HDR Software Review Series Pt VII – HDR Darkroom

HDR Darkroom is another relative newcomer to the HDR software scene. I say relative newcomer because it came to market after many of the well known apps like Photomatix, Dynamic Photo HDR and FDRTools.  I only became aware of it in the last couple months and decided to add it to the growing list of software apps in this series.

I should state upfront that after sending some questions to the folks who produce HDR Darkroom, they’ve provided me with a full version (sans watermark) and in return, I’m going to provide them with some samples to use on their web gallery at no cost.

Unlike many of the other applications coming out on the market, HDRDR is ‘just’ an HDR application.  It’s not trying to be all things to all people, which is a plus in my book.  They’re concentrating on one thing with HDRDR and concentrating on doing it well.  32 bit files can be saved either as Radiance (.hdr) or OpenEXR (.exr).  When saving JPEG files, there are no quality options.  The file is saved at full size and full quality.  Personally, I prefer this.

On opening the program, the GUI is clean and simple with a menu bar at the top and menu icons down the left.  This allows you to use whatever method you’re comfortable with to work.  Positioning your mouse over an icon brings up a description of what it is so you’re not working blind if you use the icons.

HDRDR GUI (click for larger version)

There are no preferences available to be set so you can simply start working.  There is a batch function (thumbs up) but no colour management implementation (thumbs down).  Under the Process menu is an interesting item labeled ‘Export to Photoshop’.  Upon further inspection, it’s not quite as interesting as first thought as it only will export a BMP version of the file you’re working on.  If it could be reprogrammed to export a JPEG or TIFF, that’d be cool.  As it is, the standard workflow of tonemapping, saving the tonemapped image out as a JPEG or TIFF then opening that file in PS for any further work is the way to go.  There is no deghosting function so that won’t be tested.

How’s it all work?  Opening an existing 32 bit file is pretty quick.  The program goes through an initial ‘tonemapping’ step in order to display the image on screen for a first visual representation.  If you like what you see, you can save out the file from here.  Additional work is probably going to be needed.  A screen capture of the intial preview of our default existing image is below.

HDRDR Initial Screen Preview (click for larger image)

It’s actually not too bad, but it does need more work.  Into the tonemapping functions we go.  Going into the tonemapping functions opens up a new screen, but it’s not a double screen so you can’t flip back and forth – there’s no need to really so it doesn’t matter than you can’t.  In the tonemap screen, the tonemapping controls are on the right side of the screen and the image in the middle.  You can adjust the size of the preview between Small, Medium and Large.  The default is Medium.  Even selecting Large, the entire image fits in screen so you can see everything that’s happeningn with the tonemapping.  There is no multiple monitor support so you can’t pull the tonemapping bar to a second screen and get a bigger image on the primary.  Unless you’re working with a very small screen this should be alright because the tonemap bar doesn’t take up a lot of screen real estate and the workspace is clean otherwise so there’s nothing else to keep you from getting a good idea of what’s happening as you adjust the tonemapping operators.  Multiple monitor support is always a nice thing, but in this case – unlike with some of the other apps we’ve looked at – it’s not vital.

There are three tonemapping operators:  Local Tone Balancer (LTB); Local Tone Enhancer (LTE); and Fast Tone Compressor (FTC).  The first two are local tonemappers, the last is a global operator.  Based on what I’ve experienced in using the software, LTE is going to be the operator of choice in most cases.  It has the most flexibility and produces the best results on a consistent basis.  Unless noted otherwise, LTE is the one I’m using in this commentary.  There is also the ability to save tonemapping presets via the dropdown menu at the top.  A screen shot of the tonemapping GUI is below.

HDRDR Tonemap GUI (click for larger version)

The sliders don’t offer a live preview but the update speed is quick.  Switching from one tonemapping operator to another, then back brings you back to the last settings you used in that operator – nice.  Keeping the Strength setting in the range under 50 is generally where you’re going to want to be for a more naturalistic/realistic look.  Fill Light is one that’ll be used sparingly in most cases.  It does do a good job though of working on the darker/shadow areas yet not brightening the lighter/highlight areas.  The Brightness slider does a nice job of making adjustments to the overall exposure and helping retain/regain shadow/highlight contrast.  Below the Tonemapping Parameters is a section for Post Processing tools.  There are two tabs – Color Balance and B/W Point Clipping.  The Color Balance sliders act like the colour balance tool in Photoshop and can be useful for adjusting the white balance in the image.  The B/W Point Clipping sliders on the second tab are where you’re going to set your white and black points.  Both work well and the B/W sliders provide enough fine control that you can get the overall contrast where you want it.  Eyedroppers for setting white balance as well as white/black points would be nice additions to make adjusting those settings slightly quicker.  Once done, click OK to apply the settings and you’re taken back to the original screen after the settings are applied which is pretty quick.  Tonemapped files can be saved as 8 bit JPEGs, 8 bit TIFFs or 16 bit TIFFs (noted in the dropdown as 48 bit – 16 per channel).  It can also save as PNG and BMP but these will be less useful for photographers.  The realistic version of our default existing file is below.

HDRDR Existing Realistic (click for larger version)

This is pretty darn good as it stands right now.  The blue in the water is a little too intense but that’s easily fixed after tonemapping.  Without question this is on par with the best apps out there for generating a realistic result on this particular image.  Getting to this result took very little time and required not a lot of playing with the sliders.  There are Undo and Redo icons on the left side of the screen.

An interesting part of the way HDRDR works is that after you tonemap and go back to the main screen, you see the results of the tonemapping on screen but your 32 bit image is still there in the background.  When you save the file out as a JPEG or TIFF, it saves a copy so what you see on screen is still the 32 bit image.  If you then go back into the tonemapping operators, it opens the original 32 bit image back up with the previous tonemapping settings applied but clicking Reset takes you back to the original.  This is a nice workflow process if you want to try different tonemapping adjustments.

Now let’s look at the other end of the tonemapping spectrum.  Two files are below.  The first is a surreal/grunge look with the LTE operator, the second is a surreal/grunge look with the LTB operator.  They’re different.  In both cases the Strength slider is pushed well up past 50, which is where you’re going to want to go if you’re working for the less realistic look and in the LTB version, the Local Lighting slider is also pushed up toward the top end.  My only quibble with the LTB version is what it’s done to the waterfall pools.

HDRDR Grunge LTE (click for larger version)

HDRDR Grunge LTB (click for larger version)

HDRDR can swim in both ends of the tonemapping pool.  Getting from a realistic result to a less realistic is as simple as moving the Strength slider.  You’ll likely want to tweak some of the other settings as well but the Strength slider really does control a lot in this software.  Simple is good.  And the speed is very good througout.  As fast or faster than the other applications tested thus far.  Another important thing to note is that the program has handled the full drange of this scene very well.  Recall from the introductory article that I chose this particular scene because of the range of brightness it contained.  There are no presets other than the default settings but creating your own is easily done and with the simplicity of making adjustments to create different looks/versions, creating different presets takes little time.

We’ll move on to see how HDRDR does merging and tonemapping a set of files.  The screen for setting up the merge is very simple.  You can choose to align or not and you can choose to have the exposure information taken from the EXIF data or by guessing.  If you were using film scans or other images that didn’t have exposure information in the EXIF, you could use Guess as a starting point.  Once you choose your images and set the software to work the loading, aligning, merging and initial preview tonemapping happens in a pretty snappy fashion.  Perhaps not quite as fast in this case as Photomatix or CS5 HDR Pro but still quite quickly and faster than many of the other apps. tested thus far.

Once again, the intial preview is a very good starting point as seen in the image below.

HDRDR Merge Preview (click for larger version)

The colour in the windows on the right is good.  The brightness in the windows on the left is well controlled.  Not quite the best we’ve seen so far but still very good.  Colours throughout are accurate, if a tad cool which is easily addressed.

Making the tonemapping adjustments and applying the tonemapping settings was a slightly slower with this 32 bit file than the existing one from above.  I’m not sure why that might be.  It could simply be a combination of the settings needed to get the result required more time to process than previously.  The Strength slider for this was a bit higher than on the first image so which would mean more processing behind the scenes so that could explain the slight time difference.  The difference was small enough that it could also have been due to other processes going on in my system at the same time.  More testing would be needed to know for sure.  Either way, it’s still quite quick.  Below is the natural/realistic version.

HDRDR Merge Realisitic (click for larger version)

Here again, the colour in the windows on the right is good.  Brightness in the windows on the left is better than in the preview version.  Good shadow/highlight detail is retained throughout.  The colour from the dirt in the left windows shows up well.  It’s a very nice result and one that I’d only have to do a little extra tweaking to after the fact via a Curves/Levels type adjustment and/or perhaps a slight Shadow/Highlight adjustment.

The grunge/surrealistic version is below.

HDRDR Merge Grunge

As with the realistic version, colour is good, detail is good in the highlights.  What’s interesting about this version compared to surrealistic versions from the other applications is the way HDRDR has rendered the highlight areas in the room itself.  The highlights areound the ticket windows, the old newsstand on the left and on the large pillar in the back corner add enhanced visual interest to this version that the others haven’t had to the same extent.  The mapping of the light in HDRDR, in this case anyway, has created a very appealing result.  As with the other images, the Strength slider is the one that largely controls the realistic or surrealistic look and in this case it was all the way at 100%.  In some other apps., moving the equivalent of the HDRDR Strength slider to 100% would cause the windows to become completely blown out but highlights are still well controlled here at the same time an interesting ‘grunge’ result has been generated.

After getting the fully unlocked version, I have to admit that I cheated and used it for more than just this review.  I wanted to see how it would handle some night scenes with wildly varying light levels and light colours.  I used it to shoot a timelapse segment in Toronto.  The last 5 seconds of this clip are images merged and tonemapped in HDRDR.  Tried the same files in Photomatix and liked the HDRDR results better so used them.

A Summer Night in Dundas Square from Robert Fisher on Vimeo.

Support for HDRDR is decent.  There are no Help files installed with the program.  There are some video tutorials on the HDR Darkroom website as well as some FAQ sections.  I emailed some questions to their general support email address and got responses within a business day.  The HDRDR offices are in Europe and I’m in North America so considering the time difference, that response turnaround is very good.  The responses I got were helpful.  My understanding from trading emails with them is that they’re working on revamping the website and I expect it’ll have enhanced information on it when the new site is brought onstream.

I did run into a few bugs when working with the software.  Two are minor and not worth going into detail on.  The third involves a difference in tonemapping when working in Batch mode vs. doing individual merge/tonemap operations.  Again, based on emails I’ve traded with their support group, they have a handle on the problem and expect to have a fix in the near future.

To discuss the Batch mode a bit more for a second, like everything else with HDRDR, the interface is simple and the process is quick.  Running the same set of files through both HDRDR and Photomatix, HDRDR completed the batch process slightly faster than PM.  You can choose to save either the 32 bit file, a tonemapped JPEG file or both.  The 32 bit file is saved in the Radiance format.  Since the software can save individually merged files in both Radiance and OpenEXR formats, giving that flexibility in Batch mode would be preferable.  Being able to save the tonemapped file as either an 8 or 16 bit TIFF file would also be preferable to just offering JPEG.  You have access to the same tonemapping operators in Batch as in standard mode.  You cannot; however, invoke a preset in Batch mode.  If you test out a merge to get your tonemap settings  figured out, you’ll have to write down the settings  and input them manually in Batch.  Being able to use presets here would also be a good enhancement.  You can merge up to 10 images in Batch mode which should be enough.  Nikon offers the widest bracketing at up to 9 in some of its models so unless you’re doing manual bracketing at 1/3 or 1/2 stops and capturing huge numbers of images per sequence (which really isn’t necessary), the ability to merge up to 10 images should suffice.

There is a noise reduction feature in the software which I didn’t try.

All in all, HDRDR is a very nice piece of software that does one thing and does it quite well.  The software is on sale right now for $79.  There are both Mac and Windows versions.  At that price it’s definitely a good deal.  Even at the full price of $99 it’s the same price as Photomatix Pro and in terms of the quality of the software and support, it’s pretty much on par with PM.

As with previous reviews, if you see any errors please let me know and I’ll work to make the corrections.  Thanks for reading and I’m happy to recieve your feedback.

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