Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Unified Color HDR Express 2: Perfect for the Natural Look

By Stan Sholik

201212we_express2_box.jpg

Creating high dynamic range (HDR) images with most software is a complex, time-consuming task that can frustrate photographers new to the process. This is particularly true when you simply want to create a natural looking image with increased highlight and shadow detail, not a surrealistic HDR image.

Unified Color provides software with extensive controls for creating complex interpretive HDR composites with its HDR Expose 2 and 32 Float v2 software for photographers wishing to immerse themselves in the full HDR process. But Unified Color also provides a simplified but still highly capable program now in its second version, HDR Express 2. It's the perfect HDR solution for photographers getting started with HDR, and for photographers looking for HDR software that creates natural, rather than interpretive, images.

201212we_hdr_mobius.jpg

HDR Express 2 excels in quickly creating natural looking images that don’t even appear to have been processed through HDR software. ©Stan Sholik

HDR Express 2 distills the HDR user controls down to seven basic sliders: exposure, highlights, shadows, black point, contrast, saturation and white balance. All but the black point slider allow you to increase or decrease their respective settings; black point can only be increased. The contrast slider is more a control of local (micro) contrast rather than overall contrast. But even at the highest contrast setting and with the saturation slider at maximum, the HDR image just looks contrasty and over saturated, not especially "grungy."

HDR Express 2 installs as a standalone application and as a Lightroom plug-in on Mac and Windows systems running the latest operating systems, and additionally as an Aperture plug-in on Macs. System requirements are minimal compared to some HDR software, and HDR Express 2 runs far faster than the previous version. Still, a fast computer, a 64-bit operating system, and more than 4GB of RAM available ensures the fastest image processing.

Not only is HDR Express 2 faster than its predecessor, it allows you to work more efficiently. One of the new features is the ability to automatically arrange, sort and group bracketed exposures from the folder you choose. RAW files are sorted separately from JPEGs and TIFFs, and you can choose to only show the file type of your choice. This is a great feature if you shoot both RAW and JPEGs at the same time but want to use the RAW files for HDR.

201212we_hdr_exp2_2.jpg

When you choose to create a new HDR image from the opening screen, this screen opens. Here you choose a folder of images and HDR Express2 groups bracketed exposures into sets while displaying image thumbnails. Even with the sets of very similar images here, HDR Express 2 grouped them accurately. A histogram allows you to choose only those images you need.

The new visual browser displays thumbnails of the images, making it far easier to select files. The files are also sorted (by capture time) horizontally into groups of the same bracketed set of exposures. HDR Express 2 supports most major RAW file formats as well as the ability to create HDR images from JPEG and TIFF files.

A histogram display in the import browser window allows you to select only the necessary number of images to ensure unclipped shadows and highlights (below). However, there is no option to batch process files as there is in Unified Color’s more sophisticated HDR Expose 2.

201212we_hdr_exp2_3.jpg

The main screen of HDR Express 2 features a large preview of the HDR image. Thumbnails of presets are displayed below the preview. A histogram of the 32-bit image and the controls reside in a panel to the right of the preview.

The import browser also includes options for aligning images and ghost removal, along with simple explanations of which ghost removal option to select. I found the new “de-ghosting” algorithms to be excellent at removing ghosting caused by wind and moving water, but about average compared to other HDR software at removing ghosting caused by moving people.

201212we_hdr_tower_combo.jpg

On a stormy day at the beach (tower.jpg), the new de-ghosting algorithms in HDR Express 2 did an excellent job eliminating the potential ghosting of the flag waving wildly in the wind, but only an average job removing the ghosts of moving people. ©Stan Sholik

With the images merged and the default preview open in HDR Expose 2, presets are available to give you other options to begin your HDR process. The presets are applied to the image on which you are working and can be set to appear below the preview image or to the left of the preview. A histogram of the 32-bit image is displayed in the panel on the upper right with the image dynamic range displayed below the histogram. As you adjust the controls, the gray area of the histogram mapping the dynamic range adjusts accordingly.

Unfortunately, adjustments you make with the control sliders are not dynamic—the preview image only redraws when you release the mouse button after adjusting the slider, not while you are adjusting it. This makes for a lot more adjusting, releasing, and adjusting than should be necessary.

When you have completed your adjustments, you can save the image in the JPEG or TIFF format you have selected in the HDR Express 2 preferences. There is no separate processing step required.

You can also save the image in Unified Color’s own 32-bit BEF file format. You can open BEF files for further adjustments in any Unified Color HDR software, and HDR Express 2 loads a plug-in that allows Photoshop to open BEF format files.

HDR Express 2 includes the essential tools to create and adjust natural looking HDR images with a minimum of effort and input from photographers. This makes it ideal for an introductory program to HDR imaging or as a program for advanced photographers who want to create realistic images with a minimum of effort. MSRP for HDR Express 2 is $99 from Unified Color. The website also includes more information on all of the Unified Color HDR offerings as well as excellent tutorials on their use. 

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book is "Lightroom 4 FAQs" (Wiley Publishing).