My Experiences with Nik HDR Efex Pro
A few months back, Nik Software released their long awaited high dynamic range application called HDR Efex Pro. You owe it to yourself to try it if you haven't yet and are interested in HDR. Particularly if you are interested in realistic looking HDR. Here are some thoughts on my experiences with it, both good and not so good.
Those of you already familiar with Nik Software as a company are probably aware of their Control Point technology that employs automated, content aware image evaluation to build adjustment masks with only a suggestion or two from the user as to what should be included or excluded. The Layer Mask capability in Photoshop is obviously much more powerful, but requires much greater skill and time commitment from the user in order to get the best results. Nik's "U Point®" Control Point technology was first introduced in the joint Nik / Nikon venture that became Capture NX (now Capture NX2). Since then, they've added it to the popular Color Efex Pro and the more recent Viveza and Silver Efex Pro. In all of these, it's actually quite uncanny how well Control Points work. And I'm saying this as someone who appreciates the control Photoshop Layer Masks give me.
Which brings me to the state of HDR software when Nik announced HDR Efex Pro. Current versions of Photoshop can merge multiple images to create an HDR fairly well, but Adobe's tone mapping functions to then convert the result into a usable image are, in a word, poor. The leader in HDR software has long been Photomatix Pro from HDRSoft. Primarily by virtue of providing more sliders to control how the tone mapping was done, it was able to do a much better job than Adobe's tone mapping was capable of. But those same sliders could also create some very odd looking "pop art" effects that interestingly have become somewhat trendy these days as an art form unto itself. In fact, when you mention HDR photography these days, more people will probably think you mean that surreal, over saturated pop art look than think you're talking about a technology to create realistic images that overcome the inherent exposure range limitations of current cameras and sensors.
But there are plenty of photographers out there like me who have longed for the ability to create realistic, naturalistic HDR images and have been frustrated by the tools available from Adobe, HDRSoft and others. Nik advertises that the multiple, proprietary tone mapping algorithms they incorporated into HDR Efex Pro could produce not only "artistic" interpretations but also realistic ones. And I'm here to tell you they are right. It can. And adding the power of Control Points to tweak those algorithms creates an incredible tool for getting great results.
I did have a bit of a technical glitch getting the program activated and I found it more than a bit frustrating getting support from Nik to solve it. It would seem they were a bit overwhelmed both with the popularity of their new offering as well by what their cutting edge technical ingenuity might inflict on users that that weren't prepared for it. To run efficiently, HDR Efex Pro leverages features found only in the latest video and other drivers. By this point, Nik has stepped up to the issue and published a detailed troubleshooting page on their site. Much of the information on this page was likely gathered from working with users like me.
The particulars of my glitch seem to have been caused by a combination of two factors. First of all, I had no problem whatsoever installing the program on the laptop on which I'm typing this article. But while this is a powerful machine for many tasks and I do use Photoshop on it particularly when traveling, you can probably already assume it is not my main workstation for editing images. The machine that is my main workstation has a mirrored drive system that unfortunately experienced a drive failure just after installing HDR Efex Pro. After the RAID array rebuilt itself, the program insisted not only that it needed to be activated (even though it already had been) but also that the "maximum number of activations for the Product Key" had been reached. The kindly message instructed me to contact Customer Support for further information. Even though Nik tried to remedy the problem, providing me by email with several of the tips no included on their troubleshooting page, nothing seemed to do the trick. The piece to the puzzle that wasn't realized until late in the game was that the program's license checking scheme doesn't work when running the program over a Remote Desktop connection. Obviously for real work I would sit directly in front of the actual monitor, but to get the thing re-activated I had been making use of Window's built-in Remote Desktop connection capability, once again using the same laptop I'm typing on now. While I would have appreciated Nik telling me that this wasn't supported, I suppose as a result both them and I have learned something new. So be it. We finally got it working a few weeks ago and I've been playing around with it ever since.
Now that I've got that issue out in the open, let's get back to what HDR Efex can do.
You can get into the program in more than one way. You can run the program as a stand-alone application although Nik doesn't create Start menu program icons for it for some reason (you can create them yourself easily). They do however install both a Lightroom export module as well as a script for adding menu options to Adobe Bridge that allow you to select a set of images in either application and open them in HDR Efex Pro. The native application only knows how to open Tiff and jpeg images. When front ended by Bridge or Lightroom, it can open raw file formats supported by both. The Open dialog provides options for aligning the source images and to help reduce the possibility of ghosting due to slight movement of objects between successive shots.
Once you have an HDR built by open some source images, you have a great deal of control over how the resulting vast dynamic range gets compressed down into a usable image. But one nice feature is that you might not even need that control since the program comes with a number of presets grouped as Realistic, Artistic, Surreal, Landscape, Architecture, Special and Favorites. Simply by finding the thumbnail rendering you like best in one of these groups and clicking on it you can see your image tone mapped using those settings. If you're not completely happy with the results, you can either try another preset or start tweaking with sliders and Control Points from there.
If you're a user of any of Nik's other applications or plug-ins, you'll probably feel right at home with HDR Efex Pro. In addition to the preset thumbnails down the left and the main image window in the middle, you'll find all the necessary sliders and controls on the right together with zoom loupe and histogram at the bottom right corner. Global sliders exist for Tone Compression, Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Structure (essentially localized micro-contrast), Blacks, Whites, Warmth, and Method Strength.
Right in the middle of the slider column you'll find the Selective Adjustments option to add a new Control Point. With this, you can click where you want on the main image display and get access to an intuitively designed control that lets you make localized adjustments to the tone mapping process. In addition to radius, the options available for each Control Point in HDR Efex Pro match closely to those present in the global sliders with the exception of Tone Compression.
The usual Nik option to display the mask calculated for each Control Point is also present. This replaces the main image window with the standard black / white alpha channel display so you can see the degree to which each Control Point is affecting each image pixel. If you don't like the mask it comes up with, you can reposition the point itself so it gets based on a different source, change the radius slider, or place another point elsewhere in the image to "lock" that point in place and prevent it from being affected by other points.
Other niceties include the ability to hide either the left or right hand column of controls to maximize screen real estate for the image itself, toggle the display to a before / after mode to see the effects of your slider adjustments, zoom the entire image display in or out, and more. There are also a list of "finishing options" to allow you to selectively add vignetting or adjust levels and curves (in a limited fashion) to create various artistic effects if you wish.
Overall, even with my activation frustration, I highly recommend HDR Efex Pro. Indeed, it's probably my favorite of all the programs Nik makes. There are a number of other new HDR applications currently in various phases of beta testing but I really think Nik has a winner in HDR Efex regardless of what happens with the competition.
High in the Olympic Mountains with a fish eye lens, created with HDR Efex Pro
Frenchman Coulee in central Washington State, created with HDR Efex Pro