Monday, December 9, 2013

Working behind the scenes

While I may not have been taking many photographs lately, I’ve still been pretty busy behind the scenes.  I’ve been taking a closer look at different programs for creating HDR Images and tone mapping them to LDR files - free, open-source, shareware and commercial.  While my testing may not be as thorough as some of the major review sites, I carried out a side by side comparison of them all to see how they handled the same set of 9 auto-bracketed exposures.

The pictures in question were a pretty tough test due to it being of a tree, with the sun directly behind it shining into the lens.  And while the camera was mounted to a tripod, there was some movement to the branches and leaves from a slight breeze.

The programs I tested were:
  • Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop (my normal combo and benchmark)
  • Photomatix Pro 5 (trial copy)
  • HDR Expose 3 (trial copy)
  • LuminanceHDR
  • Hydra Pro (trial copy)
  • EnfuseGUI
  • ImageFuser
(behind the scenes were a few other command line tools that were used by the “FOSS” software - Enblend-Enfuse, Hugin, Libpano)

And the winner is………!!!!!!  Honestly, not that clear cut that I could pick one overall winner - for me that is.

The one with the best combination of ease of use, quality of results, image aligning, ghost removal and ability to ingest RAW files and able to export/save the 32bit HDR file would bePhotomatix Pro 5.  It is a commercial program and has a license fee but it is very reasonably priced.  I will be picking up a full version of this in the near future.

As for the free, open-source, shareware (FOSS) programs, my vote for the one with the most features and that worked for me and my files is ImageFuser.  The only things that let it down from being the ideal application is the lack of ghost removal and it’s limited exporting of the 32bit HDR files.  While this program is more of a photo merging application than a true HDR tone mapper, it produces really nice “natural” LDR images from my shots.  It also is the only one of the “FOSS” programs tested that had a fully working auto image alignment feature as well as the ability to correctly ingest RAW files from my Nikon.

There were a couple of issues I ran into that were deal breakers, for me personally, with a couple of the programs:
  • HDR Expose 3 has a tricky to use image alignment tool that, to me, is a lot harder to use than it needs to be when comparing it to other programs.  Which is a shame as this program has some nice features that I have not found in other programs - in particular the Veiling Glare tool.
  • LuminanceHDR would not work correctly with the RAW files out of my Nikon.  While it was able to read them, it was not reading them correctly and was producing badly exposed and wildly colored images.  Contacting the company via their Facebook page did not resolve this issue and their limited response did not include assistance in fixing the issue.  Also, I was not able to get the auto-image alignment feature to work - it kept giving an error that it was not setup, despite my having the “companion” tools installed.  And while the manual alignment was simple to use, I was not able to correct any complex alignment of the stacked images.
As for the remaining programs, here are my findings:
  • EnfuseGUI - while this uses the same "back-end" as ImageFuser, the images it produces are a lot more saturated. Also there is no alignment tool and no RAW file capability.  When used with aligned images and TIFF source files, this does produce wonderful images.
  • Hydra Pro - maximum image stack size of 5 files.  I often will have stacks of 9 images when there is a wide exposure range in the scene.  Maybe a minor issue due to not "needing" more than 5 images for an HDR but it does limit its appeal.  As for its output, I found it to be rather dull and no better than my base-line from Lightroom/Photoshop.
All in all, this was an interesting period of testing and I know what works (better) for me and the images I like/want to produce.  I will still be using Lightroom and Photoshop as the basis for my work but going forward I will also be using a combination of Photomatix and ImageFuser.  I’ll leave you now with the LDR image that ImageFuser produced as a part of this comparison testing.

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