After crawling out of the cave I’d apparently been living in and downloading Mac OS 10.6 to replace the not-retro-enough-to-be-cool OS 10.5 I was running on my iMac, I was able to download Nik Software’s latest high dynamic range imaging software, HDR Efex Pro 2. Lately I’ve been expanding the dynamic range of my images by hand blending multiple exposures in Photoshop using techniques I learned in Sean Bagshaw’s fantastic video tutorial, “Processing for Extended Dynamic Range“. Off topic, but if you’ve never checked out Sean’s work I highly recommend you take the time to do so. Not only is he an incredibly nice and quite humble guy, but he happens to be one of the very best landscape photographers in the entire Pacific Northwest region.
Getting back on topic, now that I’ve got HDR Efex Pro 2 on my iMac I thought I’d take it for a test drive on some recent images from the Tetons and on an old one from Moab that’s been sitting dormant on my hard drive for a couple of years. The photo you see above is the result of my first experiment. No doubt you all recognize the location: Schwabacher Landing. I’ve visited this spot several times over the years and until this trip had never produced an image there that was worth a crap. Better late than never, I guess.
I’m not a fan of HDR images that look like HDR images. I prefer mine to fall within the realm of reality. The first thing I noticed about HDR Efex Pro 2 is that it also seems to favor reality. I’m sure you can use it for evil, er…that crazy surreal looking HDR, but the default settings lean toward realism. Once the initial HDR merge is done you’re presented with the base image. There are three main panels on the right side of the HDR Efex Pro 2 software that you’ll use to process your image: Tone Compression, Tonality and Color. These three panels are where most of the magic happens. Below them you’ll find Selective Adjustments and Finishing. I’m still developing an efficient workflow but so far I find Selective Adjustments to be of little value. I prefer to use Nik Viveza 2 to make selective adjustments after the final HDR image has been rendered. Next, let’s briefly touch on each of the remaining panels.
Tone Compression – Here you’ll find adjustments for tone compression, method strength and HDR method. One of the most useful new features is “HDR method”, as it allows you to choose from three different categories by simply clicking a button to make changes to your image. The HDR method categories are: depth, detail and drama. Again, the defaults are pretty conservative and they generally create a more realistic image. You can get all kinds of grungy here if that’s your thing but it’s just as easy to keep it real. Without going into great detail I can’t fully explain what each of these adjustments does but the title of each one should offer a bit of a clue. I recommend you play with each adjustment on a few of your images to see what effect it has on your photo. The changes are real time and can easily be reset if you don’t like what you see.
Tonality – Here you’ll find sliders for Exposure, Contrast and Structure, with sub-sliders for shadows and highlights, blacks and whites under Exposure and Contrast, respectively. These are pretty self-explanatory and again, they work in real time.
Color – Saturation, Temperature and Tint sliders. One more time, these need no explanation. One word of advice: a little goes a long way.
Finishing – Just as the name implies, the adjustments you’ll find here are more local, less global. They are: vignette, graduated neutral density filter, and levels and curves. Vignette and levels and curves do just what you think they’d do. So does the graduated neutral density filter, except that it does it better than you’re imagining! Not only can you control the density of the filter at the top AND bottom of the image, you can control the blend, rotation and the vertical positioning. All of this is accomplished using simple sliders. It may not sound like much but once you use it a couple times you’ll be blown away by the power it wields.
I’ve given you just enough information to whet your appetite. If you’re curious enough to try out HDR Efex Pro 2, and I really think you should, visit the Nik Software website to download a fully functioning, free 15 day trial. Run a few images through it and decide for yourself whether it’s worth the investment. If you do pull the trigger, use coupon code “BEDGE” at checkout to receive a 15% discount off the retail price. Give it a shot, then come back and leave a comment with your initial impressions of HDR Efex Pro 2.