The HDR Software Showdown

Published on November 11, 2013 under Photography

Scenic shot of a river in Mala Lučivna, Slovakia

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is all the rage in photography now. While some cameras and many smartphones can create HDR images instantly, most processing and tone mapping is still done through software.

In my efforts to not pirate software, I wanted to seek out affordable solutions for amateur photographers and hobbyists to get quality photos for less. So today I’m going to compare three potential solutions I have access to:

So now you might be curious why I have Photoshop on this list while speaking of “affordable solutions”. I’m going to assume many of you out there legally own, illegally acquired, or at least have access to Photoshop. Putting its Merge-to-HDR Pro function in the showdown is more or less posing if one should even invest in separate HDR processing software versus using what’s available in your current arsenal.

For the tests I’m going to show you, I snapped photos in different situations, but I only used some basic-level processing for the final result. There were no other post-processing tricks being used the way many might in making their final results. I will say with post-processing work any one of the three contenders are wonderful to use, but it’s important to see what you’ll get right off the bat. I’m also including a normal unprocessed JPG for comparison.

So with that in mind let’s begin, shall we?

Test 1: Macro HDR

In this test, I set up my camera on a tripod and snapped three close-up exposures of a pot of flowers my wife brought. After HDR processing, here are the results:

Flowers as a normal JPG
Normal JPG
Flowers processed in Photoshop HDR
Photoshop HDR
Flowers processed in Photomatrix Pro
Photomatrix Pro
Flowers processed in Dynamic Photo-HDR
Dynamic Photo-HDR

Looking at the results, it shows Photoshop was able to make a very clean, crisp photo with all elements popping out to the eye. Dynamic Photo-HDR does a wonderful job as well, but you can see blurring on all the flowers, even the one I focused on.

With Photomatrix, I tried to use the settings to clean up the image, but had no luck. The photo had a heavy glow with some blurring. This could be cleaned up in post-processing, but it won’t have that sharp clarity Photoshop on its own gave.

Winner: Photoshop

Test 2: More than 3 Exposures Used

In the second test, I set up my camera on a travel-sized tripod and snapped five exposures of the new Burberry store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. I had totally used shutter speed and no flash, hence the “light trails” from passing vehicles. Feeding them into each of the contenders, I came up with these results:

Burberry Store as a normal JPG
Normal JPG
Burberry Store processed in Photoshop HDR
Photoshop HDR
Burberry Store processed in Photomatrix Pro
Photomatrix Pro
Burberry Store processed in Dynamic Photo-HDR
Dynamic Photo-HDR

While Photoshop rocked the macro test, it totally failed in this one. The final image is too sharp and too bright. I had more hoped for a vivid evening photo as opposed to the heavy tones of red and orange I received.

Photomatrix Pro did a better job than everyone when it came to the colors (not perfect though), but again even with the anti-ghosting features turned on I felt the final image had this bright overtone I would have later corrected in Photoshop.

My favorite for this round was Dynamic Photo-HDR. Granted the colors were a bit hot in its result, I liked the balanced clarity all around. I see the building, light trails, and scenery in a nice symmetry, rather than the high sharpness of Photoshop or the dreamy state of Photomatrix.

Winner: Dynamic Photo-HDR

Test 3: Clouds and Textures

The image for Test 3 is part of The Propylaea found on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. A cloudy sky is a wondrous time for HDR photography because the processing software will usually enhance the sky and thus turn a bland cloudy day into a dramatic scene. This test was also created by me snapping the exposures using the rapid-fire setting on my camera. Totally hand-held, so this is also on how well these contenders can align slightly misaligned photos.

The Propylaea as a normal JPG
Normal JPG
The Propylaea processed in Photoshop HDR
Photoshop HDR
The Propylaea processed in Photomatrix Pro
Photomatrix Pro
The Propylaea processed in Dynamic Photo-HDR
Dynamic Photo-HDR

If your goal is a very realistic photo, then Photoshop made this one happen. Compared to the original JPG, Photoshop enhanced the colors and made for a very clean picture. However, compared to Photomatrix Pro and Dynamic Photo-HDR, it could have done better on blowing out the textures of the marble and making the clouds more dramatic.

Phototomatrix Pro shows its the ideal choice for those looking to create the over-the-top images many know HDR for. The software just exploded the clouds and marble to the eye, and I was merely looking for “realistic” over “dramatic” in my settings. Imagine if I turned it up full steam.

With Dynamic Photo-HDR, it again builds a beautiful balance between the realism of the normal photo with the kinds of “pop” one hopes to get out of an HDR. I’ll say Dynamic Photo-HDR is the ideal choice for those seeking more realistic looking images, but Photomatrix Pro is the choice for those seeking the over-the-top HDR imagery we see all over.

Winners: Photomatrix Pro and Dynamic Photo-HDR (tie, depending on your need)

Test 4: Single-Image Processing

Believe it or not, single-image processing is an important factor to think about when you look into picking up an HDR software. This image of St. Nicholas Church in Prague was one I hoped to use as an HDR photo, but the masses of tourists in the shot ended up as an image of ghosts and cut off humans.

St Nicholas Church as a normal JPG
Normal JPG
St Nicholas Church processed in Dynamic Photo-HDR
Dynamic Photo-HDR

I only have a result for Dynamic Photo-HDR because I simply could not make single-image processing happen with Photoshop or Photomatrix Pro. Even when I made three JPGs with the exposure adjusted I still could not make a result as if I had shot three images. Both Photoshop and Photomatrix Pro handed me back an image that looked more like the normal unprocessed JPG.

Dynamic Photo-HDR was the only contender that could take a single image and do a good pseudo-HDR effect to it. On top of that, it didn’t make a wild over-the-top mess out of the photo, thus this function alone is a great tool to add life to dull photos.

Winner: Dynamic Photo-HDR

Test 5: RAW Processing

I like to shoot in RAW with my DSLR, and thus the ability to go from RAW to HDR is ideal for my needs when it comes to software. I tried RAW images on all three contenders, and was surprised that Dynamic Photo-HDR had issues handling RAW files. On a Windows machine it would hand me a warning that I’m better off using JPG files, even hinting that they will process faster, but it would still process. On a Mac, the program would crash if I fed it RAW files.

Photoshop had no issue handling RAW files, while Photomatrix Pro would also toss out warnings/hints to use JPG files, but also didn’t have issues handling them.

Winners: Photomatrix Pro and Photoshop (tie)

The Final Results

The reality of the final results is that your choice of a software mainly depends on what you want out of HDR photography and how you work. Photoshop’s Merge-to-HDR Pro feature can do the work and gives you plenty of options to play with, but I felt it lacks when compared to Photomatrix Pro and Dynamic Photo-HDR. I’d only recommend the Photoshop route if you perhaps make one HDR image every few months to a year. If you’re not shooting for HDR often, then stick with Photoshop for those few occasions.

Photomatrix Pro is the best choice for anyone who needs their software as a plugin for Photoshop or Lightroom, or as a standalone, and especially those who work on Macs. Granted I’m a Windows man, but I know most in my industry are not. Dynamic Photo-HDR’s problems with RAW files on the Mac is why I would not recommend it for Mac users UNLESS they normally shoot in JPGs or have no issue processing HDR photos from JPGs. I’ll also add that those seeking to get the most over-the-top dramatic HDR photos are best choosing Photomatrix Pro.

Despite my admonishing of Dynamic Photo-HDR, it’s also my choice out of all the contenders. For the $59 price tag (Photomatrix Pro is $99), I just loved the results the most on Dynamic Photo HDR. The RAW problem isn’t an issue for me since I use Windows, and overall I liked how the software gave me more clean, more realistic photos as opposed to the over-the-top nature of Photomatrix Pro.

I’ll also add in how Dynamic Photo-HDR has better alignment tools and more controls on elements to remove ghosting and glows in all aspects. It even has a beta function to add HDR processing to video...which neither Photoshop nor Photomatrix Pro can do. Lastly, the single-image pseudo-HDR mode is a big winner in my book.

Dynamic Photo-HDR also has many other bells and whistles (like filters), but in the end I like how much control I have with the software, and how easy they make it to tweak your photos before saving, especially with detailed tutorials that optionally pop up when needed. For its few shortcomings, it’s the most bang for your buck out of all the contenders.

Have you tried any of these contenders? What’s your HDR software of choice?

Tags: photography, HDR, Photoshop, Photomatrix Pro, Dynamic Photo-HDR

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