Monthly Archives: September 2011

Noise and Noise Reduction – Nik Dfine 2.0 & Neat Image Reviews


Noise, what is it? We can answer that quite simply: Noise is anything that shouldn’t be there. We could get quite technical here but why do that? Would it help you to combat it? Probably not. So let’s just keep the simple explanation of it.

Noise generally has two characteristics, Chrominance noise and Luminance noise. Chrominance noise looks like random color patterns, and luminance noise will look more like grain or grainy pattern.

Knowing what causes noise helps us to prevent it in the first place. (Note, noise is always present in digital camera it is just the amount of it that can cause a problem in your image)

  Some of the things that cause noise are: 

  • ISO noise
  • Long exposure noise
  • Underexposure noise when brought up in brightness
  • Compression artifacts from JPEG lossy images

 We try to keep these at a minimum or eliminate them by: 

  • Using the lowest ISO possible for the scene and conditions
  • Keep your exposure times short unless you are trying to show movement such as silkening the water in a waterfall with along exposure or trying to capture star trails
  • Getting a correct exposure for your image and not raising the exposure in post, in fact it is adviseable (in a standard image, not HDR since there are multiple exposures in an HDR) to slightly overexpose the image (without blowout) and then reduce the exposure in post, therefore lowering the noise into the shadows.
  • In an HDR Image you make sure you get the correct exposure both by correct metering of the scene for your exposure sequence. And also getting sufficient numbers of exposures for the scene so no one exposure needs to be raise in exposure significantly during the tone mapping process
  • Painterly or Grunge style images can be more problematic when it comes to noise since they essentially make all tones close to mid-tones. Raising a shadow tone to a  mid-tone will increase the noise of those pixels
  • Use Tiff’s or PSD as your file type since they are either un-compressed or use lossless compression on the files. If using JPEGs using the highest compression number, therefore the lowest amount of compression.

 For more about choosing the right number of exposures for your HDR, see the article here.

For more information on metering for low noise and better exposures, see the article here. 

OK, so despite our best effort to combat noise, we still have a noise problem in our final HDR Image. There is still hope for your image with the use of some of the excellent noise reduction software that are available.

We’ll look at two of them, Neat Image and Nik Dfine 2.0

 Neat Image 7.0

Neat Image can be had as a stand alone or a plug-in for Photoshop, It is available in 3 varieties, a free Demo version with limited capabilities, A Home Version and a Pro Version. The big difference between the Home and the Pro version is that the home version only works with 8bit images. The pro version can do, 8, 16 and 32 bit images. Therefore in the context of HDR, I would recommend the Pro version since we prefer to work in these higher bit depths. 

(Note, for this test Neat Image 6.0 was used. A new version, 7.0 with some significant improvements is now available but I wasn’t able to get it in time for this test) 

Upon opening your image in Neat Image, the panel has tabs along the top above your image preview the first one is for profiling the noise. Profiling the image will select an area with equal chrominance and luminance and absence of texture. This is both because that is where noise is most visible but also because we don’t want the texture in an image, say sand, to be mistaken for noise. 


Once that profile is established you can save that profile which takes into account the camera model and ISO and use it for other images taken with the same camera and ISO later on or for batching images. Camera/ISO specific profiles are also available from the Neat Image website. This is a very helpful feature but is more useful with single image standard photography. With HDR we are introducing some abnormalities that may be beyond the standard camera profile and I prefer to do a profile for each specific HDR image.

After the image is profiled we can move to the next tab, the noise filter settings.  We can choose the amount of noise reduction and then preview that at varying zooms. The base setting of 100% Chrominance Noise and 60% Luminance noise works quite well for m most images without severe problems. (Note 7.0 has more advanced filter controls)



 You want to strike a fine balance between reducing noise and loosing detail which can happen with too much application of noise reduction. You can tend to get a plasticy look especially to skin especially with an over application of luminance noise reduction. You can also raise the filter settings for each channel if you find the need to further reduce noise. You can also do some sharpening at this stage to bring back some of the edge detail that can be lost to noise reduction. I prefer to do that separately as my final step of my file preparation


Here are two examples of how well Neat Image works which is indeed very well. 

This first image is of just normal high ISO noise exacerbated by a little underexposure. The Image was shot at ISO 800 on a Canon 5D


As you can see in the after side, Neat Image totally eliminated any noise present in the sky while leaving behind good detail. This is a 100% crop and before any Sharpening. So some of the softness in the rocks can be recovered later but the filtered side rocks are not much softer than the before side

 The next example was taken from our lesson the other day on Local Adjustments. That image had multiple things wrong with it. Poor initial exposure and bracketing and then subsequent exposure lightening that really raised the noise up out of the darker areas. It has serious luminance noise but worst yet really terrible chrominance noise you can see in the almost speckled color appearance of the blue of the lifeguard stand




This image really required cranking up the noise reduction, but it still did a great jo0b of making this a usable image. I don’t think I would have wanted to go this far if it was a portrait of a person because I think it would have lost too much texture in the skin. But then again we don’t shoot many HDR portraits and it indeed made this image highly printable.


Checking on the rails they still retained most of their edge sharpness and one of the real telling areas is lettering. It kept that intact without some of the smearing that can occur on letters of high contrast to the background.


I honestly didn’t think I would be too successful with the image looking at it before I applied the noise reduction but I was pleasantly surprised.


One thing I would suggest. Just like we apply sharpening to an image based on the print size or the screen size it will be displayed at. I think that noise reduction too should e applied that way. If you are making a small print you can apply less noise reduction because it won’t be as visible in that size print. You should also preview the image using View>Print Size instead of 100% because you may be correcting for something that never will be viewed at that magnification.

 To learn more about or purchase Neat Image Click HERE


 Nik Dfine 2.0 

Nik Define 2.0 is a Plug-in for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. While the basic operation may be very similar to Neat Image, it has some very special capabilities when it comes to the application of the noise reduction. I’ll adress those in a bit. 

In Photoshop, Dfine would be opened under Filter> Dfine 2.0. In Lightroom/Aperture it would be opened with Edit with. 

Upon opening the screen is laid out like all Nik software for familiarity.A  Preview centered left and then the working controls on the right. You have your choice of three screen mode, single image that the effect can be toggled on or off with a preview button, or you can do split screens of before and after split either vertically or horizontally. You can very the screen preview background of light, medium or Dark gray and have Zooming ability from fit screen to 100 & 300% 

In your settings you can set Nik Dfine 2.0 to automatically profile the image and apply noise reduction. Again this software is looking for an even tones area with no texture and you ca save profile for specific cameras and ISOs for later quick editing or batching. You can have the software automatically select the areas with different sample points across the image or you can use a manual method and choose the points your self. The automatic measurement worked great. 

After you measure, you then reduce. The reduce section has two controls set to 100% for chrominance and Luminance. You can move these controls higher or lower depending on how much noise you want or need to remove. 

So as you can see up to now the two programs are pretty similar. The real difference with Nik Dfine 2.0 is in the application of the noise reduction. And just like when we were talking about Global and Local adjustments to images in a pervious post. Nik Dfine 4.0 has the ability to apply Noise reduction locally in 3 ways. First off it can apply the noise reduction globally and then on close of the panel, will automatically add a new layer for the noise reduction along with a layer mask that you can brush the noise reduction onto specific areas that you want. (Of course you could do something similar with Neat image but you would have to duplicate the layer before hand and add your own mask. Nik Dfine 2.0 does this all automatically (If you want the mask to stick on the layer, make sure you press the brush button before closing the panel) 

But beyond just a layer and mask, Nik Dfine 2.0 allows you to do very different and specialized local applications of noise reduction; the first one allows you to apply noise reduction just to specific colors within the image. Very useful in say a flower image where there are very specific colors you may want to work on and leave the others alone and retain more detail.


The second method of selective application is through the use of Control Points just like those in Nik HDR Efex Pro that I reviewed here. I think I should take a moment now, as I probably should have done in the Nik HDR Efex Pro Review and talk more specifically how these control point work.

You place a point in an area that you want to selectively work on, and then you can change the size of the control point sample area. That sample area expands in a circular marquee, so it gets confusing looking at it that it might apply those adjustments in a circular pattern. That’s not the case at all. The circular area is just the area that the tones are sampled. 

 When the filter is applied it is applied   to tonal areas all around the image that are of similar tonal values, but just on a declining scale as you move away from the control point. So similar tonal values outside the circular area will get some adjustments, but just to a smaller and smaller degree. Confusing at first but one you use it and see how the effects are applied especially if you use the Luminance and Chrominance mask that are available in Nik Dfine 2.0 it become VERY clear.


So just how did Nik Dfine 2.0 do on our sample images? Actually the results were very similar between the two softwares. In that they both did outstanding jobs. So that part is pretty much a tie. Nik just wins on the selective application side. Whether that is important to you is your decision. 

Here is our first image the one with high ISO noise in the sky area.






For the tower image, automatic didn’t really do the trick but a quick switch to manual measuring method and sampling the tower did the trick


For more information  or to purchase  Nik Dfine 2.0 as part of the Nik Collection by Google

Click HERE


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Blends vs. HDR

Over at our sister blog, our friend Irving (Yechiel) asked; “What is the difference between a blend and an HDR???” So I thought I would take that opportunity to talk about what blends are and how you can use them and how they relate to HDRs.

First off I would like to dedicate this post to our friend and Photographer Hikin Mike. Mike is a guy that has had some adversity in his life but hasn’t let that stand in his way of doing what he loves. And that is taking photographs in his beautiful area of Northern California including and encompassing the area around Yosemite National Park ( insert jelousy smiley here). Now it isn’t a secret that Mike isn’t a fan of HDR, he instead prefers to do Blends and quite well I may add. But in the end they both are a way to extend dynamic range and really that’s what we want to do and sometimes they do have some benefits over traditional HDRs. Mike is the blending champ so this post is for him.

As I just talked about, our real purpose in all of this is to extend the Dynamic Range that is usable in our Images. Traditionally we may have used a Split or Graduated Neutral Density Filter. These filters allow for a 1-3 stop difference in exposure between the top and the bottom of the filter, allowing you to have a say a darker exposure for the sky than the land beneath. Unfortunately the problem with them is that the transition is a straight line. Great when say you are shooting the ocean with its flat and level horizon. But what if you had a more complicated scene such as a mountain range or shooting through a window to the outdoors… Enter the Blend.

What is a Blend?

A blend is taking 2 or more images and placing them on top of each other and then, through the use of layer masks, revealing parts of each image that have an exposure that is correct for that part of the scene. In essence what you have is a Hand Made HDR. Instead of a software program doing the tone mapping and deciding the tone values for different parts of the scene, you are doing this by hand.

 The downside of this is it can be, but most certainly isn’t always, a very time consuming method. But it really depends what you want to do, if it is just blending two values Sky/Earth it can go quite quickly. But if you want to bring out the subtle tonal variation that an HDR has it may take you quite some time.

There are some advantages also, it can be more of a traditional photographic look than HDR can be sometimes…well unless you follow my methods ;), and it can be very good at doing one thing that it seems most HDR p5rograms have a difficult time with and that is handling large areas of white. Scenes that have large areas of white often get turned gray by HDR programs and this is one area that you can get better with a blend than an HDR.

And the fact is, There have been times that I have made and HDR and then used a blend afterwards to bring back detail or the above white areas into an HDR. One of the very cool things about Photomatix 4.1, the latest version, is that in the tone mapping panel you can select areas and replace them with a single exposure. In essence you are both tone mapping and blending at the same time. This is really a great feature. But as I said in the review of that product, there are times I like to have more control over it and do it in post in another application like Photoshop.

So enough talk, let’s actually go through the steps of blending images

Blends in Photoshop

The first thing you need to do is shoot FOR a blend. You may shoot just like you normally do for HDR and use those images. But most people that do blends do so with two images, one exposed for the sky (Highlights), one exposed for the ground (Midtones). The midtone exposure usually has enough latitude to have detail in the shadow area and we are most concerned about not having blowout in the Highlight exposure.

One you have your exposures, open the files you want into Photoshop, You can use, RAW, Tiff, PSD or JPEG images and you can also make adjustments to each of the images if you desire before the blend but you must keep in mind the final product you are going for after the blend that you don’t mess up things for the final product.

In this instance I am going to take two images (exposures) that I shot this past Sunday and use those for this example. Plus I also shot an HDR right afterwards so we can compare. I like using RAW files so I opened the two images in Adobe Camera RAW without making any adjustments to them because they were shot pretty well in Camera. Clicking select all and Open, I opened both images in Photoshop.

Here are the two file we will be working with






























I shot two images; both at f/22, ISO 100 with a 3 stop ND filter on to silken the water. The images were shot 45 minutes after sunset so that the dynamic range was wide but not wide enough not to be able to capture in two shots. The exposure times were 1 and 4 seconds respectively

I think it is worth mentioning that an advantage of a blend here over an HDR will be in detail in the clouds. In the subsequent HDR, we have three long exposures of 1, 4 and 15 Seconds. Over that entire time periods the clouds move quite a bit and lead to blurring in the final image. We don’t have that problem with a blend since we only are going to use the 1 second exposure for the sky.

Once we have our two images open we select our Move tool from the toolbar. Holding down the shift key (which allows for perfect alignment of the two images) we drag one image on top of the other. The order really doesn’t matter but we may want the one image that we will use the largest area of on top.

Now that we have the two layers together, we click on the top layer in the layers panel and then go to the bottom of the panel and click add layer mask.

With the layer mask in place on the top layer, I will select a large soft Brush and the color black to reveal the layer below for the sky (Black to reveal, white to conceal, X to switch between them) And begin painting over the sky area to reveal the darker and better exposure of the image below. I use a soft edge brush so that there isn’t a hard transition between the two images but there are times when you may need to use a harder edge brush in smaller detailed areas.


 I  turned on the quick mask to show you the area I painted over. The result is this:

This is a good first start, but I want to further refine the transition between the two exposures so I will switch my brush color to dark neutral gray. You can do the same thing by keeping the brush black but change the opacity and fill of the brush, but I prefer using different shades of gray between white and black and not change the brush itself.
Using a medium gray brush I work on the transition area of the water in the distance and the trees on the left. I went back and forth until I got the overall image with the balance I wanted.















At this point I added a levels adjustment layer and adjusted the image as a whole, and even on that adjustment layer, used the mask to take away a little brightness in the body of water behind the rocks.

And then as my final steps I will go in to the different layers and dodge and burn certain areas to just get the balance I want as I showed in this Local Adjustment tutorial, and then finally I added a high pass sharpening layer over the whole image.

This is the final finished image.















In comparison here is an HDR shot just minutes later. They are different, both are nice.











The HDR has a little better detail and range of tones in some of the smaller areas, The Blend actually gets the sky better and the water swirl better because they are just one image and not subject to some of the blurring that takes place when three images are combined in the merge tone mapping of HDR.

And like I said, there are times I will do an HDR and then blend in a part of the image I want to get even better

Hope that helps,

I LOVE my Camera, Canon 5D

I like nice things, but I don’t think I am overly into material objects. There are a few things that I do truly love.

I love my truck. It gets me into and more importantly, gets me out of some pretty nasty places and we’ve been friends a long time (Yes I actually talk to my truck on trips, this happens when you are alone in the desert for an extended period of time on a shoot)

OK, I know this is a hard one to grasp, but I love my refrigerator…it’s just the “coolest” one ever and it is huge!

But most of all, I love my Camera. It is without a doubt my favorite possession.

I shoot with a Canon 5D,  yes it’s the old one and I will upgrade soon. But I love this one so much…it’s hard to relegate it to Backup.

The cool thing is, our friends at B & H Photo and Video want to play Millionaire Matchmaker (Don’t tell anyone but I’m hooked on that show) and make it easy for you to fall in love too.

Till October 29th they are offering a $100 Instant Rebate on Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 5D Mark II Digital Camera Kit with Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM AF Lens

Go…fall in love…

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Local Adjustments – Dodging, Burning, Layer Masks

Local Adjustments

When we make adjustments to an image we can apply them globally or over the entire image at once, or we can apply them locally or to a small or separate section of the image only. (Please note this is not the tell or end all of how to edit an image nor about using adjustment layers and masks. It’s to get you acquainted with some of the tools you may not have used yet and then can explore further through some of the excellent tutorials online. Let Google be your friend)

As I noted in the review of Nik HDR Efex Pro, it has the ability to add control points within an image and work on that area “Locally” from the rest of the image, which is a very cool thing. Photomatix 4.1 ( 15% Coupon code: theHDRimage ) also has the ability to select parts of the image and choose a different exposure out of the blended images for certain parts of the scene. This again is another but different way to apply local change. I applaud both companies for having these methods but sometimes they still aren’t enough or more to the point, they don’t work as precisely in as small an area as we may need.

This is when it is time to take the image out of the HDR software and into another photo editing program, be that Adobe Photoshop ,  Adobe Photoshop Elements  , Paint Shop Pro or whatever may be your weapon of choice. Let me just make one thing clear; just as we want to get as much right “in Camera” so we have an easier time later in processing, we also want to get as much right “in Tone- Mapping” so that we again have to spend less time fixing things down the road. So this is not a fix for sloppy work in your tone-mapping of the image to begin with.

Let’s just recount what Tone- Mapping is. We are trying to take a very high dynamic range image (Our 32 bit merge file) and fit or compress that information into a medium such as a print or display on our monitors that has a much lower dynamic range. So we need to tone-map or place the different tones within our final image that gives us the perception, of that wide dynamic range. Now we can do that in a realistic, as the eye sees method as I usually choose or we can do it in other methods that have no basis in reality but may be what the artist desires.

So we do our tone-mapping and we get the balance as good as we can get but we still know there are areas we can get better that is beyond what may be capable in the HDR Program. This is where we turn to our other local methods of dodging and burning and also the use of Layer Masks or adjustment brushes along with the use of what may be global adjustment methods such as Levels, Curves and Saturation

The examples I am going to give will be using Photoshop which I still think is the best for finish editing; the methods shown can also be done in most pixel editing programs including Paint shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. One note Elements 9/10 has added true layer masks to the software so what once took a little bit of workaround to archive can now be done straight away.

For those of you that may not be Old School and have worked in a dark room with film negatives and print making. Dodging and Burning were methods used in a dark room to make local adjustments to a print. Dodging was a way to make an area lighter, Burning was the opposite and made the burned areas darker. These methods and names continue with us today but they just are done digitally and also we have a lot more control of the range that these tools cover. We now can be even more precise than the darkroom counterparts.

Before we get into dodging and burning I want to talk about making larger area adjustments and then we will get into the really fine detail. We can also make local adjustments using global adjust tools such as Levels and Curves. These adjustments usually work globally but through the use of layer masks or selection we can apply them only to a smaller area. You always want to make these adjustments on a separate layer because one they give you more control and also don’t harm an pixels of the original image in the process (Note Photoshop CS 5, now puts all adjustments layers in panel because they are that important)

Levels, Curves & Layers Masks

OK, so here is our starting image. It’s a very tough shot, very high dynamic range because even though it is a setting sun it still is quite bright in this spring sky. Now I could have brightened the entire image in tone mapping but doing so I loose the detail I want in the sun. The other problems are: Haloing around the Lifeguard Tower, the sky is too dark overall and we could use a little more detail in the beach area. So with a curves adjustment layer and mask let’s work on the sky first.

In Photoshop go to Layers> Adjustment Layer> Curves. When the curves dialog came up since I knew that blue sky is an almost perfect mid-tone I boosted the curves line up centered at mid-tone. If you don’t know where the tone you want to affect lays on the line, when the curves box opens open click the curves eye dropper on the area you want to adjust and it will show up as a dot on the linear line.

This adjustment  lightened the whole image quite a bit but blew out the sun which I didn’t want to happen so now let’s use a layer mask to apply that curves layer to only the area we want.

The nice part about Adjustment layers is that they already come with a Layer Mask so there is no need to add one. In the default layer mask the mask is filled with white, which means that it fully conceals the layer below. To reveal the layer below we would paint with Black. White to conceal, black to reveal ( Press X to switch between Black & White
















In this case I want to reveal part of the original image around the sun but I don’t want to reveal all of the original darkness, I only want to bring back some of that around the sun, so I choose for my paint a Medium Gray and I painted over the areas of the sun That I wanted to return to the original values or close to that.
As you can see on the mask I painted around the sun and the horizon but I also painted around the tower to take out some of the haloing around it. We’ll clean that up in the next step. So that is how we apply an adjustment to a large area but not the entire image.

Dodge & Burn

Now lets work on making adjustments to even smaller areas with our dodge and burn tool

Let click on our background layer and say “Duplicate Layer” You can rename it Dodge and Burn if that helps you keep things in order.

Selecting our Burn tool from the toolbar, I’ve selected a soft Brush and then in the tool setting panel, I select Highlights and 10%. The nice part about the dodge and burn tools is that we can select the tones of the image we want to work on; Shadows, Mid-Tones and Highlights. Sometimes figuring out which one we want to use is confusing. In fact it’s kind of backwards thinking. Like in this instance you may think since I want to make the bright areas around the tower darker, I would choose shadows, but I really want highlights since that is the pixel value I want to work on and burn or make darker.

Now switching to the Dodge tool, I switch back and forth between Mid-tone and Highlights and brighten areas of the tower, the tower stanchion, and the clouds in the upper part of the image. The nice part about adding these on a separate layer is again, we can vary the whole amount by using the opacity slider on that level or we can again add a mask if necessary

I’m not trying to make any area overly bright, just trying to make it look as I saw it that night and more to the way the eyes see than my camera.

When you are done, My suggestion is that you save the file as a .PSD or a TIFF file (16 bit)  with the layers intact, so if you need to you can always return to the image and readjust things. Only make flattened JPEG’s when you need post to the web or to send to print labs that require JPEG’s

And there you have a finished image, well, almost. From the original image through all the post work, There is some Noise present I would really not like there. So, in the next segment, well look at reducing the noise. Both through workflow and with some of the Noise Reduction software that is available.

If you are a fan of doing your post work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture two non-pixel editing programs, You will want to look to using Adjusment brushes to do eccentually what we have here. It’s just not my favorite way to do it and I feel more comfortable using Photoshop having used it for many years. It’s still my number one choice for post work

Hope that helps,


Magazine Cover and HDR Article

Hot off the press!


Ijjust realized I only posted this at my other blog and not here. So for those of you that haven’t seen it OR bought it…

I have my first magazine cover on Photo Technique Magazine Sept/Oct Edition.

It’s my first cover and there is also a 6 1/2 page article by me on HDR shooting and Processing.

Special thanks to Cort Anderson for dropping my name.

My AMAZING and fun editor Wendy Erickson who besides being the best editor evah…is also a fantastic photographer.

And thanks to designer  Lisa Cordova for making me look swank.


You know, you don’t always get to have very many “Moments” in life. Things that really mean a lot to you and make you feel like you truly accomplished something. I’ve dreamed of having my image on the cover of  a magazine for a very long time. this is one of my “IT”s. I took a while to soak it in on the stand at Barnes and Noble. (which yes does carry Photo Technique)

It was a good day.

Click images to enlarge

Nik HDR Efex Pro – Review

 Note: HDR Efex Pro has been replaced by  the much imporved HDR Efex Pro 2 and is now part of the Great Nik Collection by Google


For about a year now I have been chomping at the bit to test drive HDR Efex Pro from the cool folks at Nik software. But because of some technical deficiencies on my end, I never got to do that. So recently I upgraded some software that allowed me to test it out. Coincidentally I was invited over to Nik software for lunch and just to talk about HDR, where it is and where it is going. The people there are really great and I even had some Durian Fruit for dessert after lunch. For those of you that don’t know, Durian is an Asian fruit that smells and  TASTES something like a cross between old gym socks and garlic…Mmmmm. It actually was fun to try.

(Click on Images to enlarge in a new window)

Nik Software

Nik software is a very high quality company and software manufacturer. They have a very large engineering staff in Europe and aren’t just a couple guys playing in their garage. They have a wealth of experienced and knowledgeable people to draw on and put out some very compelling and imaginative software. I got to play with a number of their offering but the spotlight of this article will be on, of course, Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Like all of Nik Software (except for their new Ultra-Hip Snapseed iPhone Ap) it is a plug-in requiring a “Host” program. They work with Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Apple Aperture. For this review I was working with Adobe Lightroom 3.

The process

After selecting the images in LR  that you want to use in your HDR (yes you can do single image HDRs), you simply right click (Mac Control Click) them and say Export to HDR Efex Pro. Or with the images selected you can go up to  File> Export with> HDR Efex Pro. This will open up the HDR Efex Pro workspace. It’s an interface familiar to LR users, Presets on the left, working controls on the right in an descending order of importance and the image preview in the center. The preview updates in real time and is fully scalable up to 300%.

The first process that occurs is the merging of your files and then the image goes through alignment and De-Ghosting if selected. The first time you open HDR Efex Pro, you may need to go down to settings on the left and select what you actually want to occur on opening of files and it will sticky that setting, however you can go up top of the panel and change those setting and realign/deghost the image again with different settings. Alignment work very well for the most part, occasionally there was some confusion in background sections that had very complex areas of tone or contrast. This didn’t happen often but was visible on two images I did process. I’ve been assured that this is something that will be addressed in updates from Nik. For Chromatic Aberrations, Nik recommends taking care of that in RAW before processing but I did find in a few cases there was some chromatic aberration from the alignment itself but only very occasionally.

De-ghosting worked great especially if you used the Global setting and High. Those of you that remember the example I showed of De-Ghosting with the Pelicans in flight will be glad to know I used the same image and it came out very well with just a little bit of cloning work to do on the final image. While Photomatix’s Semi-manual option is extremely good at what it does  and may eliminate even the most stuborn ghost,  for the most part the automatic operations of HDR Efex pro are great for most usual occurances.


Once you have your image aligned and de-ghosted as necessary, You can move to the left side of the panel to the preset area. Nik includes 33 factory presets from mild to wild as well as the ability to store your own presets and also export those preset to share with other users. I’m really not a big preset fan but the advantage is it shows new users a lot of different styles that are possible and they can see where the settings are for that look and then modify or at least understand what different controls will allow you to achieve.


Moving to the right side of the panel are the adjustment controls. Upon opening, all the controls are reset to zero. I actually wish they would sticky to last settings used or at least allow me that option without the need to make a preset. Sometimes I will work on a file and want to redo it afterwards with just a few modifications of what I used. Speaking of which, I wish that HDR Efex Pro also had the ability to save a file as a 32 bit Radiance HDR file so that I didn’t have to go through the tedious and time consuming merging/alignment  process, if I wanted to redo a tonemapping or try a different style. The program does have the ability to OPEN them, it just can’t save as one. It of course is possible to save as a Radiance File using a merge in Photoshop or “That other HDR program” But I would rather not have to use another program or another step.

As I mentioned before, the adjustments are  arranged in a descending order of importance. The first being Tone Compression which will determine your overall balance between highlight and shadow or if over-boosted, the lack there off. But this is the most important adjustment to make  and then go on to make other adjustment and maybe return to it for a slight tweak. Below that are your global adjustments for Exposure, Contrast and Saturation which are self-explanatory to photographers. Next is an adjustment for “Structure” I don’t know how to best describe Structure, It’s kind of like sharpening but not really. Its like sharpening of tone and not contrast. And with judicious use if it will increase the… well..Structure or textural detail of an image. Used correctly it can add some interest, used too much it starts to look like the faux HDR software effects like Topaz Adjust or Lucis. You may or may not like this effect. Structure is a control that is a part of most Nik Software offerings.

Below that you have controls for overall Black Level, Whites and then a Warmth – color balance control.

Below these all  is a drop down box for HDR Method. Nik HDR Efex Pro has 4 different HDR Algorithms in  20 different preset flavors and then a strength slider. I don’t know, sometimes too many things to play with is a bad thing and I think this is one of them. In the first place the difference between presets is not  always visible unless you up the strength and then that tends to make it look overblown and you end up going back and forth and never really knowing what looks better or not. If it was me I would get rid of this part and just have the four algorithms and a slider, done!

Selective Adjustments

While I may not have been crazy about that part of the software, the next section of it is probably the most interesting and exciting part of Nik HDR Efex pro:Selective Adjustments.

Selective adjustments allow you to place up to 64 “Control Points” anywhere on the image and make Local adjustments to those areas individually. This is HUGE! After you make a control point and adjust the area you want it to affect, you can make all the adjustments that are in the upper part of panel to just that control area. ( the Screen shot only shows the first three adjustments but the list can be expanded to all in the top panel) Not only will this eliminate some dodging and burning later in post processing but it also allows you other adjustments that dodging and burning will just not do. You can leave HDR Efex pro with a totally finished product and may not need to ever touch it in another program. Like I said, HUGE and this may be the ONE reason you buy HDR Efex pro.


Next down are the Finishing Adjustments. The first of which allow you to add an Vignette to the image with either black or white edges or various lens vignetting effects. Worked fine for people that don’t want to take it out to other software.

The next and last item is something else that I am really happy they included, a levels and curves adjustment. This something that I, without a doubt, always do to an image in an external processor and it’s nice to have it included so I can make some tweaks and then if I need to, go back and make other adjustments based on that tweak. You can’t do that if you bring it into an external processor afterwards. The only thing I wish is that there was more difference in color in the included histogram, The background is black and the histogram a very dark grayand it makes it hard to see with my old used eyes.

On the very bottom is a Loupe and a Histogram. The histogram is a RGB + Luminosity Histogram but again the luminosity is in Black against a dark gray background and you hardly know it is there. An easy fix for future updates ( I hope)

And then you have the save button at the very bottom, You can save the image ( and re-import and stack in LR) as a JPEG or either 8 bit or 16 Bit Tiff files.

The verdict

Okay so enough about the way it works, I know you want to know, How DID it work? VERY well actually. But it is such a different animal than Photomatix. I feel more comfortable using Photomatix but I also have been using it for 5+ years. With Photomatix I always have a default starting point of adjustments I start with on every image and then go from there. With HDR Efex Pro, I could never find a starting point that worked well with every image. So I would start from scratch every time. But that’s the way I work, Others may be able to find a preset close to what they want and tweak from there quickly.

When I processed I really didn’t try to duplicate the look I got in Photomatix (HDR Efex Pro’s only real competition or vice versa I guess) because what would be the point of that? Wouldn’t that preclude me from maybe getting a result that was even better? So I just worked in HDR Efex Pro and tried to get an image that looked the best it could without comparing it to what I got in Photomatix (well – until later).

If you are a detail freak, HDR Efex Pro is the one for you, there is detail in sharpness as well as tone. Comparing images in Photomatix, the Photomatix images sometimes looked “Fogged” compared to the HDR Efex Pro one. Some times that is good, sometimes that is bad, depends on the image and of course your taste. That increased detail also brought about a slight increase in noise with HDR Efex pro. But nothing that couldn’t be fixed with Noise Reduction in Lightroom or a  plug in  like Nik’s own DFine. Sometimes results were very close, sometimes image looks could not be more apart.  I really hate to use this analogy, but Photomatix looked more like film, HDR Efex Pro like digital. You can decypher that however you like. Neither one right, just different. Like Vanilla or Strawberry Ice cream. I love them both, they just taste different. ( I do take Ice Cream donations BTW)

I could talk on and on about the results but it’s probably a better idea to show you some side by side so maybe you can determine the look you like. Remembering that I tend to go for a more natural “as the eye sees” result. If you are more of a “Grunge” style artist, either software will work but you may find your way to Grunge Nirvana a little quicker in HDR EFex Pro.

Here are some side by sides:




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 Hope that helps,




Ghost Adventures

What was that? Dude, What was THAT?! OMG, WHAT WAS THAT?!!!  Zak!

OK, I admit I have been watching waaaaaayyy too much of the show Ghost Adventures and I think I may have an EVP replaying in my head and I have a hard time sleeping on Friday nights when every creak of my house turns into sure bet that ghosts are in the house.

For the most part when we do HDRs, we want to make sure that Ghosts are NOT in the house (insert rapper emphasis). I’ve showed you in detail in This Post how to very effectively eliminate ghosting, even the most stubborn. Most HDR software also has some auto de-ghosting features that will eliminate some small random ghosting from within your image.

But there are times when we DO want ghosting to appear. It can add a sense of movement to our scene. When we shoot long exposures of the ocean or a waterfall we actually are using ghosting to our advantage. We don’t want to stop the motion of our subject or an object within our scene. Now those are very obvious examples but sometimes they may be less so.

In this recent image I took in downtown San Diego, I’ve demonstrated that ghosting can be a desired effect and is in fact what made the shot. It was at a busy crosswalk on Market Street where the crosswalks in all direction cross at the same time. If I would have de-ghosted the image, not only would you have thought that the streets were empty Or if I did show the people De-Ghosted they would appear static and not show the hustle bustle of a Friday night out on the town. I only wish I didn’t shoot it the week after labor day when the tourists have all left. I would have liked more people in the scene.

Sometimes de-ghost, sometimes leave them be. So that when people look at your image they might exclaim…OMG WHAT WAS THAT?!!!!

Hope that helps,


When to up your ISO in HDRs

As photographers we know we want to use the lowest ISO possible to capture our imagesand keep the noise level to a minimum. This is even more so when we are shooting HDR’s because the noise can get compounded when during tone mapping some tones are boosted and with that the noise

In most instances we want to keep the ISO at our camera’s minimum, 100 or 200 as the case may be. Just one note, don’t use any of the ‘Extended” ISO such as ISO 50 available on some Canon Cameras or ISO 100 on some Nikons. Because of the way these “Interpolated” ISO work, the images while lower in sensitivity, really don’t give lower noise and in fact give lower Dynamic Range per image.

So since we use tripods for good HDR’s or at least we should. Normally we don’t have a problem using low ISO and longer shutter speeds because we, as a practice, don’t have moving objects in our HDRs, although, I did show you how to do that in this blog post. But sometimes we may not have obvious moving objects because to our eyes they aren’t.

Some of those moving objects  may be Clouds (especially low clouds on windy days or close to sunset). The Moon ( It moves about 15 degrees per hour). Boats at harbor ( even with soft swells they move) And I’m sure we could come up with a few more.

So in cases like this we may want to boost our ISO for two reasons, WE want our longest exposure of our series to have a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion of anything so you don’t get blurring of a single frame. And we also want to be able to shoot the entire series of shots without any object moving in the total time it takes to shoot ( where you most likely would see movement of clouds or the moon. )

Continue reading »

When to up your ISO

As photographers we know we want to use the lowest ISO possible to capture our imagesand keep the noise level to a minimum. This is even more so when we are shooting HDR’s because the noise can get compounded when during tone mapping some tones are boosted and with that the noise

In most instances we want to keep the ISO at our camera’s minimum, 100 or 200 as the case may be. Just one note, don’t use any of the ‘Extended” ISO such as ISO 50 available on some Canon Cameras or ISO 100 on some Nikons. Because of the way these “Interpolated” ISO work, the images while lower in sensitivity, really don’t give lower noise and in fact give lower Dynamic Range per image.

So since we use tripods for good HDR’s or at least we should. Normally we don’t have a problem using low ISO and longer shutter speeds because we, as a practice, don’t have moving objects in our HDRs, although, I did show you how to do that in this blog post. But sometimes we may not have obvious moving objects because to our eyes they aren’t.

Some of those moving objects  may be Clouds (especially low clouds on windy days or close to sunset). The Moon ( It moves about 15 degrees per hour). Boats at harbor ( even with soft swells they move) And I’m sure we could come up with a few more.

So in cases like this we may want to boost our ISO for two reasons, WE want our longest exposure of our series to have a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion of anything so you don’t get blurring of a single frame. And we also want to be able to shoot the entire series of shots without any object moving in the total time it takes to shoot ( where you most likely would see movement of clouds or the moon. )

This is also where using auto-bracketing comes in handy because we can fire our exposures as fast as our camera can shoot Frames per second ( provided our exposures aren’t in seconds.)

Upping your ISO also comes in handy for those times we want to hand hold an HDR, No we shouldn’t but we do do it and if you can get three shots off with fast shutter speeds they can be successful and sharp HDR’s

So if you need more shutter speed don’t be afraid to up the ISO a bit. The top ISO you use will depends upon your camera and how well it handles noise. And also to keep down noise make sure you have the right exposures and the right number of exposures so in the HDR processing, the noise is not exacerbated as I showed in this blog post

15% off coupon code for Photomatix Pro “theHDRimage”

I’ve teamed up with the great folks at HDRsoft and can now offer you a coupon code for 15% off the regular price of Photomatix Pro software.

Just visit the HDRsoft Website choose your software and enter the coupon code: theHDRimage at checkout and you will get 15% off your purchase.

You know what I think about it, now own it for yourself

Shooting the LOW dynamic range scene, and what exposures to leave out of any HDR

I awoke on Labor day Monday to rain. A rare summer occurrence in Southern California.  After I stopped off for a Smoothie at Jamba Juice  (Mmmmm). I headed down the road to the Vineyards of Wine country thinking there may be some cool shots because of the clouds. The rain let up enough for me to set-up amongst the grape vines.

The first things I noticed was that the light was VERY flat because of the cloud cover but the scene still had some interest to me. I measured the light range with my cameras meter from brightest to dark and the range only covered less than 3 stops. Now right there that should have told me not to shoot an HDR and I should have taken the advice I normally give and just shot it traditionally in one exposure. But two things came to mind, the fact that I am testing some new software and thought this might be a good test and also…well I just plain thought I could get just a little extra out of the sky with a 3 Exposure HDR shot at -2, 0 +2 EV.

Well, I was wrong. Here are the three exposures (Click to enlarge)

If you look at the -2 and the +2 exposures, you can see VERY little detail and definition to these two images and when we combine all three into an HDR the final effect is less than pleasing. And in the end, reflects the lack of any definition in those exposures and leaves us with an unusable image.
There is absolutely no detail in the vines. It is smeared and a total loss of tone.
So what should I have done. Well besides just working with one exposure. I should have known from measuring the dynamic range that if I did want to shoot 3 exposures, in this case I would have been much better off with 3 exposures but 1 stop apart -1,0,+1
Was this shoot still salvageable, Yes it was. Since I was exporting the three images out of Lightroom into Photomatix, I merely changed the exposures of the RAW files in Lightroom to +1 exposure on the shadow image and -1 exposure on the highlight image. If you are using Photomatix or any HDR program as a stand alone program. You can accomplish the same thing by first processing the images from  the RAW file withy the exposure adjustments and then save as 16 bit Tiff files and open them in The stand alone program

In the end, I’m still not happy with this image. The light was way too flat for any drama whether it was a single image shot traditionally or an HDR. I should have known better. But sometimes these things work out
 So what else can we take away from this example. Even if you are shooting a wide range of exposures in a very high dynamic range scene, examine those images in a browser first to see if there is any detail in the extreme exposures that will be of any use.
Again while I was doing some tests on new software I made some exposure over a wide range, 9 exposures in all. But I ended up only using 7 of these in the final HDR because the two end exposures lacked any usable detail and would have just smeared the final product
 More isn’t always more and sometimes less is more
Hope that helps