I first discovered high dynamic range photography several years ago when I found Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs. He is a master at HDR photography and I loved the way many of his photographs looked.
When I started messing around with high dynamic range photography I only used Photoshop and just could not get the look I was after. With HDR photography you combine and tone map multiple exposures into a single high dynamic rage image. Many times my photos looked like the awful images that many people think of when they think of HDR photography, over saturated messes.
Photomatix Pro 5 (version 5.0.5)
I started looking at the software that the pros used in processing their HDR images. What I found was Photomatix. It was and is highly recommended and seemed to be the most popular, widely used software for HDR photography. Photomatix Pro 5 is a standalone program. You do not need Photoshop or any other program for it to work. Although the newest version does have, a plug-in included for Abobe Lightroom. I prefer to finish my photos in Photoshop but you certainly don’t need it to use Photomatix Pro 5 effectively.
Update and Improvements
In the newest version, there have been some substantial updates and improvements. Some of the best new features include:
- Contrast Optimizer, a new tone mapping method used for a more realistic look.
- Exposure Fusion, can now be used for creating a image from a single RAW file.
- Automatic Deghosting is greatly improved.
- The Refreshing Preview slider is awesome, make sure you change this in the preference dialog under the General tab. You will love the way this works!
There are more new features and if you are a using an older version of Photomatix I would highly recommend you upgrade.
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Photomatix Pro 5 is simple to use. As you can see, you have 4 options when you open the interface.
- Load Bracketed Photos
- Load a Single Photo
- Batch Bracketed Photos
- Batch Single Photos
After you load in your photo or photos a new window, opens with more options as to what you want the software to do.
- Align source images – options include hand held or tripod mounted
- Remove ghosts – if you have movement in between the frames of your photos then deghosting tries to eliminate the ghosting.
- Reduce noise
- Reduce chromatic aberrations
- Options for a RAW conversion – you can change the white balance and the color profile.
Merge to HDR
Once you have made your choices click on Merge to HDR and away you go. What happen’s next depends on the options that you chose. If you chose Deghosting, a window will open that gives you more control over the deghosting process. You can deghost the entire image or you can choose to selective deghost. I would recommend trying to use the ‘selective deghosting’ as deghosting generally will soften your image.
When deghosting is finished, Photomatix starts the merging process. A new merged image, with the default setting applied, will open with an interface filled with options.
34 preloaded pre-sets are listed down the right hand side and the sliders that adjust various levels are down the left hand side. At the top of the sliders are the 2 ways you can process your image.
Tone Mapping is the process of converting the tonal values of an image from a high range to a lower one. This process compresses the tonal range of an HDR image of the scene in order to reveal its details in highlights and shadows. Photomatix offers 3 different methods of tone mapping, detail enhancer, contrast optimizer and tone compressor. Each of these once selected will give you more enhancements such as brightness, white clip, black clip, color saturation, tone compression, lighting effect and more.
Exposure Fusion is the automatic blending of the photos, essentially taking the best parts of each image and blending them together. Exposure Fusion also has a number of different methods of processing your image, Fusion/Natural, Real Estate, Intensive, Auto, and Average. As well, each of these options has more enhancements such as, strength, shadow contrast, local contrast, highlight depth and so on.
At this point, you can let your inner artist take over, play with the pre-sets and move sliders until you achieve the desired look.
If you are unsure of what a slider will do hover your cursor over the name of the slider and an explanation of what it controls will appear in the lower box.
Once you have your desired effect click ‘Apply’ and Photomatix completes the fusing/tone mapping process.
A Finishing Touches window pops up with the completed photo, allowing you to make a few more adjustments to the contrast, color and sharpening so you can achieve a perfect replication of your vision.
Below are the 3 exposures that I used to create the photo at the bottom, in this example I used RAW files.
I used Exposure Fusion to complete the image, there was a little bit of noise in the sky so I did run it through Topaz DeNoise after Photomatix did it's thing.
If you want a little more in depth tutorial, I would suggest RC Conception’s book The HDR Book or if you prefer video, Trey Ratcliff has an excellent tutorial called The Complete HDR Tutorial. Both of these resources cover the use of Photomatix in detail.
RAW or JPEG
It is important to note Photomatix does not require images in RAW format. Photomatix is designed to work with multiple photos taken under different exposure settings, and it works great when those images are JPEGs. Sometimes I think it works better with JPEGs. JPEGs are already processed in camera and are ready for print so I think that your results from Photomatix require less adjustments to get a pleasing final image. If you are having a tough time getting the results you want with the RAW file give the JPEGs a try it might surprise you.
This shot of the Red Deer River is an example of a tone mapped HDR using JPEG's. I took this the same day as the above photo while visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park.
New Age of HDR Photography
With ever improving software, we are in a new age of HDR photography. There are many photos out there that you would not be able to say definitively that they were HDR or not. Unfortunately, HDR photography may be forever associated with the haloed, over saturated, over processed, dirty cloud images that were common place in the early days of the style.
With Photomatix a photographer can take a much more refined and realistic approach and produce awesome images with no resemblance to the old style HDR photos. You can still have the freedom to produce hyper-realistic photos that are tastefully processed.
I highly recommend Photomatix Pro 5. Whether you are using one image or a series of bracketed images Photomatix will produce superb HDR photos.
It is easy to use with a simple slider based interface. There are plenty of options available within Photomatix to enhance your HDR photos. It has many pre-sets installed and if you are looking for more, Trey Ratcliff has a package of pre-sets for Photomatix on his website.
I use it and happily recommend that you should use it too.
If you decide to give Photomatix a shot please use discount code bestphotohdr for a 15% discount.