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HDRsoft's Photomatix

Photomatix is a simple but powerful tool for the making of high dynamic range (HDR) images By Robert Jensen

Since the dawn of photography photographers have been limited by the light gathering abilities of film and digital media. The photographer's quest has always been to reproduce or even surpass the ability of the human eye in capturing the range of detail, from light to dark, that the eye sees. The problem is that a typical outdoor scene is around 10 stops (each 'stop' being double or half the exposure of the previous stop).

In some circumstances the range of light to dark is even greater. So how does the photographer go about recording that great range onto a medium only capable of a 5-7 stop range? In the days of film it meant either long stays in the darkroom burning and dodging, or taking multiple images - each one aimed at capturing the different light levels in the scene. At it's simplest one frame would be exposed to record the details in the highlighted areas, another frame for shadow details. Possibly there might be a third to capture the mid-tones or a forth, fifth and so on in the attempt to capture a very wide range of light. The photographer would then take those multiple images, and over hours or days, painstakingly mask and combine them in the enlarger to make a print able to capture the high dynamic range of light in the scene.

Things haven't changed now that we're in the digital era of photography, in fact they are worse in some ways since digital sensors still haven't equaled the best films in capturing the range of highlight to shadow areas of an image. So we are left to the old trick of combining multiple images inside our photo editing software. There have been plenty of advances in the software tools available to us for making high dynamic range (HDR) images and I'd like to cover one of the best ones, Photomatix by HDRsoft ( )

In use:
First off you are presented with the Workflow Shortcuts panel with the options to [Generate HDR image] ([Tone Mapping] is grayed out), [Exposure Blending], [Batch Processing], and a [Tutorial] button (which leads you to their website). Upon selecting one of the top three buttons the Selecting source images window opens and you browse to your image folder to select the images you want to process. Following the website's instruction I set my camera to Exposure Bracketing, 3 frames, varying by 2 stops over/under from the normal exposure. I had my Nikon set to -2, normal, +2 bracketing.

Hit the [Ok] button and the Options panel opens with the following choices.

HDRsoft does a nice job here of taking care of the problems associated with doing multi-exposures, camera shifting (if you're hand-holding), reducing the effects of your subjects or background moving (in this case the waves). This is a well thought out program.

Hit 'Ok' and the program will take a few seconds to load, align the images and generate the HDR image.

Next your have the twin panels showing the HDR Viewer and your image, which probably looks terrible at this point since your monitor can't handle the extremes of information in the image. So for now, just hit the [Tone Mapping] button and let the program do some magic. What pops up next are the Tone Mapping Settings panel and a preview of your image looking much better. We're still getting started. From here out I recommend starting with the Color Saturation first, then Gamma, and Luminosity controls. Then go on to Strength, Light Smoothing, Micro (Tab), Color (Tab). Play around till you get the hang of what the controls do. You can go for a realistic approach, one more painterly, or go for something wild. Photomatix Pro 3.0 gives you plenty of control in your final output. Do try the various types of processing, HDR, Details Enhancer, Tone Compressor, and Blending, each has its own unique pallet.

Caption: In order the original image, HDR version and Exposure Blend mode version.

HDR image

Exposure image

Once you're satisfied with the results hit the [Process] button, wait till the processing finishes, then save the final file as a JPEG or 8/16 bit TIFF.

Don't forget that under Utilities on the Menu bar are the Crop, Straighten, Resize, Sharpen and other editing commands.

Batch processing

Batch processing lets you process and entire folder or a selection of files. I recommend you be familiar with all the settings before you try your first Batch command. Otherwise its fairly straightforward, select your images, select your processing parameters and go.

If you have a great shot, but only a single RAW file you can generate somewhat of a HDR image by going into your RAW processing software and producing three images, one where you've adjusted for an underexposed version of your image, one your normal image and third an overexposed version. There's usually enough latitude in a RAW file to go one stop or more over/under with your exposure. The advantage of this is that with a single image you don't have to worry about movement of the camera or your subject. The drawback is that it lacks the range of tonal values for the program to work with thereby leading to more subtle effects.

Final Thoughts
The program can be sluggish at times, as you don't see your adjustments in real-time. Its not overly bothersome though. These delays can be made worse the larger the images to be combined, the number of images and the greater the bit-depth, the larger the file too. (A 16 bit image is considerably larger than the standard 8 bit image). I recommend using a computer with as fast a processor as possible. Photomatix does not yet support multi-core processors or multi-processor machines. In their FAQ it is stated that it will have such support in the future but that it won't mean much in speeding things up since the data is a memory hog. So if you're in the market for a new computer, look for one with fast memory and a motherboard with a wide memory bandwidth, luckily both are fairly cheap nowadays. At the moment Photomatix is not able to use much more than 2GB of memory at any time. If you have less than 2GB of physical memory then the extra is pushed off to virtual memory (your hard drive). Even if you have more than 2GB of physical memory the limit stands around 2GB at most.

The interface is fairly simple even if it does have somewhat cryptic terminology to the new user. However it is a simple matter of playing around with the settings and sliders to pick up on how things work.

The $99 US price includes free updates for at least one year. One license is valid on both Windows and Mac. There's also a Tone Mapping plug-in for Photoshop for $69 US and a bundle of the two for only $119 US.
I came away from using this program with all sorts of ideas of what I want to try next; portraiture, shooting car photos, etc. I especially want to go into more depth with turning everyday scenics into something more surrealistic. I'm also very interested in doing panoramic shots, something Photomatics also helps with.

The HDRsoft site has several tutorials in mulitple languages, along with in-depth articles on HDR imaging. There are links to well known authors selling video tutorials also.

All in all Photomatix is a well done program that opens a whole new universe of imaging to the photographer and their imagination. Highly recommend this to everyone interested in the subject.

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Robert Jensen has spent most of his 55 years in photography, from the age of 11 when he got his first camera (a Kodak Instamatic) to the present, shooting professionally. From 1971 to 1997 he worked in retail selling photographic equipment to people of all skill levels. For most of that period he was also a manager.
Related Keywords:digital imaging, digital photography, digital camera, image editing

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