Friday, April 15, 2016

An HDR newbie's comparison of NIK HDR Efex and Photomatix Pro 5

Talk about bad timing!  I bought Photomatix Pro 5 the day before I left for a 3 week visit to Texas. My intention was to go to Hamilton Pool, near Austin, and shoot some HDR sequences for a proper test of Photomatix Pro. During that 3 week stay, Google announced that they were releasing the NIK Tools 'out into the wild'.

In all honesty, if, when I decided I wanted to explore HDR, NIK HDR Efex had been available for free, I probably would not have purchased Photomatix. It is certainly an excellent tool with which to explore HDR photography. It's pretty good software, overall. Certainly its little quirks are quite forgivable considering it is now free.

That being said, after using it a bit, I think I would also have outgrown NIK HDR Efex eventually. I think Photomatix is simply easier to use, particularly if you are interested in the less tone mapped, more natural looking photos, as I am.

I don't think it is quite as easy to get natural results with NIK HDR Efex as it is with Photomatix. However, HDR Efex is probably the best FREE HDR software option out there right now (and I tried a LOT of them!), and you can get natural results with it, you just have to work a bit harder, I think.

See the two photos attached to this article. I used the same source photos shot at Hamilton Pool near Austin Texas, and tried to get them to look as much alike as possible. Please remember, I am not an HDR expert, and have minimal skills with either software package.

The source photos were taken with an Olympus E-M10 in HDR 5 photo burst mode using raw images. Click on the photos to make them appear larger and look their best.

This first HDR image, below, is from NIK HDR Efex. I like it well enough, but I see the sky and and the overhang of the dome starting to look a little too 'tone mapped' for my tastes. Also note the rock at the lower right, I've lost a LOT of detail there. And to make matters worse, NIK also stripped significant Exif data from the final photo image.  This is one of my pet peeves,  I hate, absolutely HATE losing the EXIF data when photos come back from a round trip to an external editor.

The second photo, below, is from Photomatix Pro 5.1.2. The sky and the dome look very close to how I remember it. The color of the water is purer, and the rock at the lower right, has quite a bit of detail. And of course, the Exif data from the primary photo was transferred to the end result.  (Again click on either image to make it bigger so you can see it better)

I spent about the same amount of time on each composite photo. From my basic determination, I would say, that Photomatix is a bit easier to use, especially if one is looking for extremely natural looking photos. That being said, NIK made it very easy to get those super tone mapped, over the top photos many people like.  Not surprisingly, Photomatix Pro 5 made me work a tiny bit harder (though not significantly so) to get strong dramatic tone-mapping.

I suspect this difference is a result of Google not actively developing HDR Efex for the last few years and thereby not keeping up with changing tastes in HDR, while Photomatix has done so with its products.

I was unable to get NIK to accept the raw image, the only way I could get it to work was to convert the raw to tiff files in ACDSee before sending them to HDR Efex. I could send the raw photos directly to PhotoMatix with ACDSee without converting them to Tiffs or jpgs. Both the HDR Efex and PhotoMatix software could function as external editors or as Photoshop plugins with ACDSee's bit mapped editor tab.

I'm sure some people will point out that I haven't practiced enough with NIK HDR Efex to make getting the more natural look in an HDR possible. And I am equally certain they are correct.  However, I would still give a slight nod overall to Photomatix in terms of functionality and ease of use.

People who have bought Photomatix Pro 5, should not feel stupid for buying it.  You still have the superior product, I think.  However those people who want to explore HDR without spending money should seriously consider NIK HDR Efex.  It is FAR superior to the other free options.  You can always buy Photomatix later, once you are sure that you want to make HDR a part of your work.