HDR Software Review Pt V – SNS-HDR Pro

UPDATE:  August 9, 2010 – SNS-HDR continues to be improved.  The latest (v1.2) has improved speed over previous versions.  While still not quite as fast as some others, it’s now fast enough that speed isn’t a concern.  Also, something I had overlooked previously is that at the bottom of the tonemapping panel, to the right of the colour profile dropdown is a small monitor icon.  Clicking on this brings up a dialogue box to select the appropriate display profile.  This is only necessary in WinXP due to limitations on colour management support in that OS.  Later versions of Windows don’t need to do this.

SNS-HDR is a relative newcomer to the game. Since writing the introductory piece for this review series, checking the search stats for my site, SNS has been the single most searched for term that brought people to my blog. It’s obviously getting a fair bit of attention. Based on what I can see tracking a few IP addresses, most of the attention is coming from Europe but it’s likely that the buzz will move across the pond in due course.  The website is in Polish but there’s a Google Translate dropdown in the upper right that will convert to English (or other languages).

I should state upfront that, after writing an email to Sebastian Nibisz with a question, he looked at my blog, saw the review series and sent me a license key to unlock a few features that aren’t availabe in the demo version. Those features are full access to the batch processing mode and the ability to save files at full size and bit depth.

There are 3 versions of the software:  Pro; Home; and Lite.  Pro is the full featured version.  Home has the GUI of Pro but without the batch function.  Lite has no GUI or other editing functions and you drag and drop files onto the icon to activate the merging/tonemapping functions which are fully automated.

I became aware of SNS via a board posting on The Luminous Landscape forums.  Downloaded it, checked it out and decided to add it to the review series.

SNS works differently from other applications.  It’s more automated for one.  It’s not true HDR in that it doesn’t create a 32 bit file; but rather is an exposure fusion tool.  It loads a set of images, merges then goes through an automated step called tonemapping.  It’s a process to blend and distribute brightness for an optimal result.  There’s no menu bar at the top of the screen either, which takes a bit of getting used to.  The GUI is simple and clean, as the screen shot below shows.

SNS-HDR Pro GUI (click for larger version)

While it doesn’t create 32 bit files in it’s exposure merging process, it can read and tonemap 32 bit HDR and EXR files.  Once the program is open, all your options are contained in the panel on the right of the screen.  This is fixed in place and the program doesn’t support multiple monitors.  The three icons at the left of the Image panel allow you to open a single or multiple files, save an image or open batch processing.  Below that you have a histogram.  Next you get into your tonemapping adjustment operators.  There are 4 presets – Dramatic, Natural, Night and Portrait.  We’ll get into these a little later.  Below that you have some of the usual suspects for tonemapping operators.  In addition to the Brightness slider which is a global adjustment, you can adjust the brightness of any individual colour by clicking on the line in the color swatch and dragging upward or downward.  Each click creates a control point which can be dragged.  To delete a control point, simply right-click on it.  Next are Contrast, Highlights, Highlight Details, Shadows, Midtone Contrast and Microcontrast.  Below this is the Color panel with Saturation and Hue controls.  Like with Brightness, there are global sliders as well as colour boxes that allow you to more finely adjust individual colours.  Click and drag to adjust.  Right-click to delete a control point.  Next is Warmth, which is a white balance adjustment.  At the very bottom is a dropdown menu for Profiles.  This allows you to tag your file with one of 4 colour profiles – sRGB, AdobeRGB, ProPhotoRGB or Wide Gamut RGB.  SNS is colour managed.  Big thumbs up!  Personally, I’d like to see this higher up in the hierarchy of options because it may get missed at the bottom.  But having it anywhere is much better than not having it at all.

On most screens, this adjustment panel is longer than the screen is high.  You can scroll up and down in the panel with your mouse.  Be careful though because positioning the mouse on or near any of the adjustment sliders will cause that slider to be affected by the scrolling of the mouse wheel.  If you want to scroll the adjustment bar up and down, make sure your mouse is positioned on the scroll bar at the right.  In the very bottom, lower right of the screen is a small button with a menu triangle.  This allows you to switch the language between English and Polish.  Just to the left of that is a small envelope icon.  This is an email link to the program’s creator, Sebastian Nibisz, to enable users to easily send an email with questions.  Nice touch.

To make and adjustment, you can click and move the slider, position your mouse over the slider and use the scroll wheel or input a number into the box.  There is a reset button at the right of each adjustment.  Right-clicking on the slider will also reset it to its default position.  There is no ‘Undo’ to take you back one step at a time. The sliders are live.  Moving the sliders with the mouse is a bit choppy; however, and getting it to move in fine, 1 point increments can be difficult.  Improving the slider function would be beneficial.

To load a set of images for merging, click on the Open Image icon and select the multiple images.  You can only have one image open at a time.  If you try to open a second or new set, you’ll be asked if you want to save the current image.  Loading a set of images brings up a dialogue for Size Reduction for onscreen viewing (leaving it at 1X is fine, you can always zoom in and out later if needed) and a checkbox for Auto Alignment.  The program does support RAW files using dcraw which is a well known RAW conversion utility used by other software applications.  Loading/converting of the RAW files and even alignment if checked doesn’t take an inordinate amount of time.  It’s a bit slower than other applications but not by a significant amount.  Where SNS-HDR has issues is with the initial tonemapping.  This process is quite slow.  This is an automated process that can’t be bypassed.  The change history on the SNS website indicates that speed has been improved a number of times over various version iterations.  I’d suggest that this may be the single most important thing to be addressed in future versions.  Even with the batch processing option, the tonemapping stage is slow enough that it renders the software basically not usable in a setting where time and turnaround are important.  Which is really a shame because the results are pretty darned good.

The image below is straight out of the merge/tonemap process with no additional adjustments.  Excellent starting point.

SNS-HDR Pro Merge Default (click for larger image)

The key things to note are the windows.  There is extremely good detail in the windows, particularly on the left.  The histogram shows that there are zero blown pixels.  Colour is excellent.  The blue in the windows on the right is exactly what it should be.  This is the same set of images that have been used for all the other apps tested to see how well they handle a very wide brightness range.  I decided to throw another set of somewhat difficult images at SNS to see how it handled those.  This set doesn’t have a hugely wide d-range but it does have some strong, specular highlights on metal which can be difficult for some software to deal with.

SNS D-Range Test (click for larger image)

According to the histogram there are no blown pixels.  Placing the picker over the specular highlights shows they’re well below blown at about a 228 value.  Again this is the default image with no additional adjustments.  Once again, a very good starting point.

Let’s get into the guts and see how SNS works when we use the available editing tools.  As usual, we’ll start with an exisiting HDR image.  Opening the image and the program working through its automated tonemapping process is also a slow undertaking.  Below is the default upon opening this image in SNS.

Existing HDR SNS Default (click for larger version)

It’s quite washed out, lacking in colour saturation but not lacking in contrast.  Overall it’s on the dark side.  It’s not quite as good a starting point as what you get from merging a bracketed set of files right in SNS.  But we can work with it.  Once the file is open in SNS, positioning the mouse cursor inside the image and using the scroll wheel will zoom the image in and out.  Right-clicking inside the image will show the ‘untonemapped’ version so you can get a sense of the difference if you want.  One thing to note about this existing image is the colour balance.  It’s very good and very neutral.  Photomatix and other HDR applications tend to exaggerate some colours and can introduce colour casts.  In the case of this particular image, the water can be very cool/blue.  Not here.  No colour cast, no cool hue.  Very neutral.  This makes the editing easier.

Working with the adjustment tools available in SNS from the Default tonemapping we can generate a pretty good, realistic result as shown below.

SNS Exisiting Realistic (click for larger image)

It’s got good contrast, much better colour.  There are a few pixels on the verge of full saturation (blown out) in the waterfall pools, but that’s OK.  The reds/oranges are still a little weak but that can be adjusted with further editing in PS.  This is a very usable result.

How does SNS do at moving into the more surreal end of the scale?  For this approach, I started with the Dramatic preset and worked from there.  This result almost has a bit of a post-apocalyptic look.  It’s kind of cool and different from the less realistic images other applications generate.  Strong colour saturation in some colours, less in others.  Strong contrast.  And we’ve introduced that cool, blue hue to the water.  Overall a bit dark but that can be adjusted if desired.

SNS Existing Surreal (click for larger version)

Anytime you make a change from a preset the preset dropdown menu changes to +Custom.  Clicking on the + sign allows you to save those settings as a custom preset.

Let’s work on the image from the bracketed set merged in SNS.  The result below is the ‘realistic’ image.

SNS Merged Realistic (click for larger version)

The colours are very good and very accurate.  Other HDR apps tend to either make the scene too cool or too warm.  SNS keeps it very neutral.  As with the earlier images it may be overall a bit dark but that’s easily fixed.  Very good detail and colour is retained in the windows even after adjustment.  Again, a very usable image.  Getting to this point didn’t take a lot of work.  It would take a bit less work if the action of the sliders and colour bars were a bit smoother in the fine adjustment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the image below shows the more surreal result out of SNS.

SNS Merged Surreal (click for larger version)

It’s a bit more extreme than the realistic version but definitely not the wild result you can get with other HDR applications.  That kind of wild result may not be achievable with SNS.  And that’s OK.  There’s nothing wrong with an application that keeps things in the more conservative end of the pool since there are plenty of folks who don’t want to go near the wild end.

Loading TIFF files rather than RAW does speed the process up somewhat.  There’s no RAW conversion so that step is bypassed.  The alignment step is no quicker.  The merging step appears to be faster.  The tonemapping stage is no quicker.  So a bit of time can be saved by loading TIFF files but not a significant amount.  Loading TIFFs vs RAW images seems to make no difference to the merged result.

As noted above, there are 4 tonemapping adjustment presets – Natural, Dramatic, Night and Portrait.  The set of images below show each of the presets and the default setting for comparison.

SNS Preset Comparison (click for larger image)

The Default setting is going to be a good, general purpose starting point.  Natural increases colour saturation and contrast slightly.  Dramatic increases overal brightness, contrast and detail and would be a good starting point for moving into the more surreal look.  Night increases brightness, contrast and detail a bit more than Dramatic and would also be a good starting point for a more surreal approach.  Portait is the softest of the presets.  As the name suggests it’s best use is likely for images where people play a strong role in the composition and in images where a softer look is desired.  I can’t see using this one much.

Invoking the Batch mode in SNS brings up a simple dialogue box that allows you to point to the source folder, choose how many images in each set to merge (from 1 to 12 or All), whether you want to apply alignment.  Below that in the Destination you choose your saving location and file type.  The options are JPEG with quality settings, 8 bit TIFF, 16 bit TIFF and 16 bit TIFF+SNS.  This last one is interesting.  It allows you to save the tonemapping parameters into the image file so that you can re-open the file in SNS without having to make any recalcuations.  This would speed the process up.  Click on Run to start the batch.  The Batch icon will turn green and a Batch progress bar appears at the bottom of the screen.  Click the Batch icon again and you have the option to Stop the batch process.  I didn’t actually test the batch process but expect the same speed issues would be present.  If you want to use it and are processing a large number of bracketed sets, running it overnight is probably advisable.

SNS Batch Mode Dialogue (click for larger version)

There’s no deghosting function in SNS so that can’t be tested.

At this point there’s no Help menu within SNS and no user manual or other documentation on the website.  Sebastian told me that is in the works.  Hopefully it’ll be ready soon.  Sebastian did respond very quickly to the couple of emails I sent him with questions.  And very quickly particularly considering the time difference.  His answers were complete and helpful.  As more people learn about SNS and start using it, I think it’ll be important for that documentation to be available otherwise he may end up being flooded with questions via email  Perhaps a user forum or wiki would help in that regard as well.

Overall, SNS-HDR Pro is a very good piece of software.  As I’ve noted, the only real downfall I’ve found thus far is the speed.  At $85 Euros for the full version (Home is $30 Euros, Lite is free) which is about $105 USD at the time of writing it’s in the ballpark with the other applications available.  Given how well it works at exposure fusion, if the speed could be addressed, I’d definitely consider buying it and using it in my work.  The quality of the exposure fusion is excellent.  It’s better than the Exposure Fusion function in Photomatix and better than Enfuse which are two others I’ve used.  From a personal standpoint, I’d love to see this exposure fusion technology implemented into Kolor’s AutoPano software.  HDR or blended panoramics has become pretty popular and having this kind of exposure fusion technology built into a pretty decent pano app like AutoPano would be great combination.  While not truly HDR since there’s no 32 bit file created, SNS would fit into what JP Caponigro calls XDR (Xtended Dynamic Range).

As usual, if you note any glaring (or non-glaring) errors or I’ve missed something, let me know and I’ll make the necessary correction.

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3 thoughts on “HDR Software Review Pt V – SNS-HDR Pro

  1. The real HDR image you opened has low saturation as you said. The reason for this may be that the HDR file may be too dark. You can try loading the HDR image into Photoshop and checking the brightness with the Exposure slider in the 32 bit Preview Options. If the image is very dark, you can lighten it, resave it as a 32 bit image then try opening it again in SNS. Don’t worry if parts the image in Photoshop appear overexposed.

    Regards,
    Sebastian Nibisz

    • Sebastian,

      Thanks very much for reading and adding that clarification. Thanks as well for the additional comments you sent me via email.

      Regards
      Bob Fisher

  2. Pingback: rf-photography.ca » HDR Software Review Pt V – SNS-HDR Pro | Laboratory contrasting photos

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