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By Peter Stewart | June 2013

Like most people, when I first discovered HDR photography the goto piece of software was always Photomatix. Cheap and easy to use, it allowed me to create images that truly amazed me. Crossing the border between photography and art (or graphic art) I could create these fantastic technicolor collages which looked so good they were verging on unreality. That was five years ago. I look back now on some of my early HDR's with such distaste they are not even worthy of sharing. You see, I matured. Gone are the technicolor vomit rainbows with their overblown sky highlights and noisy shadows. I have learned one valuable lesson. Tone it the f**k down!

An early Photomatix creation of mine. Yuck!

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The problem as I see it with Photomatix, is that is gives users unfamiliar with HDR the instant satisfaction of creating something so surreal, so out there, that it lulls you into a false sense of thinking that your quirky creation is actually good. I'm not trying to say that Photomatix is bad, it's a brilliant piece of software and a valuable tool in any photographers post processing arsenal. It's just that photographers need schooling in how to use it properly (or not at all).

Every single day without fail as I trail photosharing sites on social media I see more and more of this vomit gracing my screen. Some from well known professional photographers. It also doesn't help that most people are fearful of giving true feedback when they see these images. Maybe thats just me though, as all photo editing is a matter of taste.

For me, the purpose of shooting HDR is simple. It is to record more dynamic range than the camera is capable of in one single image, as a means of recovering highlight or shadow details.

Now, I do make mistakes from time to time. I still look at some of my recent work and wonder why I pushed exposures so far, or dodged and burned till the image looked like a water painting. This is all down to taste, and whilst I may not be exempt from the occasional vomit rainbow, I do see the need to recognise that sometimes subtlety is the best method when editing images.

Below is a recent three bracketed exposure taken in overcast conditions near sunset. I'm going to demonstrate the difference between different types of processing.

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One exposure processed in Camera Raw

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Now by just taking the middle exposure and using only Camera RAW we can play with our sliders to bring out more information in the highlights and shadows. In this example the sky has been brightened without blowing it out, and shadow information in the trees and houses has been brought out without introducing noticeable noise. To me this is a perfectly acceptable image, perhaps with only a few tweaks to brightness and saturation needed to give it some 'pop'.

3x exposures processed with a mild look in Photomatix

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In the next example above, all three exposures have been loaded into Photomatix and then sliders adjusted manually to produce a fairly balanced image. This is actually not that bad in my opinion, although blown highlights are noticeable in the yellow lights bottom right, and in the red lanterns on the left. The sky in the upper top right is showing some mild halo's. At full size, chromatic aberrations are noticeable and are not fixed by Photomatix.

3x exposures processed with an extreme look in Photomatix

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Ok, what do we have here! So, again in Photomatix all three exposures have been loaded, but this time I tuned the sliders to max. The image certainly has more 'punch' and saturation than the previous images, but this is at the expense of increased noise and halos. The image no longer has a 'real world' feel about it and looks more like a video game screenshot. I see LSD induced processing like this all the time. It's just downright ugly and ruins a lot of perfectly good images subject wise.

3x exposures merged in Photoshop

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Lastly, we have the same three raw exposures processed through Photoshop's Merge to HDR feature. With this, each image is loaded into camera RAW, whereby more detailed adjustments can be made to each raw file before merging the three together. With this example, I adjusted the color temperature of the -2 exposure to give the sky an orange sunset feel, whilst using a cooler temperature for the remaining two exposures. Using this method also allows you to erase any color fringing as camera RAW can detect and erase chromatic aberrations.

Using the 'Merge to HDR' feature, photoshop takes into account the adjustments in camera RAW and produces a single HDR image.

Now to me, the version that's most pleasing to the eye is the one created through Photoshop. Aside from having a massive amount of control over the look of your image, this method results in images free of noise, halos, chroma noise and dead or hot pixels (which photomatix cannot detect).

What do you think? Do you prefer the Photomatix versions over the Photoshop merge to HDR? Or is old plain Jane single exposure the one you would want to fame on your wall?

I'd love to hear peoples thoughts not just on using Photomatix, but HDR photography in general.

  • JK

    on February 14, 2014

    I've never used any program to edit any of my photos except for the one provided on Smugmug....but after seeing your site and the amazing images made from Photoshop....its really making me feel the need to delete all of my photos, buying Photoshop and starting over. I am truly envious of your talent and am going to use your site as a drive to get better at this.

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