HDR photography can be natural-looking or it can be surreal-looking. Descriptions such as "hyperrealism," "synthetic pop," "grunge art" and more have been used to describe HDR images that are taken to the extremes. Through experimentation and experience, you can arrive at the aesthetic that works for your photographic vision. As HDR software evolves and is refined, new features are constantly being introduced. The current lineup of available software makes it easy to create flawless photographs, provided that solid technique is used at the point of capture.
As software technology has improved, many, but not all, of the common image-degrading issues associated with HDR composites have been reduced or eliminated. Color fringing, for example, has haunted HDR images created from multiple frames. You’ll see the artifacts when a line of red, green, blue or magenta occurs at a boundary of contrast. This is magnified when working with HDR because HDR algorithms are all about contrast. This is something to look out for when working with your images and that your software should be able to help compensate for.
Noise is another issue that plagues HDR imagery. It’s responsible for the grungy look that’s seen in some heavily HDR enhanced images, and it’s particularly common in single-image "tone-mapped" photos. One reason for the noise increase is because the software is boosting the dark areas within a frame. When you’re compositing multiple frames and exposures to create your HDR image, noise is less of an issue. Whenever possible, you’ll have the most overall control over an image and you’ll minimize the noise by creating your HDR image from multiple exposures.
Unified Color Technologies HDR Expose 3 and 32 Float v3 Photoshop plug-in allow you to merge multiple frames from handheld bracketed shooting. The new file browser automatically detects bracketed exposures using thumbnails instead of filenames, and it can generate a batch-merge function. Upgraded alignment capabilities, including fully automatic and manual assist options, calculate proper fit while the refined deghosting algorithms reduce artifacts created by movement from frame to frame within a scene by using a key frame as a reference. New Adaptive Tone Mapping enhances local control of contrast, color and detail retention. List Price: $119 (HDR Expose 3); $89 (32 Float v3). www.unifiedcolor.com
Everimaging HDR Darkroom 3 uses an intuitive interface to give you control over 30 parameters for local and global tone mapping, including lens correction for chromatic aberration, curve adjustments, color temperatures and full color space management along with highlight/shadow adjustment and noise reduction. The software handles alignment and ghost reduction as images are imported, and you can batch-process RAW files. A nice feature for social-media enthusiasts is the ability to upload finished images directly to your social media of choice. The amount of custom control is particularly nice for users who have previous HDR experience. List Price: $89. www.everimaging.com
If there’s a program that most people would associate with starting the HDR imagery trend, it’s Photomatix from HDRsoft. Photomatix has been the go-to software for leading-edge HDR artists and enthusiasts for years, and the company has continued to improve and refine the features over that time. Available as stand-alone software or as a plug-in for Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture, Photomatix Pro 4 merges multiple images and gives you the ability to batch-process. Auto alignment and selective deghosting make merging of handheld bracketed photos relatively fast and easy. Photomatix also features noise reduction and chromatic aberration (color fringing) reduction, and final adjustments of sharpening and contrast. List Price: $99. hdrsoft.com
Topaz Adjust is another popular software package with a dedicated following among HDR enthusiasts of all different skill levels. It tone-maps a single image instead of merging multiple frames at varying exposures. Using Intelligent Detail Enhancement, the software enhances textures and details while minimizing noise. Adaptive Exposure adds contrast to different areas of the image, depending on the area’s tonality. Adaptive Color analyzes the entire image to determine color saturation. You have control over colors, curves, details, noise reduction and exposure, as well as local adjustments for dodging and burning. List Price: $49. www.topazlabs.com
HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software (now the Nik Collection, after Google’s acquisition of the company) integrates with Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and Elements. It can merge multiple images or tone-map a single frame. Nik Software has a reputation for designing interfaces that are intuitive for photographers and for integrating plenty of presets to get you started. HDR Efex Pro carries on that tradition. You can generate images from natural to more "artistic" with the software’s one-click presets, or you can customize an image using Nik U Point technology. List Price: $149 (full Nik Collection). www.google.com/nikcollection
If you want to give open-source software a try, Luminance HDR is free software for Linux, Windows and iOS machines. Like all open-source software, the engineers rely on feedback from users to make improvements and add features to the software. This gives you a chance to be part of the creative team, in a way. Software updates are shared within the community. Luminance HDR is a fairly basic package. It merges RAW files, plus allows tone mapping, rotating, sizing and cropping. qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net
HDR features are showing up in cameras increasingly. While in-camera HDR doesn’t offer you as much control over the effects, it’s simple and convenient to use.
1 Because camera manufacturers are intimately familiar with their sensors and in-camera processing engines, they can make the best use of both in generating the HDR images.
1 Many in-camera HDR functions are only available when you’re shooting JPEGs.