For several years I have collected RAW-files for HDR-images, but until this summer, I have never digged into the process of producing HDR images. This summer I decided to try out and test various applications; Nic/Google HDR Efex Pro 2, Photoshops HDR Merge tool and Lightrooms own HDR Merge. In addition, I have tried the On1 HDR Filter on a single image.
There are many ways to HDR
Depending on your tool, Lightroom have several ways to activate the tools. After you select the images in the grid-view, you either go to the File menu or right click one of the images.
Behind the scene, Lightroom generates tif/jpg’s for all the HDR Merging tools – and it generates the files from your development settings. So an important step is to apply clarity, sharpening and film simulation before the plugins/tools are activated. When the tools are active, Lightroom starts a wait task. And when the HDR merge task is done, Lightroom adds the result to the samme folder as the original RAW-files including rating and color markings. In HDR Efex, On1 and Photoshop, you simply presses ‘Save’ when you are done with your HDR customizations, and the applications terminates.
So the hardest part is to find the right way to the menu, where you launches the tool.
3 exposures as starting point
My starting point has been a high contrast sunset scene from this winter. I shot 3 exposures in the bracketing drive mode on my X-T2 with exposures – 2EV , 0EV and +2EV from the ‘standard’ matrix light metering.
I must confess I have not spend hours on tweaking every option to get the optimal result. But I have spend some time to try to get a neutral outcome, that doesn’t scream ‘HDR’. As an alternative to the HDR images, I have developed a single image in Lightroom. Below is the outcomes
Googles HDR Efex Pro 2 (former Nic Software) is very versatile, but the landscape templates are too aggressive for this kind of pictures. I used a neutral template to get a more realistic look. Some ghosting around the belfry appears, but mostly on HDR on a single image.
Photoshop HDR Merge was the worst HDR merging tool for this scene. The dynamic range is fine, but the colors are artificial and off.
Lightrooms HDR Merge tool does a decent job. There is very few options in the tool, but it is possible to tweak the resulting DNG-file. But using the Clarity-slider is a pittfall; it generates ghosting when adding clarity to the image.
On1 offers a HDR filter in the efx module on a single image. But it showed severe halos along the dark edges. But the tonality and colors was pleasing. I hope they fix the ghosting issues in future updates of the application.
The Dynamic Range of the RAF-files is great. Post processing is harder than just merging via a HDR-tool, but you can obtain similar results. The cost is spending quite some time in the Development-module of Lightroom…
I must emphasize, that I’m a HDR newcomer. So especially for HDR Efex, there are some options I did not test. But I tried to alter the most common settings to get a result, that was ok.
The test showed that it is very easy to jump into HDR, and Lightroom integrates very well with all the tested tools. I will test the tools later with less contrasty images. But this comparison was a good for me to find the candidates.
In the following I will comment on the different tools.
Google HDR Efex Pro 2
The HDR Efex Pro 2 is the most sophisticated tool of the ones I have tried.
- On startup, it offers auto alignment of the photos, you can fine tune the amount of deghosting the result, and as the only tool, you can specify the exposure range, it should use for composing the HDR image.
- After the merge, you can select from a wide range of presets. The presets ‘just’ sets the different options; HDR parameters (called Tone Compression), Basic adjustments like highlight, shadow, contrast and exposure (called Tonality), Color adjustment
- After the presets, you can fine tune the level of HDR, the basic adjustments and so on.
- A ‘Finishing section’ offers digital graduated filters, vignetting and tone curve adjustment.
- During the adjustment and fine tuning process, you have a histogram available in the right buttom of the console.
- Finally you press ‘Save’, and the HDR image is generated
- Lightroom imports the image (with a ‘_HDR’ postfix applied to the file name) as a TIFF-file.
HDR Efex Pro 2 has many nice features, and can generate many different looks. My only complaint is a vague halo around the belfry and something best described as color fringing at the edges of the dark poles.
Photoshop CC HDR Merge
Photoshop offers advanced settings for the HDR Merge as well. I used the ‘Photo Realistic’ preset.
- It offers ghost reduction (not relevant for this scenario)
- You can configure the HDR Merge algorithm
- It offers options corresponding to Lightrooms Basic adjustments and Tone Curves.
- The result is merged into a TIFF-file, which is imported in the same folder as the images and the name is equal to the first file.
The Photoshop HDR Merge disappointed me when it came to color rendering. Again, I’m a beginner and there are many parameters to adjust, so it should be easy to generate a better result. But the colors in the ‘Photo realistic’ presets are very artificial.
Lightroom HDR Merge
The HDR merge in Lightroom is very limitied when it comes to options.
- You can ask for auto alignment
- You can let Lightroom set basic adjustments in the resulting DNG-file, or – if unchecked – no adjustments are made, and you end up with a flat image
- You can control the amount of deghosting
- When you press ‘Merge’, the result is saved as a DNG-file
Lightroom does a decent job. Shadows are recovered very pleasing, and the colors are natural – compared to the originals. My only complaint is a very visible halo around the belfry.
Exploiting the Dynamic Range in Lightrooms Development-module
As an alternative to HDR tools, I tried to tweak the most out of one exposure as possible. I was able to recover very shallow areas and control the sky with to opposite graduated filters. If I should make a perfect version, I should also paint the belfry with the ‘brush’-tool to recover a bit of the shadow in the top of it. I find the dynamic range of the X-TransIII sensor simply amazing!