Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

HDR Software Review Series

Over the next few posts on the blog, I’m going to do reviews of some of the many HDR software applications out there on the market. These aren’t going to be highly technical or get into the nitty gritty of what each individual slider or control does. What I’m looking at is results. Results on real world images. How easy and intuitive is the software to use? How easily can you generate a ‘realistic’ result? How well can it generate the ‘grunge’ HDR look? How fast is it (i.e., can it be used in a workflow when turnaround time is important)? What’s the look and feel of the software? These are the kinds of things I’m going to be looking at.  I’ll also look at what kind of documentation/support is available for each application.  In all cases, once the HDR file has been tonemapped into a 16 bit space, no further editing will be done.  The goal is to show only what the HDR applications in isolation can do.

‘Who the hell are you?’ you may be asking as you read this. Well, I’m no Jack Howard, author of “Practical HDRI” or Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs fame.  Not on their worst days and on my best days.  I’m just you’re averge schmuck photographer who (a) likes HDR and what it can do, (b) has tried a fair number of different HDR apps and (c) uses HDR in some of my photography.  I’ve written a few previous commentaries on HDR here in the blog as well.  I’m not sponsored by any company and I don’t get freebies so the thoughts and opinions expressed during these tests will be genuine and without the filter of having to try to keep someone happy in order to keep the swag train running.

The process is going to be fairly simple.  Each app. will be put through two tests.  The first test will be with an existing, already merged Radiance (.hdr) file from my archives that would have been merged in Photomatix.  I’ll open that file in each of the applications and tonemap it.  I’ll try to get a realistic result and a more surreal result.  The second test will be to load a set of bracketed exposures into each app. to see how it handles that part of the process – how long it takes to load the files, how well it aligns the various image layers and then how the tonemapping works out; and there could be some different results from a merge done in the software vs. using an existing .hdr file merged in another app.

Each app. will be scored on several criteria on a scale of 0-10.  I’ll weight each criterion (based on my own perception of importance) and then come up with a weighted average score for each application.

The apps that will be included in the review are the following:

Photoshop CS5 Extended

Photomatix Pro

Dynamic Photo HDR

Artizen HDR

HDR Photostudio

Ariea HDRMax

SNS-HDR Pro (this is a new one I’ve recently become aware of, use the Google language dropdown in the upper right corner of the homepage to change the language, unless you’re fluent in Polish).

HDR Darkroom

Once all the tests are done, I’ll do one final comparison and include price to come up with a pseudo-value for money score.  PS CS5 will be left out of this last comparison.  It’s so much more expensive than any of the others it wouldn’t be fair to include it on that basis.  It also does so much more than the others that it’s difficult to separate out just the cost component of the HDR functionality.

Some of the apps, I’ve paid for and are fully licensed.  Some are trial versions.  A quick note to software vendors before going on:  If you’re going to make a trial version of the software do two things – (a) make it fully functioning so people who want to try it can get a true sense of what it can do and (b) don’t cripple it in some fashion such as not allowing trial users to save full bit depth files or put a big-ass, ugly watermark across the image.  Time limit to whatever period (30 days, 60 days, whatever) and let people have at it.  Stepping down off the soap box now.

My concept of speed may be very different from yours.  My computing environment is as follows:  Asus M2N-E motherboard, AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core Processor 3800+ @ 2GHx, 4GB DDR2 Dual Channel PC6400 RAM @ 800MHz, Windows 7 64 bit OS, 160GB Seagate Barracuda SATA with OS/applications, 1TB WD Caviar SATA for scratch disk.  Not a speed demon by today’s standards but not quite snail slow either.

So there you have it.  Those are the basics of the review.  I hope to have each new review up within a couple days of each other.  I’m not going to spend weeks and months playing with these applications.  This is meant to be a real world test and not many of us can spend the amount of time that people who review gear and software for a living can spend with a particular application.  I’ve already spent a fair bit of time with several of these applications and the only ones that are really new are PS CS5 and SNS-HDR.

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