You’ve all probably seen an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, whether you recognized it or not. They’re those highly dramatic, often very stylized, photos that can be either beautiful or ugly as sin, and they’re all a result of software technology that came out about 3-4 years ago. I first read about (and subsequently started, then fell in love with) the process in a May 2007 article in Popular Science. The article listed a few options for HDR programs, and since then I’ve tried out all those options, and then some. So, is it worth giving all of the software out there a try, or will you just be wasting your time?
A really strange name for a really strange program. It is free, open source software, so of course I tried it first, but I found it’s not even worth the download. It can do a rudimentary job of merging images into an HDR, and you might even be able to do something that vaguely resembles tone-mapping them, but you simply are not going to get usable results. My first images with this program were just a very crude estimation of the examples I had seen in the article. In short, though it is free, it will probably just turn you off HDR entirely.
Adobe Photoshop CS2+
Photoshops CS2, 3, 4, and 5 all have some form of HDR generation in them. I only have CS2, so I can only speak for it, and unfortunately, CS2 is not very useful for HDR processing. It can generate an HDR that might be fine for all I know, but it doesn’t have any dedicated tone-mapping tools, so unless your monitor can display 64-bit images (chances are, it can’t) you won’t be able to see a final product using CS2. Additionally, it simply won’t allow you to merge an HDR from a single RAW file. This isn’t technically “true HDR,” but I find it works fine in most cases, and it is your only option with fast moving subjects. So again, the lesson is you need dedicated HDR software, not just Photoshop.
FDRTools Basic/Advanced (Free/$50)
I tried the “Advanced” (full) version of this software. This might not be a fair review, but even after spending some time with it, I was not able to produce an image. I’m not sure if it was just because the interface was too confusing and unclear, or if the program was actually lacking necessary functionality. Whether it had the processing tools I needed or not, I wasn’t able to find them, so I have to give it a thumbs down for being poorly designed and hard (impossible?) to use, at the least.
HDR Expose: $150
This one’s getting expensive, and its feature list is so pretty, it must be good, right? Not as far as I could tell. It’s relatively new software that seemed very promising, and the company (Unified Color) is releasing even newer software (32 Float) at the end of August. Rather than simply tone-mapping the image, like any other software, it tries to have you work directly with the HDR image using “32-bit floating point precision.” Yeah, I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to mean either, but what ends up happening is: the image looks really bad, like any HDR before tone-mapping, because you’re still trying to look at the HDR. Additionally, the software is incredibly slow, taking more than twice as long to create an HDR than my favorite software.
Dynamic Photo HDR: $55
There are only two HDR programs out there that actually work, and that I could recommend. This is one of them, though it comes in second place. The software works decently, you can make good HDR photos with it, and there are a lot of developing/tone-mapping options. Too many in fact. And that’s really my only complaint about this software: there are two or three times as many options and sliders to play with in Dynamic Photo HDR as there are in my favorite program, so you can easily spend a lot more time playing with the images. However, this extra time seems to end up becoming wasted time. I processed the same photo in both programs, and though I spent a lot more time on it in Dynamic Photo HDR, the final product was almost identical. This happened multiple times too (not just a fluke). So which program is my favorite?
This one -> Photomatix Pro: $100
One of the oldest programs out there is also the best. Though the $100 sticker might seem a little expensive, you can also probably find some good discounts on it (I got a student version for $40). The program merges HDRs just fine, and during tone-mapping, you have enough options to be able to do whatever you want, without having so many that they become excessive and distracting. The only real complaint I’ve had about it is that I haven’t been able to get batch processing to work (if I try to generate the HDRs first, save them, then come back and tone-map them, the process never works. When I open a saved HDR file, it’s always severely damaged.) Despite this, the program is perfectly functional, and the interface is also very intuitive without sacrificing features.
In short, Photomatix Pro is still the HDR software to beat, and, for the time being at least, you can’t go wrong with it.