HDR Software: A Glance at the Troops

Luffenholtz W11 HDR 2

In an earlier post, I discussed the “splendor and misery of HDR.” HDRs require software. Many options exist. I will look at two of the most popular, along with a dark horse candidate. The good news is that HDR software is improving. The latest Photomatix program is a significant improvement over the previous version. And the HDR capabilities of Photoshop CS5 represent a credible leap forward from what existed in CS3. Nonetheless, there are problems. White fringing, sometimes referred to as “ghosting,” constitutes the biggest problem. However, both Photomatix and Photoshop CS5 handle this issue remarkable well. What both struggle with, particularly Photomatix, is color. At this point, HDR software still tends to produce unrealistic and/or garish colors:

The third program I’ll glance at is HDR Photostudio, which is an older program by Unified Color Technologies. It’s since been replaced by HDR Express, but it will provide a reference point for how far we’ve come.

Photomatix. The newest version, in its Photoshop plugin variety, is in many ways quite effective. It’s still tends to produce over-processed images. But it will more consistently compress the dynamic range of an image into something that can be displayed than the other programs out there. Consider the following image:

As you can see, the image is rather murky. It’s still a challenge to get enough contrast while still recovering all the highlights and getting detail in the shadows.

Photoshop CS5. This is a huge improvement over what existed in Photoshop CS3. First of all, after your images have been combined, you have the option to “remove” ghosts: it other words, all those bad artifacts caused by changes from image to image. In the production of HDR, you take multiple images of the same subject taken at different exposures and combine them into one image. But what if something has moved between exposures, such as clouds or the surf of the ocean? Well, that’s not problem at all: just check the “Remove Ghosts” check-box, and they vanish: or at least they come close to vanishing, as in the following HDR composed of multiple exposures of the surf pouring in between these two ridges of rocks:

There were five images used to make this HDR, all with the waves in different places. Somehow, the remove ghost software managed to keep the waves as they appeared in one image and toss out the rest. Rather impressive!

Actually “tone-mapping” the HDR in Photoshop still remains a challenge, but it’s easier than before. More controls, more options, more power. What’s more, when you crank up the shadows or tone down the highlights, you don’t get the halos that show up in HDR Photostudio. But creating an HDR is still easier to do in Photomatix.

HDR Photostudio. Since this is an old program no longer available, I’ll be very brief. This program provides some of the best (although hardly ideal) controls over color, contrast, and shadows and highlights correction, but it comes with one glaring defect: you can’t get ideal results without running into severe halo problems, with white fringing appearing along contrasty borders.

I have found that in practice, the best thing to do is to use two or more of these programs on a single image. They each have strengths and weaknesses. I usually start in Photoshop, then either use the Photomatix plugin or the HDR tone mapping in Photoshop or both programs. Then I fine tune the image in HDR Photostudio, adding contrast, tweaking the color, sharpening if needed, and toning down the noise. I still can’t always get what I want. But it’s better than nothing.

Some examples:

Dynamic Range Compositing. When I really want to make something that is both photo realistic and stunning, I combine two images, one optimized for the light areas of the image, one for the dark areas, combine them as a layered document in Photoshop, and then, as it were, blend them together. It’s a bit more labor intensive, but it’s by far the best method for attaining excellent results. Consider the following image:

This is an HDR version made in Photoshop and Photomatix. Now consider the version created by blending layers:

Crater Lake AU11-PP 1

Better colors, better definition, no artifacts, and more realistic: in short, a better all around image.