Late 2013, HDRsoft released version 5 of their popular Photomatix software. The update is free to current users who purchased Photomatix 4.0 after October 2010; otherwise it’s $29. The most significant new feature relative to landscape photography is a new Tone Mapping method called Contrast Optimizer. It produces realistic looking images while still enhancing shadows and highlights. I found it a better alternative to Exposure Fusion/Natural for natural rendering; however, I didn’t see it challenging HDR Efex Pro as my primary HDR software. Another new feature of note is Fusion/Real-Estate, intended for rendering interior scenes with an outside view through a window.
Contrast Optimizer Example
To test out Contrast Optimizer, I processed an image of Lundy Lake shot at dusk with three frames bracketed at ±2-stops. This was a very high contrast image and was aided with a grad filter. Nevertheless, the frame to capture the shadows was slightly underexposed. That made for a good test case to see how well Exposure Fusion could restore the shadow detail compared to the other processes. Below I show the results with each process: HDR Efex Pro 2, Contrast Optimizer, Exposure Fusion (natural), and Details Enhancer. The horse race was really between HDR Efex Pro and Contrast Optimizer. Exposure Fusion had the most problem with extracting shadow detail and Details Enhancer had the most unnatural look (especially noticeable in the foreground rocks). To be fair, when the frame that captures the shadows is better exposed (i.e., more exposed than in this example), Exposure Fusion can be a more formidable challenger. In the past, it was my most often used method whenever I used Photomatix.
The winner is HDR Efex Pro, due largely to its superior 32-bit editing capability; for example, the curves and graduated filter tools. As you see in the new Contrast Optimizer control panel, it’s relatively light on editing controls. On the other hand, a simpler interface may appeal to many. I could narrow the difference in Photoshop, but I would loose the 32-bit editing advantage. Though you can’t judge HDR performance based on one image, I can definitely say Photomatix has significantly closed the gap in this new version. If you have Photomatix 4.2 (or earlier), I highly recommend you upgrade to version 5.
|Contrast Optimizer Control Panel|
A simple and easy to use control panel.
However, the spartan panel also means less
editing capability compared to HDR Efex Pro.
A bit more touchup in Photoshop, and you have a well-rendered image. However, you loose the 32-bit advantage when working in Photoshop.
I tested this new method on an old church mission interior shot and found it did a good job in naturally rendering the bright outdoor detail. On that basis alone, you can argue that Photomatix did a better job than HDR Efex Pro, except it's not that simple. HDR Efex Pro better captures the effect of a brightly window-lit room. In this image, the lighting effect is more important than the uninteresting outside. The real benefit of this new Fusion method is described by its name: Real-Estate. If you are an agent who wants to highlight a living room that has an ocean view, then you want the outside to be well exposed and colorful. This also holds true for certain landscape images; for example, using an old barn's interior window to frame an outside scenic view. Here you are using the window only as a framing element, so you want the outside scene to be properly exposed. You could argue it's better to shoot such a situation with two exposures only: one for the outside and the other for the inside of the barn, and merge them manually in Photoshop. That may well be true, so my advice: shoot it both ways!
HDR Efex Pro
If I want, I could improve the outside detail using Control Points. However, the objective of this image is to capitalize on the window light's interior illumination effect.