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HDR Battle: Photomatix vs. Photoshop

by Philippe Dame on May 18th, 2011

If you’re new to DSLR photography, you might be surprised to learn that you can combine multiple photos into a single image to create some stunning results. This is done to overcome a limitation your camera sensor has with combining very dark and very bright areas in a single exposure.

Your camera sensor has a limited range while your eyes do not. “High Dynamic Range” or HDR is an image processing technique that composites multiple images of varying exposures into one image. I use it to create photos that resembles what I originally perceived but other people use it to create surrealistic scenes. See Wikipedia for more introductory information on HDR and See checkout the many HDR examples on Flickr.

Below is an HDR image I created from five separate exposures I shot last Friday (I was vacationing in Bermuda). This is Bermuda’s famous Horseshoe Bay at 6:30 AM.

This post is not as much an HDR tutorial as it a quick introduction. My motivation was also to share with you a comparison I did for myself between two software options for creating these HDR images.

Shooting Multiple Exposures

When photographing landscapes and cityscapes, they don’t really move much so they’re ideal for HDR. If you have a lot of moving elements it’s far more challenging as you’ll get “ghosting” (objects that quickly change location are tough to composite).

Taking multiple photos at various exposures is simple once you learn how to do exposure bracketing (check your camera manual). You can also manually modify your exposure between shots using exposure compensation (e.g. -2 and +2 adjustments). I took my five shots manually and you can see them below:

You can take any number of exposures but 3 to 7 is recommended. If you can only take three shots, shoot a standard exposure first, then take one at -2 ev and another at +2 ev. Just be sure to keep your focus and aperture the same across the shots. To do that, shoot in aperture priority mode (Av). If you vary only your shutter speed, blending will be smooth. You should also lock your ISO to a low low level like 100 or 200 to minimize noise.

It is ideal to shoot in your camera’s raw format, not JPEG. This provides the HDR process much more information to work with. A raw image file has so much data that there’s even a way to do HDR with a single image. It’s like developing film. You can process a raw for the darks and then re-process it for the highlights. You then HDR them. Photomatix and Photoshop can do this with a single file.

Definitely use a tripod as stability counts (even during the day). Using a cable release is very helpful if you’re using your camera’s bracketing feature as it lets you hold down the shutter (bracketed shots are like burst shots and require the shutter to be held down for all three exposures). For advanced shooters, don’t forget your mirror lockup option or use Live View. This ensures the internal mirror doesn’t need to move which reduces internal vibration.

As you can see in my shots above, the bright exposures bring up detail in shadowy areas but blow out the sky. The others show the sun and clouds but require significant underexposure. Now it’s time to combine them to create the image seen at the top of this post.

HDR Image Processing

To create an HDR, you need desktop software that lets you automatically merge the separate images into a single photo. I think the two most popular options are:

These packages let you create HDR images several ways but the most popular is called “Tone Mapping” (Wikipedia definition). Photoshop uses the term “Local Adaptation” as well. It’s the most intense and mathematical of the options. You’ll know intense it is by how long it takes to perform the merge. All the other HDR options are simpler forms of image blending or “exposure fusion”.

It’s worth noting that you can create HDRs manually by combining photos and cutting out the areas you don’t like. For example, in Photoshop Elements, you could overlay two pictures leaving the nice sky from one exposure and the bright foreground from another. Once you do some blending, no one will know it was a composite. Don’t overlook this simple option!

HDR in Photomatix

I only have v3.9.2 of Photomatix Pro but version 4 is out now. From what I’ve read, the HDR processing engine is the same but it offers you more control over the ghosting I mentioned earlier. Again, ghosting is what you get when something in your photo moves between the exposures. The latest Photomatix release gives you a lot of control to limit ghosting by letting you choose which photo “wins” for selected portion of the photo that experienced movement.

I use Lightroom so it’s dead simple to create an HDR. Once Photomatix is installed, it appears as an Export option. I just select my five raw images and right click on one. I select “Export” and then “Photomatix Pro”.

I won’t go into the exact settings I chose inside Photomatix as it’s somewhat irrelevant. You have to play with them and it depends on each photo or effect you’re going after. You can Google around for a few tutorials. There are a lot of sliders you can play with and it’s easy to go overboard. My suggestion is to try to make it so nobody can tell it’s an HDR.

The photo below was as nice as I could get it to look within Photomatix. It’s still realistic but very nicely saturated with good detail on the foreground rock.

HDR in Photoshop

Lightroom and Photoshop are sister products so they naturally work well together. It’s just another right-mouse click but this time you have to select “Edit In” and then “Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop…”.

What I can say for sure is that Photomatix is significantly faster than Photoshop. You also need to quit all your other applications or a 3 minute merge in Photoshop will become 15 minutes. This is a pretty big drawback. Another big difference is that Photoshop offers you less controls to tweak your image. It does have ghosting control but it’s less functional than Photomatix v4 (which I haven’t tried myself yet).

Here’s the result I got, trying to match the output I got from Photomatix. Some of the highlights are nicer but there’s a visible telltale HDR halo around the rock. Upon close inspection of the rock, however, I actually find the Photoshop version is more blurry. Some might find the sunrise a bit more interesting and the waves a more crisp. Overall, it’s a matter of taste.

Comparison 1:1

Here’s some 100% zoom comparisons for you inspect. Photoshop’s HDR is on the left and Photomatix’s HDR is on the right. Click the image to zoom in close.

I think I prefer the Photomatix version myself. What do you think? Which do you prefer?! Click these again to zoom in (left is Photomatix and right is Photoshop). Post your comment below.

If you’d like me to record a video tutorial about HDR creation, let me know. I won’t bother unless I get some comments on this post!

Online HDR Resources

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  • Hughly741

    Nice pictures.  Why do you prefer the photomatix version?  It seems to me that the photoshop one is sharper with richer tones

    • Philippe Dame

      Both did a good job and there are areas where PS wins. I found that the PS version is a bit too harsh in the sky highlights (unrealistic in parts). The foreground rock is a bit less sharp than other areas like the water and there’s a stronger blue cast over all. I guess the Photomatix version just comes closer to what I remember that morning – a bit more realistic. All that said, I probably could have worked the many many sliders more in PS to get a better result.

      • Sean R.

        Agreed – the sun in the PS version is a much more vivid yellow than any of the original exposures.  This is nice to get when you want that surreal effect, but I wonder if its possible to get PS to do HDR for the purpose of showing original perception (what eye sees).  Thanks, Phillippe – haven’t started HDR yet, but trying to research the options….

        • Philippe Dame

          Thx. Let me know what works best for you once you get into it. I have yet to try Photomatix v4 but hope to soon.

  • Bazzaware

    Very nice images and an interesting article. I have just started looking into HDR and I’m finding it fun and getting better results all the time.  I tried the trial version of PhotoMatix as this was recomended and from some of the tutorials there was some post processing carried out in  CS5.  I did find that the de-ghosting worked a lot better in CS5. I had trial versions of both at the time.  There were a lot of other features that I liked in CS5 so I went with that. 

    I would think that new people would just go with CS5 and the HDR Pro in there and the people that have been using Photomatix will tend to stick with it.  Both are very good programs.

    • Philippe Dame

      Agreed, most people that want to go for CS5 won’t bother with Photomatix but it wouldn’t surprise me that people get different and potentially better results with Photomatix… simply a different algorithm. Version 4.x of Photomatix has the ghosting removal option now I think.

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