HDR Software Review Pt XI – Nik HDR Efex Pro

Another new entrant into the HDR software field has been introduced by Nik Software. HDR Efex Pro is the newest in a series of plugins from Nik. The software installs the tonemapping plugin as well as a merge script so you can do both the merging and tonemapping. Nik’s 32 bit flavour is EXR (as opposed to Radiance HDR).

I’ll state upfront that I don’t own any Nik products (I’m using the trial version for this review). I, personally, feel the products are overpriced for what you get and I’m not a fan of ‘canned’ or ‘recipe’ based solutions. I know you can make adjustments after choosing a preset, but I still prefer a more DIY approach. I also know that Nik has a lot of users and a lot of fans and that’s fine. I’m just stating my viewpoint.

To start merging a set of files the command path is File>Automate>Merge to HDR Efex Pro. Very similar to the path for merging to Photoshop’s HDR Pro so there’s some familiarity here for those already using HDR Pro. A dialogue box opens where you choose your source files, choose whether you want to use alignment and deghosting. There are two types of deghosting and three possible strengths for each type. According to Nik, the Adaptive deghosting is best used for things like leaves/branches and the Global deghosting is best used for larger elements that move more through the scene like people or cars. We’ll see how these work later.  You can also choose to open the resulting file as a Smart Object.

Speed of merging the source images isn’t great.  A fair bit slower than merging the same set of files into HDR Pro, at least on my computer.  There’s no batch mode for merging or tonemapping so given that fact and the speed, Nik isn’t likely the best solution for anyone doing volume, commercial work or time sensitive work.  Nik applies the working space profile you have set up in your PS preferences automatically.  This is a nice touch and something that Adobe should do in the next revision to HDR Pro rather than bringing up the missing profile dialogue.

Once the source images are merged, the tonemapping window opens automatically and it appears there’s no obvious option to save the intermediate 32 bit file.  If you click Cancel out of the tonemapping window, the temporary 32 bit file in the background is lost.  It would be better if the tonemapping window didn’t open automatically so that the 32 bit file could be saved or if there were anothe way to easily save the 32 bit file.

Nik Merge Dialogue (click for larger version)

When the tonemapping dialogue opens, it doesn’t fill the screen.  Clicking on the Maximize icon will open to full screen but that setting isn’t sticky.  This has to be done every time an image is tonemapped.  This is an unnecessary inconvenience. There’s no option to drag panels to a second screen.  On my 22″ widescreen, I get a reasonable sized preview of what’s going on, it’d be nice if the image were larger.  You can hide the Preset Browser on the left which will make the image larger.  But you can’t then simply hold your mouse at the left edge of the screen to bring it back temporarily like you can in, for example, Lightroom when you hide panels.  You have to click on the icon at the top of the screen.  Similarly you can hide the adjustment panel on the right but, again, you have to click on the icon at the top of the screen to bring it back.  This isn’t an optimal implementation of the plugin to use available screen real estate in my view.

Nik Tonemap GUI (click for larger version)

In the tonemapping screen, you’re presented with preset after preset after preset.  More presets than you can shake a stick at.  Presets to the left of me.  Presets to the right of me.  Too many presets.  While I understand some people like presets and while I understand this is Nik’s typical approach, I’m personally not a fan.  A few presets are fine.  But there are so many here that it’s difficult to believe all would be used on a regular or even semi-regular basis.  You don’t have to, of course, use a preset.  You can go with the default and adjust from there.  You’re also free to adjust after invoking any of the presets.  So it’s not a matter that user control has been sacrificed in favour of presets to be clear.

The available tonemapping operators are the usual suspects.  Tonal compression, Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Warmth, Structure (like detail or local contrast enhancement), Black and Whites and Strength is below all these.  At the bottom of the tonemapping adjustments is a Curves adjustment which is a nice feature that should be standard in all tonemappers.  Or a Levels adjustment at the very least.

The adjustment sliders in the tonemapping screen are live so you get good feedback on what you’re doing.  Thumbs up.  Perhaps Nik’s biggest feature is the U-point or control point technology its software uses.  Quite similar to the adjustment brush in Lightroom, it allows for more targeted adjustments and finer tuning of different parts of the image.  It seems you’re limited to a circular shape but you can alter the size of the circle to help refine the selective adjustment.  After making your tonemapping adjustments and applying them, conversion to a 16 bit image and opening that image in PS is slow.  You can’t apply the Nik tonemapping plugin to a low bit depth image.  If you don’t like the tonemapping result; however, you can undo the HDR Efex Pro plugin which takes you back to a 32 bit image then open the tonemapping plugin again.  Nik uses a two-step process to drop the image to low bit depth and apply the tonemapping adjustments.  If you go back one step in the history, you get a 32 bit image with the tonemap adjustments.  To get back to the pre-tonemapped original you need to go back two steps.  This may actually be necessary in some cases.  I found visible differences between the tonemapping preview in the plugin screen and the actual 16 bit tonemapped image in PS.  Whether this is something anyone else has experienced I don’t know but it’s a less than positive or desirable outcome to be sure.  If you undo the two steps of the history, you get back to your original 32 bit image and you can save it at this point in 32 bit format.  It’s a kludgy workaround to something that Nik could have implemented better, but it does work.  If you undo the history to get back to your original 32 bit image, you can apply the available PS editing tools to that 32 bit image before opening the Nik tonemapping plugin, as you can with PS HDR Pro.  If you use layers to make your adjustments, you’ll need to flatten the image in order to open the Nik plugin.  PS HDR Pro requires you to flatten the image as well.  If you wanted to get really creative, you could apply either the PS HDR Pro tonemapping or the Nik tonemapping, leave the image in 32 bit (stepping back one level in the history if the Nik plugin is applied first) then apply the other tonemapper (i.e., HDR Pro then Nik, or Nik then HDR Pro).  This can give some pretty funky looks.  If you’ve got the Photomatix tonemapping plugin for PS, then maybe third time’s the tonemapping charm.

How well does it all work?  Anything I’d seen from anyone who’d posted sneak peaks or previews from the software was of the more surreal look.  I hadn’t seen any sample images that had a natural look.  That begged the question of whether the Nik software was capable of producing a natural tonemapping result.  In short it can but its strength certainly appears to be with the more surreal/grunge look.

Below is the realistic result from an existing 32 bit image file.  It’s OK but would need a fair bit of additional work to get it to where I would want it.  Adjusting the Warmth slider in Nik, I couldn’t get the colour balance I would like, as I could in other applications.  I used control points to tone down the blue in the waterfalls but, again, couldn’t get it to where I wanted it and a better result could be achieved in Photoshop or Lightroom with selective adjustments.  Contrast is good.  It did take more time than with other software programs to get to this point.

Nik Existing Image Realistic Look (click for larger version)

Next we’ve got the grunge look. No problem getting to this result.  Quick and easy.  As with the more realistic version, overall very cool/blue and the Warmth slider didn’t help as much as I would have liked.  For the more extreme end of the tonemapping pool, this is a good result though.

Nik Existing Image Grunge Look (click for larger version)

In both cases, the tonal range compression was handled quite well.  The highlight areas at the bottoms of the falls are well controlled which is definitely a positive.

Now we’ll see what kind of results we can achieve merging and tonemapping with Nik.  The realistic result is shown below. Tonal range compression is as good or better than other applications.  The bright highlights in the windows have been handled very well and there’s still the ability to pull detail from the shadow areas as needed/desired.  Colour is overall quite good.  It might be a tad on the dark side overall with this result but that’s easily corrected in post-tonemap editing.  Again, getting to this result did take a bit longer than with other applications.

Nik Merged Files, Realistic Look (click for larger version)

On the surreal side, it works.  As with the image above, getting to this result was no problem and didn’t take a lot of time.  Tonal compression is still quite good which is a plus for Nik as other software will sometimes require a sacrifice of highlight detail to achieve the more extreme result.  Not so here.  If this is the result you’re looking for, Nik can do it in spades.

Nik Merged Files, Grunge Look (click for larger version)

Finally, we’ll check out the deghosting.  As noted at the outset, Nik indicates that the Adaptive method is best for small items like leaves or branches where the Global is best for larger items like people.

This is the result with the Adaptive deghosting on maximum strength with our default image.  It hasn’t done a great job.  There’s still a good deal of visible blurring in the branches even in the small preview image.

Nik Deghost - Adaptive (click for larger version)

Moving to the Global deghosting, also on maximum strength, the result is better but still not as good as PS HDR Pro or Photomatix and there is some artifacting in the branches.

Nik Deghost - Global (click for larger version)

Overall, this new offering from Nik is OK but not great.  It seems that it may be slanted more toward getting the surreal/grunge tonemap result than a more realistic result; although the realistic result is possible with some work.  The U-point technology is interesting but, at least in my tests, doesn’t work as well as the similar controls in Lightroom.  At $160 it’s more expensive than the competition (save Photoshop but you’re getting more than just HDR with Photoshop).  The trial version is only good for 15 days where most software offers a 30 day trial.  No batch functionality.  Slow (on my system) relative to others.  Some annoying quirks around saving images and screen size.  Given the cost, slow speed and quality of result, it doesn’t seem to me that the value for money proposition is there.

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