Note: HDR Efex Pro has been replaced by the much imporved HDR Efex Pro 2 and is now part of the Great Nik Collection by Google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 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.
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 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.
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:
To buy Nik HDR Efex pro or to try a free 15 Day trial of the software as part of the Nik Collection buy Google
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Some added fun using my Images
OK, NOW for a little bit of added fun, If you download HDR Efex Pro and want to try it on a sample image of mine (Watermarked) along with a Preset that I made. Just click and download this Zip File here: (example.zip) Unzip it to a folder or your desktop and then load the images into the associated software you use (Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture) and Export/open them with HDR Efex pro. Once they are open in HDR Efex Pro, you can import the preset I have included in the zip file (Example.bn) and use that to see how I might do it and then play with those settings or try some of the other presets to see what does what.
Nik HDR Efex Pro, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Hope that helps,