HDR Software Review Pt IV – Artizen HDR

After three weeks without a proper monitor courtesy of Dell and their poor customer/warranty service, I’m finally back up and running, caught up on the work that got behind and ready to dive back into the HDR app. review series. In this instalment Artizen HDR from Supporting Computers.  One note before continuing:  In the introductory post to this series, I commented on my dislike of the practice some of these app developers have of watermarking finished images.  Well, Artizen does that but goes one step further.  If you’re working with a trial, you’ll get screen that pops up on a regular basis asking if you’re ready to buy the software now.  This is incredibly annoying and were I in the market for an HDR app would completely turn me off buying it.

I first became aware of Artizen a few years ago.  At the time, the concept was interesting.  An HDR application but also a fairly fully featured photo editing suite.  Checked it out back then and while it was interesting, it really wasn’t ready for prime time.  The HDR part of the software wasn’t as good as other options available and in terms of an editing package, Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro were superior.

Fast forward a few years and not a lot has changed, unfortunately.  Downloaded the latest trial of the software and the GUI looks basically the same as it did back then.  The GUI looks deceptively appealing – nice dark grey backgrounds, colour swatch on the right, various editing icons on the left but once you delve into it, it’s not as attractive as it first appears.

Artizen Main Screen (click for larger image)

There aren’t many Preferences available to be set in Artizen.  You’ll find the two there are (scratch disk location and memory usage) under the File menu.  On the upside, Artizen does have a batch function.  You can have it tonemap or not and can save the 32 bit HDR files or not.  In this regard, the feature set is much the same as what you’ll find in the batch function of Photomatix.  The software doesn’t support multiple monitors.  It is also a Windows-only application.  The recommended system configuration indicates a dual core processor but I could find nothing to indicate that it’s a multi-threaded app.

We’ll come back to talk more about the GUI as we work through the software’s features.  Let’s start to have a look at how well it works.  Opening an existing HDR file is reasonably quick.  It’d be quicker if you didn’t have to click out of the ‘Buy Now?’ dialogue.  Obviously that will go away if you’re working with a fully licensed version rather than a trial.  Like some other applications, Artizen works with a series of nested screens.  Can you drag the main screen to a second monitor and the nested screen back to your main monitor?  Nope.  Below is a screen capture of the nested screens with an open HDR file and as you can see, it’s already got a lovely, large watermark across it.  On the right hand side of the screen, you’ll panels for a histogram, colour swatches, metadata and layers.  Each of these can be opened and closed with the small triangle on the left of the panel bar.  If all are open, they won’t all fit on screen.  There’s also no way to scroll down with the mouse to view all of the information.  You have to open and close panels as you might need them.  This can be a bit tedious and inconvenient.  At the bottom left you’ll see an explorer window.  The reason for this, I guess, is to make the workflow faster by giving you a thumbnail of images in a particular folder.  It takes a very long time to load the thumbnails which actually slows down the workflow.  This explorer bar also takes up valuable screen real estate.  Personally, I’d click the triangle in the centre of the screen and close this bar or deselect the Image Browser Bar in the Panels menu.

Artizen Nested Screens (click for larger version)

You can get into the tonemapping functions either from the HDR’s>Tonemapping menu or by clicking the HDR TM button at the top of the screen.  The tonemapping function opens in yet another screen.

Artizen Tonemapping Screen (click for larger version)

The usual suspects in a set of tonemapping operators are here.  You have your global and local controls.  In a nice touch, the local controls have actually been labeled as such so there’s no confusion for someone newer to HDR.  Oddly, some of the sliders offer a live preview but most do not.  The individual colour sliders do, as does the Temp slider.  The global saturation slider doesn’t.  Nor do any of the others.  With those you have to release the mouse button to apply the adjustment.  There is an Undo button in the top left of the screen and you can set the number of ‘Undos’ in the Preferences up to 1000 (who’d ever need THAT many?).

There are a few presets available – Display, Dramatic and Natural.  Dramatic is where you’d start if you’re going for the more surreal or grunge look.  Display is a decent general starting option.  Natural isn’t as natural as you might think, it actually tends a bit toward the surreal side of the tonemapping spectrum.  There are all only starting points; however, and you can adjust from there.  These are decent starting points and can provide a nice basis for going down a particular tonemapping path.  The default tonemapping preset is Display.  On the downside, the settings are not ‘sticky’.  That’s to say that if you switch from one preset after making adjustments then go back to it, you have to start over again.  There are two ways to select a preset.  On the upper left of the tonemapping operators you can choose from one of the three in the dropdown menu.  Also, in the main panel of the tonemapping screen in the upper section there is a dropdown menu with the three presets.  Duplicating this way seems a bit unnecessary.  It would be nice if the presets were available in the upper left of the tonemapping operators and stayed at the default settings but in the upper part of the main screen if you switch back and forth, any adjustments away from the default were retained with the most recent changes.  The tonemapping adjustments aren’t ‘sticky’ from image to image either.  If you want to apply the same settings to a new image, you’re forced to save the settings as a preset.  It would be preferable if, as with Photomatix, the last used settings were retained from image to image.  It’s simple enough to override by selecting preset defaults from the upper dropdown menu.

What do the default presets look like?  Check them out below.  Artizen is not a colour managed application.  Tonemapped files saved out of Artizen will not be tagged with a colour space.  Artizen also appears to strip any profile from an image opened and saved in the program.  I tried opening and saving a TIFF that had been tagged with ProPhotoRGB, making no adjustments, and when I re-opened the saved file in PS, the missing profile dialogue box appeared.  This essentially makes Artizen unuseable for any serious work.

Artizen 'Display' Default (click for larger version)

Artizen 'Dramatic' Default (click for larger version)

Artizen 'Natural' Default (click for larger version)

None of these look overly appealing to my eye.  That said, any may prove a reasonable starting point for further adjustment.  As noted above, opening an existing HDR file doesn’t take much time.  Clicking on the HDR TM button brings up the tonemapping screen fairly quickly as well on my system.  Once you’re in the tonemapping screen, the actual image doesn’t take up a lot of the screen real estate.  The default Preview setting is Balanced.  This is supposed to be a balance between fast updates and accurate updates.  The downside is the on screen image is small.  If you want the on screen image to be larger, you need to up the zoom or select Slow & Detailed from the Preview dropdown.  I’d advise against this.  The ‘slow’ part is bang on.  Balanced or Fast is the way to go.  Selecting ‘Fast’ zooms the image to over 200% in my case which causes a loss of detail.  You can click on the 100 icon which brings it back the same size image as the Balanced default. If you switch from one tonemapping preset to another, the preview quality defaults back to Balanced as well and you have to change it again manually.  These steps to ‘correct’ for the software do take time and shouldn’t be needed.  Adjustment updates in this setting are much quicker.  Selecting ‘Very Fast & Low Detail’ causes the preview image to shrink to the point of not being overly useful.  The supposed 100% preview is oddly quite small and, for me, too small to be overly useful.  More on why this is in a bit.  One really good thing about the tonemapping screen is the histogram at the bottom.  This isn’t just a histogram but also a Levels control.  Like the Levels control you’d see in PS you can move the white point, black point and midpoint sliders to adjust the image contrast.  There are also white and black eyedroppers that you can use in the image to select your white and black points.  This is a REALLY nice tough and something that other HDR apps should consider implementing.  I’d even go so far as to say that it’s more useful here than in PS.  Here’s where we come back to the size of the preview image.  Because even at 100% it’s so small on screen (this will be affected to some extent by the resolution of the monitor) it may be difficult to select just the right white or black point with the eyedroppers.  Yes you can increase the zoom level but that results in a loss of detail.  Having the preview image at 100% fill more of the screen would be very helpful.  Stuck down at the very bottom of the tonemapping screen in Additional Options are two radio buttons for Output – one for 8 bit and one for 16 bit.  The default is 8 bit.  Be sure to check these and get the output bit depth you want, particularly if you want 16 bit.  Really, these should be in a set of global preferences that you can set up once and not have to worry about again rather than having to set it for every image processed.  In discussions with Supporting Computers, they acknowledge that the GUI needs some work but it’s needed work for about 3 years now so no telling when they may get to it.  Make all of your tonemapping adjustments then click on Apply at the top of the screen… and wait.  Applying the tonemapping settings and rendering a finished output file does take a bit of time.  More than one might like.  There appears to be no difference between the preview and the final image even using the Fast preview setting.  This is someting that the folks at HDRSoft would do well to correct in their Details Enhancer tonemapper.

What’s the final result look like?  See below.  This image was resized in Artizen and saved at 70% JPEG quality.  The tonemapping is alright.  Not much in the way of quibble there.  This was effected working from the Display default and adjusting from there.  If you click through to the 100% image, there is some very evident JPEG artifacting that isn’t at all appealing.  By comparison, the second image in this set was saved at 100% size and quality in Artizen as a JPEG then resized in PS and saved at quality level of 8 (roughly 75%).  There is none of the artifacting present.  There are several compression methods available in Artizen.  I chose a different method from the default which is supposed to give smoother results and the artifacting was really not much better.  I’d surmise then that the resizing algorithms in Artizen aren’t overly good.  The software can create a good ‘realistic’ image from an existing HDR file.  I’d have to do some more work on this either in LR or PS to get it to where I wanted it as a final version but this is a pretty good starting point for final tweaking.

Artizen Natural Tonemapping (click for larger version)

Artizen Natural Tonemapping Resized in PS (click for larger version)

Moving to the surreal side of things, selecting the Dramatic preset as a starting point starts taking the result in that direction.  It also changes some of the tonemapping operators available.  The folks at Supporting Computers have tried to customise the tonemapping operators for each preset which is a nice touch.  Using ‘Fast’ as the preview option will result in the final output being significantly different from the preview.  Using ‘Balanced’ as the preview option corrects this.  The result is a bit slower but more accurate preview.  In this regard, it seems Artizen is in muc the same place as PM and would do well to try to improve the preview accuracy with the preview speed.

The result of pushing the tonemapping more into the surreal end of the pool is below.  Clearly, with this image, Artizen can do both pretty well.  Not my style and not a result I’d work toward with tonemapping but a lot of people like it so Artizen can do that for them too.

Artizen Surreal Resized in PS (click for larger version)

We’ll move on now to see how Artizen does merging and tonemapping a set of image files from scratch.  The file loading dialogue provides a number of options.  There is a manual alignment feature which can be bypassed if desired.  The automatic alignment offers three possibilities.  The one labeled ‘Use Slow Method’ makes one wonder whether the other options are faster but not as good.  The images I’ve used were shot on a tripod with a cable release so there should be no alignment issues and as such I’ve selected ‘Use Region for Auto Alignment’.  This, to me, would be similar to the ‘matching features’ option in Photomatix.  In the Merging Options the one to choose will be, pretty obviously, Create HDR File.  The second option ‘Luminosity Precision for 3D IBL’ is for 3D graphics.  When choosing ‘Use Region for Auto Alignment’, you have the option to select an area of the image in the small preview window in the lower right which the software will use for the alignment process.  You can also simply click Apply and let the software do what it will with the alignment.  Reduce Micro Noise and Attempt to Reduce Ghosting are the two final selections in the Merge Options.  We’ll take a look at how the deghosting works later but I’ve left both of these unchecked for this set of images.

The file merging and alignment process is not fast.  I didn’t try the Use Slow Method and given how long the ‘faster’ method took, I wouldn’t want to.  It’s quite slow to merge and align.  Easily the slowest of all the applications reviewed thus far.  Selecting a smaller region within the full image to use for alignment doesn’t make the process go any faster.  While DPHDR had problems aligning the same source images, Artizen didn’t.  And it shouldn’t given the way they were shot.  As odd as it may seem, selecting ‘Create HDR File’ in the Merge Options is NOT what you want to do.  Even with this box unchecked, the program will still merge the files into a 32 bit HDR file.  With it checked; however, after the alignment stage but before the merging stage, you’ll be presented with a dialogue to name and save the 32 bit file.  You CANNOT cancel out of this.  If you click Cancel, the dialogue will simply re-open.  You’re forced to save the file at this stage whether you want to or not.  Leaving this box unchecked will allow you to create the 32 bit file and save it later if you want to.  Seems counterintuitive not to check a box to create a 32 bit file when that’s actually what you want to do, but leaving it unchecked is perhaps the better way to go.

I chose the images for this portion of the test on purpose.  I selected this set of images because there was a very broad dynamic range and I wanted to see how well each application could crunch the brightness range to give a useful result.  As can be seen below, Artizen didn’t do so well in either a realistic interpretation or a more surreal interpretation.

In the realistic version, I tried all three presets as a starting point.  In the end, I settled on Natural and worked from there.  This is the best I could get and it’s not that good.  The windows are still very blown out and the colour is far off.  For the surrealistic image I started with the Dramatic preset.  The colour of the floor and brick of the walls is a bit better but the windows are still blown out.  Neither of these is a result that could be used for anything.

Artizen Merge - Realistic (click for larger image)

Artizen Merge - Surreal (click for larger image)

There should be no reason to believe that the result would be any different if the source images had been merged in another app. then tonemapped in Artizen.  Artizen doesn’t appear to be able to handle a very wide dynamic range as well as other applications.  To test this theory, I created an HDR file in Photomatix of the same 9 source images to tonemap it in Artizen.  The results are below, a realistic version first and a more surreal version second.  For the realistic version I used the Display preset as a starting point and for the surreal version the Dramatic preset was the jumping off point.

PM Merged/Artizen Tonemapped - Realistic (click for larger image)

PM Merged/Artizen Tonemapped - Surrealistic (click for larger image)

Surprised?  I know I was.  My initial thought was that it was the tonemapping operators of Artizen that had difficulty with the wide dynamic range.  Given these results, both of which could be used with a little further tweaking, it appears that it’s actually the merging of the source images in Artizen that appears to have some problems.  Colour still isn’t quite as good as with the other applications tested thus far but the detail in the windows is very good in both cases.  The colour could be addressed in post-tonemap editing.

To try to see if this is a general issue with Artizen or a particular issue with this set of images, I decided to try another set.  These also have a fairly wide dynamic range.  The first is the result from merging and tonemapping in Artizen.  The second was merged in Photomatix and tonemapped in Artizen (ignore the reflection of the idiot in the front fender).

Artizen Merged & Tonemapped (click for larger image)

Photomatix Merged/Artizen Tonemapped (click for larger image)

There is definitely more detail retained in the highlight areas of the version that was merged in Photomatix.  The colour is also better.  The merging of source images in Artizen does appear to be less effective than other applications.

Artizen does have a deghosting option that can be turned on during the HDR merge.  There is no user input, it’s fully automated.  How well does it work?  Not too badly at all, in fact.  The original and deghosted images are below for comparison.

Original Ghosting Test Image (click for larger image)

Artizen Deghosting (click for larger image)

Once again, you can see comparing the original image to the merged image from Artizen that colours are off.  Pretty far off in this case.  But the deghosting process has worked pretty well.

In terms of support, I sent a couple questions to the general Artizen support group about the software; and I have to admit to sandbagging a little when asking the questions, to see how quickly they would respond and how good the responses were.  They responded very quickly in both cases.  The quality of the response was less positive.  Not all of my questions were answered and the ones that were answered weren’t necessarily answered as well as I might have liked.  They also seemed more eager to offer me a discount code that readers of the blog could use to buy the software than in answering my questions accurately.  There are a number of tutorials on their website which is good but the screen shots of some of the tutorials appear to be out of sync with the latest version of the software.

At $46, Artizen is one of the less costly applications out there.  Even at that price, despite some of its positives, there are too many negatives to be able to recommend it for use.  The speed is a big issue.  The apparent problems with merging source images is another.  As noted in the opening, it doesn’t really appear that a lot has changed with the program in the few years since I first had a look at it.  Good idea at the time but not executed as well as it could be and there are now other, better options that do as much and more.  Artizen is a Windows-only application and is not built to take advantage of a 64 bit system.  Next up, Ariea HDRMax.

As with the previous pieces in the series, if you see any glaring errors, please let me know and I’ll re-evaluate and correct as necessary.  Happy to read your feedback.

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One thought on “HDR Software Review Pt IV – Artizen HDR

  1. Hello Robert, i am from SCI and i just read your review. I would first like to say that although there were many critical factors to it, i found it extremely enlightening and very helpful. I have printed it off cause i don’t want to forget a single thing and am using it to highlight all the different areas where we went wrong. We have addressed several of them so far as we are working on version 2.9 and i was wondering if i could recruit you to give us feedback as you have some excellent points. Please email us at the email provided if you would be interested.

    Thank you again.

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