HDR Software Review Series Pt VIII – Preview of Oloneo Photo Engine

I received an email from the folks behind Photo Engine a few weeks ago telling me they were going to be launching a new software package that did HDR and a whole lot more and asking if I’d be interested in being part of the beta group. Sure, I said.

I’ve been playing with the software now for a couple weeks. What follows is essentially a review like others in the series but keep in mind that things could change since this is only the first beta of the program.

I’ll say upfront that Photo Engine is a very complex piece of software. It takes a bit of time to get a feel for it. There’s some terrifically complex coding in the background related to the HDR Relight feature to be sure. In general, while what I’ve seen so far is looking like it’s going to be a very good program, there some complexities and features that are superfluous and attention could have been paid elsewhere. More on that as we progress.  I also think that some of what’s in this software is geared toward CG artists and may not be a lot of use to photographers.

There’s a particular feature of Photo Engine that I haven’t tried yet and that won’t be covered in this preview.  It’s the HDR Relight feature.  I’ll state upfront that I’m a bit skeptical as to the applicability of this for photographers – it may be one of those aspects of the software that CG artists will use more – but will keep an open mind and reserve final judgement till I’ve had the chance to try it out.

On opening the software, you’ll see a GUI that has a screen with a lot going on.  There are three basic components of the app. as shows in the upper right corner – Browse, Edit and Help.  Browse is the default window.  This is where you select your files to work on.  A screenshot is below.

Oloneo Photo Engine GUI (click for larger version)

For file types the application can make use of, you’ll see a picture thumbnail.  For others, you’ll get a text thumbnail.  Down in the bottom section are a list of recent Photo Engine projects (using the proprietary .rcd file type) which have been worked on.

You’ll see in the screenshot above that .hdr files don’t have a picture thumbnail.  While the program can read Radiance file types, it can’t display the thumbnail.  OpenEXR files won’t be listed at all because the program can’t work with those.  32 bit TIFF will have a thumbnail with an exclamation point because while it can read and open ‘normal’ 8 or 16 bit TIFFs, it can’t work with 32 bit TIFFs.  Nor can it work with PSD files at all.  I’d suggest the lack of support for a wider range of 32 bit files is a negative for Photo Engine.  While we’re at it, while Photo Engine can read 32 bit Radiance files, it can only write 32 bit files in its proprietary .rcd format.  This makes Photo Engine essentially incompatible with other HDR or image editing applications on the market.  While I understand that the folks at Oloneo are trying to produce a ‘one stop shop’ software application, not building in cross-platform functionality is a big negative.

Opening a single file to work on is as simple as double clicking.  Opening a bracketed series to merge and tonemap is a bit different.  First you select the respective files in the browser using Shift + click or CTRL + click.  Next, in the window on the upper right titled Project Image Selection you click Add.  This moves all the selected files into the project window where you can work with them further.  To begin creating a high dynamic range document, move down into the HDR Tonemap window, select Auto Align or not, then click Create HDR Tonemap Project.  If you’ve added only the images you need for a single merge, there’s no need to highlight the images in the Project window.  If you’ve added images for more than one merge, you’ll need to highlight the ones you want to include before clicking the Create HDR Tonemap Project button otherwise all the images in the Project window will be used.

You’ll notice in the top of the Browse screen in the middle is the typical … icon to open a location and select files.  You can also use the dropdown menu and select by file or by folder.  As you open and work with various folder locations, these will be stored in this dropdown menu and you can select from a recent location quickly without having to go through the folder hierarchy again.  If you’re working with RAW files, the program will give you thumbnail previews, but these do take a bit of time to appear.

Once the files begin to merge, you’re taken to the Edit window.  You can switch back and forth between Edit and Browse without affecting the current merge.  In the Edit window, your tonemapping controls are on the right and your edit history is on the left as seen in the screenshot below.

Photo Engine Edit GUI (click for larger version)

There is no multiple monitor support.  While the image on screen is fairly large if you’re using a larger monitor, it would become relatively smaller on a smaller monitor.  Adding multiple monitor support so that the edit and history windows could be moved to a second screen would be beneficial.  Similarly, in the Browse screen, having all the supporting windows on a second monitor would be a good idea.

Based on my work thus far with Photo Engine, I’d suggest the Advanced Local Tonemapper is the way to go.  The difference between it and the regular Local Tonemapper is the addition of the Detail controls which can prove useful.  There are also Auto Tonemapper and Globabl Tonemapper options but these provide little user control and less than pleasing results generally.

The variety of controls available in the Edit window is quite extensive.  At the top are the usual tonemapping controls.  Moving down there are LDR adjustments, a white balance panel, print toning and below that very fulsom colour controls.

In addition to the white balance panel on the right, at the top there is an eyedropper which can also be used to select white balance.  I find the eyedropper to be quick and effective.  Activate it then click in the image on a white, black or neutral tone to set your WB.

The Photographic Print Toning panel is one of those aspects of the software that, to me, seems superfluous.  While I understand Oloneo is trying to give users a one-stop shop for image editing, I think it highly unlikely that advanced users are going to do print toning in this application.  Particularly when there’s no print module in the app.  If I want to tone an image for printing, I’m going to do it in Photoshop where I have significantly more control over the final outcome.

Below the print toning, there’s an Advanced section.  Here are where the colour controls are.  Two curve adjustments are available – Brightness and Saturation.  If you right click on the curve in either panel you’ll be presented with 3 options.  Bezier Spline, Catmull-Rom Spline and Linear.  What the ……?!?!  Here again, is where the developers may have gone a bit overboard.  None of these, on first blush, looks like the curve adjustment we’re used to in PS.  Ignore Linear.  It produces a non-smooth curve that is nothing like what we’re used to.  Catmull-Rom looks more like the standard PS curve adjustment but the interpolation between points is different.  That leaves us with Bezier Spline.  And this is the one that will work like the PS curve photographers are used to.  You can add points by clicking on the line and dragging.  What about the tangents on the curve?  These will adjust the slope of the curve locally.  Might be useful from time to time.  If all you want to do is get the ‘standard’ S-curve, click on the tangent arrow of the top point and drag it up.  Next click on the tangent arrow of the lower point and drag it down.  Voila, your standard S-curve contrast adjustment.  If you click to add points on the upper and lower sections of the curve and drag these, you’ll get something similar to the standard PS curve but not quite the same.  In this case you’ll probably want to move the upper and lower tangent points as well to make the curve smoother.  Lengthening or shortening the tangent lines will change the inflection point of the curve.

As noted above, this level of adjustability is more than most photographers are going to want.  Keeping in mind my earlier thought that this software is meant for both photographers and CG artists and doing some research into these various curve types, it does seem that these curves will be more familiar to those working in the CG world.

The Brightness curve works like the PS curve in the Luminance blend mode; affecting brightness without colour.  The Saturation curve below that begins making colour adjustments.  The bottom section of the curve works on areas of lower saturation while the upper section of the curve works on areas of higher saturation.  Dragging down or up will reduce or increase relative saturation levels respectively.

Below that are individual adjustments for Hue, Saturation and Brightness (Luminance).  The spectrum for each is split with a line for each colour/hue.  Clicking and dragging the point on the line adjusts saturation, brightness or hue for that particular colour, isolated from the rest.  Right clicking on a point and selecting ‘Free Mode’ allows you to move the position of the colour line left or right along the spectrum, effectively changing the relative relationships between the various colours.  Perhaps another bit of superfluousness.  While an interesting adjustment to have available, I’m not sure how much photographers are going to use it.  The adjustments that these controls make are precise; however, so the controls are effective.

The last thing to mention is the history panel on the left.  Like the history panel in PS or LR, a record is kept of each adjustment you make.  You can undo one thing at a time or several.  Like in LR (unlike in PS), if you save the file in the proprietary .rcd format, the edit history is stored as well so when you open the file in the future, you have access to everything you did previously.  This is only true if you save in the .rcd file format; however. Right clicking on a history point will allow you to add a comment or edit an existing comment.  Perhaps useful if you want to recall why you used a certain setting in the past.  You can also create an edit version (similar to the LR Snapshot) which you can come back to in the future.  If you create an edit version, then back up in the history to change something, you lose your version.  This makes the version feature less useful.  Versions should be retained so they can be brought back at any time (like the LR Snapshot).  The Play button steps through all the edit history from start to finish automatically.  This would be useful for creating tutorials.  You can have the playback stop each time a comment is found as well so the comments can be used to explain certain steps or processes.

Photo Engine is a colour managed application.  When you save a file you’ll be presented with a dialogue to tag it with a colour space (sRGB, AdobeRGB or ProPhotoRGB), a bit depth (if saving as a TIFF), a compression type for TIFF and quality level for JPEG and a resolution.  If you want, you can also add copyright information into the file. The program defaults to the .rcd file type for saving.

There are no text help files installed with the program, nor are there any on the Oloneo website.  The help comes in the form of video tutorials.  While a nice supplementary form of help, a text help file where people could search and get quick assistance would be beneficial.

There are no preferences to be set in Photo Engine.  Rather than having to choose what file type, bit depth, colour profile, etc, each time a file is saved, it would be preferable to have these established as user defaults which can be overridden if desired.  This would speed the workflow process.  In addition, there is no possibility; that I can find, to save tonemap settings as presets.  Particularly given the varied and complex adjustments available, the ability to establish presets would be beneficial.

How’s it all work?  Examples are below but generally, pretty well.  Overall, speed is good and comparable with the other top programs on the market.

First the realistic result of the existing HDR image.

Photo Engine Existing Realistic (click for larger version)

Colour and contrast are good.  The blue in the water is well controlled.  Overall, a very good result and one that wouldn’t need a lot of additional work.

Next the surreal result on the existing HDR image.

Photo Engine Existing Surreal (click for larger version)

It’s clear that Photo Engine can go from mild to wild.  This is actually one of the more appealing results on this image of all the ones tried thus far.

Now, how does Photo Engine do with files merged inside the application?

The realistic version.

Photo Engine Merge Realistic

The blue colour in the windows on the right is good.  Overall colour is good.  The result is a bit dark overall but this can be corrected with some more work in PS post-tonemap.

Next the surreal result.

Photo Engine Merge Surreal

Once again, we’ve gone from mild to wild.  Unlike in some other applications, the blue in the right side windows has been retained to a large degree.  The windows on the left are blown out, as in other software but in a different way and a good deal of the dirt on the windows has been retained.

In both cases, Photo Engine has handled the dynamic range in the images very well.  The surreal/grunge results are different from others and in a lot of respects better.

Overall, Photo Engine shows a great deal of promise.  There are some user-functionality issues that would make it better and easier to use.  The fact that, I think, they’re targeting both photographers and CG artists means there are aspects of the software that aren’t as relevant to photographers but that can be dealth with.  There is no version, at this point, for the Mac OS; however, Oloneo states that the software works well with Parallels Desktop 5 (which I believe is the current version at the time of writing).  There’s no deghosting function which is why that wasn’t tested.  The one other thing that Photo Engine doesn’t have that would be nice to see is a batch function.

Once I try the HDR Relight functionality, I’ll come back and provide an update.  If  you’ve been trying out Photo Engine and find an area where I’ve made a mistake in my commentary, please let me know, I’ll take another look and upate as required.

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