HDR photography is something that we love here at The Hollow. It allows us to explore the world around us and share images that typically feature heritage architecture, and artifacts and items of historical value. We’re constantly looking to take our imagery to that next level and are thrilled to have a chance to check out new software and hardware in the field. Recently we were contacted by the people at Everimaging Ltd. to review their latest entry into the HDR merging and tone mapping arena, HDR Darkroom 2, and were asked to do a HDR software review for them. This new version of the software is light-years ahead of the last version we tested in July of 2011 in our post “Review: Everimaging HDR Photo Pro” as the company and developers have tackled some key issues.
Please bear in mind that this review is centric to our experiences using the software for a very limited time. We have spent hundreds of hours perfecting our style, and trying to replicate or improve on this in a new software suite is not a simple undertaking. You may very well have a completely different experience using this application in your workflow.
HDR Software Review
Installing the software and getting it up and running was a breeze. The screen you are presented with as your main working screen is fairly well laid-out with easy to access and relatively straightforward processes you can apply. Loading RAW files from the camera and getting those presented to you for further work is a very fast process, much quicker than some of the other competitors. This time-savings alone may make this a suite that may be of interest to you.
Pros: very quick loading and tone mapping algorithms, even when using RAW files straight out of the camera. It also gives the ability to export in key file formats for importing into other post-processing software, like Adobe Photoshop.
This was a key limitation to the previous version of software from Everimaging Ltd. which proved to be a bit of a show-stopper to us. Due to the dynamic nature of the work we do it’s critical to have the ability to perform de-ghosting directly inside the merging and tone mapping software to produce the work we are after. I am happy to say that the developers have created advanced algorithms that work here to deal with this issue. This is definitely now an area where HDR Darkroom 2 beats Photomatix Pro it would seem with the limited tests we’ve conducted so far. This will always be a key sticking point for us when evaluating software for HDR, and we are very happy to say that this has been completely resolved.
Pros: great, natural looking ghost removal that works! No need to manually define problematic zones as the advanced algorithms appear to do a fabulous job in dealing with this. We stress again that these findings are a result of very limited testing and your experience may differ.
Cons: absolutely none detected so far.
This is where we start getting into the heart of this new application. Three different tone mapping modes are supported: Tone Balancer, Tone Enhancer and Tone Compressor. The first two methods produce the most striking results, with our personal favorite choice being the Tone Enhancer. It seemed to produce the most photo-realistic results, which is key for our type of work.
At first glance both images above are very pleasing and they would pass our quality test. Both pictures exhibit great dynamic range and details, exactly what you’d expect from HDR. Closer scrutiny reveals a few weaknesses though, and in the examples above our choice lies with the Photomatix output.
This example took a few tries to get as close to right as I could. Once again my personal preference is with the Photomatix shot which just seems to have a little more character to it. The results here in this example are much more subtle and this may just be a matter of personal preference. I found it a bit difficult to deal with the color saturation as I was working in my post-merge process as some areas would become too “hot”, or take on undesirable tones, if too much color was applied.
Pros: easy to use interface gets you up and running and processing your images very quickly. You can focus on fewer selections in terms of sliders and adjustments, allowing you to concentrate on your work at hand and less so on the underlying technology behind it.
Cons: less control means just this, less control. While we are comparing apples and oranges here to some degree, the results have to speak for themselves. Specifically in the shot of the barn and landscape above, I found the HDR Darkroom image to have less character and punch to it with some colors being over-emphasized in certain areas like the sky, and not emphasized enough in others, like the barn face. The shadows under the tall trees in the left part of the frame are less pronounced, which seems to take away a bit of the character of the shot.
An area of the software that differentiates it from some of the competition is found in the native noise-reduction feature. We were out having a nice afternoon and photo-walk with our friends recently and headed down to at local marina. As the time was intended to be more of a visit and less about doing a full-on photo-shoot, I did all my work handheld. My camera has poor low-light performance and thus I had to crank up my ISO to have any sort of chance to get clear imagery from the excursion. This has resulted in quite a few of the shots being unusable due to massive noise issues, but others are acceptable. With the native and built-in noise reduction feature in HDR Darkroom 2, I thought we’d give a shot a try.
Ironically I was doing some research into noise reduction in imagery before I started to work on this review, so some of those findings are still quite fresh to me. This is a complex area of photo manipulation that almost always ends up degrading the quality of the image to some degree if the noise reduction works, or it has little effect if it doesn’t. Once again, I personally found the Photomatix results to have a touch more character to the picture. The sea-lion really stands out quite nicely in the first shot and kind of takes a back seat in the second. Also, a close look reveals that there is still quite a bit of noise present in the HDR Darkroom output, with the Photomatix results being a little softer. Of course there is less detail in the first shot due to the noise reduction applied in my post-processing step, but personally I prefer the overall feel and look to it.
Pros: built-in noise reduction algorithms are very convenient. Given that noise seems to be amplified typically when merging brackets, this would seem like a logical and good place for this process to live.
Cons: it didn’t really seem to work very well. Our post-processing software did a much better job with it’s noise reduction producing acceptable results.
Thoughts and Impressions
We’ve come light-years since our last test of the Everimaging HDR suite and today we have to rate it 3.5/5. I am not sure myself if the simpler interface we are presented with somehow limits the results we achieve or if these results are due to the vast differences in the underlying algorithms. In some cases my personal observation seemed to lean towards Everimaging HDR Darkroom 2 producing more photo-realistic results over Photomatix Pro, but on a personal and artistic level I found those differences took away a lot of the character in our imagery.
Some of these observations may change over time. I was testing shots of a fairly specific nature and type in my tests here, so other conditions and subjects may produce better and more compelling results.
One of the key things that led to these impressions we’ll share in a technical closing thought. At the time these photographs were taken on Vancouver Island we find ourselves fully immersed in fall/winter which translates to grey skies, wet ground and fog and mist hanging over the valley. I found that the Everimaging HDR Darkroom 2 product seemed to produce more detailed pictures, but all the natural mist and fog that I had set out to capture during the shoot was basically gone. Photomatix Pro did a much better job of keeping those features in the landscape intact, and expressing them in a way that they stood out… just as I had hoped during the shoot itself.
This is one area that Everimaging wins out. The new HDR Darkroom 2 software suite is listed for sale on their site at the time of this writing for $59. Photomatix Pro retails for $99. This may make this an attractive suite to buy for those concerned with budget, or those who are looking to get their feet wet in the realm of HDR imagery with less of a cash outlay. It’s definitely well worth the money, if it produces results that make you happy. Everimaging does have a Free Trial posted on their site you can feel free to download it and take it around the block to see for yourself.
Even though we won’t be switching from Photomatix Pro to HDR Darkroom 2 here at Toad Hollow Photography for our photography, we can certainly see a lot of merit and value in the new software developed by the people at Everimaging Ltd. Depending on what style you are trying to produce and where you are at with your personal development in the field, this may very well be a great alternative to try that may help you create art that suits your style and taste. Given that there is a Free Trial version you may wish to download it and try it out for yourself.