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Expose 3 Brings Amazing Alignment and De-ghosting to HDR

By Stan Sholik

HDR Expose 3 box

High dynamic range (HDR) photography seems to have passed through its early years of excess and taken on its role as another powerful tool for controlling scene contrast, both globally and locally. Its use is far from universal, however, even among photographers comfortable with HDR imaging, because of three limiting factors: the inability to batch process multiple files from a shoot to create HDR images; the need to use a tripod while shooting to ensure absolute alignment of the original images; and the need to have no or at least minimal movement in the scene during captures.

Several HDR software solutions have addressed some of these issues with reasonable success, but HDR Expose 3 from Unified Color is the first to solve all three successfully in a single product.

Previous versions of HDR Expose are renowned for their ability to create natural-looking HDR images with minimal artifacts and without the grungy HDR “look.” The interface and workflow were a bit unusual however. Version 3 of HDR Expose retains the ability to create natural-looking HDR images, but with completely rewritten algorithms for many operations, along with a clean, modern interface and a rearranged, logical workflow.

Expose 3 installs as a standalone program, with plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture. If you are only processing a single image sequence to an HDR image, using Lightroom or Aperture makes some sense, but part of the power of Expose 3 is its ability as a standalone program to work with multiple sequences of images.

HDR Expose 3 open dialog

The opening screen give three options for opening images in Expose 3:
open a single image, open a single sequence of images to merge to an
HDR image, and batch process a folder of images.

There are three options for opening images on the initial Expose 3 standalone program screen. You can open a single image saved in a variety of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit file formats. This option is especially useful if you have previously used HDR Expose batch processing and saved a number of files as 32-bit HDR images for further processing. A second option is to open a single sequence of images in a folder of images. Expose 3 uniquely stacks image sequences in groups so that you can visually choose what sequence to process, and what images in the sequence to use or discard. There are other options for this choice, including the amazing new automatic and manual alignment and ghost removal functions, which I'll address later.

HDR Expose 3 sequence

When you choose to open a sequence of images to create a single HDR image, HDR Expose 3 stacks all of the sequences in the folder you select and displays thumbnails to make it easy to choose the sequence you want. Buttons are available for automatic or manual alignment and de-ghosting. If your camera was tripod mounted and there was no subject motion during image capture, selecting the Merge Static Photos checkbox speeds the merge process.

HDR Expose 3 batch process 

Photographers doing high volumes of HDR can choose to batch process an entire folder of images. The files can be saved to a 32-bit HDR file for later individual adjustment, or to a final TIFF or JPEG using a prebuilt or custom preset.

The third option is batch processing. Photographers doing high-volume HDR photography, such as real estate interiors and exteriors, can use the batch processing to process entire photo shoots to separate 32-bit files in common formats for later adjustment, or to a final JPEG or 8/16-bit TIFF using a pre-built or custom preset, and save the resulting files to a folder automatically.

Using the first option or the second with automatic alignment and de-ghosting, the image opens in the Expose 3 interface. Presets are available in the filmstrip below the preview window, and the HDR tools are available in panels on the right. While there is a Grunge preset, the result is far less than what is routinely available in Photomatix or even Nik HDR Efex Pro.

The histogram at the top of the tools panel displays the full dynamic range of the HDR image while a shaded overlay indicates the dynamic range that you can display on your monitor. As you use the tools in the Operations panels, the histogram and overlay adjust accordingly. Between the histogram and the Operations panels is a navigator window.

Unlike in previous versions, the seven available operations are now all performed in Unified Color’s 32-bit Beyond RGB color space. No longer do you exit their proprietary color space to perform Veiling Glare or Geometry operations. With Expose 3, the preview image retains its look for Veiling Glare and Geometry, and Geometry is now moved to the final Operation where it logically belongs. The Operations panels are definitely designed to keep the image looking on the natural side of the HDR spectrum. The major shortcoming that I find with the overall processing in Expose 3 is the difficulty the algorithms have in dealing with the sun or other overly bright areas in the HDR image. With nearly every sequence I process with the sun present, the sun and the areas surrounding are too contrasty and look decidedly unnatural.

While I never experienced in Expose 3 the haloing created around areas of high contrast by other HDR software, you can create other artifacts by pushing some of the Expose 3 operations to their maximum. The Color Settings operation allows you to selectively change the color balance of an area, to make the sky a deeper blue for example. But push it too far, and you create a black border at the edge of the blue areas. Similarly, using the Dodge and Burn tools too aggressively also creates black borders around corrected areas. But these are minor annoyances that you can live with in order to take advantage of two of the strengths of Expose 3: the ability to align images that you shoot hand held, and the ability to de-ghost movement that occurred within the frame during the taking of the image sequence.

HDR Expose 3 manual alignment 

With Expose 3 you can manually align images that you captured if your camera was not mounted on a tripod. After choosing a position in the image, thumbnails below the preview show where that position is in each image in the sequence. You simply drag the images in the thumbnails until the positions are identical and apply the correction before merging the sequence. You can set up to eight different positions for alignment. For this image I needed two. ©Stan Sholik

You can use the tools to correct both alignment and de-ghosting automatically or manually while merging an image sequence from the second option of the initial Expose 3 screen as mentioned earlier. By selecting Manual for Merge Align and Deghost, then clicking Preview, you are shown a preview of the merged and aligned image. If each image is not precisely aligned with others, you can manually set up to eight alignment points, and Expose 3 will realign the images based on those points. I never needed more than three points, even for my sloppiest handheld sequence. It works perfectly.

HDR Expose 3 de-ghosting

If there is movement of elements in the images in the sequence, you can manually select the frame with the moving objects in the position you want them, and set that as the key frame, indicated with a “key” icon in the image list. A slider lets you set the amount of weight to give to that frame in the merged HDR image. ©Stan Sholik

But even more amazing is the de-ghosting function. The previous Expose 2 did an excellent job freezing a flag that was blowing around in one of my HDR sequences. But neither it nor any other HDR software was ever able to automatically de-ghost a handheld sequence with people moving through it. Expose 3 accomplished this easily. All I needed to do was manually choose the image where the people were positioned where I wanted them, the “key frame,” and set the relative importance I wanted to give to that image in processing. The preview redraws, and Expose 3 automatically eliminates the ghosts of those people from the image. Once you have aligned and de-ghosted the source images, clicking Merge performs the actual merging and the HDR image opens in Expose 3 ready for adjustment operations.

HDR Expose 3 example image

I selected as the key frame the one image with the seagull in the sky and built the HDR around it. The images in the sequence were hand held, but Expose 3 had no problem automatically aligning them. While I had problems with other images in Expose 3 where the sun or an over bright area is in the frame, here the area around the sun wasn’t a problem. ©Stan Sholik

HDR Expose 3 example image 

Of all the HDR software I have tested, Expose 3 does the best job of aligning and de-ghosting this handheld image sequence with people moving through the various frames. It was less successful with the bright area in the sky. ©Stan Sholik

Concurrent with the release of HDR Expose 3, Unified Color is also releasing 32 Float 3, a new version of its Photoshop HDR plug-in. While the interface and operations tools in 32 Float 3 are identical to those in Expose 3, the workflow is significantly different. You must merge your image sequence using Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro, eliminating the alignment and de-ghosting tools found in Expose 3. For optimum results you save the resulting 32-bit HDR image in Unified Color’s BEF file format. 32 Float adds the BEF file format into Photoshop when it installs. You then open the BEF file in Photoshop, select 32 Float from the Filter menu, and proceed with the adjustment operations as you do with Expose 3. You can also open any 32-bit source image saved in file formats other than BEF and perform adjustments with 32 Float.

While this workflow is fine for sequences with your camera mounted on a tripod and no movement in the frames during capture, Photoshop’s merge function is only usable in the most static image-capturing conditions. The advantage to 32 Float is that the final 8- or 16-bit image is now available on a layer for further processing or compositing in Photoshop.

Whether you choose HDR Expose 3 or 32 Float 3, you will find that you have the ability to easily create natural-looking images no matter what the original contrast range of the scene. While HDR is most often used to decrease scene dynamic range, you can also use it to expand dynamic range of scenes. HDR Expose does an excellent job of cutting through the Los Angeles haze, and I have seen it bring back the color and contrast of a friend’s hazy Grand Canyon scene. HDR is an excellent tool for many purposes, and the Unified Color products are interesting options for creating natural-looking images under less than ideal shooting conditions.

The Unified Color website offers many excellent video tutorials on Expose 3, 32 Float 3, and Express 2, a “lite” version of Expose 3. There are also 30-day trial versions of all products. MSRP for HDR Expose 3 is $119, with upgrades from previous versions purchased prior to April 23, 2013 for $59. Upgrades for purchases after April 23, 2013 are free. MSRP of 32 Float 3 is $89, with upgrades from previous versions purchased prior to April 23, 2013 for $49. Upgrades for purchases after April 23, 2013 are free.

Discounts are available when the two products are purchase together. Combination price is $149, with upgrades from Combo Suite 2 purchased prior to April 23, 2013 for $79. Upgrades for purchases after April 23, 2013 are free.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif, specializing in still life and macro photography. He is the author of "Nik Software HDR Efex Pro," published by Wiley Publishing.

System Requirements:

HDR Expose 3
OS: Intel-based Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), 10.7 (Lion), Mac OS 10.8.x (Mountain Lion)
32-bit or 64-bit (recommended) Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8)
CPU: Dual-core 2.0GHz minimum; quad-core, 2.8GHz is recommended for best performance
RAM: 2GB minimum, recommend 4GB
Video: Recommend 256M video memory minimum

32 Float 3
OS: Intel-based Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), 10.7 (Lion), Mac OS 10.8.x (Mountain Lion)
32-bit or 64-bit Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7)
Adobe Photoshop: Requires CS4, CS 5, CS 6 or Photoshop CC (Note: 32 Float will not work with Photoshop Elements)
CPU: Dual-core 2.0GHz minimum; quad-core, 2.8GHz is recommended for best performance
RAM: 2GB minimum, recommend 4GB
Video: Recommend 256M video memory minimum