HDR Software Comparison and Pre-processing Video Tips

I love the look of HDR images, when processed gingerly. There has been a proliferation in the past few years of Over HDR'd images, mainly because it's all too easy to create over-processed looking images with "one-click" software enhancements. When handled properly, however, HDR images can be bold and vibrant, without feeling over-done. 

I generally don't shoot with a tripod, so I more often capture my HDR images hand-held. This is not the "ideal" way to capture, but with the right setup and post-processing, it can work great. The key is in the initial capture. I shoot 5 frames in rapid succession using the auto-bracketing feature on my Nikon D800. I also have a custom function button programmed to do a bracket burst when I hold it. This means I can hold the FN button and press the shutter once and the camera takes 5 quick frames, each bracketed the way I like it – which is 1 f-stop apart. 

You can also use 3 frames, or up to 7 or even 9 exposures. It really depends on the contrast range of your scene. You can also experiment with 2 f-stop bracket ranges. I would suggest trying several options at your next breathtaking scene and processing each set to see which gives you the results you like best. 

Using the quick burst FN button ensures that there is as little camera movement as possible between frames – which is really important when you shoot hand-held. If you capture with a tripod, you can manually adjust your exposure brackets and all is well. It just takes a few moments longer to do.

When you do capture slight movement between frames, which is inevitable when capturing hand-held, the software has tools to automatically align the separate captures before processing the HDR. Some work pretty well, but I've found that on occasion the software can't make a perfect alignment. In these situations I use Photoshop to make my images line up before I send them off to HDR land. It's a great trick to know if you're an HDR maven!

The following video will show you how to do it step-by-step, but here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Select the separate frames you want to align in Lightroom
  2. In Library mode, choose menu: Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop…
  3. The images become separate layers in one PS document
  4. Select all layers and choose menu: Edit > Auto-Align Layers
  5. After alignment is verified, choose menu: File > Scripts > Export Layers to files…
  6. Load the new aligned files in to your HDR software of choice

Now you have perfectly aligned images, so what about the software? I tested a few popular options to see which gave me the results I was after. It's important to keep in mind that there are a jillion optional ways to process the images with these software packages, so you may very well find a look that you like much better than what I've done. I tried to use each software to achieve what I thought was the best version of this particular image. I tried as many settings combinations as I could (given a practical amount of time) to make sure I was exhausting the possibilities. I also compared ease of use and the overall "Intangible Love Quotient" of each method.

Here are the programs I tested, along with a summary of my experiences with them:

HDRtist (Mac only) ($29)

PROS

  • Cheap and easy to use
  • Can save a re-editable master HDR file or export to standard formats
  • Nice, vivid, results that looks good on many images
  • Auto crops off white edges of auto-aligned images
  • Has built-in image presets and you can save your own
  • Super simple!

CONS

  • Slow to align
  • Doesn't remove ghosting* completely
  • No image zoom (this is particularly odd)
  • Very little control over color of processed image (only a single temperature slider and a saturation slider)
  • Very limited adjustments
  • No Lightroom plugin, but you can easily make an export preset to send images to HDRtist
HDR Efex pro ($149 as part of Nik-Google software suite)

PROS

  • Ability to re-render the image sequence without starting all over again
  • Intuitive controls that make sense, even with a plethora of options
  • Many options for fine tuning your image, including localized, selective adjustments
  • Decent Ghosting removal controls
  • Has image history states
  • Export and Import adjustment presets
  • Has Lightroom and PS plugin or works Standalone

CONS

  • Expensive as you have to buy the whole suite of tools, not just this program.
  • Not as great around transition edges between light and dark areas. Creates halos

Photomatix Pro ($99, although several other options available too – a bit confusing)

PROS

  • Very nice image quality with least amount of edge halos
  • Ability to specifically designate the ghosting areas to fix. Works well.
  • Many options to process your image. Almost any look seems possible
  • Overall most natural looking results – while still giving HDR style
  • Batch processing options
  • Includes Lightroom plugin
  • Align and auto-crop works well

CONS

  • Somewhat confusing interface, but lots of options
  • Single temperature slide for color control, but offers post-process, pre-saving, color fine tuning window 
  • Too many separate floating windows, potentially 6 different ones. Could be unified better.

($29)     

Photoshop built-in HDR Tool

PROS

  • You already have it if you have Photoshop
  • Pass images directly from Lightroom to HDR in Photoshop
  • Easy to use because you have very limited creative options

CONS

  • Hard to understand the limited options
  • Limited processing options (that are useful)
  • Ugly resulting images need a lot of PS love to make palatable

As a final comparison, I processed a single RAW file in Lightroom only to create a pseudo-HDR using some adjustment presets I compiled. The results are not bad, if you aren't expecting a dramatic HDR rendering. The key is to start with one of the under-exposed RAW files as you can pull a decent amount of shadow information UP, but it's difficult to work with over-exposed highlights. I've made my Pseudo HDR Lightroom preset available free if you want to use it. Remember, it works best on under-exposed images. Download it here.

($149 as part of the Nik-Google Collection)

*Ghosting happens when you have a person or object move between your captures, like someone walking through a scene. Oooooooo, scary!

The top set of images compares the final results from each software. The second set of images shows a crop to compare detail in highlights and halos around edges:

What's the bottom line?

I tend to like the results from Photomatix the best, most of the time. The results are the most natural looking with the least amount of edge halo – a telltale sign of HDR over-processing. Once you begin to understand the workflow and quirky interface, everything makes sense and you appreciate the powerful options. HDR Efex Pro has a great interface, but doesn't always give me the clean results I want. There are myriad creative options, however, if you want to really go crazy with your HDR creations. If the software was sold stand-alone, for maybe $99, it would be a good deal. However, since you have to buy the whole Nik collection for $149 (and there is nothing else in there that I personally would use) then it becomes rather expensive. If, on the other hand, you can use the other tools, then it's not a bad deal at all.

HDRtist is really appealing for its simplicity. If it had de-ghosting tools and the ability to zoom in on your working image, it would be pretty cool for the price. I would prefer more processing options, but then it would start to leave the "simple" ballpark and lose that particular quality. 

All of these software packages are available with free demo periods, so I suggest you try them yourself and see which suits your tastes in HDR style. The only option I really don't like is, unfortunately, Photoshop's on-board HDR processing. It truly sucks and I really hope they invest a bit more effort in to developing it. On the other hand, I already have these other fine tools, so maybe they don't need to make yet another plugin obsolete. 

Do you have your own favorite HDR processing software? Tell us about it!