HDR Software Comparison

I’ve heard and read so much about HDR photography that I wanted to do a quick comparison of the leading software packages – Adobe Photoshop CS4 HDR component, Photomatix Pro 4, and Nik Software HDR Efex Pro.

The image below is my favorite from the three software packages, expressing a light-filled and colorfully fun place, inviting the viewer to come and sit and have a cooling drink with friends.  Read on to see which software package was used to create this image and where it was taken.

Processed in Nik HDR Efex Pro, Default, with 50% Compression, curve adjustment, control points on windows to lower exposure, add structure.
“Bode’s General Store”

For those unfamiliar with High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, it is a set of techniques that allow an image to portray a greater range of luminance between its lightest and darkest areas than current standard digital imaging techniques. HDR images can more accurately represent the range of light and shadow levels that the human eye can perceive in real scenes, ranging from direct sunlight to faint starlight.  For reference, a digital camera can record a range of about 5 exposure stops in one scene, while the human eye perceives about 11 exposure stops.

The scene I chose for this comparison was this colorful scene inside Bode’s General Store in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  It contains a range of luminance too great for the camera to record.  It includes light coming in through two walls of windows, and the dark interior shadows beneath the tables.

  • If I set my camera to expose for the window light, the interior shadows are black with no detail.
  • If I set my camera to expose for the interior shadows, the windows are white with no detail.
  • Since I wanted to create a single image with detail in both light and dark areas of the scene, I knew I had to take multiple exposures over a range and combine the images using HDR software.

Below are the three exposures I took of this scene using ISO 100, aperture f/16, at shutter speeds of 1/3 second, 1.3 seconds, and 5 seconds.

A Comparison of the Results

Adobe Photoshop CS4 HDR

Editted in Photoshop CS4 HDR, with additional edits in Lightroom
I found this software to be the most difficult to work with.  Instructions on controls were unclear.  The image coming out was muddy, and required additional processing in Lightroom to bring back color and contrast.  I was still not happy with the results.

Photomatix Pro

Processed in Photomatix Pro 4
To be fair, I only ran this software once, and I need to study it more.  However, I was surprised at how easily it produced a nicely balanced image on the first try.  I did not need make many adjustments.  This is probably the most “realistic” looking interpretation.

Nik HDR Efex Pro

(See image at top of this post.) I liked this software the best for now, mostly because of the understandable interface and the great results.  It also has the greatest control with the ability to edit localized areas of the image using Nik’s control point technology.  I took it a little beyond “realistic” for a more artistic effect.

Conclusion

For now, I recommend Nik HDR Efex Pro, with Photomatix Pro a close second. It may be worth more study to get good with Photomatix Pro. I would forget about Adobe Photoshop CS4’s HDR.  (I have not tried Adobe Photoshop CS5’s HDR, but have read that it’s not that much better than CS4.)

Next time you are in Abiquiu, New Mexico, be sure to visit the 110 year old landmark, Bode’s General Store, and enjoy this colorful place for yourself!

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3 thoughts on “HDR Software Comparison”

  1. Your images are stunning!! When I first discovered them, I said “Who in the world is this guy?” While reading your copy, I found that you belong to Mayslake NSPC. So do I as a Corresponding Member. Congrats on your WONDERFUL work!! When I need inspiration, I know exactly where I can find just that! Thanks!

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  2. I agree the user interface for Nik HDR Pro is very easy to use and understand. Photomatix Pro 4.0 is a little bit better than the 3.0 version but still not as easy or realistic.

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