HDR Software Review Pt II – Photomatix Pro

Instalment two in this series is to look at Photomatix Pro from HDRSoft.  Photomatix is probably the most used HDR application out there.  It’s been continually improved over time and integration with other applications has been added (more later).

Photomatix has always been reasonably fast in terms of loading and processing a bracketed sequence, applying tonemapping adjustments and rendering out the tonemapped LDR file.  Until HDR Pro in CS5, it was certainly the fastest I’ve used but now it seems that CS5 has moved to the top step in terms of speed.

When creating a merged HDR file, Photomatix works best with TIFF files.  You can load RAW files into it and it will interpret the RAW files but it works faster if you load it with TIFFs even though the TIFF files are much larger.  The Lightroom plugin for Photomatix uses LR to convert the RAW files to TIFF before loading to PM.  Using this route, your speed will be limited by how fast Lightroom converts the files.  For users of LR this is a convenient workflow though.

PM is a colour managed application.  You can tag your HDR files with a colour space so that everything stays in a colour managed loop from start to finish.  If you load RAW files into PM directly, you can choose what colour space to assign to the primary input files.  Your choices are sRGB, AdobeRGB and ProPhotoRGB.  If you’re using the LR plugin to load files into PM, it’s a bit wonky to get the files tagged with a profile.  There are two routes in LR to export the files.  You can go to File>Plugin Extras>Export to Photomatix Pro but using this, what might seem the logical route, doesn’t give you the option to tag the input files.  If you then open the tonemapped file for further editing you’ll be presented with the Missing Profile warning.  In order to get the files properly tagged, you need to go to File>Export, choose Photomatix Pro on the left and you’ll be presented with the option to select file type (using the File>Export>Plugin Extras>Export to Photomatix Pro, the file type is automatically TIFF and 16 bit, no choices), bit depth and colour space.  It would be nice if the folks at HDRSoft would incorporate these choices into their own export dialogue.

The Photomatix GUI is pretty utilitarian.  But it works.  It does not fully support multiple monitors which means that you can’t get a nice big, full screen version of the image to tonemap because some of the screen real estate is taken up with the tonemapping panel.  Interestingly, when you’re in tonemapping mode, you can move the histogram to a second screen.  Multiple monitor support would be a postive since a growing number of photographers do use multiple monitors.  Below are two screen captures showing the interface when the program is launced and when a file is open for tonemapping.

PM GUI. (click for larger version)

PM Tonemapping GUI. (click for larger version)

In the program preferences (View>Preferences) you can set up some default working conditions.  In the General tab, you can set up, among other things, how many cores the program uses to process.  In my situation, with a dual core processor it defaults to 2. Multi-core support only comes into play with tonemapping.  It doesn’t impact the merging of the source files (including alignment) or the Exposure Fusion option (more on that later).  I believe HDRSoft have plans to enhance multi-core support for the merging/alignment functions in the future.  In the RAW tab you can set up defaults for white balance and colour space when importing RAW files into PM directly.

Let’s get into how the program works with an existing 32 bit file.  In the previous instalment on CS5 HDR Pro, I used an HDR file that had been merged in PM.  It would kind of defeat the purpose to use that same file for testing PM so I’m going to use a file that was merged in HDR Pro.  It’s the same image and the same input files were used for consistency.

There are two options for tonemapping in PM.  The main one, with the most controls and options is the Details Enhancer.  This is the one most will be familiar with (and the one I’ve used here) and it has all of the options you’d expect to see.  You can adjust the light smoothing, luminance, strength of the operators, saturation, white point, black point, microcontrast and more.  This is the PM equivalent of the Local Adaptation tonemapper in CS5 HDR Pro.  Light smoothing can be approached in two ways.  By choosing Light Mode (clicking the checkbox) you can then select from 5 preset smoothing options.  Unchecking Light Mode takes you to a smoothing slider which gives you more control.  Using the presets in Light Mode is generally the route to go if you want to work to a less than completely photorealistic result or a completely unrealistic result.  The finer control offered by the smoothing slider generally allows for a more realistic result; although a realistic rsult can be achieved in Light Mode as well.

Preview of any of the adjustments in tonemapping is not instantaneous.  You have to make the adjustment then there’s a slight delay (not long) before seeing the image update with the effect of the change.  This can make tonemapping a bit of a hit and miss affair but the delay isn’t very long so overall the tonemapping stage can still be accomplished reasonably quickly.  Once you’ve applied your tonemapping adjustments and click Process at the bottom of the panel, there is a delay while the tonemapping adjustments are fully applied to the image.  Probably the single biggest issue with PM is that there can be a significant difference between the preview and the processed output.  You can think you have a nice looking result in preview only to find it doesn’t look like what you thought once the file is processed.  This only happens using the Details Enhancer option and the difference between preview and final image tends to be greater when you’re on the edge of (or beyond) the completely photorealistic result.  The folks at HDRSoft are aware of the problem but to date haven’t implemented a solution.  The net result is that you can, sometimes, have to go back and re-tonemap the image again which is time spent on duplication of work.  It would be very beneficial if HDRSoft could find a solution to this so that the preview and processed image were the same.  They indicate that it’s an issue with the preview image being a smaller version and that the preview, as a result, isn’t entirely accurate.

The image below is the ‘realistic’ result from PM using the Details Enhancer tonemapper.  This is the ‘exisiting’ HDR file which, as noted above, was merged in CS5 HDR Pro and saved as a .hdr file then opened and tonemapped in PM.

Photomatix Tonemapped Realistic. (click for larger version)

Contrast is quite flat (not a bad thing).  From here I’d do some further editing to adjust colour levels, contrast and sharpen to create a final output.  Getting this result wasn’t difficult.  Knowing that the final image can be a bit more extreme than the preview, I purposely kept the tonemapping quite tame so that the final processed image would still be useable without having to go back and do the work again.

Achieving a more ‘surreal’ result with PM is also quite easy.  You can apply the tonemapping operators multiple times to enhance the effects as you want.  The image below is the less than realistic result.  It’s pretty ugly (to me).  It’s got virtually no shadow contrast, blown highlights and the colour is whacked but a lot of people like this effect and it can be done with PM, no question.  This was tonemapped a single time.

Photomatix Tonemapped Surreal. (click for larger version)

Now let’s turn to the file that’s both merged and tonemapped in PM.  Same input files as were used in the CS5 HDR Pro review previously.  The image below is the realistic version.  As in HDR Pro, the window on the left is pretty muc devoid of detail (no surprise).  Comparing the two images, there is slightly more colour from the dirt on the window visible in the PM version than the PS version.  The difference between the two isn’t significant enough to say PM is superior to HDR Pro or that PM can crunch more dynamic range than HDR Pro.

Photomatix Merge/Tonemap Realistic. (click for larger version)

The colour balance between this and the HDR Pro version isn’t markedly different.  The HDR Pro version has slightly more saturated colour but that can be addressed in final editing with the PM version.  The HDR Pro version shows more fine detail (i.e., sharper) but, again, that can be addressed with sharpening of the PM image in final editing.  The biggest difference between the two is in the granite of the floor.  The detail and colour in the HDR Pro version is a bit better and more accurate.  It would take some extra work in final editing with some masked adjustment layers to get the PM version to the same point but I’m confident it could be done.

Getting to the ‘surreal’ result both merging and tonemapping in PM isn’t difficult.  The image below is the less than realistic result.

Photomatix Tonemapped Surreal. (click for larger version)

This one isn’t that extreme.  It’s got more of an illustration/graphic look and in some situations could be useable depending on the desired look.  Below is a more extreme version that was tonemapped twice.

Photomatix Tonemapped Twice. (click for larger version)

As you can see, going from mild to wild is certainly possible with Photomatix.

We’ll take a quick look at the Tone Compressor tonemap option of Photomatix as well.  There aren’t as many options here.  The goal of this tonemapper, really, is just to crunch as much dynamic range as possible into a visible space.  It works reasonably well.  It will generate more realistic results and it seems to tend to sacrifice highlights in some cases.  There aren’t the same preview/processed differences with the Tone Compressor as there are with the Details Enhancer.  If you’re looking for a realistic result and don’t have extreme highlights to deail with (or are willing to fix those later) then the Tone Compressor may work for you.  The image below was processed using the Tone Compressor option.

Photomatix Tone Compressor. (click for larger version)

Once again, the contrast is a bit flat and colours are muted.  Both of these can be addressed in final editing.  The waterfall pool didn’t blow out and the result is photorealistic.  The Tone Compressor option works quickly and the time to process the preview image is quite short.

Photomatix also has an image blending option.  Not true HDR since it doesn’t create a 32 bit file, it’s an automated exposure blending tool.  Exposure Fusion, as it’s called, can be launched via the Lightroom plugin just as the merge to HDR option.  There are several possibilities with Exposure Fusion in terms of how it blends the images from fully automated to blending based on user input.  It can use just two files or multiple files.  You can load multiple files in and then select which two to use if you wish.  It’s not overly fast, either to preview adjustments in the more interactive modes nor to process the blended image.  It doesn’t crunch as much brightness range as the actual HDR process, nor as much as other automated blending applications like, for example, Enfuse.  Generally the Exposure Fusion functionality is going to be of more limited use but the end result is definitely a realistic (as opposed to surrealistic) look.

Photomatix has a very good batch function.  If you’ve got a large number of images to merge into several HDR files, using the batch function can make pretty quick work of the process.  You point the program to the folder that holds the input images, tell it how many to use in each merge and it goes to work.  You can have it batch tonemap as well.  To do this you set up a tonemapping preset and tell the batch routine what preset to use.  Alternatively, when you select the tonemapping option in batch processing, you’re presented with the tonemap panel and can set the various parameters to be used.  There’s no preview though so you have no idea what the final result will look like.  The better choice, if you want tonemapping applied automatically, is to merge one set of files, tonemap those, save the settings as a preset and invoke that preset.  You can set the batch function to work overnight and come back to the computer in the morning with a folder of fully mergd (and tonemapped if desired) files ready to work on.  It’s a nice feature and it works well.

Photomatix does have an anti-ghosting function which can be used to reduce ghosting due to movement in source images.  There are two options – Background Movements and Moving Objects/People.  The Moving Objects/People option is the more robust and can be set to two levels of detection – Normal and High.  For the deghosting of the tree branches in the test image, I selected Moving Objects/People and set the detection level to High because I wanted to compare the most robust deghosting routine in PM to CS5 HDR Pro.  It works reptty well.  Not as well as HDR Pro, but still pretty well.  There is a bit more remaining, visible movement and a few more ghosting artifacts than in HDR Pro but overall it’s still good.  The detail crop below shows the result.

Photomatix Deghost. (click for larger version)

One problem that does crop up with Photomatix is memory use.  Even now, with a 64 bit OS installed and the 64 bit version of PM installed, I have had the program crash due to insufficient memory.  It’s only happened once, but it has happened.  It happened more often in a 32 bit operating environment.  HDRSoft are aware that users do have issues with memory; particularly in a 32 bit environment where more limited access to RAM exists.  The standard workaround is to use the batch function, which does work.  In the 32 bit version, the programmers at HDRSoft did make a change to the program to enable it to take advantage of the /3 gig switch which can be turned on in the boot.ini menu (more on this in a bit).  This did most definitely help resolve some of the insufficient memory issues but didn’t eliminate them entirely.

Overall, Photomatix is a terrific program.  Up to now it’s been my main HDR processing application.  Whether HDR Pro in CS5 takes over that slot is still to be determined.  It can produce excellent results, up to HDR Pro it was the fastest HDR application I’d used and use support is terrific.

The folks at HDRSoft truly do understand the concept of user support.  They respond very quickly to email inquiries (often the same day or at most the next day).  There is a very good FAQ section on their website as well as an extensive set of HDR-related links.  They may even change the program code if it will help a user.  This is where I’ll come back to the /3 gig switch item noted above.  I had been having problems with PM and insufficient memory.  In trading emails with their support group I mentioned I had this option turned on in the boot.ini menu.  At the time, PM was not set up to use this option.  Based on their discussion with me, they did some research into it, determined how to implement it in Photomatix and included it in their next release version of the program.  That’s damn good support!  There’s no manual alignment option but the alignment function in PM is good enough that it shouldn’t be needed.

PM Pro is available for both Windows and Mac systems, in both 32 and 64 bit versions.  It includes the Lightroom plugin.  Cost is $99 and upgrades are free for ‘at least’ a year according to their website.  I’ve been using the program for a couple of years now at least and have yet to have to pay for an upgrade which includes a migration from v2.x to v3.x.  A version which includes a Photoshop (or Aperture) tonemapping plugin is available for $119.  In my opinion, it’s well worth the price.

As with the previous instalment on HDR Pro, if you see any glaring (or non-glaring) errors, let me know.  Happy to read your comments.

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