Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nik's HDR Efex Pro

Spent a little time playing around with Nik's new HDR program this afternoon and had some thoughts and images to share. I'm no HDR expert by any means, but even a cursory examination reveals there's a lot going on here for everyone from rank beginner to seasoned artist.   My initial reaction is that this program is going to be a great addition to the image manipulation toolkit.  The feature set is remarkable!  You can get an idea of what's available for your image in this screenshot.

Screenshot of Nik's HDR Efex Pro

Let's start at the beginning.  How do you get started in HDR Efex Pro?  I've become a Lightroom 3 user in the last few weeks, so that's where I begin.  Start by selecting a series of images with differing exposures.  There are a few ways to go from this point, but I'd suggest hitting the export button in the lower left.  This brings up an export dialogue where you can select HDR Efex Pro from the Nik Software preset.  This is set up right out of the box, as the program is installed, with the correct parameters including JPEG or TIFF and appropriate color space (AdobeRGB is the default but you can select sRGB and ProPhoto RGB if you desire).  Just hit Export when you're ready.  Lightroom creates the TIFFs and opens HDR Efex Pro right up for you.  The HDR program takes if from there, assembling a basic image.  

Continued after the break.

HDR effects involve some pretty marked image changes which can be difficult to pre-visualize.  This is a huge problem with Photomatix, and if you've used that program you know what I mean.  In Photomatix, the first image you see is nothing like the final result will be.  HDR Efex Pro doesn't waste any of your time showing you an unintelligible image but rather starts right out with more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach.  

One of the really cool features of HDR Efex Pro include all of the presets along the left side of the interface.  These provide a quick preview of some of the directions you can take your image, and help you choose a starting point among the myriad of choices you'll be making along the way.  There are something like 32 different presets, divided into categories such as "realistic" and "surreal", as well as a place where you can put your favorites.  

Presets panel on the left.

The center of the workspace is occupied by your image, and that space can be temporarily enlarged by hiding the panels on the left and right sides of the screen if you want.  Usefully, there are two options for zooming.  First, up in the right hand corner there's a box where you can select a zoom from 25 to 400%.  Second, the little window in the lower right hand of the workspace is a live loupe which will work for many of the times when you just want to do something like a quick halo-check in a high contrast area.

Looking to the panel on the right you'll find a ton of powerful inputs.  This is another of the cool things that separates this HDR program from the pack - there's so much more that you can do right from within HDR Efex Pro, you'll likely find yourself spending less time in other programs finishing the image.  

Panel on the right

In the "old days" (a few days ago), I would usually just do a very basic blending of the images in question.  This left you with a washed-out, strange looking image like those which have given HDR a "bad name" in various circles.  Because the inputs in Photomatix are so esoteric, the next step has been to get back as soon as possible into an image editing program like Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture NX, etc, so that you can restore or set up you blacks, whites, white balance, saturation, tone curve, etc, to a reasonable set of values.  This is one of the ways HDR Efex Pro represents a delightful departure.  Looking at the controls in the panel on the right, notice that in addition to the type of blending going on in the HDR algorithm, called "method", there are sliders for important global adjustments such as exposure, contrast, black/white point, structure, saturation, etc.  The inclusion of these options is both a powerful tool for creating a million different looks, but also provides a way to get your image darn near finished right within the HDR software.  

After setting global adjustments, and it wouldn't be a Nik product if this weren't possible, you can use control points to refine specific areas with all of the control available in the global adjustments area.  This is another feature that sets this program apart, and is one of the things to which those of us who use Nik's other products were looking forward. 

Below the control points are finishing adjustments including vignette and levels/curves.  It's awesome that Nik included curves in this program but it seems like it should be higher up the list on that side, typically being an adjustment that is settled earlier rather than later.  

By the time you work your way down the adjustments panel on the right you should be getting much closer to a finished image than has been likely the case before.  Just click save and the image lands right back next to its precursor images in the Lightroom (or Aperture) library.

I can't wait to spend more time with HDR Efex Pro.  As fall sets in and the evenings get longer, I can't think of a more fun way to spend time after the sun goes down than sitting down in front of the computer monitor with a good cup of coffee and a few hundred exposure sets just waiting to be run.  I'm not ready to comment on image quality just yet (though initial results suggest we're gonna be really happy in that regard too), but I'll get back with you on that in a few months.  Meanwhile, you may wish to download a copy for yourself and give the 15 day trial a whirl!

Before you go, here are a couple of samples.

Just for fun, here's an image of a gorgeous home atop a hill overlooking the small fishing village of Sayulita, Mexico.  The day was overcast but it was still really high contrast and difficult to capture the full range of tones in the image with good definition and saturation.  Yes, with files as flexible as those from a D700, there's lots of room for lifting the shadows and pulling back highlights. But what if you want more?

Straight shot. It was possible to compromise in either direction, going for more detail in the sky if desired, but this sacrificed too much detail in the home which was the real subject.

Next is a fairly straightforward conversion having a typical HDR look.  It was super easy to arrive at this first destination, literally seconds of manipulation in HDR Efex Pro.

Already we've got a great deal more detail in the sky as well as within the outside "rooms" of the home and in the foliage present in the garden.

Next I spent some time wandering down the preset list and found a favorite some of you will recognize from Nik's Color Efex Pro 3.0, the "bleach bypass" look.  I added just a little saturation and warmth to keep the feel I was going for, and ended up with a really highly stylized and cool image, dripping with detail and character.

Bleach Bypass

It's not important whether you like any of these images as they were intended just to quickly demonstrate a little of what's available.  Ultimately you get to decide how you want your images to look, and Nik has provided us with the most richly spec'd tool yet for doing just that.

Until next time, happy shooting!

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