HDR Software Review Pt VI – Photomatix Pro 4 Preview

The latest beta of PM 4, b2, came out a few days ago. It’s got some new features and a few tweaks so I’m going to give a bit of a preview-review of some of the new functionality. The folks at HDRSoft know I’m doing this and are fine with it. They’ve asked me not to show any screen shots of the GUI and I won’t. That’s unfortunate though because some of the biggest changes involve the GUI. I will try to describe some of them as best I can.

Part II of this review series discussed the current version of Photomatix.  As I noted there, it’s a terrific piece of software and, until PS CS5 HDR Pro was introduced, has been arguably the ‘gold standard’ of HDR software apps.  With the introduction of the new features in CS5 HDR Pro, there’s (arguably) a bit of a tussle for that title of ‘gold standard’.  Does any of that change with what’s coming in the new version of Photomatix?  Let’s take a look.

There are quite a few changes in the works for the new version vs. v3.x.  Some of the key ones are:

– semi-manual deghosting feature by drawing around area to be deghosted

– showing thumbnails for tonemapping presets at the bottom of the screen when in tonemapping mode

– combined panel for tonemapping and exposure fusion (no need to select one or the other when loading images, no multiple tabs for Details Enhancer & Tone Compressor)

– ability to zoom via the mouse scroll wheel when the cursor is inside the image in tonemapping mode

– improved multi-threading support for RAW demosaicing and fusion/adjustment

– ability to adjust tonemapping sliders with the mouse scroll wheel

– transfer of image metadata to merged/tonemapped image

– improved functionality of alignment based on ‘matching features’

These aren’t all of the proposed changes.  There may be new ones added, some may be discarded as the beta process moves forward to a final release of v4.  Many of the changes are cosmetic.  Some deal with background processing which should improve results and improve speed.

The new preview thumbnails for tonemapping presets show up in a sort of film strip type of panel at the bottom of the screen.  This strip can be moved around but it always seems to be ‘in the way’.  In order to have the image on screen large enough to get a sense of what’s happening with the tonemapping, this preset strip blocks part of the image.  The thumbnails are ‘live’ in that clicking on one will invoke that preset on the main image.  There’s a tab for Built In presets and a tab for My Presets so if you have any favourite tonemapping settings saved, these will be available as well.  The thumbnails are small.  You can get a bit of a sense of what the result will be not a really good sense.  You can also close this strip.  It’ll re-open the next time you open an image for tonemapping.  You can drag it to a second monitor but it’ll come back to the main monitor next time.  I can see how this would be positive for some users.  It strikes me as a less useful feature addition.  Other aspects of the GUI can be turned on or off in Preferences (e.g., Workflow Shortcuts).  This should also be able to be turned on or off as the user wishes.

Perhaps the biggest change to the front end is the addition of the semi-manual deghosting feature.  When loading a set of bracketed files, the Processing Options give you two choices for removing ghosts, the old, fully automated method or the new semi-manual method.  Choosing semi-manual then brings up another screen called Ghosting Selection where you determine the area to be deghosted.  The instructions indicate to drag your mouse over the area to be deghosted.  Almost sounds like it creates a box or selection automatically, right?  It doesn’t though.  It’s like the Lasso tool in Photoshop.  You drag your mouse around the area you want selected.  You don’t have to join the ends.  If you only go part way around, the ends will be joined automatically.  Next you right-click in the area and have the option to select for deghosting or remove selection.  Remove selection is greyed out if you haven’t got the selection finalised yet.  You can make multiple selections using this process.  Once the areas are selected you can click on Preview Deghosting or simply click OK.  There’s a slider at the bottom of the Ghosting Selection screen that has no description.  This adjusts the brightness inside the image to help seeing ghosted areas.  Right-clicking also allows you to select a different image from the bracketed set to use for making the selection.  Choosing the 0, or +1 probably makes the most sense from the standpoint of ability to view areas within the image in most cases.  Make your selection based on your own image sets.  Click OK and wait.  Wait a long time.  It took so long, I wondered whether the program had frozen.  This semi-manual deghosting feature is very slow.  Significantly slower than the fully automated deghosting process.  How well does it work?  See the image below for a comparison of the new semi-manual method, the PM fully automated method from the current version and HDR Pro.

Deghosting Comparison (click for larger version)

It works pretty well.  There’s a small bit at the edge of the left side that didn’t get taken care of but that did in the automated process of the current version.  Other than that, it’s about on par with the old method.  Given the time it takes to process using this new method I’d suggest that there’s not much of a benefit to it.

The ability to adjust the sliders with the mouse scroll wheel is a nice feature.  Click on the adjustment point of any of the tonemapping operators then scroll with the mouse and the adjustment is effected.  There’s a downside though.  With all of the tonemapping operators open, the tonemapping panel is longer than my screen is high.  My screen is 1050 pixels.  I’m guessing the tonemapping panel when fully open is about 1200 pixels or a bit less.  Activating a tonemapping adjustment doesn’t decouple the scroll wheel from the tonemapping panel so as you’re adjusting a particular tonemapping operator you’re also scrolling in the panel and can’t see what you’re adjusting because the operators keep moving up and down.  I’m hoping this is merely a bug and gets fixed before the final version.

I’ve not done a comparison of the change to the alignment based on matching features between the current version and the new version.  I’ve not found the current alignment process to be lacking.  In terms of speed, the converting of RAW files is much quicker than in the current version.  Excluding the semi-manual deghosting, other aspects of the application – loading a 32 bit image, alignment, saving images, tonemapping adjustments, are also quicker.  The tonemapping adjustment sliders are live in the new version where they aren’t in the current version.  Increasing speed is a positive.

I also took a look at the tonemapping to see if there were any differences between the current version and the new version.  There’s one difference in the Default tonemapping settings in Details Enhancer.  The White Point is at .175% in the current version and .25% in the new version.  Adjusting the WP back to .175% shows no difference in the two images after processing the tonemapping settings.

That’s a quick overview of some of the new features and comparison with the current version.  Will it be worth the cost to upgrade?  That’s a decision each user will have to make on their own.  For me, as it sits right now, probably not.  Many of the enhancements are cosmetic.  The functional changes that matter to me are an uptick in speed but that speed increase isn’t significant enough in itself to justify the upgrade.  The new semi-manual deghosting isn’t something I could find myself using given the slowness and that there’s no benefit over the automated approach – at least in the one image set I used.  Even if there were a better result in other images, the slowness is still a factor.

Based on this beta, I’d have to say that HDRSoft hasn’t definitively regained it’s spot as the ‘gold standard’ in HDR software.

EDIT:  In the 3rd beta of v4, the option was included to close the tonemapping preview thumbnails panel.  Definitely a welcome change.

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