After reading the outstanding ebook The Photographer’s Guide to HDR Efex Pro by Jason P. Odell and Tony Sweet (see my book review) I decided to give HDR Efex Pro a second look. If you read my previous review of HDR Efex Pro you’ll know that I tried the product but had decided it was not for me. I had already purchased Photomatix Pro and had decided to stick with it. However, the fact that lots of well-known photographers prefer HDR Efex Pro left me scratching my head and wondering what I was missing. It was shortly after I published my review that I listened to a Nikonians podcast (#132) in which Jason Odell describes his ebook on HDR Efex Pro. From his description it sounded like the book contained exactly the kind of information I had been seeking. After purchasing the ebook I found that it did, so I then purchased a copy of HDR Efex Pro. In this post I’ll take a second look at HDR Efex Pro and give my updated impressions.
Also, after studying the book I attended a Nik Software Webinar and got some more good information on how best to use HDR Efex Pro. Nik Software’s written documentation is minimal but these webinars go a long way toward filling in the gaps.
As I mentioned in my previous review, HDR Efex Pro’s Selective Adjustments (Control Points) feature provides a huge advantage over competing products. The ability to quickly make changes to a localized area makes it possible create attractive images which would otherwise not be feasible. The workflow to achieve the same result by layering and masking would be many times slower. The importance of this feature can almost not be overstated. The ease with which Selective Adjustments allows you to try various options greatly expands the creative possibilities. In the webinar I attended Dan Hughes set about five control points on one image to create a significantly enhanced photo. In some cases, the adjustments were subtle but, taken together, they resulted in a much more appealing photo.
One important point is that with control points the affected area is not necessarily circular. You might think it is because when you set a control point the top slider for the new point displays a circle which shows the approximate area which the effect covers. You can drag the slider to change the circle’s radius. However, under the hood the software is attempting to intelligently determine what area you want to adjust. So, for example, if you place a control point within a window frame, HDR Efex Pro might select only the window’s rectangular area. To see exactly what area is being affected by a Control point you can click its checkbox. This displays a gray-scale of the layer mask being applied. You can also click an overall checkbox which allows you to see the layer masks for all of the Control points in an image.
Another great feature of Control points is that you can use them to protect areas of your photo from being affected by another Control point. So, if you have a control point which is affecting an area that you don’t want it to affect you can set a second control point in that area and leave all of its values set to default and this will prevent the first point from intruding into that area.
An interesting feature that Dan Hughes pointed out in the webinar is that control points access all of your exposures to provide the best result. In other words, they don’t affect just the merged image. Presumably, by allowing them to access all of the original image information they can do a better job.
Open as SmartObject Saves Time and Preserves Editing Flexibility
I was impressed with HDR Efex Pro’s ability to open a set of exposures as a Photoshop SmartObject. This allows you to reopen an image in HDR Efex Pro and modify the HDR settings. This is much quicker than finding the original set of files and reopening them. It also allows you to easily start from the current settings so that if you just want to make a small tweak you can easily do that. Saving in this format also preserves the 32-bit tonal data.
However, I was surprised to find that this feature uses copious amounts of disk space. A set of six 16MB RAW exposures saved as a SmartObject PSD file took a whopping 750 MB! At this rate, you could make a serious dent in even a terabyte drive if you do a lot of HDR work this way.
Panning and Zooming
One of the things that initially surprised me about HDR Efex Pro was the lack of basic, standard zooming and panning tools. Since there is no Hand Pan tool in the interface I assumed that hand panning is not possible. But I eventually accidentally discovered that hand panning is available—you just have to hold down the space bar as you can do in Photoshop when the Zoom tool is selected.
The inability to do a rectangle zoom, though, is mystifying. I asked about this during the webinar and was told that this is not possible. (Clicking and dragging selects any control points within the rectangle. You can then group the control points if you wish.)
HDR Efex Pro includes a before and after preview capability with which you can easily compare the results of an initial set of settings to your current settings. In this way you can compare a preset with your changes from that preset or compare a SmartObject’s previously saved settings with your current changes to those settings.
With this option you can either have a pair of windows showing the two entire images or you can split a single image. Side-by-side preview is nice, especially when you drag the HDR Efex Pro window to cover both monitors in a two-monitor setup. (Of course, your two monitors have to be the same or it’s not a valid comparison.) With side-by-side preview you can switch between left-right and top-bottom side-by-side windows.
If you choose to split the single window a dividing line appears in the middle of image. The before image is shown on one side of the line and the after image is on the other side. It’s nice the way you can switch between horizontal and vertical previews and the way you can drag the dividing line to any location in the image.
There is also a click-and-hold Preview button which allows momentarily showing the original image when in single image mode.
I often found it hard to make fine adjustments by dragging the sliders with a mouse (the ability to nudge the sliders a la Photoshop would be nice). But the Wacom pen works nicely for fine-tuning with the sliders.
Halo Reduction Revisited
Armed with my new understanding of HDR Efex Pro I decided to have a second look at the stained glass image which gave me trouble as I described in my first review of HDR Efex Pro. If you read my previous review you’ll remember that I had serious problems with halos that I couldn’t get rid of.
I first gave it a try starting with HDR Efex Pro’s Default settings. From there I followed the workflow suggested in The Photographer’s Guide to HDR Efex Pro but couldn’t do any better than I had the first time around. I tried adding a control point (selective adjustment) in the area with the most severe problems but it didn’t help.
I tried HDR Efex Pro’s Halo Reduction method but it wasn’t noticeably better. I tweaked the various settings again but again I was frustrated. Finally, I tried every one of the 33 presets. I found one or two that were better than average and I fooled around with the sliders for those but never was able to get a good result. I also tried the presets that came with The Photographer’s Guide to HDR Efex Pro but none of them came close to eliminating the halos.
A Second Stained Glass Image
I thought that maybe there was something unique about this particular photo that was causing so much difficulty so I tried another set of stained glass exposures. This was a set of six exposures made on a tripod. With this second set the contrast within the room is less than with the first set of exposures so I hoped to get a better result. With this image I was able to do better at eliminating the halos/flares by dialing the exposure way down. Increasing the contrast also helped to reduce the halos. However, the end result was a contrasty image with unnatural colors in the glass. These flaws may not be apparent in these small overall images but take a look at the detail images that follow.
There were other problems as well. The top rose in this image has a small solid blue circle at the tip of three of its four points. But with all of HDR Efex Pro’s Realistic presets the solid circle was replaced by a hollow ring. In its center was a red-orange color which bled in from adjacent features.
I even tried setting control points within and around the problem areas but was still unable to do any better. One problem with the control points is that they automatically select the area they think you’re interested in. This can often be an advantage but, in this case, they did not select the area I wanted to select. Since there is no way to override their automatic selection they did not prove useful here.
Similar problems were found in other narrow colored borders; note the false magenta border inside the purple borders in the detail of the HDR Efex Pro image below.
By contrast, Photomatix Pro did a much better job with this photo, as it did with the photo described in my previous post. In general, the colors obtained with HDR Efex Pro were not as accurate as those obtained with Photomatix Pro. With Photomatix Pro the colors were much more natural and the halos, though present, were subdued. Photomatix Pro did have a similar problem with the small blue circles though.
Can You Do Better?
I’ve posted my original RAW files for both images in case anyone wants to have a go at getting a better rendering:
I’d be very interested to see what techniques with HDR Efex Pro (or any other HDR software) might produce a good result with these files.
After taking a second look at HDR Efex Pro I’m impressed by its capabilities, particularly its control points and SmartObject features. With most of the images I’ve tried it with it works well. However, I’m still disappointed with its results with my stained glass images. I’ll definitely be keeping Photomatix Pro in my toolbox and using it when needed.
Note: All JPGs displayed here were saved with Photoshop’s Save For Web & Devices option at Maximum quality.