8 HDR Software Program Shootout
- Adobe Lightroom Classic CC
- Adobe Photoshop HDR Pro
- Aurora HDR Pro 2018 by Skylum
- Easy HDR
- Enfuse HDR
- HDRsoft PhotoMatix Pro 6
- HDRSoft Merge to 32 Bit HDR
- ON1 Photo RAW 2018.5
*Note: You can skip reading this next part if you just want to get on with the review.
I have long avoided doing a head to head comparison like this. For a couple of reasons. Mostly because it is a conflict of interest, in two ways. In the first way, I represent.as an affiliate, some of the companies reviewed here. So if I say something is good, how do you know it’s not just me pushing something I possibly could make money on? Secondly, It’s a conflict of interest to myself since photography and this website are my only means of making a living. So if I don’t promote things, I also don’t eat. This is why I most times would just review one piece of software at a time, do the FTC announcement to let you know that I may or may not have a financial connection to the company and then give you my honest opinion of that piece of software. That last part I ALWAYS do. But the truth of the matter is, affiliate deals are not what they were at one time and I make far more of my living selling Prints now. And I thought a good way to do this was to do the head to head, Give some opinions on how they performed but in the end NOT TELL YOU, “This one is the best!” or even give you a “Top 3” I’ll give you the info and the results. YOU make that choice, and it WILL be different for different people since HDR styles are very spread apart from Mild to Wild and not all, do all. So here you have it: 8 HDR Software Roundup.
What do HDR programs do?
All HDR Programs have a few basic functions necessary to make a finished image. Remember, we are NOT making an HDR Image, we are making a Standard Dynamic Range image from the capture of a High Dynamic Range Scene.
Once we have captured that HDR scene by photographing multiple images (Typically 3 – 7) shot at different exposures (varying shutter speeds). We put them together to make the final image. What each program needs to do is:
- Align the images so that there is no edging, if our tripod or handholding was not exact
- Remove ghosts from any moving objects over the time that those multiple images took place
- Remove Chromatic Aberrations that may occur on edges especially in corners of the frame when we merge multiple images
- Blend the images together, usually in 32 bit, using sophisticated algorithms and masking to provide a standard dynamic range image to further process
- The final editing/Processing of that blended image for the finished look. *Note, not all the software in this shootout does this last step and that may require you to use another editor of your choice (Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar etc.) In this test if the software did not have editing capabilities, Lightroom was used for that purpose.
How I tested
I came up with some torture tests for first 3 conditions. These tests are NOT typical of Real World. In fact, most of the software will work just fine how you typically would use it. But I wanted some tests to show what differences there may be.
For ALIGNMENT, I wanted to simulate hand holding of the camera. If you use a tripod and practice good photographic and tripod skills, alignment should not be an issue. In fact, there are times when turning off alignment on a perfectly shot tripod image will be sharper. But many people, especially with the high ISO capabilities of current cameras, like to handhold their bracketing. So, I placed my camera on a Really Right Stuff Nodal Slide which is about 8” long and I slid the camera to 3 places along the nodal slide to simulate (exaggeratedly) a person swaying side to side while shooting their brackets. For this test I had De-ghosting turned OFF. For most of the software even if it did poorly on Alignment, turning on de-ghosting helped with that also and all would have passed, so I took that out of the equation for this test….OR, so I thought
It turns out that practically no software could pass this test – Perfectly. So back to the drawing board and I instead did a true hand-held test with instead of a linear movement, I used a twisting action. This STILL proved to be a VERY hard test and really showed the metal of each. And since so few really passed the test, I added a second pass with de-ghosting added in. This really helped almost all the Programs to achieve a perfect or near perfect alignment (not all programs do de-ghosting). So that begs the question; “Why not just always have de-ghosting turned on?” Sound reasonable, but there are instances that de-ghosting can cause an increase in noise in certain areas if the ghosted area is underexposed in the selection that is chosen to de-ghost. The REAL bottom line is; as much as we want to Handhold HDR brackets. It still is not desirable. USE a tripod, seriously. It will help with alignment and no matter what, aids in overall sharpness even if shooting single image. There are never free rides in Photography.
For DE-GHOSTING. I set up my camera on a tripod and didn’t move it. On the table in front of it I placed a bottle in three locations simulating a person walking across the field of view in the time period of three frames. The test was made even tougher by the fact that the bottle caused a reflection in the glass of the table, making more for the programs to have to detect. I then used the highest de-ghosting setting the program offered if it was variable. Note, Photomatix Pro also has manual de-ghosting which will take out just about any ghost you have. I only used Auto settings in this test
For CHROMATIC ABERATION. I found an image with a hard edge near a edge of the frame. While I did test all the software that had this feature – Not all of them do – And the truth is, all of them passed without a problem so I’m not posting the results. Beyond that even if the software did not include settings for chromatic aberration, chromatic aberration is so easily solved in Lightroom or Photoshop these days, it’s not a make or break point
For MERGE/BLENDING. If the software operated as a Plug-in to Lightroom. I selected the images in Lightroom’s Library system and then either used Export or in the case of Enfuse, use Plug-in Extras. For some I had to open the images directly from the software. Now originally, I was just going to show the output image without any Editing/Tonemapping applied. To show how well the software masked areas and transitions. However not all software just blends without applying some sort of tone-mapping. Some do, some don’t. So, it would make it unfair because just looking at the images, some viewers would mistakenly think that because an image looks more finished, it was therefore better. Which really was not the case. So what I did was take the image all the way through to a finished state. Some, that offered finishing editors built in, I would take more to the end state. Some do not offer any finishing capabilities so that was done in Lightroom (though you could use the editor of your choice; Luminar, Photoshop etc). In all cases I also put final finishing touches on all using Lightroom because that is what I would do in a normal workflow. I tried to get all similar, but they just will not all look the same. So this is the hardest part of the test because the images are hard to compare and also because tastes vary for finishing. But it will give you some idea of how they all look different or look alike
Now, while I will give you the Prime features of each software and the test results and commentary on them individually, so you can see the pros and cons, I am not going to do a Best or even a Top 3. I’ll leave that up to you so there is no charge of bias on my part.
OK Let’s take a look at the Alphabetically. For test images click to view full size
Adobe Lightroom Classic CC
HDR Processing has been a part of Lightroom since Lightroom 5 and continues today with some refinements in Adobe Lightroom Classic part of the Creative Cloud series. Not to be confused with Lightroom CC which is an entirely different animal. Please Note: This is Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. NOT Adobe Lightroom CC. They are VERY different
It’s features are:
- It may be something you already own so no need for additional software purchase
- Easy image selection from the Library DAM module.
- Outputs a 16 Bit DNG (Adobe Raw) image and all editing at this point is non-destructive until you export as another file type. The advantage is, even blended you still can do correct white balancing and lens corrections plus all editing Lightroom offers and being able to go back and make changes at any state.
- Single seat license (at one time) $9.99/month CC Photography Plan (includes Photoshop)
Here are the test results
Image Alignment: Lightroom had a problem getting the Palm Tree correct, Everything else in the frame was fairly well aligned but looked “fuzzy”. Turning on de-ghosting present a perfect image
Image De-ghosting: Lightroom did an excellent job of de-ghosting. You don’t see any remnants of the bottle or even the refection in the frosted glass.
Blended image: Lightroom does a good job of blending but not great. It has a very natural look to the image which some will find a good thing but those that prefer a more Grunge or Painterly look will have a hard time achieving without using other software such as Topaz Adjust or ON1 Filters. I did have to do more, much more, local adjustments such as Gradients and Adjustment Brushes to get a balance between the darker areas and the brighter sky. The image is reasonably sharp after applying some sharpening but is not as “Structured” looking as some of the other software, which may be good or bad depending on your outlook on that.
Adobe Photoshop HDR Pro
Photoshop has had HDR capabilities since Photoshop 3 (it actually was in 2 but without auto align and was a rudimentary offering) It’s been slightly changed throughout the years to allow finishing in Adobe Camera RAW in 6 and CC versions. It can be confusing to use for some people since there are many ways to get to your final image. You can do adjustments in Camera Raw and then just save out that in a 32 Bit Tiff file for use in other software that is 32 Bit capable. Or you can do a Down-sample to 16 bit or 8 Bit which opens a different dialog for other tone mapping options and finishing with Photoshop. It’s that step that many people find confusing. The difference between Photoshop HDR Pro and Lightroom’s HDR, Is that Photoshop is operating in the 32 bit domain while Lightroom works in 16 bit. However, Lightroom CAN open a 32 bit Photoshop HDR Tiff…confused yet? But working in 32 bit allows for more adjustment range for some sliders in ACR or LR.
- Again, may be software you already own
- 32 Bit file
- Non-destructive if you do the work as a Smart Object in Photoshop or do final editing in Lightroom
- Can be accessed from either Edit In, in Lightroom, from Bridge or from within Photoshop under File> Automate
- Has all the editing capabilities of Photoshop Itself (ACR +) which still remains the most powerful editing tool available even if it is the most demanding knowledge wise.
- Converting from 32 bit to 16 bit/8bit may not be intuitive for all
- Single seat license (at one time) $9.99/month CC Photography Plan (includes Lightroom)
Image Alignment: Photoshop did a good job of aligning but the whole image looked fuzzy. I had thought it would do much better since Photoshop’s “Align image” command is VERY good, but it did about the same as Lightroom. Turning on de-ghosting again rendered a great image and improved the sharpness.
Image De-Ghosting: Photoshop almost got it but not quite. There are remnants of the bottle on the left in both the bottle area and the refection. There is also some confusion on the main bottle itself.
Blended image: For this image I actually did the editing in Lightroom which would be the same exact as ACR but just helped with my workflow of getting all the images processed PLUS I would have the history to look at in Lightroom, ACR does not have a history panel (do you HEAR me Adobe?!) The starting point for the image looked a lot like the one from Lightroom with the exception that the image was about ½ a stop darker. The real difference seems to be the amount of detail that was able to be extracted in the highlights of the Photoshop image. I have to believe that is because it is a 32-bit image
Aurora HDR Pro 2018 by Skylum
Aurora HDR Pro 2018 is fairly new to the game, a coproduction of Skylum Software (formally MacPhun) and Trey Ratcliff. The first version was Mac only, but the newer MUCH improved version is available for both Mac and Windows Platforms (as is their Luminar editing software). One of Aurora HDR Pro’s main selling features is that it included a full featured editing section far beyond what is available in most HDR only software. Besides the usual controls. It contains extensive Structure and detail controls, a Graduated filter section (called top and bottom), Glow effects (reverse clarity) , a Polarizer Effect, Color Toning, HSL, Vignetting and Dodge and Burn. And on top of that, the ability to do Layers (pun intended). Aurora also has many presets available that help people that don’t know where to start find a starting point or even a finish point depending on the style they like. All Presets and Manual Adjustments overall can be controlled by Opacity if you like a look but just want less of it.
As you can see that is very extensive controls. That being said, I didn’t use them. I am looking for a natural Photographic look to my HDR images. I feel that as soon as you touch a control in Aurora it goes over the edge very quickly into other “Looks” I’m not a fan of, but many people are. So instead I just took the default merge image and finish processed it in Lightroom. I at first felt “bad” about doing this but upon watching an Aurora Training video I saw that one of the trainers did the same thing and finished the image in Luminar (Skylum’s Photo Editor).
- All in one. Merge and Finish edit with extensive editing tools
- Use as a Standalone or as a Plug-in to Lightroom
- Many Presets by top names and user presets
- Non-Destructive (proprietary) till export/save as
- Now for both Mac and Windows platforms
- Batch processing
- Single Image processing
- 5 Seat license $99
Image Alignment: In this test Aurora fared poorly. Unable to even align the front Palm Tree. BUT let me go back to something I said in the How I Tested section. If I had invoked both “Align image” AND “De-ghosting” the image comes together almost perfectly with just a ghost line on the left ridgeline. So that would probably be something I would suggest to people no matter which software they are using: IF, you are hand holding exposures, turn on both Align and De-ghost. If on a tripod you can be more selective of what you use.
Image De-Ghosting: Aurora did a mostly good job on this with just leaving some artifacts in the reflective glass. Not the top but not the worst either.
Blended image: Aurora in my opinion does a very good job in this respect. The blended image has very good Luminance masking and brings across a good Mid-toning image you can work with especially in the shadow area. Why this is important is; if you have a blended image that is dark in the blacks/shadows area and you feel the need to boost them up you will introduce a lot of noise since that is where noise is most present in digital images. If I can instead just leave those areas alone or even tone them down (expose to the right) I will get a much cleaner image. It did not take a lot of work in Lightroom for me to get a finished image to my liking.
This was a surprising little package considering the price. I was asked to give it a look a while but was not given a Reviewers license, so I just used the Trial Version they have which leaves a watermark and only allows export as a Jpeg. It is a full function Merge/Blend/Edit processor with RAW capabilities. Very easy and intuitive to use.
- Full beginning to end processor with Camera RAW compatibilities
- Lens correction and Chromatic Aberration controls
- Presets for fast tone-mapping
- Stand Alone or LR Plug-in
- Batch processing
- Non-destructive (proprietary) till Export/Save As
- Windows/Mac compatible
- Single Seat License $39 Home use, 1 Seat Commercial Use $65
Image Alignment: Easy HDR performed OK, but totally ghosted the palm tree while getting most everything else aligned. This one was funny because it actually performed VERY well on the tougher linear movement test. But again, turning on de-ghosting returned a perfectly aligned image.
Image De-Ghosting: EasyHDR did not fair very well in De-Ghosting. It chose the right bottle to be the subject but has a lot of drop out on it and then has a lot of left behind pieces in the center bottle but did eliminate the left bottle and reflection.
Blended Image: I was pleasantly surprised with the output from EasyHDR. It was a very good blend and the Tonal Masking was very, very good making for an image that was easy to get how I like it. It didn’t take any major hoops to get a natural look with plenty of detail and I just used a smidge of Lightroom to get everything perfect. It was a very good-looking image.
LR/Enfuse is somewhat of an anomaly in the world of HDR. It’s an Open Source software that is “Donation Ware”. Like it – drop some money in the box on the right. But it quickly became the “Standard” for people that do Real Estate Photography and do HDRs, Particularly interiors (Think dark interiors with bright outdoor light windows, a very tough HDR). It’s known for its very realistic and natural look. The software is very simplistic, it works though Lightroom where you select the images to merge and then go to File>Plug-In Extras and the LR/Enfuse. Once you hit go there are very few controls, just a check box for alignment and some sliders depending on what you want to e software to do ( It also does focus stacking and Star Trail stacking). When it’s done it imports the image back into Lightroom with the file type you prefer. There’s nothing else to the program, It only Merges and Blends the image. Any tone-mapping and finish editing will be done in Lightroom
- Very Lightweight (processor wise)
- Works best for natural looks and Real Estate Interior HDRs
- Requires Lightroom to process
- Donation ware (pay what you like) Win/MacOS
Image Alignment: This one was another confusing result. On the new test where there was “twisting” of the camera it performed really poorly. But on the linear test, it did a pretty good job with alignment, but there was some edge ghosting on the palm tree and a little bit on the ridge-line. It did pretty well on the creosote bush
Enfuse does not have de-ghosting but this is the results of the test from the linear movement test. Just to show that it can work. Iy just doesn’t like certain movements
Image De-Ghosting: Fogettaboutit. This software has no de-ghost capabilities. It was designed for people that are on a steady tripod…period
Blended Image: It simply does a really good job if you are looking for a natural looking final image. It handled detail well in both Highlight and Shadow areas. Very little noise. If you have all your ducks in a row with your shoot workflow, right exposure bracketing on a good steady tripod, it delivers a great final image.
HDRsoft Photomatix Pro 6
This is basically the granddaddy of all HDR software. It was around when other companies weren’t even thinking about doing HDR. It was the first real HDR software I used going back to the original version. It is now onto version 6.1 and despite its age it’s kept up pretty well with the newer competition. It can operate as a Standalone or as a Lightroom Plug-in. It will handle the merge/blend step and then complete the Tone-mapping with 7 different HDR Algorithm types depending on the final look you desire, from mild realistic to wild unicorn pooping rainbows styles. It has something for everyone. Has some things that no one even thought to have like a 32 Bit Histogram and Contrast Range estimator tool, which is kinda cool to see; is my HDR really High Dynamic Range?
- Stand Alone or Lightroom Plug-in
- Extensive Tone Mapping options
- Small but effective finishing panel
- Best in class Alignment and De-Ghosting
- Can Output 32 Bit files (Tiff, HDR, EXR) (Advanced Users)
- $99 single seat/multi computer perpetual license Win/MacOS
Image Alignment: Photomatix Pro 6 did a great job on alignment. Getting the Palm Tree just about perfect. There is some edge confusion on the building to the left and on a few cacti. Turning on de-ghosting cleared everything up perfectly.
Image De-ghosting: It got it right. One Bottle, One reflection
Blended Image: Photomatix did a very good job in the blend. I did not need to use any local adjustments so that says their luminance masking worked well and correctly. The image was sharp if maybe just a bit over-sharp but was low noise. Great detail in the Highlights around the setting sun area and sky above that. A small amount of noise in the shadows but easily removed in LR. The biggest problem is with so many different Tone-Mapping options it may be hard to find the correct one for a particular image (try some of the presets to get a baseline image)
HDRsoft Merge to 32 Bit HDR
This is a little-known plug-in to Lightroom from HDRsoft the makers of Photomatix. In fact, it’s even hard to find even at the HDRsoft site (LINK). Once Lightroom had it’s own HDR, HDRsoft no longer touted it, feeling it wasn’t any different than what people could get for “free” in Lightroom. However, I disagree, with the biggest difference being that Merge to 32 bit HDR outputs a floating 32 bit Tiff file while Lightroom outputs a 16 bit DNG file. It may not seem like a big deal but there are some controls in Lightroom that have more latitude in 32 bit than in 16 bit. This plug-in ONLY Merges and aligns and de-ghosts the merge. It does not have any Tone-mapping capabilities, instead leaving that to Lightroom to do.
- Merge/Blend only No tone mapping (use Lightroom)
- Plugin only
- $39 single user multiple computer perpetual license Win/MacOS
Image Alignment: The Alignment in Merge to 32 bit HDR was essentially the same as Photomatix (not surprising) It’s did a good job on almost everything but just missing on the edges of the building and some cacti. Again, turning on De-Ghosting rendered a perfect image.
Image De-Ghosting: Surprisingly, it was a little less effective in de-ghosting (Photomatix actually has a more robust de-ghosting ability even allowing for manual removal of ghosts) It did almost everything perfect but left behind a bit of the reflection on the right side.
Blended Image: Merge to 32 bit HDR did a great job of merging the files. It’s Luminance masking was just OK and I did have to add local adjustments to the foreground to balance the image. The image was not as sharp as the Photomatix image but we have to remember that this plug-in does NOT do any tone-mapping like Photomatix does even at default. It would be easy to add sharpening to the image though as there is plenty of detail to work with. Again, plenty of detail in Highlight areas. A small amount of noise in the shadows but easily removed in LR.
ON1 Photo RAW 2018.5
ON1 is fairly new to the HDR game just introducing it’s available in it’s all in One Editor/DAM/Filter program (a Lightroom Alternative) ON1 Photo RAW 2018 IN September of 2017. To initiate the HDR process you must open Photo RAW 2018 as a standalone and use their easy to use File Brower DAM (digital asset management – read no Catalog) to select your images and then simply hit the HDR button in the right Processing section. The advantage of the Program is that not only can you select, merge and tone-map the file but you then have access to all the other filter tools and things like “Perfect Resize” that ON1 is famous for.
- All in one, File Browser (DAM), Editor, Filters, Layers, Perfect Resize (Read Adobe replacement)
- Non-destructive editing before export. (Proprietary file type)
- Large amounts of Presets in both Develop and Filters to help speed the editing process. More Packs available at ON1 website including those from users and Pros
- $119.95 for 5 computers Win/MacOS
Image Alignment: Photo RAW 2018 really did not do a great job of aligning the images. It ghosted just about everything; tree, building, ridgeline. Invoking De-ghosting really didn’t help. I think this is just being new to the game. ON1 continually updates their software based on user feedback so I’m sure they will solve it in the future however, for now, they don’t do the best job here. Again, this is a torture test and would not be typical of regular use but still is interesting to see. One odd note though is that it actually did quite well on the harder test which only had side to side shift. It obviously does not like twists left and right
Image De-Ghosting: Again, it just didn’t do the best, leaving remnants of both the bottle and the reflections.
Blended Image: ON1 Photo RAW did a very nice job of making a natural looking HDR image. The highlight control did not quite work the way I would like and didn’t seem to be as powerful or work on the same curve as Lightroom’s. But I still was able to get a very good image. A bit of molting in the sky but noise was very low. The nice part is right from within the program you can switch over to ON1’s Filters such as their very popular Dynamic Contrast filters to get the final results you are after and also if you like more of a grunge, painterly or glow effect, those are at your instant disposal also.
So, if you are waiting for me to tell you which one is “Best”, like I said earlier. I am not. I did express my thoughts in all the test portions, but I want YOU to decide which software is best for you. This eliminates any bias I may have and also allows that you and I could have truly different tastes in finishing an image. I have a desire for a mostly natural/photographic look. You on the other hand may like Grunge or Painterly styles which would mean we may in the end chose totally different software.
I will warn you not to put the greatest weight on the results for Alignment and De-ghosting. As you can see they are all over the place but really only relevant IF you hand-hold and in a poor manor. The de-ghosting would depend how often you have moving objects in your images that you DON’T want motion to show.
If you still don’t know which one is right for you keep in mind that almost all (all) the manufacturers have free trials. Some are full function, some water mark. Use the links below to find the trial software or to purchase
I hope this was helpful to you. As you can see, in 2018 there are many choices and the truth is you won’t go wrong with any of them. All can, most likely, get you what you are looking for in HDR
Check my coupon code page for discounts that may be available. Be aware coupon codes may not work if the company is running it’s own special pricing
*FULL FTC DISCLOSURE: I have a financial connection to some of the companies mention in this article. I never use that to make a judgement in the reviews but you should be aware that that connection exists