HDR Software – Nik HDR Efex Pro Review

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Nik Software HDR Efex Pro is easily one of the more feature rich HDR options available today. I tested pretty extensively through each beta phase and pre-final release candidates and here are the major pros and cons I’ve experienced thusfar. (Nik’s official download/purchase date is Oct. 11th)

PROS

  • I am obsessed with Nik’s patented U Point® technology to add control points to target very specific areas in an image.  In HDR Efex Pro this means you can dial in exposure to specific points of the image in 32 bit space that can’t be done in other apps.  You can adjust contrast/saturation, etc., (the same sliders which are available for the entire image) as well as adjusting the tonemapping method strength for that precise region of the image you are targeting… this is my number one favorite feature. What used to have to be done with multiple layers in photoshop with multiple tonemapped versions of a scene can now be done in HDR Efex Pro using control points.
  • A large number of TMOs (Tone Mapping Operators) to choose from. Not only do you have a slider that adjusts the strength of the tonemapping operator,  you can chose from different tonemapping operators and each gives you slightly different results with some more aggressive than others to deal with night scenes and others more natural to deal with landscapes, commercial work, etc.
  • Tons of presets to get you started. Categorized and named to give you one click looks as a starting point. And you can create your own presets as well.
  • You can select brackets from LightRoom, Aperture, Photoshop CS3/CS4/CS5 or Bridge to launch into HDR Efex Pro.
  • You can select (from Photoshop interface) to have HDR Efex Pro to be opened as a smart object so on the return back from Tonemapping, it remains in 32 bit space as a layer in Photoshop.  This means it can be relaunched again with the settings just made still intact so you can change them. If you copy that layer and relaunch you can make changes and then upon return from HDR Efex Pro you can choose to compare/contrast the versions in the layers palette and even mask in parts of one to the other.  The options are endless.
  • You can use prior images you had saved to 32 bit formats to open and tonemap in HDR Efex Pro.
  • The image you get in the preview window while tonemapping is what you are going to get when you hit save. Other apps don’t always give you an accurate preview image, but HDR Efex Pro is very precise and the preview window is very accurate.

CONS

  • Highlights turn grey and lose fine detail as you pull down exposure in very high dynamic range scenes. This is mostly a problem for extremely high contrast scenes such as architectural interiors (Highlight rendering was improved from early beta versions, but still needs improvement to be useful for architectural interiors).
  • Lacks a white balance tool to accurately correct for color. It only has a Warmth slider which of course is basically yellow/blue, but lacks magenta/green and cyan/red controls to correct for color casts. This is most relevant if you merge directly to HDR rather than make tweaks first in LightRoom/Aperture and then merge those tiffs to HDR Efex Pro.
  • HDR Efex Pro still has trouble rendering reds even in the v1 release (reds are still over saturating and clipping in some images, but Nik is working on it)
  • Still issues with crashing in 32 bit versions of Photoshop (CS3/CS4) as of release.  Nik is stating official support is for 64 bit applications and that 32 bit support is to be worked on further.  That said, it does work for me in PSCS3 and CS4 with some occasional crashes from time to time.
  • No batch processing. Not a deal killer, but would be a great feature to add in future releases.

I’ll have another review with more example images at some point in the next month or so, but below is a shot of Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas to showcase a few issues I’m bumping into. In other apps I was able to pull down highlights without them going grey as fast as happened using HDR Efex Pro.  I liken this to going “muddy grey” and it attracts attention to the lack of detail in them as well.  Also, the reds are saturating and clipping using HDR Efex Pro on images with more orange/red hues, whereas other apps are not experiencing these issues with the same image. I love the control points, but the fact that HDR Efex Pro isn’t rendering highlights completely clean (yet) when tonemapping high dynamic range scenes makes it difficult to pull windows for architectural interiors.

I’m very pleased when editing landscapes and more artistic scenes with HDR Efex Pro.  Until I find a workaround or until Nik improves the rendering of bright highlights compared to other HDR apps I won’t be using it for architectural interiors.

Posted by Michael James

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