Update 10/8/11: I’ve taken a second, more comprehensive look at HDR Efex Pro and have posted a second review.
HDR Efex Pro is a favorite of RC Concepcion and other notables in the digital photography world and when I learned this I wondered if I had made a mistake by purchasing Photomatix Pro. But after testing HDR Efex Pro during a two-week free trial I came to the conclusion that I probably purchased the right software for my needs. I’ll be adding a review of Photomatix Pro soon so check back for that.
Attractive User Interface but with Annoyances
HDR Efex Pro has a more polished interface than Photomatix Pro and is more attractive and nicer to work with. Being able to hide the preset and adjustment panels is handy to give you more screen real estate. There is also an ability to choose single image, split preview, and side-by-side previews. Initially, I was puzzled about what the latter two display modes are actually comparing and the manual was no help. After playing with it a bit I discovered that it apparently compares a preset with any changes that you subsequently make.
A feature that is wonderful in Photoshop, but lacking here, is the ability to use the keyboard arrow keys to nudge a slider by one increment (or larger increments by holding down Shift while pressing an arrow key). This makes it easy to make a precise, controlled adjustment in Photoshop and would be nice to have in HDR Efex Pro where the only UI control method is to drag the sliders.
The lack of a hand pan control (you have to drag around the rectangle in the Navigator window) and the lack of a standard zoom tool are annoying. You can set the zoom level to one of five values: 400%, 200%, 100%, 50% & 25%. After choosing a zoom level clicking on the zoom control will toggle you between the selected zoom level and a fit-to-window zoom level (whatever fits on your monitor). There is a loupe panel but it is a fixed size, about 250 pixels x 150 pixels, and its magnification level is preset so it is of limited usefulness. It would be great to be able to detach the loupe to the second monitor, increase its size, and set its zoom level.
Glow be Gone
My biggest problem with HDR Efex Pro was with unwanted glows/halos in a couple of photos I took recently. I was able to deal with the problem more effectively in Photomatix Pro. But I had to spend a good deal of time in HDR Efex Pro trying HDR Methods and tweaking sliders to remove the halos and even then the overall image quality suffered. Here is a pair of images showing the results of processing in HDR Efex Pro and in Photomatix Pro. The details show the most problematic area, the white rose at the top. In both programs it was difficult to get rid of the halo but quite a bit harder in HDR Efex Pro. Eventually, I was able to get rid of almost all of the glow but this came at the expense of color quality. First, notice the fringe of red/orange at the top, outer edges of the yellow border of the HDR Efex Pro image.
You can see the oversaturation problems more clearly in the overall image. This oversaturation is present in the stained glass although this might be hard to discern unless you’ve seen the actual glass. But notice the exaggerated green in the plants at the foot of the window. For a better look at the color quality click on the two full-size images to open larger versions of those images.
The other thing to notice is that the overall image is darker than ideal for this image. It was necessary to dim it down this much in order to eliminate the glow. By contrast, the Photomatix Pro image overall is a bit lighter and the colors are much more accurate.
Notice the lack of clarity in the HDR Efex Pro detail compared to the one from Photomatix Pro. Note also how the color of wood surrounding the glass in the details looks more natural. And you can still see a bit of a bluish glow in the area immediately outside of the yellow-bordered white rose in the HDR Efex Pro image.
I spent about half an hour to achieve the result in HDR Efex Pro but less than ten minutes in Photomatix Pro. Most likely, someone who is more experienced in HDR Efex Pro could get the job done much more quickly. But I was new to both programs as I began this review and was able to get the job done better and more quickly in Photomatix Pro.
In my testing several of my other images HDR Efex Pro worked just fine. It also worked well with all of the sample images provided for RC Concepcion’s The HDR Book (see my review of The HDR Book). However, I was surprised by RC’s statement in chapter 8, the Real Estate project, that there was "not too much noise" as I thought that the image was pretty noisy in HDR Efex Pro. Photomatix Pro did a much better job of cleaning up the noise even without turning on its noise reduction algorithm. HDR Efex Pro doesn’t offer noise reduction.
Many, Many Methods
HDR Efex Pro offers a plethora of HDR Methods (20) in addition to a plethora of presets (32). Each preset includes a selection of one of the 20 methods along with values for all of the other settings. This large selection of methods and presets may seem like a boon but I found it overwhelming. Usually, I would be in favor of more choices in an app but I found that this host of choices means you have to spend a lot of time trying the various options in order to find one that works well with your image. Perhaps, over time, you would become familiar with the methods and presets so that you could quickly choose a handful of candidates for a given image. But I suspect you’d have to work with an awful lot of images for a lot of hours to reach this point. At least, the presets panel does group the presets into categories like "all," "realistic," "landscape," and "surreal" to allow you to filter out presets that don’t match your needs. But I found Photomatix Pro’s smaller selection of methods to be more effective (review coming soon).
The downloadable Quick Start Guide is minimal and offers no explanation of the various methods or adjustment controls. You just have to try them and see what they do. The online "manual" is also minimal. There are five brief videos (2-4 minutes each) but these don’t really even qualify as tutorials in my opinion. They could more properly be called marketing videos.
HDR Efex Pro is Great for Control Freaks
One area where HDR Efex Pro shines is its Selective Adjustments feature. These are Control Points which allow you to adjust the HDR settings within localized regions of your photo. These allow you to carefully fine-tune the appearance of each part of your image. You can quickly define the area that each selective adjustment covers so that each area, whether large or small, can be customized according to your wishes. This provides an exquisite degree of control over the processing which is unmatched by Photomatix Pro. To get the same level of control in other HDR software you would have to create multiple images each processed with different settings, layer them in Photoshop, and then apply layer masks to selectively show the desired part of each image. This would be much slower and not really feasible for most images.
I had a minor installation problem which prevented me from opening photos in Adobe Bridge. I opened a support request with Nik Software and a couple of days later I received an email saying that they would need to get remote access to my "computer to place the appropriate files into Bridge so it recognizes HDR Efex Pro as a startup script." It’s good to see that they had a fix for the problem but it would have been better to offer me the option of copying the files myself. It’s not that hard to add startup scripts to Bridge and would avoid the need to schedule an online meeting. Even better would be to offer an extension which could be loaded by the Adobe Extension Manager to make the installation as easy as a couple of clicks.
I also experienced some odd zooming behaviors when switching from another application back to HDR Efex Pro. Frequently, when switching back to HDR Efex Pro it would zoom in and I would have to click the zoom control to get back to my previous view. This occurred both when clicking back to HDR Efex Pro (i.e., clicking on the HDR Efex Pro window) and when Alt-Tabbing back.
There is a bug in the Levels and Curves drop-down list box of the Finishing Adjustments panel. At one point, I had selected the Neutral curve for one of the photos I was working on. Later, I chose one of the presets and it applied a different curve (like a typical increased contrast curve). However, the drop-down still said Neutral. It was, in fact, applying the increased contrast curve. This is a minor point but the discrepancy could be confusing.
As I mentioned at the outset, HDR Efex Pro is the choice of some biggies in digital photography so you probably don’t want to reject it just on the basis of this review. Its Selective Adjustments/Control Points provide a wonderful level of control that is quick and easy to apply. But I’ve summarized some of the problems that I encountered so that you can weigh the pros and cons for your particular needs.