So I figured after posting about HDR and really not saying anything helpful, that I’d follow that up with some things that might be. At some point, I may actually post a walkthrough of how I work. If there was an interest in that.
First of all, my tonemapping software of choice for the last year or so is Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro, up until then I was a Photomatix user. For a while I used Photomatix along side FDR Tools. I’d often work the same set of exposures in both, and I found that for some images, FDR was better, for others Photomatix was. I ended up deciding the difference was so small, that I’d just keep using Photomatix since, between those two, it had the better UI. I don’t know what FDR Tools is like now, since I haven’t used it in some time.
I am still quite happy with Photomatix, I occasionally still use it, and really the only advantage HDR Efex has, in my book, is a slightly better UI and a slightly faster workflow. Used with a light touch, Photomatix allows superb results.
But here is the most important thing I can say about using Photomatix (note: the following applies primarily to the “Details Enhancer” method). Don’t even try to get a “final” product out of it! Think of tonemapping in Photomatix as producing a new RAW image that is a starting point for further enhancement. The image you save out of Photomatix should not look very good. It should be somewhat flat. Don’t be afraid to enhance detail, but let the overall image contrast be flat, no deep blacks and no shiny whites (and no blowouts, unless it works for the image…cuz once it’s gone, it’s not coming back).
It’s important to work this way, IMO, because all the tools in Photomatix that get contrast back into the tonemapping are shitty. “White Point,” “Black point,” “Gamma” – don’t bother. Also be wary of the “Strength” slider, which is sort of the master slider. Superficially, images look more pleasing with this at high settings because it tends to bring contrast back…but its often (not always) at the expense of artifacts, like halos. Middle settings seem to work best most of the time.
Also, pay special attention to the “Micro-smoothing” slider. Too low of a setting and you’ll get a kind of ‘pincushion’ effect around thin lines surrounded by flat color (think telephone wires against the sky). It’s an artifact I see all the time in HDR images. Too high of a setting and you may kill off your blacks. These are general rules, some images look great with the MS slider near zero, and some fall apart.
Your aim should be a relatively flat looking, but artifact free, image. Save it out as a 16-bit tiff file. Open that in your favorite image editing application, say Lightroom, and use the far-superior tools there to breathe life back into the image. In my experience, a well tonemapped 16-bit tiff image is so chock full of dynamic range and detail that I have a huge amount of latitude in working with it later.
I haven’t mentioned HDR Efex Pro much, that’s because it does have some excellent contrast and other processing tools that get you much closer to a final product than Photomatix can. I have done a number of comparisons, processing the same shots with both programs and, while Photomatix requires more work, the quality is essentially identical. If I were recommending a tonemapper to a beginner, I’d go with HDR Efex without hesitation, it’s much simpler to operate.
That said, I believe that Photomatix is more flexible overall. Additionally, it seems somewhat better with images where there is extreme contrast. An example I run into a lot is daytime shots taken in a dark interior with the camera facing a window. IME, many times the quality of the window area itself (window panes, objects outside, etc) is more pleasing in Photomatix. It tends to handle the nearly-blown-out areas with less ugly artifacting.
I still use HDR Efex a lot because it’s very good, gets the job done nicely and it has some tools that Photomatix can’t match (U-Point tools for local adjustments). I usually go to HDR Efex Pro first and if I can’t get a nice result I’ll try Photomatix.