Thoughts On HDR Photography And My Upcoming HDR Software Comparison

When I got back into photography last year after a fairly long absence from it I immediately noticed that many photographers were using a technique called HDR. I was intrigued by some of the images that HDR (high dynamic range) photography could produce but I was also turned of by many of the images that HDR photography produces. I'm sure many of you have seen examples of what I'm talking about. If not, just do a search for "bad HDR" on Google and you'll find many examples like this. Seeing these over-saturated images with halos and ghosting all over the place was enough to make me say "thanks, but no thanks" to HDR at that point in time. I figured that I had enough to learn about making good photos that adding something like HDR to the mix would be a little too much.

A New Perspective on HDR

In the last year I have started to rethink my initial resistance to HDR photography. I have seen many examples of wonderful images, like this:

The Taj Mahal-Image by Trey Ratcliff above image may be one of the most-viewed HDR images ever. It was made by Trey Ratcliff, a very (if not the most) popular HDR photographers out there today.

The image shows what good HDR can do, which is bring out details in both the shadows and highlights. It also shows how the HDR process can create an image that has vivid colors (without being over-the-top). Trey has developed a fairly specific process to create his images, and as you can see, the results can be quite good.

I'm now at a point in my photography where I feel slightly confident in my ability to compose and capture decent images at least part of the time. I've also decided that I'd like to be able to produce images that get noticed like Trey's do. :-)

So, I've decided to investigate the options in HDR software. I'm brand new to HDR but I figure I might as well dive right in and see what it's all about. I've decided to demo a few different HDR software products and compare the results on a couple of different images that I've shot using the auto-bracket feature on my Canon T3i.

Software I'm Considering

I know there are a lot of HDR applications out there but I can't try them all. In my research there were a couple of products that  a lot of people use. There are also quite a few that seem to fly "under the radar" but look interesting. I ended up picking two of the most popular applications along with a couple of others that get good reviews but are less used. I also came across an interesting alternative from Poland that I'll be testing. All in all I think the 5 applications that I'll be trying should offer a fair comparison of what is available:

  1. Photomatix-Probably the most popular HDR software out there. Photomatix has been around a long time and has a large, enthusiastic, user base. The software comes in and "essential" and "Pro" version. I'll look at the Pro version (priced at $99) since it offers the most options as well as a Lightroom plugin.
  2. HDR Efex Pro-Nik Software's entry into the HDR processing battle. It has quickly gained a loyal user base. It is designed to be used as a plugin for Lightroom & Photoshop. The cost is $99 but they offer a free 15 day trial.
  3. Oloneo PhotoEngine-A very complete RAW processing, HDR and noise reduction software package, PhotoEngine is also the most expensive option I'll be trying (at $149). In my research it seems to get good reviews so I'll be interested to see how it performs. They also make a more basic HDR only application, called HDRengine, that is $59.
  4. Enfuse LR Plugin-This is a "donationware" plugin for Lightroom based on the open-source Enfuse code. It isn't technically an HDR application, but it does quickly combine multiple images to create a wider dynamic range final image. It is a low-cost option that many people seem to like.
  5. SNS-HDR-This is a bit of a wild-card for me. I discovered it while looking for HDR applications but it seems to be a solid product. SNS is developed & supported by a single individual from Poland (as far as I can tell) so it hasn't received much press here but the interest it has received has been very positive. They have a "lite" version that is freeware (with limited functionality) but the full version of the software (for home use) is reasonably priced at 30 Euros (about $50). I'm going to take a flyer on this and see how it performs.

The Process

My plan is to run a couple of 3 exposure images through each application and compare the results. Since each product is different I won't be able to do a pure "apples to apples" comparison but I think I can get close. I plan on using as neutral/natural a setting as possible for the comparison. My aim is to determine how easy each application is to use to create a natural looking final image. From that point I may experiment a bit to see what kind of image I can get that is more artistic/surreal/over-the-top. Based on what I find in these tests I'll move forward with one or more of these applications for my own personal use.

Now I need to find some appropriate bracketed images to test with the different software packages. I haven't done a lot of these types of shots but I think I have some that should give a decent test.

The first set is from a place North of Atlanta called "Old Car City" which is full of, you guessed it, old cars in relative states of decay. It's a popular spot for photographers. We visited there in April and I shot a bunch of bracketed images. The set I picked are of an old fire truck that is under a shed. I focused on the grill of the truck but there was some detail in the shed roof that I wanted to get. Here are the "base" images:

Old Fire Truck 2-stops Under-Exposed

Old Fire Truck Properly Exposed

Old Fire Truck 2-stops Over-Exposed

The next set is from a very special place to us, our driveway. I took these images in the late afternoon as the sun was going down behind some clouds. The sky was bright but there was some detail in the shadows that was missing:

Driveway 2-stops Under-Exposed

Driveway No Exposure Compensation

Driveway 2-stops Over-Exposed

I will probably review the 5 different applications over a span of 2 or three posts. I'll try and document the steps I use with an appropriate amount of screenshots. My major criteria in selecting the "winner" will be ease of use. I will also consider each application's ability to go beyond the basics and allow the user to perform advanced edits on the images.

Look for the first review post early next week. If any of you have some "better" bracketed images (Canon RAW format) that would work in my test let me know and I'll see about getting them from you to use. Email me at