Revisiting HDR - Returning to Photomatix Pro

 3 shot burst +-1 ⅔ EV processed in Photomatix Pro and finalized in Lightroom

3 shot burst +-1 ⅔ EV processed in Photomatix Pro and finalized in Lightroom

Hey gang.  It's been a couple of years since the boom time of HDR.  You remember those days, lots of electric, oversaturated, haloed images that made your teeth hurt and your eyes burn?  Yeah I thought so.  Fortunately, those days are mostly past, and it might be time to revisit the entire HDR idea, this time with some history under our belts and a better understanding of what we want to achieve.

What's HDR Again?

First off, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and the intent was to create an image with a wider dynamic range than a single image could deliver.  Back in the day, HDR software was not that good, and went nuclear very quickly.  It also required us to take a great many images, sometimes 7 or more images of the same scene, necessitating a tripod and a reasonable amount of preparation.

Since those days, HDR software has gotten better, and so have camera sensors.  It's not unusual to find a current camera sensor with 12 stops or more native dynamic range.  When HDR first arrived on the scene we were working, on average with about 6 stops of dynamic range and HDR has fallen a bit out of favour because a digital negative from a modern camera has a lot of latitude in a single image.  That said, our exposures still need to be made with the proper intent, such that we don't clip the critical highlights and don't drive the shadows into the ground.  Pulling down highlights works, but only to a point where you start to get weird artefacts appearing.  Lifting shadows can absolutely reveal detail but also introduces a lot of digital noise in the shadow areas.  There is a price to pay for all of this.

Lifting shadows and pulling highlights sounds a bit like dodging and burning, but it really is not the same thing, so if you won't do HDR but want more control, learn to dodge and burn.  A far better alternative is to use Luminosity Masks, and while you can create your own, save hours of time and just buy Greg Benz's superb Lumenzia extension for Photoshop.  This is not like a preset where you are offered no clue as to what is happening.  In fact learning luminosity masks with a tool like Lumenzia will help you capture more usable images because you will learn to recognize what zones different parts of your scene fall into.

 3 shot bracket +- 1 ⅓ EV processed in Photomatix Pro and finished in Lightroom.  

3 shot bracket +- 1 ⅓ EV processed in Photomatix Pro and finished in Lightroom.  

Back to HDR because this is a very simple route to get natural looking high dynamic range images.  There's nothing wrong if you like the nuclear look as some do.  I don't and do not ever go there.  I looked at five ways to use HDR post processing using only three images for this article and wanted to share my findings.

Nik HDR Efex Pro

This wasn't the first HDR software but it was the first to really get the idea of natural looking HDR.  When Nik developed it and was working on it, it was awesome.  But Google bought Nik, then charged for it, then gave it away free, then abandoned it.  Then DXO bought the remains and recently released their first version of the Nik Collection.  The Nik Collection is a great set of tools, but nothing has happened in HDR Efex Pro for years and it is now way behind the curve, although I hope that DXO will improve it.

Photoshop 32 Bit HDR

This was my go to option for a long time for natural looking HDR images because it was very reliable and very consistent.  It also delivers massive bit depth which means that you actually get to leverage the data in your images.  It did not make major edits either, leaving control in the hands of the creator.  It's not popular because it is not preset based and lots of folks just want to slap a preset on and be down with it.  Moreover if you are round-tripping from Lightroom you have to change your PS preference settings to return a TIF, because Lightroom chokes on an HDR returned as a PSD.  Since lots of folks want a PSD returned this means several clicks, often forgotten and the work gets done and you cannot use the image within Lightroom.  Adobe could and should fix this.

Lightroom HDR

I understand that the entire world does not use Lightroom, but lots of folks do.  The Lightroom Merge to HDR function returns an actual RAW file in the DNG format which is awesome and affords access to all of the full Lightroom tools.  It's a very solid option for natural HDRs but requires more work on the part of the creator unless one has spent good money on questionable LR presets for HDR.

Aurora HDR 2018

The folks at Macphun, now Skylum brought out Aurora a few years back.  I really liked the first release and there is a current 2018 release available.  For those preferring the natural look, the older versions did a much better job, with the new version following the Skylum model of hit the image with presets and only after doing so, engage in some manual edits to make things better.  in my most recent testing, everything comes back too noisy and too soft.  I'm sad to see this, but I understand that one of the prominent advisors is Trey Ratcliff and while he is a very talented photographer, I find all of his published HDRs way over the top, and Aurora follows that model.  However, if you like that kind of thing, you can save money on Aurora HDR 2018 via the link on the website.

Photomatix Pro

Photomatix is the old man of HDR.  I find it odd that the software which really started the HDR boom, in all its nuclear fallout glory, has been ignored for so long.  The current release at time of writing is 6.0.3 and this is not the old Photomatix.  You have clear choices about how you want your HDR images built, so you can do over the top if you like that sort of thing, but if you want natural looking HDR, in my opinion, you will get there faster and with more fine control with Photomatix Pro than any other option.  I do not get paid by HDRsoft to say this stuff, heck they do not know who I am.  I simply like this tool the best and like lots of folks, I hadn't even considered it for a while.

Shooting for HDR

A popular technique to get images together for HDR processing is what I am calling the slam bracket.  You set up Auto Exposure Bracketing on your camera for 3 shots at 2 stop intervals, with the centre at zero EV compensation, and put the drive mode in high speed burst.  When you do this you get three shots when you squeeze the shutter, neutral, 2 stops under and 2 stops over.  This is pretty usable about 70% of the time but is, in my opinion, really sloppy.

I have no issue with the idea of a high speed burst bracket.  That can reduce the need for a tripod unless one of the shots drops to a really slow shutter speed.  Let's suppose neutral requires 1/125 of a second.  if you use a variance of 3 stops as I often do, because my cameras all have sufficient dynamic range for this large a gap, your fastest shutter speed is going to be 1/1000 but your slowest is going to be 1/15 and that could very well introduce user driven camera shake.  So think about that.  You could also have some subject movement in that longer time that the shutter is open.

I propose using the rear LCD to find your neutral.  Activate the histogram and the highlight warning blinkies.  Meter that part of the scene that you want in the middle and do a test shot.  I know that the on screen histogram is based on the in camera JPEG and that's why I always set my in camera picture style to Neutral to limit as much as possible any in camera JPEG processing, not because I don't shoot JPEG (I don't) but because I want the histogram and the highlight warnings to be as close to RAW as possible.  Check for blow outs and determine if they matter and if they do, what you will do about it.  Figure out what exposure compensation is necessary for neutral, if any.

Now set up your bracket with where you defined neutral as your middle position.  This is done typically using your exposure compensation adjustment to move the bracket as a whole.  Now based on what you say in the histogram choose a bracketing gap appropriate to the scene and to your camera's native dynamic range.  For my cameras which are all over 12 stops of dynamic range, my default place to start is plus and minus 2 ⅓ stops from neutral.  I will wind this out or reel it in based on the dynamic range of the scene itself.  Learning to use your spot meter properly can help you readily determine the dynamic range of a scene.  I confess that I rarely shoot based on a spot meter reading since even a trained eye is easily fooled on what is middle grey, but I often use it to find my brightest and darkest points to determine the natural dynamic range of the scene.

 Another 3 shot bracket +- 1 ⅓ EV.  Absolutely awful overhead light turned the Viper's Bugloss more purple than its natural blue.  Also plenty of harsh shadows.  HDR created in Photomatix Pro then I used Lumenzia in Photoshop to fix the sky a bit, because it sucked, and then finished in Lightroom.  Each of the originals was useless on its own and the only thing that salvaged anything was the HDR process.

Another 3 shot bracket +- 1 ⅓ EV.  Absolutely awful overhead light turned the Viper's Bugloss more purple than its natural blue.  Also plenty of harsh shadows.  HDR created in Photomatix Pro then I used Lumenzia in Photoshop to fix the sky a bit, because it sucked, and then finished in Lightroom.  Each of the originals was useless on its own and the only thing that salvaged anything was the HDR process.

At this point in time, given the capability of sensors and the efficacy of HDR software, while you can certainly shoot more than 3 shots in a bracket, the old compelling reasons to do so, just aren't there any longer.  A three shot bracket is usually quite sufficient.  Some software such as Lightroom says it can do it with just two.  Just because something can be done, does not make it optimal and all my two shot bracket tests with Lightroom ended up looking like crap.

A benefit of shooting in high speed burst is that you are more likely to hold framing if shooting handheld which will result in less cropping in the alignment phase.  Moreover, because the shots are close together, you may require less deghosting be done in the HDR creation.

Conclusions

HDR is still a viable and effective method of getting more dynamic range out of your images.  You do not need to just hammer a preset on your HDRs.  You do not need to have your HDRs look like nuclear fallout.  And you do not need to spend hours in the construction of HDRs.  If the idea of natural looking HDR images is appealing to you, consider giving Photomatix Pro a try, or if you already own it, get it up to date.  You may be surprised what a little time and some diligence on your part can deliver.

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