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Guildhall Lane and the Cathedral, LeicesterReview of Nik HDR Efex Pro

Nik's software plugin for creating HDR images

This plugin (Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture) allows you to take images and process them to create what are called HDR or High Dynamic Range images.

Keith Cooper has been looking at some of the different ways of processing your source images files for HDR purposes.


As someone who generally dislikes the 'HDR look' I was particularly interested in the software's ability to produce images that are beyond the current technical abilities of my camera, but don't look too obviously processed. I was particularly interested in trying out more black and white HDR photography.

There are a lot of screen shots and images in this review - even so, I only touch on some of the many different ways of working.

There is a free demo of the software available if you want to explore further.

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

It also works with Apple's Aperture and Adobe Lightroom.

HDR

Dynamic range is the difference between the lightest parts of a scene and the darkest shadows.

In real life it can easily exceed what can be captured by digital sensors.

Even though the total dynamic range of some films can exceed digital in some circumstances, they are still not a match for what can exist in the 'real world'.

Nik HDR Efex Pro

I've been blending together multiple versions and conversions from multiple RAW files for some time in an attempt to get round the limitations in the dynamic range of sensors in digital cameras for some shots.

Earlier examples of software to help with this (such as in Photoshop) have offered somewhat limited support for the difficulties of working with images that can vastly exceed the range of what your monitor can display.

Whilst I now routinely work with my files in '16 bit' mode, it was only a few years ago that the 16 bit capabilities of Photoshop were quite limited.

Our latest printer, the Canon iPF8300 has a driver that can work with 16 bit files, although images that show real differences from 8 bit mode are relatively infrequent. The dynamic range of prints is noticeably less than monitors.

There are ways of working with image data, in what's known as 32 bit modes, which can preserve the tonal range from shadows on a moonlit night to a sunny day at the equator.

dark textures settingThe perennial difficulty with all HDR techniques is how you go from the image data to a representation of it on a monitor and then as a print. You are compressing the data considerably, but want to preserve some aspects of how the scene appeared.

But it looks awful...

I'll start the review with a personal admission - I find quite a few of the example images on the Nik Software site showing examples of HDR Efex Pro quite ghastly.

I see examples of people's images that first and foremost say HDR, and then maybe a little of what the photo is about. However - they do, on the Nik site, illustrate what you can do with the software, just don't assume you must go for the garish look.

Photography is a field replete with passing fashions and fads - I remember the 'creative filter' phase in the 70s/80s when you would see lots of people with monstrous filter holders attached to the front of their lenses, sorting out which combination of their huge box of Cokin filters were appropriate...

I see too many attempts at making an OK picture into a great picture through the application of filters, both real and computer generated. Every so often I see a great picture made into an astounding one through the right choice of such tools. To myself, the truly great pictures start out as great pictures and the skill and work of the photographer/printer is to get them to show this to their best.

There, I've got that minor rant out of the way - now to how I used HDR Efex Pro, and why it really is now an important tool in the box

HDR Efex - What do you get?

The software installs into as many appropriate locations as it can find - so no problem if you have Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop.

I'm using with Photoshop and can either Select 'Merge to HDR Pro' in the File > Automate menu or as in the example below, select some images in Bridge and launch the plugin from there

opening source files in Bridge

I'll be showing the creation of HDR images here, from RAW files, however you can use HDR Efex Pro to convert existing 32 bit files into more usable ones (a process known as 'Tone Mapping').

The plugin can work on individual images as well as sets with varying exposures. in the example above I've three images taken at two stop exposure differences. If you convert an existing 8 or 16 bit image into 32 bit mode, then HDR Efex Pro is available in the normal filters list.

Using HDR Efex Pro

Quite often for interior shots I'll take a few images at different exposures to allow me to capture more details in shadows and highlights. An example would be a room interior where you need the view out of the window.

Sometimes it's pretty easy to selectively blend multiple shots together, sometimes not.

I'll start of with an example from a recent job, where I was at a hotel, shooting some of their new conferencing facilities - in this case with artificial lighting inside and daylight in the refreshments area.

There isn't much difference in exposure between the shots since I didn't specifically take the shot for this test.

However the three combined images do show very clearly some of the multitude of conversion options that are available in the software.

If you try the demo version of the software, try it with a number of different types of images, since what might be OK for one type of image could look awful for another.

The software will attempt to extract relative exposure values from the image information. For the RAW files I'm using here, there is no problem, but there is the option to manually override any default settings.

After selection of images the software will take a while to open and merge the images.

bridge tools - HDR

There is quite a lot going on at this stage, and with several large images it can take a few minutes even on a relatively powerful computer (the software is 64-bit and multi-threaded).

There are options to force alignment checks on the images (yes, you can do hand held HDR) and an option for 'Ghost reduction'. If you have things changing from one shot to another (people at night for example) then the software will attempt to remove them.

HDR Efex Pro has two primary methods for reducing ghosts. The adaptive method is aimed at fixing small subtle movements, such as leaves, water or flags waving. The global method is designed to 'fix' larger objects such as a people walking through scenes.

HDR image processing

I should mention that the help files for HDR Efex Pro are available on-line, along with extensive videos and other tutorials. I can only give a feel for some of the functionality here.

The interface is familiar if you've used any of the other Nik plugins - this is the default conversion setting.

basic interface

Down the left hand side are a number of preset conversion options for you to try (you can hide these and add your own to the list)

In the middle is the converted image (remember that you can't display the underlying 32 bit file on any normal display) This can be viewed in a number of ways (split screen / before and after)

Split screen mode

To the right are the numerous adjustments you can make, both from a global (whole image) point of view, and via localised adjustment (Control Points)

It's perhaps easiest to just run through a few of the presets, to give a feel for what happens.

The 'bright rooms' setting

bright rooms setting

'Bright Textures' - Here I've pushed the HDR conversion method up to 100%, giving this almost sketch like look to the image.

bright texture setting

The 'Clean' setting - This was selected from the presets and shows how a preset is a collection of settings for all the different sliders.

clean setting

'Dark Textures' setting

dark textures setting

  • Note that this is the example I picked for my 'but it looks awful' rant... I don't actually this one looks too bad, but it's just not the sort of picture I supply for clients or print for my own interest.

'Harsh details'

harsh details setting

'Gradual Medium'

Gradual Medium setting

'Sharp' mode

sharp mode for HDR conversion

'Strong Counterlight'

Strong Counterlight setting for HDR Efex Pro

Now, I'll be honest and say I was not greatly impressed by most of these and somewhat concerned that it wasn't possible to look at any image without the volume turned up to 15.

fine adjustment slidersHowever, what about all those sliders that leap about as you choose any presets? (descriptions from Nik)

Tone Compression
Moving this slider to the right compresses the tonality of the image, lightening dark values and darkening bright values. This is the main HDR effect, allowing bright scenes to be compressed leaving a full range of tonality and colour.

Exposure
Changes the Exposure Value of the image. Moving this slider to the left darkens the image while moving to the right increases the brightness of the image.

Contrast
Controls the overall contrast of the image.

Saturation
Controls the overall saturation or intensity of colour in the image.

Structure
Controls the overall structure of the image. Increasing this slider emphasizes fine details while decreasing this slider reduces the appearance of fine details for smoother surfaces.

Blacks
Increases the amount of black in the image. Helps to provide rich dark tones or depth to an image as well as to ensure the presence of blacks within the image.

Whites
Adjusts the white point of the image. Moving this slider to the right will brighten the white point, causing light objects to become lighter. Moving this slider to the left will darken the white point, darkening light objects.

Warmth
Controls the temperature of colours of the image. Increasing this slider adds warmth to colours (adding reds) while decreasing this slider cools the colours down (adding blues).

  • Note: I only just discovered, after using Nik plugins for a while, that double clicking on any slider bar resets it to zero.

The HDR method reflects details of the algorithm used for basic HDR conversion, Each HDR Method interacts differently with the colour and detail of the image. As you can see, there are quite a few...

HDR algorithm option

It's here where, at last, the software reveals it's true subtlety and capacity for finer controls. I'll show this with some night time images I created for some black and white prints of the city centre, in Leicester, where I live.

I'll just illustrate one important feature from the shot above.

I've covered some of the usefulness of control points in our Viveza 2 review and won't repeat it all here, however, they give you the opportunity to selectively vary the effects of the conversion in localised parts of the image.

Because of the lighting in the room, I felt that the whiteboard didn't look white enough. A selective adjustment to exposure and saturation makes all the difference.

Move your mouse over the image below to see the effect of the control point (CP)

using a control point to emphasise part of an image in Nik HDR Efex

Move your mouse over the next image to see how far the influence of the CP extends. This is a great way of visualising just where you are affecting the image.

CP area of influence

Out at night - Black and White HDR

Recently, I happened to be at an event in the city centre and remembered to take my tripod along for a few night shots afterwards. I thought I'd take a few test photos to see how HDR Efex could work for night time views, with the specific intention of making some new B/W prints.

One thing to note is that if you load the images via the bridge, the RAW files are handled by the the Adobe Camera Raw converter.

Before opening the images in HDR Efex, I've opened the set of pictures I'm going to use, in ACR, to set a uniform white balance. You only need to select 'Done', not actually open the images.

setting colour temperture for RAW conversion

Since I'm going to be converting the images to black and white it's worth noting that you don't need to get the colours looking correct. Sometimes odd looking colours produce a lower noise and better looking B/W version (see this example with the Canon EOS 7D at night).

But surely the HDR creation will take care of noise? Well, up to a point. I'm only taking three images here with a +-2 stop exposure difference, and at night, some shadows are really black and likely to be in the shadow area for the longest exposure.

The 100% screen shot from below shows how noisy pixels can just appear in shadows after conversion. (Camera was Canon 1Ds Mk3 at 100 ISO - Lens was the Canon TS-E 17mm shift lens)

The first time I did the conversion there were many more dots, however I went back to my RAW settings and added a bit of luminance noise reduction. This reduced the amount noticeably, but didn't eliminate them.

noise spots in converted image

The cure was to select the area in the converted image and apply the standard PS Dust and scratches filter - very effective.

What else to 'fix'... As I've mentioned, I don't like obvious sharpening halos.

Careful selection of method and other setting has produced an image I like (remember it is for a B/W print), but those halos around the top of the buildings are just too visible (I'll fix the bit of lens flare afterwards)

Fortunately, the control points also allow you to turn down things like the structure setting and the amount of the HDR 'Method'

Here's how I turn down the halos (move your mouse over the image to see the effect)

reduce sharpening halos

and here's the area of the CP influence (move your mouse over the image to see the effect)

area of halo reduction

If you move the control point around whilst in this preview mode, it continually updates the area of influence.

This is particularly useful when you've placed the point in a textured area, where only a slight movement of the control point can make a pronounced difference to where it is active.

Move your mouse over the image below, to see the effect (and area of influence) change with only a small shift of CP position.

effect of moving a control point by a small amount

vignetting optionsIf you want, there are a number of other adjustments you can apply, such as curves and a host of vignetting options.

Personally I'd be happier doing this sort of thing afterwards in Photoshop.

However, if you're into the more 'All-in-one' approach of Lightroom or Aperture then I can see why you might use the feature at this point.

There are a number of preset curves you can apply, once again some do seem a little heavy handed at their default settings, but you can at least tweak them for a lighter touch.

The example below is one of the more drastic alterations.

I'd generally not want to do my conversion to black and white at this stage.

Careful exageration of colour intensity can make it easier to exert finer control over the conversion process when you do create your black and white version of the image.

I generally prefer the ease of use of Nik Silver Efex Pro for this step, but a simple channel mixer conversion or any of the many B/W conversion methods can produce better results than just desaturating the image in HDR Efex Pro.

A strong curves layer adjustment

A quick setting of the Saturation slider to -100 (no colour) is still good for giving a feel for how the image might look in B/W

Move your mouse over the image to see this

desaturate image to see what it will look like in black and white

Note that I've got six control points in the image above to control halos and relative intensities of different parts of the image.

One was placed, just so that the time could be seen on the clock (a famous city landmark)

Move your mouse over the image to see how localised this adjustment is.

clock tower clock showing time

I'm sure that someone will like this example (below) of what artificial lighting 'really' looks like, but I'll take the B/W version thanks.

As you might have guessed, the visible CP is to cut down on halos around the tower (I've used 3 of them in all) - it was a damp misty night.

nighttime colours under artificial light

Here's an example of a B/W image that was printed. Apart from cloning out a bit of lens flare and a slight crop, it's the HDR Efex Pro image, converted to B/W with Nik Silver Efex Pro and sharpened for print (A2 size) with Nik Sharpener Pro V3.

Guildhall Lane and the Cathedral, Leicester

Guildhall Lane and the Cathedral, Leicester

The Guildhall and the Cathedral, Leicester

The Guildhall (dates from 1390) and the Cathedral, Leicester

Conclusions

A piece of software that has gone a long way towards restoring my faith in HDR based techniques.

If you like the tawdry oversharpened HDR look, then this plugin will give you no end of effects and controls to try. Much as I might dislike it, this sort of stuff is popular and even wins competitions (for now) so I do have to take notice.

Whilst I was researching this review I had a look at a lot of sites with HDR info and tutorials - even for black and white HDR I kept finding massively overblown effects and a complete lack of subtlety...

BUT... If, like me, you prefer a more natural look and believe that shadows sometimes need to look like real shadows, then this plugin has all the fine controls needed to get the very best from your source materials.

The only glitch I noticed, was the appearance of those hot pixels in the darkest areas of the night shots. Care with noise reduction and the use of the Photoshop Dust & Scratches filter fixed this.

If you need to create 32 bit files, then at the moment, the only way is to create a smart object in Photoshop and then save this in 32 bit mode. The software does a lot of calculations and uses a lot of resources - it needs 64 bit support (see requirements below)

It may will take some effort to find subtle settings that you like - the effort is, to my mind, well worth it.

It's not something I will be regularly using for my daytime work, but is going to make a noticeable difference to some of my industrial location shots, and in particular, night-time architectural work where I can concentrate on showing buildings and their lighting, rather than the software used to create the image.

You can try the software yourself. There is a time limited demo version of the software available.

There are a number of tutorials and demos of the software available on the Nik Software site.

Article History - first published April 2011

Update: HDR Efex Pro Version 2 review - Dec. 2012

Summary

Eases the process of creating HDR image files and then applying tone mapping settings to create 16 bit images from them.

Covers the full range of HDR effects from realistic to seriously unreal...

Works in Lightroom, Aperture and Photoshop.

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System requirements

Macintosh
Windows

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