HDR (High Dynamic Range) image processing can be a powerful tool for the photographer. However, if natural-looking images are what you’re after, there are only a few (maybe only one) that actually work. Here’s my assessment from my experience with several programs.
- Photomatix Pro: Extremely difficult to get natural-looking photos. If exaggerated HDR images are what you’re after, then go for this one.
- Macphun Aurora: Almost the same as Photomatix Pro. Get HDR-looking images from this one – not natural-looking ones.
- Nik HDR Efex: Better than Photomatix – my second choice to Oloneo.
- Dynamic Photo HDR: Good, but doesn’t go far enough with some control features.
- HDR Express and HDR Expose: Limited controls on both. Good interface. Can get natural-looking HDR images. Mapping is hard to control, but worth further examination.
- Oloneo Photo Engine: Excellent. Fast processing of RAW files. Natural-looking HDR and the program has many features.
I use DxO software (not an HDR program) for my raw image processing so I will compare the two programs I found were able to produce the most natural HDR, to an image processed only with DxO.
For the DxO image (left in the image below), I used the single image that I shot at 0 EV, that was properly exposed.
For the other two images (center and right in the image below), I used seven photos including the 0 EV photo. These seven photos were 1 EV apart (-3 EV, -2 EV, -1 EV, 0 EV, +1 EV, +2 EV, and +3 EV). The seven photos were then merged in each of the two software programs to create an HDR image, then tonemapped in each to produce the middle and right images shown below.
I noticed that HDR Expose was not bringing out the detail in the foreground or in the sky. The pink of the sky is completely overexposed (blown out) in the image. I tried several settings and could not get that detail back. The image looks dull even though I processed it using the RAW files and with the Veiling Glare sliders adjusted for optimal contrast. I thought this was a good program, but now I am rethinking that. I’m seriously disappointed.
The Oloneo Photo Engine image has plenty of detail in both the sky and foreground. The detail could be pulled out of this image but without overexposing any portion. Veiling glare or haze in the image is gone and the image has great contrast. Colors are good too. Now, this is the way HDR should work in my opinion.
Compared to the base image (DxO image at left), the Oloneo Photo Engine image was the best. It has a bit more range than the plain DxO image does. Still, DxO does a fine job of achieving near-HDR glory.
For scenes that lend themselves to HDR, I will take seven images that are one EV apart and use these in Oloneo Photo Engine. It has the best result for me and offers me the best control over how my photos look in HDR.