Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro; HDR Software For The Rest Of Us

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Everybody knows the basic concept and conceit of High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging but first let’s get rid of yet another unnecessary acronym. What does HDRI—High Dynamic Range Imaging—add to the discussion other than just another letter? Nada. Let’s ship it off to the dead acronym bureau along with other outdated terms. And besides, aren’t odd-numbered letter combinations, such as BMW, better than even-numbered ones?

Applying HDR techniques to our photography produces images that have a greater range of luminance, the difference between the lightest and darkest areas of an image, than standard digital imaging capture and processing methods. This wider dynamic range allows HDR images to more accurately represent the broad range of intensity levels found in real-world scenes, with lighting ranging from direct sunlight to faint starlight, but can, in the wrong hands, produce a cartoony look that seems to set the anti-HDR contingent’s hair on fire.

The source of HDR imagery involves merging multiple image files that are made at different exposures but the same aperture to keep the whole megillah in register. Tone mapping techniques that reduce contrast can be applied to produce images with preserved or exaggerated local contrast for artistic effect. In other words, let’s all bracket like crazy and toss the files into a software blender and see what comes out. The problem in the past has been that using that blender was easy, such as in Adobe’s Merge to HDR, but that ease didn’t always produce good results, and better results were produced using software that might not be as user-friendly as you might like. Enter stage left, Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro, high dynamic range software that makes it easy for mere mortals to create great-looking HDR images.

One of the coolest features of HDR Efex Pro is the ability to make a faux HDR photograph from one—count ’em—image file. The original photograph was made at Hoover Dam using a Leica D-LUX 2 and a handheld exposure of 1⁄25 sec at f/4.5 and ISO 400. I applied the 10 Artistic preset but tweaked all of the sliders to make an image that is slightly outside my HDR comfort zone.
All Photos 2011, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

One of the first questions many aspiring HDR shooters have is: how many exposures do you need to make a good image? The answer in some quarters is the more the merrier, but it’s not the right answer. Anything more than nine one-stop increment shots won’t yield appreciably better results but will create RAM—as in not enough—issues with your computer. Practically, Nik’s HDR Efex Pro can open more than nine exposures, but a company representative told me that they “don’t know anyone who is doing that, regardless of the increments (1⁄3, one-stop) being used.”

The example images you will see here were created using three and five shots, and even one shot, something that the Nik software uses to produce what could only be called faux HDR but looks great nevertheless. This feature allows photographers to reprocess a single image in which an exposure series was not previously shot or for subject matter that doesn’t lend itself to multiple exposures, such as action. All of the software’s workflow is 32-bit color, including creating the HDR look from a single exposure. All the caption data for the illustrations mentions how many shots were used, but my personal rule of thumb is the more extreme the contrast is, the more shots I’ll make.

(Top): HDR Efex Pro can be accessed by selecting multiple images in Adobe’s Bridge, shown here, or Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture as well as being accessed through Photoshop’s Automate (Automate>Merge to HDR Efex Pro) menu. (Above): The interface of HDR Efex Pro may seem complex but everything is there for a purpose and initially you may find that presets are all you need. There are so many presets that Nik has created groups that may be selected by clicking the buttons at the top for Landscape, Architecture, Realistic, Artistic, Surreal, and All. (I keep it set at All.) There’s also customizable buttons for Special or Favorites. When looking for more directions to take your images, I suggest you start with the Method Strength slider that allows you to push or pull the effect created by the preset.

Interface Me
Nik’s HDR Efex Pro is a plug-in for Adobe’s Photoshop, Bridge, or Lightroom, and Apple’s Aperture. It works in 32- or 64-bit mode and is optimized for computers using multi-core processors. The interface of Nik’s HDR Efex Pro will be familiar to anyone who has ever used the company’s Silver Efex Pro black-and-white conversion software. The software embodies multiple proprietary tone mapping algorithms, enabling a wide range of HDR styles. That’s why on the left side HDR Efex Pro includes a selection of one-click presets, all of which have thumbnails displaying your image. On the right side you’ll find tone mapping algorithms, powerful and detailed controls, along with the company’s patented U Point technology for adjustments of contrast, shadow, structure, or saturation in selective areas, anywhere on your image. HDR Efex Pro also provides for automatic image alignment and reduction of subject motion artifacts known as “ghosts,” saving editing time later.

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(1) This image was the middle shot of a series of five bracketed exposures made at San Diego’s Balboa Park in the morning and was 1⁄25 sec at f/22 and ISO 200. This is what the file looked like right out of the Canon EOS 5D used to make it. (2) After some cropping tweaks, this is my first iteration of the Balboa Park image after processing in HDR Efex Pro which maintained the cool look of the original. (3) The mood is completely different in my second and favorite iteration of the Balboa Park image with processing in HDR Efex Pro that turns the original image’s color upside down, creating a warm sunset look that I found pleasing.
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