Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Pro Review: Nik Software HDR Efex Pro

By Stan Sholik

Equipment and software suppliers are continually providing photographers with a wide array of tools. The best photographic tools can point us in new directions by opening our minds to possibilities we had never considered before. Nik HDR Efex Pro is such a tool.

Nik is late in entering the HDR arena. There are a number of HDR programs with varying capabilities already available.

But not being first has allowed Nik to overcome many of the shortcomings of these early programs. HDR Efex Pro incorporates a number of tone mapping algorithms where most other HDR programs include only one. It offers a wide range of presets and quickly produces thumbnail previews of the presets using the image on which you are working. It includes a wide range of user adjustments to the built-in presets including the ability to save custom presets. And it incorporates Nik Software’s proprietary U Point technology that allows you to target HDR options to specific areas of the image. These features plus responsive operation, an elegant interface and more, make HDR Efex Pro the most powerful yet most user friendly HDR software currently available.

201012we_nik_controlpts.jpg

HDR Efex Pro incorporates Nik’s U Point tool that allows you to target adjustments to particular areas of the image. Here I used it to add additional structure to the clouds and to decrease the warmth of the clouds that was added by my choice of preset. Image ©Stan Sholik

Nik recommends installing HDR Efex Pro as a plug-in for 64-bit Adobe Photoshop and Bridge CS4 through CS5, or as a 32-bit or 64-bit plug-in for Lightroom 2.6 (or later) or Apple Aperture 2.1.4 (or later). While it will open as a stand-alone application, this is not recommended.

How you access HDR Efex Pro varies slightly depending on the host application you are using and whether you want to merge a series of images or work with a single image. In Photoshop, when merging single or multiple images, the best path is from the File>Automate menu. In other host software you can find the program in Aperture’s Photos>Edit with Plug-in menu, in Bridge it is found in the Tools menu and in Lightroom in the File>Export with Preset menu. The HDR Efex Pro multiple image Merge dialog is compatible with all 8- or 16-bit or RAW file formats supported by Photoshop. You can apply HDR Efex Pro to a single 8-, 16-, or 32-bit image from the File>Automate menu.

201012we_nik_bridge.jpg

There are a number of ways to access HDR Efex Pro to merge images. I recommend right/Option-clicking on the series of exposures in Bridge and selecting “Merge to HDR Efex Pro” from the Nik Software dropdown menu. Selecting Nik Software>Merge to HDR Efex Pro from the Tools menu in Bridge accomplishes the same thing.

When merging multiple images from Photoshop or Bridge (the programs I would recommend as starting points), you are first presented with a dialog box where you can choose to let the software automatically align the images (generally a good idea), choose whether to allow HDR Efex Pro to run as a Smart Object, and choose whether or not to have the software eliminate ghosting artifacts. Lightroom and Aperture do not provide you with these options.

HDR Efex Pro has one of the best ghosting reduction algorithms that I have come across in the six HDR software programs with which I am familiar. In the five-exposure sequence that I took from the balcony of Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen at downtown Disney in Anaheim, HDR Efex Pro was able to do an amazing job in eliminating the movement of people while preserving believable shadows and creating minimal artifacts. I used the Ghost Reduction tool at its highest setting and it took a while to churn out the result, but it accomplished what only Photomatix was also able to do—create an image on which I would need to do only minimal cleanup work.

201012we_xbrennans.jpg

I had made the captures for this composite to test how different HDR programs dealt with the ghosting that results from having moving subjects. Using the Global setting of the Ghost Reduction tool, HDR Efex Pro did an excellent job in eliminating all ghosts and the resulting image only needs minor retouching. Image ©Stan Sholik

201012we_ghost_reduc.jpg

While the Ghost Reduction algorithms did an excellent job eliminating ghosts of people, they became a little confused by the shadows (green circles). I also noticed that HDR Efex Pro added strong red tones at random times into shadow areas (red circles). Image ©Stan Sholik

Once the software merges a sequence, the HDR image opens in HDR Efex Pro. A panel on the left of the interface shows your image as 33 different thumbnails using the 33 presets built into HDR Efex Pro. These range from the photorealistic Default to the surrealistic Bleach Bypass. It is these presets that show us ways to view the image that are likely beyond the possibilities we could have imagined. Selecting any of these presets applies its settings to the image displayed in the center panel of the interface.

201012we_xsierras.jpg 

Selecting the Default preset results in a fairly low contrast but very photorealistic HDR image. I used the Default on this image, then adjusted the White Point, Black Point and Contrast sliders to produce this image.

201012we_xalabama_hills.jpg

For this 4-shot HDR merge of Mt. Whitney through Mobius Arch, I wanted a fairly realistic look, but good detail in the rocks. I used the Realistic Strong preset as a starting place, then increased the Structure slider to add more texture into the foreground rocks. I added a slight dark vignette to finish off the photo. Image ©Stan Sholik

The right panel contains sliders for adjusting the preset you have selected. If you click through various presets in the left panel you can see how the sliders change in the right panel.

The top slider is Tone Compression and it has the greatest effect on the image. Moving it to the right compresses the tone, lightening dark values and darkening light values while retaining color values. Adjusting this slider sets the dynamic range of the final image.

Below the Tone Compression slider are nine sliders for Global Adjustments. These are the same options available in a Control Point and include exposure, contrast, saturation, structure, blacks, whites, warmth and HDR Method and Method strength. The HDR Method is a drop-down menu with 20 different choices, and these are worth investigating for every image and at different strength settings. There isn’t room to go into the other sliders in detail, but they do function over a sufficient range of values. To learn more about these controls, Nik has built an excellent Help function into HDR Efex Pro along with the manual and lots of videos on its website, www.niksoftware.com.

201012we_xbristlecones.jpg 

I searched through the presets for one that would exaggerate the warmth and texture of the wood of this fallen bristlecone pine. The Vibrant Details and Colors preset was close enough for a start. Then I increased the contrast slider setting and changed the HDR Method to Sharp. Finally I added a Control Point in the clouds to increase their structure and remove the warmth added by the preset. Image ©Stan Sholik

Below the Global Adjustments is the U Point tool for setting Control Points. While you cannot change the HDR Method with a Control Point adjustment, you can change its strength in the selected area, as well as the amount of any of the other Global Adjustments. Nik has given us an amazing amount of control over the process, but I wish they had also given us RGB controls for the control points. However you can do all of the usual tricks with the control points—add others, remove them, group them, duplicate them, etc.

Below the Control Points tool are the Finishing Adjustments. These include a Vignette tool and a Levels and Curves tool. Both have presets as well as the ability to adjust everything manually. About the only tool missing is noise reduction, which is significant as noise can build up quickly with HDR.

Finally, at the bottom of the right panel is a Loupe & Histogram window. I found these to be pretty much useless. The loupe tool might not have been so bad if I could have undocked it and moved it to some place where it would be more visible, but I couldn’t. And you can’t make any adjustments with the histogram, nor can you roll your cursor over a point in the image and see where it lies in the histogram. While you can display the histogram with RGB curves overlaid or individually, I would have preferred an RGB readout somewhere in the interface so that I would know how the adjustments I was making would map into the 8-bit color space when I rolled the cursor over areas.

Once you have made all of the adjustments you want, you can save them as a custom preset by selecting Add Preset at the bottom of the left panel. Clicking the Save button does just that and sends you back to the host application from which you began. If you selected to run HDR Efex Pro as a Smart Object, the image is saved as a 32-bit file that you can access later through HDR Efex Pro.

With all of the capabilities easily accessible in HDR Efex Pro, it requires a certain amount of restraint by the user, along with enough taste to use the high dynamic range tools in a way that is appropriate to the image. Time will tell which photographers can control the range of effects that HDR Efex Pro provides.

201012we_xgrannys_attic_plus.jpg

While most HDR writers warn about dire consequences of shooting moving subjects, HDR Expose Pro did a great job of creating this merger of the Pacific breaking over rocks at sunset. I used the Grannys Attic preset that added a sepia tone over the image, then used a Control Point in the foreground with a large radius to remove the warmth from most of the water. Image ©Stan Sholik

201012we_xsurreal_plus.jpg 

You can create your HDR as a Smart Object using HDR Efex Pro or save the settings that you used to create your HDR. Either way you can go back and see what you did to create the final image. I didn’t do either of these and I regret it. I’ve tried, using the same image sequence and the same Surreal preset, but I haven’t hit on the same combination of options yet. Image ©Stan Sholik

The suggested retail price of HDR Efex Pro is $159.95. The software will be available as a free update to those that have purchased the Nik Software Complete Collection after July 25, 2010. A 15-day demo version is available from Nik Software at www.niksoftware.com.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. He is currently working on a book about HDR imaging to be published by Amherst Media.