I’ve just completed an initial evaluation of Nik’s new HDR Efex Pro 2 that includes comparing it against Photomatix’s latest version 4.2. Trying to pick a winner is much like the fight scene in the first Rocky movie. Two warhorses slug it out to the end and both are still standing. There has to be a winner, but it’s a split decision and subsequent controversy. Trying to pick a winner between HDR Efex and Photomatix poses a similar dilemma. But I need to make clear my judging criteria: I’m not into garish, surrealistic HDR effects. And beside, judging which product does that best is more subjective than objective. Most my work is traditional landscape photography and I need to render as natural a scene as possible. Only occasionally do I crank in a little of the “HDR look” when a scene needs a bit of pizzazz.
Photomatix has been the gold standard in HDR software for several years. As for its virtues and vices, please read my two previous posts: Photomatix Pro 4.2 Update and More on Photomatix 4.2. HDR Efex is the newer kid on the block. The new version 2 is now priced the same as Photomatix (it was previously $150) with supposedly major improvements from the previous version. Since my only experience with the first version was their demo some time ago, I’m unable to comment on the differences. The only thing that stands out from my memory is that the new version seems less poky than the first.
Vanilla and “French” Vanilla
Though both programs essentially do the same thing, each has it’s own individual flavor and character. Photomatix offers three conversion processes: Tone Map, Tone Compressor, and Exposure Fusion. Collectively they do an excellent job in spanning any need from surrealism to realism. HDR Efex is a one-trick pony where its tone mapping capability can span the same range. But for that reason, HDR Efex has a different flavor to its realism than Photomatix. Generally, tone mapping can be set to bust out detail in deep shadows, which contributes to that “HDR look”. To achieve any semblance of a natural look with Photomatix’s tone mapping, you must set the Lighting Adjustment to near maximum. So instead, Photomatix has Exposure Fusion as the tool of choice for natural rendering. On the other hand, HDR Efex can extend its tone mapping range to approach and usually equal the realism of Photomatix’s Exposure Fusion. However, it’s still tone mapping and that has an influence on the rendering of deep shadows.
If you like a deeper and more contrasty shadow rendering reminiscent of slide film of yore, then I feel Exposure Fusion does it better. Exposure Fusion is not HDR, but a combination of the best bits from the image files to achieve a more traditional look. If you prefer more opened but still natural looking shadows, then HDR Efex is better in my opinion. Personally, I prefer more opened shadows. I can still spice up contrast later in Photoshop without suffering blocked-up shadows.
As for the overall look and feel of both programs, HDR Efex earns the “French” in the vanilla title. Photomatix, though improved in version 4.2, is still somewhat utilitarian in looks and features. HDR Efex is more polished and has many refined features that I’ll get to shortly. HDR Efex’s biggest drawback is long loading and rendering times.
Quick Walkthrough of HDR Efex Pro 2
First Screen: Load Files
Using HDR Efex is relatively straightforward. Nik’s website has online training videos that help you get up to speed in about 30-minutes. HDR Efex can be conveniently launched from Adobe Bridge, Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture. In the first screen, you select the files to merge. It’s here where you see the first indication of the sophistication in this program. You have the option to open the merged file in Photoshop as a smart object. This means when in Photoshop, you can double-click the smart object layer and return to HDR Efex and reedit the settings.
HDR Efex doesn’t have a built-in raw converter as does Photomatix. It converts the raw files, including any raw edits, to TIFF. Retaining the raw edits is important since you want to incorporate white balance, chromatic aberrations and noise reduction, and the lens profile before you merge to HDR. Sometimes when using TIFF files with Photomatix, ghastly artifacts are generated (e.g., excessive noise or halos), but using its internal raw converter instead often mitigates those problems. Unfortunately, you lose the ability to make all the pre-HDR edits previously mentioned. Fortunately, HDR Efex displayed no problems with any TIFF files, including those that gave Photomatix fits.
|Load File Screen|
Next Screen: Set Merge Options
The next screen displays the selected images and you have the options to align the images, enable deghosting, and remove chromatic aberrations. I routinely select align images even though I always use a tripod; and so far I’ve never found any reason not to do this. Next are two deghosting options if enabled. First is the level from 20% to 100% in five steps (I believe this is akin to Photomatix’s Normal and Hard settings where Hard is the only setting that ever works for me). The second option is to select which of the frames to use as the ghost substitution reference. Ignoring for the moment actual deghosting performance between the two contenders, HDR Efex lags in controllability since Photomatix has the ability to selectively choose a specific area to deghost (as opposed to the entire image). Finally, there’s a checkbox for chromatic aberrations, which I disable since I take care of this in the raw editor first.
|Merge Options Screen|
HDR Editor Screen
The final screen displays the merged file with all the controls and presets. Beside the presets you can instead display a History pallet that is akin to Photoshop’s History. The right side has all the controls, which I’m not going to get into much detail. The Tone Compression Panel has the traditional HDR arcane nomenclature. Fortunately, there’s not a lot of wide-range fiddling when starting from the default settings for natural. The adjustments are course steps that spare you endless fiddling and it’s unlikely you’ll stray too far from the default settings. The Tonality panel is straightforward except for the Structure slider. This slider adds local contrast similar to the Local Contrast slider in Exposure Fusion. But this is still tone mapping and the Structure slider can greatly exaggerate noise. Exposure Fusion doesn’t have this problem since it’s not tone mapping. When you use the Structure slider you must zoom in on any continuous tone area (such as a blue sky) to judge the noise effect—even for very low-noise images!
The Color panel is also straightforward. With Photomatix, I normally don’t experience color shifts or saturation problems. However with HDR Efex, I needed to occasionally tone down increased warmth and/or saturation. Continuing to the right-hand bottom of the screen is a more sophisticated Loupe & Histogram pallet than you’ll find in Photomatix. Out of scroll view are the Selective Adjustments and Finishing panels.
Those last two panels, Selective Adjustments and Finishing, are what set HDR Efex ahead of Photomatix in terms of sophistication. Selective Adjustment is a powerful feature that allows you to apply tonal and color adjustments to a selective area instead of globally. You place one or more “control points” on the image and adjust a selection circle to encompass the area of interest. HDR Efex then selects all similar tones within the selection circle—in a way similar to Photoshop’s Magic Wand. There’s a checkbox to display the selected area. At each control point, you access a dropdown menu that offers most tonality and color controls, but no tone compression except for Method Strength.
The Finishing panel offers a graduated neutral density filter, vignetting, and most importantly a level and curve adjustment. The curve adjustment includes each color channel and, especially nice, a luminosity channel to prevent excessive colors shifts when altering contrast. All of these are nice tools to have in your HDR arsenal. There are other “goodies” spread throughout such as either a split or side-by-side before/after screen option, a before/after toggle button, and a better zoom and loupe tool than in Photomatix.
Once you’re done fiddling, you click OK and after considerable crunching are transferred to Photoshop where you can continue to fiddle with your image. Almost every HDR image I’ve worked on always needed some post-Photoshop touchups.
|HDR Edit Screen|
HDR Efex vs. Photomatix
Let the fight begin: but first a few preliminaries. In comparing the results I had a problem with a level playing field. HDR Efex has the previously described Finishing adjustments while Photomatix has no such tools. So in a few cases, I punched up the Photomatix images a bit in Photoshop before comparing them to HDR Efex (after all, it’s the final image that matters). Also in Photomatix, I converted each image in both Tone Map and Exposure Fusion and picked the most naturally rendered image. Invariably, Exposure Fusion always won out. Now that was just for these test images. In the past there has been instances where Tone Map did a better job. So I don’t want the impression I’m dismissing Tone Map for landscape work, it’s just all the test images happened to work out best in Exposure Fusion.
Round 1 & 2: Stress Test
Immediately I threw my two “stress test” images below at both programs. (Please refer to my last two previously referenced posts for more information on these images.) In the first image set, Pine Tree Arch, HDR Efex displayed a nagging artifact problem that I saw occasionally in other images to varying degrees, with this image being the worst. The problem concerns the high-contrast edge between the rock and blue sky. First there’s slight haloing, but more irritating is an ultra-thin white line that traces along the edges. I didn’t print out the image to determine how, if at all, it is noticeable. If it weren’t for this, I would easily give this round to HDR Efex since I prefer the rendering of detail in this image. Instead, I’ll say it’s a qualified win if you accept that some post-Photoshop repair may be necessary. By the way, here's a couple of tips on how to handle this in Photoshop. The thin line is easily removed with the Clone Stamp sampling the blue sky and set to Darken. Likewise for handling minor haloing. For worse halos as well as other strange color banding artifacts in the sky, overlay the merged HDR image with the best sky exposure from the original bracketed frames. For color banding artifacts, set the layer mode to Color. For halos, double-click the layer, select Blend If Blue and adjust the This Layer slider to taste (you'll have to split the adjustment tab apart by holding down the Option/Alt key to blend in the effect). Mask out any part of the overlay that cause problems and adjust opacity as needed.
|Pine Tree Arch: HDR Efex|
|Pine Tree Arch: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
The next image set below of the San Diego Mission made Photomatix’s Tone Map go completely bonkers with ghastly halos when deghost was enabled. HDR Efex had no such problem with it’s deghost enabled. Exposure Fusion was also fine, but it’s picking of the mid-exposure frame for ghost substitution made the image darker. Since HDR Efex opened up the interior arch better, the winner here is HDR Efex.
|San Diego Mission: HDR Efex|
|San Diego Mission: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
Now I compare more traditional landscape images that are shot properly. In the Zion image below, the difference here is mainly the shadows are a little more opened in the HDR Efex version. Which of these two are better may boil down to personal preference, but I lean towards the HDR Efex since the autumn foliage pops out a little better. Unfortunately, this image got skunked by Photomatix in the deghosting department. There was interfame movement of some branches in the autumn-colored tree on the upper right. Worse, those moving branches were blurred in the mid-exposure shot. Now this was a nasty test, but Photomatix stepped up to the plate while HDR Efex struck out. I’m not exactly sure how Photomatix did it, but virtually all of the moving branches were fixed, while only part of the branches were corrected in HDR Efex. I tried selecting other frames in HDR Efex as the deghost reference, but to no avail. Since the moving branches are barely noticeable in the actual print, I favor the HDR Efex image mainly because the autumn colors look better and the shadows are a bit more opened.
|Zion: HDR Efex|
|Zion: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
The next image set of the Capital Reef barn is similar in difference to the previous set. HDR Efex does exhibit minor haloing along the sky’s edge. Otherwise, as expected, the shadows are a little more opened and, in my opinion, more natural especially along the sunlit boarder. Even though I may have to fix the halos in Photoshop (see my previous comments on the Pine Tree Arch image), my choice is the HDR Efex image.
|Capital Reef: HDR Efex|
|Capital Reef: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
In the image of Cathedral Rock below, my first HDR Efex rendering was a little subpar with slightly-flat dark tones compared to the more contrasty and dramatic tones of Exposure Fusion. However, I went back and tried again (since I was getting better at using HDR Efex) and this time it’s almost a dead heat. Though the sunlit rock in HDR Efex is less saturated, this can be changed (in one direction or the other) in Photoshop. This one I’m calling a tie.
|Cathedral Rock: HDR Efex|
|Cathedral Rock: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
In the Grand Canyon picture below, Exposure Fusion exhibited a dark and unnatural shadow rendering below the sunlit edge of the canyon wall. Furthermore, the upper branch of the right tree is darker than the lower trunk, even though they were evenly lit. Still, there’s no compelling winner here since some may or may not prefer the more dramatic contrast in the darker tones with Exposure Fusion. I went back and forth, but eventually picked the HDR Efex since it gives me more latitude in achieving the best image later in Photoshop.
|Grand Canyon: HDR Efex|
|Grand Canyon: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
This image at the San Fernando Mission produced a more significant difference. The HDR Efex has more contrast with window detail almost blown out. To be honest, I contributed to this somewhat by my tone compression and tonality adjustments in HDR Efex, but the image did start out with a little more contrast than Photomatix’s rendering. I intentionally wanted more contrast between the window light and interior, though some may prefer the more subdued rendering by Photomatix. Note that in situations like this (the bright window serving as an example), I can darken the window similar to the Photomatix image by applying a control point that encompasses the window and then selectively change the tonality. As for the winner here, since I’m still not sure which I like best, I’ll call this round even.
|San Fernando Mission: HDR Efex|
|San Fernando Mission: Photomatix Exposure Fusion|
The Final Decision
I called the fight after seven rounds since I’ve seen enough to form an opinion. I’ll skip all the “they’re both great programs” rhetoric and cut to the chase. I was sufficiently impressed with HDR Efex Pro 2 that I bought it, so now I have two HDR programs (three if you count Photoshop HDR Pro, which I hardly use). On average, I prefer the rendering quality of HDR Efex and, when considering the other impressive features, my new HDR workflow is now to fire up HDR Efex first. Only if the results are unexpectedly lousy will I retreat to Photomatix.
If you are buying a first-time HDR program, then I will recommend HDR Efex Pro 2. However, I won’t go as far to recommend current Photomatix users to switch over. It boils down to personally deciding if the difference is really better and worth the $85 (Note: both programs list for $100, but are available for $85 if you google around for the many available discount codes). If money is tight and you’d rather wait for a cheaper Photomatix 5.0 upgrade, then don’t sweat it—Photomatix still gets the job done well. And who knows, the next major upgrade to Photomatix may completely skunk HDR Efex Pro 2. But addressing the now, you can rationalize that HDR has become a mainstay tool for many landscape photographers. Having the choice to use two programs increase your options by that much, so a second HDR program isn’t necessarily a frivolous investment. If HDR is an important element in your photographic style, then just squint your eyes, enter your credit card number and then yell: Yo Adrian, I did it!