Photomatix Pro 4 vs. Nik HDR Efex Pro vs. Oloneo PhotoEngine Beta
I've written a lot about HDR lately. So have a lot of other people, mainly because it's an exciting time in the world of High Dynamic Range imaging with the release or pending release of several new programs and versions. This week I'll take a look at the tone mapping capabilities of three top contenders.
Photomatix Pro by HDRsoft is the granddaddy of photographic HDR software having been first released back in 2003. Back then, it was fairly crude, but as the market for HDR matured so did the sales of Photomatix and some of that revenue has clearly been plowed back into software development. Each new release of the program has gotten easier to use and more responsive. The latest version focuses more on workflow than its predecessors. Selecting photos to be merged is finally a straightforward proposition. Once selected, you can get a head start on the look you are after by using one of the built-in presets, although most of them still tend to be more on the artistic side than the realistic. Ghost removal logic has been enhanced to better deal with objects in the frame that move between exposures. And Photomatix still features probably the best noise reduction capability of any of the HDR offerings.
HDRsoft Photomatix Pro 4
But Photomatix has plenty of competition these days.
Nik Software's new HDR Efex Pro is an amazing program whose release set a new standard for HDR image software. Anyone familiar with Nik's other plug-ins is probably already familiar with their proprietary U-Point technology for applying selective adjustments but to have that ability while working on 32-bit HDR images is a startlingly useful tool if you're used to working with Photomatix where all adjustments are global. And while Photomatix offers a choice between "Detail Enhancer" and "Tone Compressor" for tone mapping (plus the pseudo HDR "Exposure Fusion" option) HDR Efex Pro offers a staggering 20 different HDR methods. Indeed, there so many choices in HDR Efex Pro that you are unlikely to ever have occasion to try them all. But thankfully, you are unlikely to need to given that you can quickly get in the right ballpark by choosing from the extensive selection of presets helpfully grouped by type. Quite a few of these are just as "artistic" as the Photomatix presets, but enough good ones are provided to make users like me who want to keep things looking realistic feel at home. Both programs let you save your own presets. I find it much easier to get good results from HDR Efex Pro than from Photomatix. Editing in Photomatix tends to require a great deal more trial and error and fiddling around with the sliders, while using Nik's program seems much more straightforward and intuitive. Halos around edges generally aren't a problem in HDR Efex Pro (unless you want halos of course) yet are hard to avoid in Photomatix. And HDR Efex Pro is faster too.
Nik Software HDR Efex Pro
Oloneo PhotoEngine is the new kid on the block coming up fast behind the release of Nik HDR Efex Pro. While still in beta at present, the software is already quite capable, and quite good. It doesn't have the selection of presets that the other two programs do, but its default settings generally provide a very good starting point for realistic HDR images. Simply selecting a series of images and merging them in Oloneo can be an eye opening experience. Even Nik doesn't make realistic images this easy. Controls in Oloneo are grouped into "High Dynamic" (the real tone mapping part of the program) and "Low Dynamic" (the more conventional sliders for exposure, saturation and the like). Oloneo also doesn't have as nearly as many tone mapping methods as Nik does, but this seems to be due to its focus on producing realistic results. It simply doesn't need as many methods. Photomatix tends to produce results that have too much contrast in some parts of the frame but remain washed out in other parts, and Nik sometimes tends towards an almost "plastic" look, but Oloneo results mostly stay very believable with little added effort. I'm very impressed. It works extremely well, and extremely quickly. The latest beta release has an enhanced ghost removal tool which addresses a shortcoming of earlier betas. Oloneo is a standalone application at present and doesn't provide automated interfaces to Lightroom or other programs. Keep in mind that this is just a beta release at present so who knows what will get added by the time it finally ships for real. Oloneo is Windows only at this point but it apparently runs well under Mac Parallels.
By the way, you might be wondering why I haven't mentioned the Merge to HDR Pro feature built into Photoshop. Well, the main reason is that its tone mapping capability isn't worth mentioning. While Photoshop can do a good job of merging a series of images into a 32-bit HDR, it can't do much with the result that doesn't look downright awful. Adobe first introduced HDR to the masses with the release of Photoshop CS2 and they really haven't changed what Photoshop can do with HDR since. In the meantime, Photomatix has had a number of significant updates primarily to make the user interface more polished. And recently, everyone is jumping on the HDR bandwagon. As mentioned above, Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro and the still beta Oloneo PhotoEngine take the quest for realistic HDR images to a whole new level. Third party HDR applications rule the day. If all you've looked at is what Adobe provides in Photoshop, you owe it to yourself to give one of the programs discussed here a try.
The original images merged in the HDR example used here