HDR Software Review Pt III – Dynamic Photo HDR

Dynamic Photo HDR is from a company called Mediachance.  It has a number of photo/video/graphics related applications available but DPHDR is probably the most well known.  DPHDR was the first HDR application I purchased.  When I bought it, I was trying out a few different alternatives and found that DPHDR had a really interesting manual alignment function.  In my case, I used it for manual ‘mis’alignment and to blend multiple image layers into a single impressionistic photo result.  The first eight images in my Impressionism II Gallery were made using this method.

For this review, I’m using a trial version of their latest iteration of the software (v4.7).  Since I’ve primarily used Photomatix up to now for HDR work, my last paid version of DPHDR is v3.x. Dynamic Photo HDR is available for both Windows and Mac but the editing add-on Photo-Bee is Windows only (more below on this).

I’ll say upfront that speed has never been a strong suit of DPHDR.  Loading an existing .hdr file takes much longer than with either of the previous two applications in this review series.  Loading a set of RAW files and providing a preview is a bit quicker.  But the speed to merge the files from the preview is slow.  More on speed later.

DPHDR does not employ colour management at any stage in the process.  You can’t have it tag your input RAW files with a colour space during conversion and you can’t tag the saved output with a colour space.  If you load tagged TIFFs as your input images, the saved output will not have a colour profile embedded.  DPHDR doesn’t even honour embedded profiles.  The net result is that what you see when you’re tonemapping the image may be quite different from what you see when you open it for further editing and have to assign a profile.  Not allowing the ability to tag input files is one thing but not providing the option to tag output and stripping profiles from tagged input files is something entirely different and not different in a good way.  This is a significant negative, in my opinion, in comparison to the previous two applications.

The DPHDR GUI is a bit hackneyed.  There are panels within the main screen and while these panels can be moved to a second monitor, the setting is not ‘sticky’.  That is, when you close and re-open the program, the panels are back on the main monitor and have to be moved again.  So there is some multi-monitor support but it’s not complete.  Intuitvely you might think the small pushpin icon at the top of each panel would allow you to ‘pin’ the panel to a particular monitor.  Not so.  What this does is determine whether the panel is expanded all the time or contracted and expands when you move your  mouse over it.  Each step you go through in the process in DPHDR brings up a new sub-screen.  No work is actually done in the main screen and all these sub-screens are much smaller which means getting a good look at what you’re doing is more difficult.  The three images below show some of the screens at different stages.

Main DPHDR Screen. (click for larger version)

DPHDR Image Loading Screen. (click for larger version)

DPHDR Image Alignment Screen. (click for larger version)

DPHDR Tonemapping Screen. (click for larger version)

There are no user-adjustable preferences for image processing.  You take what Mediachance has decided to give you.

So now let’s take a look at the program in action.  Opening our existing HDR file is, as noted above, a fairly slow process.  Once it’s open on screen, you have a 100% view in the middle of the screen and a small preview in left panel.  There’s no way to adjust the zoom level of the preview in the main screen to fit the whole thing in view without actually reszing the file.  If you go to Image>Resize HDR, the options there will actually rez down the image file.  If you do this, there’s no ‘Undo’.  You’ve rezzed down the file and you’re cooked.  You can rez it back up but we know what problems that causes.  The only way to get back to your original is to go to File>Reload Current File.

Once we go into the tonemapping screen, there are several options.  Tonemapping operators are grouped into Local and Global.  Local is going to get you more easily to the surreal/grunge look whereas Global is intended to provide a more realistic output.  There are labels for the tonemapping operators such as Eye Catching, Halo Matix, Photographic, Human Eye, etc.  The idea is to give you a sense of what the particular tonemapper is going to generate in terms of a result.  In general, while you can get a ‘realistic’ result using the Local tonemappers, you’re going to want to try the Global options first.  These should give a more realistic output.  If you’re not getting a result you’re pleased with, try the Local operators.  Getting a photorealistic result with DPHDR isn’t a simple process.

New in v4 of the program is that the tonemapping adjustment sliders now offer a live view of the adjustment.  This is a positive.  Less hit and miss.  There’s still a small delay; however, after the slider is released for the adjustment to be applied.  On the right side of the tonemapping screen are some other controls.  There’s a Gamma slider and a Curve adjustment.  Both can be useful in getting a good result.  Neither of these are live; however.  You make the adjustment and only after releasing it do you get the result on screen.  Above these is a Filter Color button.  Clicking this opens (yet) another screen where you can apply a variety of effects to the image from B&W to Orton to Vignette.  Generally I’d ignore this and if I wanted to do any of these types of things, I’d do them later in a more fulsome editing application.  Below the Curve adjustment are Color Equalizer and Hue Shift adjustments.  Color Equalizer is basically a saturation adjustment.  You click on the line and drag down to reduce saturation of a particular colour and up to increase it.  Placing a single control point will cause a curved saturation line to be created.  If you want to isolate a particular colour more, you need to place additional control points on the line and drag those back in the other direction.  You can toggle the result off and on with the checkbox.  Clicking the x1 icon will toggle between x1 and x2 and x2 is a more intense application of the adjustment.  The Hue Shift adjustment, as you’d expect, adjusts the hue of a particular colour.  It works the same way as the Color Equalizer.  Click and drag on the line to change the hue of a colour or colour group.  Place more control points and drag to affect a particular colour more or less.  The .. icon allows you to invoke a number of presets but there are no indications of what the presets are till you keep clicking the button.  This really seems a useless option to me.  Along the bottom of the tonemap preview are clickable icons for further adjustments.  Kelvin is a colour temperature (White Balance) adjustment.  Opening it will show you a variety of options to select from.  To cancel a change, click on Kelvin and select Default.  The eyedropper allows you to click inside the image to adjust the white balance.  Match Color opens a screen that lets you match the colour balance in your current image with another image.  There are a number of presets to choose from (useless) but you can also load another image of your own to match to.  This could be useful if you have a number of images from the same location and easily want to match the colour balance of all of them.  It may be a decent starting point from which you can tweak further.  In the lower right you have several checkboxes, the only two of which that are useful are the Add Clarity and Dehaze options.  Both add a touch of contrast/sharpness (not a lot) and can give the image a bit more punch and remove some of the flatness that can be imparted by crunching a ton of brightness into a small space.  NR is a noise reduction feature.  Don’t use it.  It works by adding blur and you’ll end up with an overly soft image.  In addition, when you invoke it, the ability to move around the image is done via X and Y sliders which don’t give you a great deal of visual control because of the zoom level.  There are better noise reduction options elsewhere.

As you can see, there are a lot of options and possibilities built into DPHDR.  How do all those options work in practice?  The image below is the ‘realistic’ version of the existing HDR file.

DPHDR Tonemapped Realistic. (click for larger version)

It’s not bad.  The contrast is pretty flat which can be adjusted later.  The blues in the water are a little strong which can also be adjusted.  I didn’t use the Color Equalizer tool during tonemapping to try to correct the blue in the water but I could have.  Because the working image is so small, it’s a bit difficult to see what you’re getting in smaller areas so I left any of that kind of editing for later.  Is this result as good as what was obtained in either Photomatix or CS5 HDR Pro?  To my eye not quite but after all of the applications have been reviewed, I’ll provide a summary with all of the images side by side.  This is certainly a result that could be worked with to optimise further.  Getting to this result took more time than in either of the other applications.  I had to work with different tonemappers to find a result that gave me something I was reasonably happy with.  Getting a photorealistic result in DPHDR is a bit more work than in the other two apps. reviewed so far.

What about a more extreme result?  Yep, DPHDR can definitely do that and this is probably the strength of this piece of software.  Below is a fairly grunge-look result on the existing HDR file.  This took all of about 10 seconds to achieve.  But it took over a minute to process and save out the 8 bit JPEG file.  So again, we see that speed isn’t a strength of this application.

DPHDR Tonemapped Grunge. (click for larger version)

When it comes to saving the tonemapped file, there are two options.  Clicking on the small triangle beside Process & Save will allow you to select a second option which is Process & Edit.  Selecting Process & Edit will open the tonemapped image in another application called Photo-Bee.  This is a new feature that’s been added in v4 and my guess is it’s an attempt to create an ‘all-in-one’ application where you can create and tonemap your HDR file then continue editing it all in the same family of software applications.  Don’t bother.  While Photo-Bee has some of the usual editing tools, implementation of those tools isn’t good.  Hue/Saturation, for example, is a global function.  You can’t select individual colours to adjust.  The Curves function is a global up or down (i.e., no S-curve).  When saving a file edited in Photo-Bee, there are still no colour management options.  Photo-Bee is basically a waste of time.  Stick with Process & Save then do any additional editing in a proper editing application.

DPHDR can handle existing HDR files reasonably well.  It’s slow and getting a realistic result is more difficult and takes more time/trial and error.  Generating a more extreme result is very easy and, as noted above, this is probably the strength of the software.

Let’s move on to look at how it works with a merge from scratch.  There are several options available when loading the files to be merged.  If  you load RAW files, in the bottom left of the preview screen you can select from Auto Developer, Zero Processing or Camera Curves.  This will determine how the RAW files are interpreted before merging together.  You can select each of the different options and see how it impacts the preview.  If you want to change the EV setting you can do this by selecting the individual file and adjusting the EV.  For auto-bracketed sequences this shouldn’t be necessary.  Sometimes for manually bracketed sequences it may be.  The HDRI Simulator on the right gives you a preview of how the tonemapped image will look based on the default settings of either the Eye Catching or Auto Adaptive tonemappers.  I wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to this.  In the very lower left of this screen is a checkbox for Align Files in Next Step.  You do want to have this checked.  The auto-alignment functionality of DPHDR isn’t overly good.  Even images taken on a tripod with a cable release will often not be aligned properly in the automatic setting.  This is a pretty major downfall of the program and development time would be better spent in this area than in something less worthwhile like Photo-Bee.  Click OK and the merge begins.  Be prepared to wait.  And wait.  Loading TIFFs as the input files makes the preview quicker because DP isn’t processing the RAW files but none of the rest of the workflow is any faster.  When the alignment screen comes up you can choose to align for Movement, Rotation or both.  Movement should generally be sufficient.  You can move the image around to get an area where determining alignment is easier (i.e., high contrast areas).  On the right side of the screen you see a set of image pairs.  The application chooses a base image and compares alignment of that base image to all others in sets of two.  There is a very good chance that you will have to do some manual alignment.  Click on an image pair to select it then click Align View which is supposed to automatically align the pair of images.  It works most of the time but if it doesn’t, you’ll have to align manually.  You can use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move the second image of the pair around.  You can also use the sliders on screen.  If there’s rotational movement, you’ll have to use the sliders.  If you end up having to do manual alignment, you can click on the Diff button.  This will change the contrast of the two images and show a number in the upper left corner of the screen.  The smaller this number is, the better the alignment.  It won’t be zero.  Adjust the image pair till the number hits the smallest value in all directions.  It can be tedious.  Believe it or not, sometimes the number will keep getting smaller and visually you can see the alignment getting worse.  Suffice it to say that the alignment functionality of DPHDR really is a major weakness.  Clicking OK will apply the movement corrections to each image pair then finalise processing the merged result for tonemapping.  Be prepared to wait.  And wait.  If the image opens and it still doesn’t appear to be aligned properly, you can go back to the alignment step by clicking the back arrow icon in the upper left of the screen or by choosing Image>Back to Align from the top menus.  The ‘unalignment’ will take time.  In the alignment screen, there is a button for Advanced Options.  Clicking this will open another screen where you can refine how the images will blend together.  The left is an exposure weighting function which determines how the various exposures are merged together.  Given the alignment issues that can crop up, the default of Smoother probably makes sense.  Choosing Custom and adjusting the shape of the distribution curve probably isn’t a good idea since the preview you get is small and you can’t tell how the change will impact the entire image.  On the right are some selections for tonal response.  If you’re loading RAW files, selecting the second option, Ideal Camera, makes some sense since RAW files are supposed to have linear response curves.  Normal Camera is the default and probably works for using JPEGs as input files.  It will assume a response curve based on whatever has been programmed into the software.  There’s a Custom option here as well.  If you loaded TIFFs as your input images, if those TIFFs were processed in ACR or Lightroom and you knew the tone curve that ACR applies you could input that tone curve in the Custom option.  While these may be interesting options to include, they’re likely far more than the average user is going to want or need.  An argument could be made that the user shouldn’t be adjusting tone curves of the input images either because the merging and tonemapping functions are supposed to make allowance for the less than perfect tone response of cameras and that making adjustments in a 32 bit environment is preferable to doing it on lower bit depth input images.

The image below is the realistic version with the source files merged in DPHDR.  In the essense of full disclosure, I had to work through this three separate times to come up with something reasonable and this is the third of the three.

DPHDR Merged Realistic. (click for larger version)

Even though I’ve given DP more attempts than the previous two applications, the result isn’t as good.  It cruched the brightness range well, no question.  The overall contrast is very flat and the colours are extremely muted.  The blue in the large window on the right that I was able to retain in both PM and HDR Pro is gone here.  In order to keep that blue in the windows, too many other sacrifices would have been necessary.  This image would require a fair bit of additional work to be useable.  And due to misalignment problems it may not be useable at all.

The less than realistic result is a different story and again we see that this may be where the strengths of this program are.  On a full size version, zooming in reveals some alignment issues.

DPHDR Merged Surreal. (click for larger version)

There is a deghosting option in DP.  Unlike PM and HDR Pro, it’s not automatic.  The user needs to manually mask out areas where ghosting appears.  You do this on one image pair and can apply the mask to all other image pairs but depending on the type of movement, this may work or it may not.  Suffice it to say this can be an incredibly tedious task.  Building in an automated anti-ghosting algorithm wouldn’t be easy by any stretch.  But the manual option in DP doesn’t work overly well and because it’s there people are going to be tempted to use it and be very frustrated with the tedium and the less than satisfactory result.  The image below shows the artifacting that remains from attempting to manually mask out some of the ghosting in the windblown branches.  Having no deghosting option would be better than having one that doesn’t work very well, as the one here doesn’t.

DPHDR Deghosting. (click for larger version)

The last item in the review is support/documentation.  The user manual that comes with the program and that can be called up via Help>Tutorial is quite extensive and walks the user through the process of creating and tonemapping HDR files with Dynamic Photo HDR and does a good job of explaining all the various features and options.  The website has some video tutorials and other good information on using the program.  If you want tech support via email or telephone, forget it.  It doesn’t exist.  Any questions you can’t find answers to on the website or from other users are going to go unanswered.  There is a user forum and the link to it is on the Mediachance website.  The forum isn’t hugely active but you may be able to get some answers there.

Dynamic Photo HDR is a complex piece of software.  If offers the user a plethora of options and functions to choose from.  Probably more than most users need.  The look and feel of the software is of a piece of software that was written by a programmer with programmers in mind as the end user.  Development time has been spent on things like Photo-Bee and allowing the user to adjust the exposure weighting and tone response curves that could likely have been better spent improving things like image file alignment and an automated deghosting algorithm.  At $55 it isn’t overly expensive ($25 to upgrade from a previous version) but I’m not sure the performance is up to the price even at that level.  It’s very slow relative to others tested so far.  Getting a photorealstic result is more difficult with it than the others tested so far.  And there are basic functionality problems (e.g., alignment).  Several years ago when HDR software was first becoming widely available to the masses and the applications were in the infancy stage, DPHDR was a very good choice.  Its primary competition from the early days, Photomatix, has been improved more than DP.  Adobe has upped its game in HDR with CS5 HDR Pro.  And there are other, newer, competitors on the market that, arguably, work better in many respects than DP.  Unlike Photomatix, there is no Lightroom plugin to export files from LR to DP.  The website indicates that speed has been improved in v4 and that the GUI has been enhanced.  I’m not really seeing a pick up in speed and the GUI doesn’t look much different from previous versions.  There’s a tonemapping paintbrush that’s been included that lets the user paint away tonemapping in specific areas to varying degrees.  This is really a gimick and not of much practical use.  There’s also a feature to help remove halos that can result from overly aggressive tonemapping.  It’s primarily designed for skies.  Since neither of the test images had skies I couldn’t give it much of a go.  There’s also a setting for skin but HDR images of people generally aren’t all that appealing anyway (unless you’re Luke Kaven) so I’m not sure why this was included.

Thanks for reading.  As with the others, if you see any glaring (or non-glaring) errors, let me know.

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2 thoughts on “HDR Software Review Pt III – Dynamic Photo HDR

  1. Robert, I am the developer of DPHDR and I must say you had done a great job reviewing it. It shows that you really did take a time to work with the software not only skim through.

    I must say I agree with most of what you say about the negative parts of my software and it serves to me as a great and clear list of things that certainly need to be improved.

    Interestingly I was building the GUI especially with first time users on mind with more hands-on approach as in opposite to the standard windows entry boxes controls that for me are more programmers like. It is a bit of paradox that you feel the opposite way – but I guess this is also a good point for me to figure out why you felt that way.

    Anyway I am very pleased by your review because you did a fair job and clearly pointed out the problems that I need to iron out.

    thanks, and good luck with your reviews.

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