One note, make sure you read this review all the way to the end.
On Monday Nik Software announced the release of Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, an update to their ground breaking (In some ways ) HDR Efex Pro. It promised to deliver some much needed upgrades in a few areas
Improved speed and performance
A new Alignment and De-ghosting panel with improved performance
A new Tone-Mapping Algorithm
A new and improved Control Panel
Let’s see how these new features stack up
First though: Full Disclosure. I participated in the Alpha and Beta testing of this software and I am also an Affiliate marketer for Nik as I am others. That you should know. But I also have my reputation as a reviewer at stake which for me come before any other affiliations. I’m pretty tough on products and this will be an actual test not a puff piece.
OK let’s start
Improved speed and performance
This was something that was a source of some complaint in Pro and was to be remedied in Pro 2. So I set about a test with a 8 Image merge to see just how much it has been improved.
I first tested the merge coming out of Lightroom 3.6 into HDR Efex Pro, the times stated do not include the time it takes for Lightroom to render the RAW files into Tiff files for HDR Efex Pro’s use. Merging the 8 exposures in HDR Efex Pro took an agonizing 5:27 so I definitely wanted something better out of HDR Efex Pro 2. The 8 exposure merge in HDR Efex Pro 2 took 4:55 not including any time spent in the new Alignment and De-ghosting panel where the process pauses so you can take care of any alignment and deghosting
So really the speed increase was quite modest and not what I thought it would be. BUT, here’s the thing. Most of HEP2’s speed increase is based upon GPU (graphics processing unit) performance in your system. So if you have the latest and greatest (I GB Video RAM) you will see much improved speed increase. I’m still using a old system by current standards (because of the aforementioned Cheapbastardness) with a very modest (and old) 256MB GPU. So the performance increase you get may depend on where you sit in regards to your system. So I’m not pointing this out a performance defect but rather to give you realistic expectations with the system you have
Now in comparison, because I know you want to know, The same merge in Photomatix took just 2:51
New Alignment & De-Ghosting panel
This is a much needed improvement that I am so happy to see. A sore spot for me was the alignment capabilities of HDR Efex Pro. It worked fine for the most part but on very complex images such as a lot of tree branches it easily got confused. All is well in alignment land in HDR Efex Pro 2
In HEP 1, alignment was something you could go back to after the fact, in HEP2 it’s a stop along the way. Half way through the merge process a new panel will open up which allows you to work on 3 things, Alignment, De-Ghosting and Chromatic Aberration.
Let’s look at how they worked
Alignment: Just simply MUCH improved. Using my Desert Grass test the alignment of the grass was perfect. In some images there is some fringing/ringing of objects far in the background but it’s one of those pixel peeping things that isn’t noticeable in normal viewing/printing
De-Ghosting: Testing the De-ghosting capabilities of HEP2 I used the “Pelican Test” which is an HDR of pelicans in flight at 40MPH a really tough task. Using the deghosting at 80% I was able to completely remove any ghosting in the image
Chromatic Aberration: This was the one control I really wasn’t crazy about. It works just OK. If you really have serious CA it is much better controlled in Lightroom 4.
New Tone-Mapping Algorithm
The new algorithm goes for a more natural look to start out with but It’s quite easily grunged up with the new controls I’ll talk about in a second. The default image is fairly light in luminance. Some of the earlier betas had it much darker in fact too dark. Having it lighter is actually a good thing since dialing back exposure will lessen noise in the image which is a common problem with HDRs (increased Noise) So it’s very much like “exposing to the right”
The only problem I see with it is that it makes all the presets appear light since they are based on the default image so you may not instantly see the effect you are looking for. It’s a very flat natural look so you may find yourself immediately reaching for the contrast slider but it allows for a good starting point from which you can add rather than have to take away which I think is the better method. Kinda like salting food
I think this is an area where Software makers really should tread lightly when making changes to controls. The biggest learning curve any user has in using software, especially HDR software, is what does what to what. If I have this situation what control will change that. So if you have a user that finally got a handle on that in their mind and you change it up. It sends people back ton the drawing board especially if you remove a certain control or add a new one that behaves differently
So with that little bit of Op-Ed out of the way. Nik probably did the right thing trying to redo the controls for HDR Efex Pro 2. I really didn’t have a problem with the original’s controls but I didn’t like the HDR Method Drop down list and then Method strength above that in the old version. Just too many choices. So I do like that they took some of the main features of the different Methods and placed them in the upper portion of the control panel. These control; Depth, Detail and Drama along with a Method Strength control just above them and below the Tone Compression. This is just a much better way to do this and in a way that makers sense.
Some things that don’t make sense are how they have some of the controls labeled and how they operate. It kinda feels like it was designed by a auto engineer that has never driven a car.
For example: Tone compression is defaulted in the center point at which is 0%, moving it to the right increases the percentage, moving it left decreases the percentage and also takes away compression
But then right below that Method Strength is center detented at 50% and moving it right moves above 50% and moving left moves it below 50%. So what does that mean? is 50% the old 0 strength from HEP 1? or do they now actually start at true 50% method strength?
Moving down to the Tonality section of the controls comes more confusion with the Shadows and Blacks sliders, for me intuitively if I am moving a slider to the right and it increases percentage I am getting MORE of what that slider controls. But that’s not the case, Moving the Shadows slider to the right and increasing Shadow percentage actually DECREASES the shadows in the image. Maybe it make sense to someone else. Just not me.
I also wish they would have had a Gamma or midrange control in the tonality section. I realize I can adjust midtones in the Curves area below but as good as curves is it still adjusts much to wide a bandwidth if there is just one tonal area I want to adjust.
Okay, so you are probably saying to yourself. Wow, that’s not actually a glowing review. I agree it may not seem that way. I’m pretty tough on everything I use. HDR Efex 2 may not be as ground breaking as HEP 1 was. This is more like tidying up the loose ends they wished they would have done in HEP 1. BUT, what really is the bottom line here? Image Quality. It’s amazing. Yeah maybe this little thing bugged me here and I wish they did this this way but the bottom line image was absolutely OUTSTANDING.
If you check out two of the HDR samples I have provided below they include the sun in them and no other HDR program gets that area as right as Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 and I know how to get the most out of any program and none get that area as well executed as HEP2. AND it was easy to achieve. It’s didn’t take endless tweaks to get that area controlled
The overall image in the “As the Eye Sees” look I prefer was crisp and sharp without ever looking over-cooked. There was great detail throughout the tonal range. Colors were good and life-like. The balance as far as tonal compression goes was flawless. Noise was still a little higher than I would like but was easily handles with a program such as Nik’s own Define 2.0 NR
So did they hit a home run with HDR Efex Pro 2? Probably a stretched triple…but as far as Image Quality goes..It was out of the park, way out of the park.