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Review of Nik HDR Efex Pro V2

Nik HDR for Photoshop / Aperture / Lightroom

Keith Cooper has been looking at the latest version of Nik HDR Efex.

Some time ago he reviewed the original Nik HDR Efex, and has found it a useful tool for creating images when the range of lighting is beyond that covered by today's camera sensors.

The new version includes many subtle refinements that make it more intuitive and easier to use on images.

There is more information about the software at the Nik Software site

HDR - a brief personal note ;-)

  • There are numerous tools available for creating High Dynamic Range or HDR images.
  • Many end up emphasising colour and local contrast to what I regard as a wholly unsatisfactory degree.
  • For myself, HDR is a technique that gets round some of the current limitations in digital sensors, which can have difficulty in capturing shadow detail if you reduce your exposure to avoid clipping highlights.
  • This can be a bright sunny day, with deep shadow, or illuminated buildings at night, such as the view of St. Mary de Castro to the right, which was produced as a large print in aid of the church spire appeal.
  • As a working architectural and interior photographer I have no desire to produce some of the gaudy overprocessed images I see widely posted on social media sites (YMMV ;-)
  • Much as I might generally dislike them, they are a perfectly valid use of the software.
  • If your tastes are in that direction, then look on this review as an overview of how the software functions and note that it can produce high quality images at any level of tawdryness you desire ;-)

Now that I've got that out of the way - back to what the software does and how you use it ;-)

hdr efexWhat do you get with HDR Efex Pro?

I'm looking at the software working as a Photoshop plugin on a Mac in this review, but it works just fine under Windows.

The software works as a plugin with the following applications

Upon running the installer, it finds any appropriate software - note that the requirements have become somewhat more constrained from the previous version.

installing Nik HDR Efex 2

I use Adobe Bridge for much of my image file sorting - the software allows for direct export to HDR Efex

HDR efex as Bridge extension

There are similar levels of integration with Lightroom and Aperture

New in V2

The key improvements (as listed by Nik Software) are:

I'll show examples of some of these, but in general, V2 of the software seems a more polished product than the original HDR Efex Pro.

Here's the only brightly coloured image I'm going to include - Vat Burn falls in Scotland, a single image processed in HDR Efex Pro 2. It's rather a lot of what I wouldn't do to such an image ;-) (which is in the gallery BTW)

Vat Burn falls - excess conversion effect

OK, I turned down some effects - it just hurt my eyes too much ;-)

If you want to see some of the more 'vivid' results, have a look through the examples in my review of the original Nik HDR software.

Using HDR Efex Pro 2

Whilst the software can work with individual images and collections of JPEG files, the best results come from shooting in RAW format, where as much camera sensor information is available as possible.

I'd note that If I first opened images in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw), then any geometry or lens correction adjustments I'd made were carried through to the images processed by the plugin. The software will warn you if settings between the images vary.

If taking a range of shots for creating a single image, then you need to bracket exposures (and keep the ISO and aperture fixed). In this first example I've got 5 bracketed exposures selected in Bridge.

selecting images for merging

I just need to select the merge option for HDR Efex 2 (note the old version of the software below it).

running the software

You can use the already selected images, or add individual files via a standard file dialog.

One minor usability gripe I have is that the default text is far too low contrast - grey on dark grey is rarely a good idea.

file merge

The merge dialog opens, showing thumbnails of the selected images, some options and a preview that you can adjust to get a feel for the image. (move your mouse over the image to see)

preview of merged images

Do note that the preview is not the tonemapped HDR image, just a convenient way of seeing that all you wanted is in the image.

You can make adjustments for lens chromatic aberration at this point (if you've not fixed it in your ACR settings)

fixing chromatic aberration

For ghost removal, this is where you select the 'master image' - which will be used as the template for what shouldn't appear in the result (people or cars for example).

The strength of ghost removal is adjustable at this stage.

Here's the default output from 5 images

default hdr creation from 5 images

For a scene like this, three images would normally be more than enough to capture enough information. Many people try and capture every last bit of detail, from the shadow under the sofa, through to the brightest bit of the sky.

Fitting all of this into a single image is what contributes to an unnatural look. My office has the curtains partly open and I can see the garden - there is deep shadow in some parts of the office, which in any meaningful representation should still be there (IMHO).

This night time example uses three images to capture shadow detail and not lose details in the very brightly lit parts of the stonework. I always take care with such artificial lighting, since it's very easy for one channel to be much lighter than another.

three shot composite for church at night

The default setting from a 3 shot version of the room interior is not at all bad (move your mouse over the image to see an alternative from the preset options)

image presets

The presets are grouped under different categories.

preset library options

You can view and compare versions in a number of ways, side by side images or split screen (mouse over image).

Adjustments of the tone mapping methods gives a number of options (move your mouse over the image to see an alternative from the preset options).

adjusting tone mapping methods

Or somewhat stronger effects (mouse over image for more)

or just turning up the 'drama' setting... note how the structure of the stone blocks behind the plaster is showing through.

grainy look

'Detail' can also be cranked up.

setting detail roo high

Detail settings depend very much on the subject matter (move your mouse over the image below to see an example)

adjusting detail settings for image

You can fine tune the tonality of the HDR image with a range of controls, including one for local contrast (structure).

These adjustments are applied to the whole HDR image, rather than altering the way that the image is produced. It's a subtle difference, but I'd start off with the HDR settings and then go to the tonality settings (and then perhaps repeat the process - you need to experiment to see what works)

Move your mouse over the image below to see the effect of pushing up the structure setting.

tonality settings

For some images, the default settings try to get too much of the image into the mid tones, so I may turn down the tone compression right at the start. (mouse over image to see)

reducing tone compression

If you're wondering about the colours of the image above, it's because I'm going to be creating a black and white print and adjusted the colour balance for more even balance of their levels (I'm doing the conversion to B&W in Silver Efex Pro 2 and know from experimenting, that the best looking colour images do not always make for the best B&W, especially at night)

It's possible to make quite subtle white balance (colour adjustment) alterations, such as slightly cooling this one (mouse over to see)

white balance adjustment

There are levels and curves adjustments available for applying to the image, although this is perhaps something I'd be more likely to do myself subsequently in Photoshop (where I can mask them)

The image histogram can also show clipping in the output image (mouse over to see), such as where I'm quite happy for the sky to go white in this image (a perfectly exposed view of the clouds and exterior just looks wrong for my taste)

If I like a particular set of slider settings, I can save them as a preset of my own.

creating your own preset

Masking and Control Points

There are various 'finishing adjustments available, such as vignetting and a graduated neutral density effect (pushed a bit far here to show)

Some images can benefit from this, and remember that sometimes a simple adjustment like this can be more effective than lots of trying to get everything right in the earlier HDR settings.

graduated filter effect

Lastly I'll come to a selective adjustment that is in my opinion one of the key features of Nik's plugins: Control Points.

Quite often there may be just one area of an image you want to alter (mouse over to see the effect of the Control Point )

control point adjustment

The sliders all affect local image areas.

It's possible to see just what parts (mouse over image to see affected parts in lighter areas)

area of effect - control point

The size of area affected can be altered

changing the area affected by the control point

Another example shows a deeply shadowed part of the church tower - I want some detail in the print in this area.

Move your mouse over the image below to see some localised lightening of the image (the final version took a few tries to look realistic)

fill lighting for shadows

One last example showing how I've emphasised some of the reflection from the wet pavement, to more directly lead the eye into the picture. (mouse over image to see).

There are many more examples of the use of Control Points in the other Nik plugin reviews I've written

Conclusions

When I first tried the original HDR Efex Pro, it did a lot to renew my interest in HDR techniques as worthwhile tools for my professional work - HDR Efex Pro Version 2 just got a whole lot smoother and easier to use.

Effective use of HDR still takes a lot more care and planning, but it's a tool I can now be more sure of its results in advance, than before.

This is the image the client was happy with for the interior shot - the image was used as part of a windows brochure and more than anything needed to look 'ordinary'. The actual printed image was smaller than you see here, so not one I wanted to spend too long over. HDR Efex Pro 2 lets me create images like this with minimal extra effort.

interior view, out of window

The church photo, as produced by Nik HDR Efex Pro 2

HDR picture of church, lit up at night

...and the final version, as printed, after processing with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

St Mary de castro church, Leicester

The print, at sizes up to 20"x30" has already raised money to help keep that spire from falling (I've been up inside it as part of our architectural photography work).

I don't normally do comparisons of products, but the differences between V1 and 2 are shown quite well in this example of three images I used in the HDR Efex Pro V1 review.

The default output for V1 of the software

and for Version 2

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The V2 image needed a slight boost to the exposure setting to make quite a reasonable first go at the image. This followed by a few more tweaks gave me an image I could use.

The V1 software has its adjustments in a more obscure order, that don't make it quite so easy to home in on what works.

The software worked quite rapidly on our Mac Pro and caused no glitches or crashes whilst I've been using it (it's notably faster than V1)

It has a few usability related issues concerning legibility of small and low contrast text, but nothing that stopped me using it.

One improvement that seemed very effective was the reduced halo effect that you can so easily get round image elements.

I did have to turn down some settings in the church picture, but judicious use of control points kept any artefacts down to levels where I could hardly see them.

The new version of the software is, in a word, more 'subtle'...

It's definitely an application that I'm comfortable with using for my best quality exhibition prints.

There is a fully functional demo version of the software that is available.

Discuss this review with Keith on Google+ or post comments/questions about this review at our Blog

  • Review first published December 2012

Summary

Software plugin for creating High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. Component images can be combined in a variety of ways, with adjustments for fine tuning local and global image adjustments.

hdr efexSystem Requirements

Host software

Macintosh

Windows

GPU compatibility

There is more information at Nik Software.

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