings after applying a preset. When you load a new file, either the last processed adjustment settings are applied to it automatically or the default ones (as set in Preferences).
Once you are happy with your adjustments, you have to click on “Apply” (in standalone version) or “Save and Re-Import” (in the plugin version) to commit your changes. If using the plugin, at that point you will be returned to Lightroom where a newly imported HDR .tif will be waiting for your to put additional desired touches on.
If using the standalone version, you can apply additional finishing touches which are similar to tone and sharpening adjustments in Lightroom. You will need to explicitly “Save Final Image” before exiting.
Here is the base exposure of a bracketed set that I took last year while in Utrecht, Netherlands.
I can improve it without HDR, using only Lightroom tone adjustments.
If I bring it into Photomatix Pro, along with its underexposed (-2EV) and overexposed (+2EV) siblings, and then use my favorite preset and further adjustments, I arrive at a much richer result.
You can even bring a single RAW file into Photomatix Pro and use Exposure Fusion algorithms to increase its dynamic range. I have experimented with that in the past (see this post), although I currently prefer other tools when I do not have a bracketed set. If your workflow consists of generating multiple ideas of what your final image may look like – and blending those ideas in Photoshop – you may want to consider creating one such idea using Photomatix even for non-bracketed exposures.
One note of caution: Because Lightroom converts RAW files into .tif when exporting to Photomatix, and Exposure Fusion can only operate on RAW files, you have to use stand-alone version of the application to load single files. That means you cannot remove chromatic aberration in Lightroom prior to loading that file. My experience suggests that when a single exposure has significant chromatic aberration, Photomatix fails to deal with it and might even exaggerate it upon final merge.
As with any application you might use, there are small things and design decisions that are not perfect in Photomatix Pro. Thankfully, they are fairly minimal.
Chromatic aberration as mentioned above is probably the biggest issue. Occasionally, Photomatix does not deal gracefully with it even for bracketed sets. But for sets, you can remove aberration in Lightroom prior to exporting to Photomatix. And hopefully, you will not be faced with chromatic aberration in every composition you shoot.
While the workflow is fairly linear, the interface is not the cleanest. There are pop-up windows and panels that behave in non-uniform way and it takes time to get comfortable with their availability and interaction. Most confusingly, there is a Workflow Shortcuts panel that never figures in the Lightroom plugin workflow but nonetheless shows up on the screen during file load and re-importing.
Going all the way back to beginning of your processing – which may be especially handy if you want to play with white balance in standalone mode – seems to be possible only in the form of discarding your work and re-loading your bracketed set. There is actually a Re-do With Other Settings button on the Workflow Shortcuts panel, but I am yet to encounter a situation when it is enabled and usable.
In standalone mode, if you do not click “Apply” after making your adjustments and instead click “x” to close the Preview, it is not a close-and-save situation. You will see Workflow Shortcuts panel and a very underexposed version of your merged image. Saving a final image at this point will save that very underexposed version. In this situation, you need to click “Tone Map / Fuse” to get back to the main work area from where you can correctly do “Apply”.
Other HDR considerations
Scenes with a lot of movement are generally not suited to HDR as significant ghosting will occur when merging exposures. Photomatix may lull you into thinking that you can remove most of the ghosting when loading files, but the more aggressive you are during de-ghosting the more you reduce the available range (because de-ghosting effectively discards without merging pixels of all exposures except the base one in areas that are marked for de-ghosting – or in the entire file if you choose automatic de-ghosting).
On a similar vector, HDR is definitely not suited to portrait photography. Because all adjustments are applied globally, skin tones will be affected in a way that will require significant masking and retouching in other programs. Better not even bring Photomatix into a portraiture workflow.
Lightroom implemented a Merge to HDR functionality sometime ago. With minimal options, it allows you to merge your bracketed exposures into a .dng file that you can then process as you would any other RAW file in Lightroom. Once you start manipulating the tone sliders on the combined file, you will be able to discern that they cover a higher dynamic range than the respective base image. You do not get the variety of merging algorithms or the targeted adjustments. In most quarters, Lightroom HDR Merge is not considered a true alternative for HDR processing – I am mentioning it here specifically because 90% of my workflow is in Lightroom, but not HDR.
EasyHDR is a comprehensive tool, with powerful features and clean interface. Three methods are available for HDR generation, but I cannot discern a difference between the three, which may be the tool’s biggest limitation.
Trey Ratcliff, a leading HDR photographer who had long enthusiastically recommended Photomatix Pro, unveiled his own product, Aurora HDR, in 2015. That is only available for Mac platform which puts it outside of my scope of immediate interest. If you are a Mac user, feel free to consider it.
Photomatix Pro full version, which includes the stand-alone app and the Lightroom plugin, costs $99, which is in the mid-range for similar tools. If you go through this link and use coupon code “BURLAKI”, you get 15% discount.
Photomatix Pro is powerful and not too complex to use. If you are into HDR, you should strongly consider having it in your toolkit.