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Review: Unified Color HDR Expose

By Stan Sholik

Photographers actively involved in high dynamic range (HDR) imaging often use different HDR programs for different images since each program has its own algorithm for tone mapping the multiple exposures into an image. Many of these programs are complex and non-intuitive and don’t accurately portray the final image until processing is complete.

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HDR PhotoStudio from Unified Color Technologies, LLC, was different, offering a more intuitive and user-friendly approach. Unified Color has replaced that program with a much-improved one, HDR Expose, which is suitable for HDR beginners and advanced users alike.

The user interface in Expose has undergone major revisions from the PhotoStudio version, and all for the better. It now boasts the visual styling of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture and other imaging programs, although the keyboard shortcuts are generally different. HDR Expose allows the export of source images from Lightroom and Aperture directly to the program. And when you have completed your HDR composite, Expose exports the image back to whichever program you used to send them for processing.

But the biggest change and the greatest improvement lies in the addition of a Brightness Histogram at the top of the Tool Panel. The Brightness Histogram displays not only the tonal distribution of the entire 32-bit image, but also, with a lighter toned gray region, the section of the curve that will display in the final image.

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This is the final result of combining five exposures in HDR Expose and going for a “natural” look. The exposures were bracketed one stop apart. No exposure even came close to having the balance of foreground and sky exposure that is present in this final image. ©Stan Sholik

While using HDR Expose is not quite as easy as simply making sure that your image curve lies within this lightly shaded gray area, being able to see a large and accurate preview of your adjustments along with the Brightness Histogram is a big step toward efficiently and quickly generating a usable image.

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HDR Expose installs a plug-in in Lightroom that allows you to export a set of images directly from Lightroom to Expose. The advantage is that you can use Lightroom to determine which are the best exposures to export. When you save your completed work in Expose, the program exports the final image back to Lightroom and stacks it with the original. Images ©Stan Sholik

All of the tools you will need to create HDR images are available in HDR Expose, including the often-overused Local Contrast (more commonly known as “micro-contrast”) tool to give the image that gritty “HDR” look. A Reduce Halo Artifact tool is available below the Local Contrast tools, and it is very effective, although slow to process, in reducing the halos created by the high Local Contrast settings.

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I saved the “natural” result in the native file format of HDR Expose. This saved all of the steps that I used to create the file. I reopened it in the Expose and applied the maximum micro-contrast setting and close to the maximum Radius setting for the tool. This created a strong halo, most of which I was able to remove with the halo reduction tool. This is the final result. ©Stan Sholik

The Noise Reduction tool is effective in reducing the color and luminance noise that are often present in HDR composites. However, the White Balance and Color Tuning tools are going to take some time to figure out how to use effectively. While their use is covered in the well-written users’ manual, they didn’t give me the control that I thought they would. Likewise, the Hue tool in the Saturation tab doesn’t work as I expected.

And while the manual makes much about having 256 levels of history available, setting up a User Recipe to take advantage of this is more difficult and confusing than it should be, and every change you make to a control requires a time-consuming history update that destroys your creative flow. I am writing this about 10 minutes into a history update that probably has much longer to run after already waiting 33 minutes for a halo reduction to process. This on a late model iMac with 4GB of RAM.

In the final analysis, HDR Expose is not going to unseat Photomatix as my primary HDR software, but it is a step up from Photoshop CS5, and a big step up from some other available HDR software. It offers another option for HDR creators. Some images will look best in it, others will not.

HDR Expose is available for $149 from www.unifiedcolor.com. Users of HDR PhotoStudio are entitled to a free upgrade. Visit the website also to view video tutorials and to find more information.

Press release, August 2, 2010: Unified Color has announced 32 Float, the industry’s first HDR-specific plug-in for Adobe Photoshop that delivers 32-bit color controls and editing tools to Photoshop users. With 32 Float, photographers have complete control over images in the full 32-bit color gamut, regardless of the software used to create the resulting merged file. 32 Float will be available on August 23, 2010 at a list price of $99.

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The HDR Expose interface is right in keeping with the current look of photo software. A large preview window dominates the screen, with a tool panel on the right. At the top of the tool panel is the Brightness Histogram. This screen capture was made immediately after import, and it shows that the image displayed contains more shadow information than it need to and not enough of the highlight information. By using the tools, you adjust the image so that the maximum amount of information is displayed in the light gray area of the Brightness Histogram. Image ©Stan Sholik

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After making changes to the global Brightness and Contrast sliders as well as adding some Local contrast power, the histogram is looking better, but some haloing has appeared. This is reduced with the Reduce halo artifact tool. Image ©Stan Sholik

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The Shadow/Highlight tools give you control over the amount of shadow and highlight information that will be present in the final image. They function much like the same adjustments in RAW conversion software. At this point the image is getting close. A few more tweaks and some color adjustments and its ready to output. Image ©Stan Sholik

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If you’re after a gritty HDR look, HDR Expose can produce that also. High setting of the Local contrast power and Radius sliders that are present in two of the tool tabs provide the effect. They take a while to process, followed up by an even longer wait if you decide to remove the haloing that you create with this technique. Image ©Stan Sholik

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, “Professional Filter Techniques for Digital Photographers,” covering both on-camera analog and post-production digital filters is published by Amherst Media.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS:

PC: Windows XP, Windows Vista (for 20 MP image or larger, 64-bit Windows version is recommended.) Unified Color recommends utilizing a quad-core processor. Minimum 2 GB RAM, recommended 3 GB.

Apple: Intel Macintosh 2.5 GHz dual core CPU with 2GB minimum RAM (4GB is recommended) running Mac OS 10.5.x (Leopard) or Mac OS 10.6.2 (Snow Leopard).