By Stan Sholik
If you are interested in high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, you have likely investigated and purchased a number of HDR programs. If one of those programs was HDR Expose from Unified Color Technologies, you probably liked the very realistic results it created, but were put off by its lack of speed as the entire image recalculated each time an adjustment was made.
With a completely reengineered architecture, performance is significantly improved in HDR Expose 2. It sports a revised interface, additional presets and new tools. If you are looking for another option to create realistic HDR images, HDR Expose 2 may be what you are searching for.
The speed increase doesn't come from applying adjustments to a low resolution image. HDR Expose 2 applies the changes to the full resolution tone mapped image that is one of the sharpest images you will find in an HDR program. While Unified Color says that adjustments are applied in "real time," the image does not adjust as you move the adjustment sliders, which is what I consider "real-time." While viewing the changes as you move the sliders would be most useful, adjustments are applied instantaneously as soon as you release the mouse from the slider. Performance is excellent.
The interface changes are also welcome. The workflow now proceeds logically from the top of the tools palette on the right of the interface to the bottom. At the very top of the tools palette is the Brightness Histogram. This shows the entire luminance range of the HDR image with a light gray section showing the tones in the histogram that will be reproduced on a monitor or in an 8- or 16-bit image. As you make adjustments to the image, the changes are updated in the histogram display. The histogram even includes tools to show highlight and shadow clipping. Histograms in other HDR programs are poor guides to follow, but I found the HDR Expose 2 Brightness Histogram to be quite useful and accurate.
The initial screen when HDR Expose 2 is opened as a standalone application to create an HDR image from a single image sequence. When the application is opened from Lightroom or Aperture, the upper menu bar does not appear. The available options are chosen from a Preferences panel.
After adding the image sequence to the opening screen, thumbnails of the images are shown along with ghost reduction and alignment options. A box in the lower right displays a histogram of any image you have selected. This is a nice way to ensure that you have enough images, but not too many, to create a good HDR image.
Once HDR Expose 2 creates the HDR image, you have the option of applying one of the presets to start the adjustment process. Each preset automatically tone maps the image to the 8-bit color space for display in its own way. A Brightness Histogram shows the full dynamic range of the HDR image with a gray rectangle displaying the tonal range in the tone mapped image. The Brightness Histogram can also display the highlight and shadow overlays shown here.
Twelve presets are included, and the preset thumbnails display the image that you have opened. There isn't a wide variation among the six color presets or among the five monochrome presets. All give a realistic rendering to the scene. The final color preset, Grunge, cranks up the local contrast to the max and sets this preset off from all of the others. But if you're after grunge HDR images, this is not the best program for you. The local (micro) contrast control has less range than many other HDR programs, limiting your ability to "grunge" your images. There is also an option to turn off the local contrast control all together.
If you come up with a combination of adjustments that you like, you have the ability to create your own presets. They are added to the end of the thumbnail list.
Some of the new tools remove controls, while others add controls. There's no longer a halo reduction tool. That function is handled automatically in HDR Expose 2 and works well. You can now choose automatic tone mapping, but there are controls for Exposure, Highlights and Shadows if you choose to perform manual tone mapping.
The automatic halo reduction works well, with only the slightest halos showing in these areas of high contrast.
Two new tools, Dodge and Burn, allow you to brush on or remove exposure to the image. The brush size is limited to 100 pixels, so it takes a while to burn in a large area of sky. But few other HDR programs even offer this degree of control.
HDR Expose 2 includes Dodge and Burn brushes for making very local tonal changes. I began using the dodge brush to lighten the trunks of the palm trees, and then decided I like them better dark.
There are very effective noise reduction tools in HDR Expose 2. Noise tends to build up in HDR images and it’s nice to have these tools available.
The batch merge feature automatically selects sequences of images for processing to an HDR-format file or out to TIFF or JPEG. The many batch processing features include the ability to see the tonal range histogram of any image you select.
Many other HDR programs don’t offer sharpening, noise reduction, batch merge or batch processing either. HDR Expose 2 does. The batch merge option is particularly useful if you are shooting a lot of images for HDR processing. By selecting the folder with the original files and an HDR output file format (such as OpenHDR, HDR, or Unified Color’s own BEF), HDR Expose 2 batch processes the files to HDR images for adjustment later. Batch processing, another option, processes all image sequences in a folder to one final JPEG or TIFF using a preset. You can daisy-chain both options so that multiple original HDR sequences can be processed to an HDR image, then processed to a JPEG or TIFF for final output. The image sequences are grouped automatically and HDR Expose 2 did a perfect job separating sequences in my testing. The batch dialog box displays the groupings and includes a histogram that shows the tonal range of any thumbnail you select. This is a great feature for architectural photographers or any others that shoot many HDR sequences a day.
While HDR Expose 2 is a welcome upgrade to HDR Expose, there is still room for improvement in two significant areas. When opening images, there are three ghost reduction options: one for natural movements (flowing water, flags in the wind, etc.); one for moving people, cars and the like; and one for a combination of the two. Unfortunately, I didn’t find them to be particularly successful in removing ghosting. Ghost removal ended up requiring additional work outside of HDR Expose 2.
Similarly, the alignment tool needs a lot of work. While I know I should be using a tripod when I shoot HDR sequences, that doesn’t always happen. Hand-held sequences that other HDR software was able to align successfully ended up misaligned in HDR Expose 2. The alignment function needs a lot of work in the program. However, if you always use a solid tripod for your HDR sequences, this won’t be an issue.
HDR Expose 2 is a standalone program with a built-in RAW file processor for common RAW file formats. It also installs as a plug-in for Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Photoshop is not needed for HDR Expose 2. The Lightroom and Aperture connection is particularly useful since HDR Expose 2, as with many HDR programs, doesn’t allow you to see thumbnails of the RAW files in the folder where the image sequences are stored.
If you are locked into a Photoshop-centric workflow, Unified Color has a Photoshop plug-in, 32-Float, which brings the HDR Expose 2 functionality to Photoshop.
MSRP of HDR Expose 2 is $149, and the MSRP of 32-Float is $99. Free 30-day trials are available from www.unifiedcolor.com. The website includes tutorials and other useful information. If you are interested in creating realistic HDR images, download the free trials and take a look at the Unified Color products.
Images ©Stan Sholik
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. His fifth book, “Nik HDR Efex Pro,” for Wiley Publishing, is now available.
32-bit or 64-bit Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7
2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo better processor; quad-core 2.8GHz or better recommended
2GB RAM (4GB or higher recommended)
Video card with 128MB of dedicated VRAM
Optional software for plug-in: Adobe Lightroom
Mac OSX 10.5, 10.6, 10.7
2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo better processor; quad-core
2.8GHz or better recommended 2GB RAM (4GB or higher recommended)
4GB hard disk space
Video card with 128MB of dedicated VRAM
Optional software for plug-in: Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture