Photomatix Pro version 4, made by HDRsoft, is currently the leading high dynamic range (HDR) photography software. In fact, despite the recent proliferation of competition the company is facing, Photomatix remains the beloved favorite among the vast majority of HDR photographers.
Prior to getting into a more detailed review of Photomatix Pro version 4, I will provide some basic information about HDR photography in general. In essence, a high dynamic range photo consists of multiple bracketed exposures, which have been combined in order to show details in both the highlights and shadows in a scene. Usually, it is impossible to get this amount of detail with a single exposure when shooting a medium to high contrast scene.
A good example of a high contrast scene would be a subject in a dimly lit room which is in front of bright sunlit windows. In this situation, exposing for the subject would render the windows completely blown out and devoid of detail. Likewise, exposing for the windows would render the subject very dark and poorly exposed.
There are definitely times when having parts of a scene either under or over exposed can be used for artistic effect. However, this is often not going to be the case. When we are surveying a scene with our eyes, we are constantly changing our focus and letting in varying amounts of light. So, our overall perception is that the dark and light areas do have detail. HDR photography, and specifically Photomatix, allows us to experience a photographic scene in much the same way that our eyes do.
In order to properly bracket your exposures, each one must have the same aperture, otherwise the varying depth of field will cause obvious focus issues. Most digital SLR cameras have an aperture priority setting, which makes this very easy, since it only varies the shutter speed to create the different exposures.
Also, the use of a tripod is essential, as is a non-moving subject, in order to prevent misalignment and “ghosting” in the final HDR image. Photomatix Pro version 4 does actually have a feature which allows you to remove or reduce ghosting, but this will only work when the problem is subtle.
Once you have your bracketed exposures, you can then combine them in Photomatix Pro. Compatible file types are RAWs JPEGs and TIFFs. To combine the exposures, you would first open the software, click the “Load Bracketed Photos” button and choose your images. At this point the Preprocessing menu window will open.
If you know that you didn’t use a sturdy tripod to take your shots, then you would choose to align your source images. Likewise, if the scene is very static, but the subject moved slightly, you would choose the “Reduce Ghosting Artifacts” box. In version 4, you now have the option to manually deghost only parts of the image, which is the generally recommended method.
The noise reduction feature in version 4 is significantly improved over its predecessor, in that you can now apply it to the source images. In version 3 you only had the option to apply noise reduction to the merged HDR image. While you still have the option in the new version to choose the old method, the official recommendation is to apply the noise reduction to the source images. The final setting in the Preprocessing menu, Reduce Chromatic Aberrations, should always be checked.
Once you have chosen your Preprocessing options and clicked OK, you will then tone map your image. The most widely used tone mapping method in Photomatix Pro version 4 is the Details Enhancer method. This method will allow you to create very realistic or very surreal final results depending on which settings you choose.
The Details Enhancer tone mapping menu is divided into four distinct sections:
Adjusting the sliders within these sections will change the results on the preview image, so you will see exactly that your final results will be prior to ultimately clicking the Process button.
Also, Photomatix Pro version 4 comes preinstalled with presets, the results of which are now displayed in the presets thumbnails panel. In addition to the presets which come with the software, you can make your own as well.
Since I have used both version 3 and version 4 of Photomatix Pro in my HDR work-flow, I can vouch for the new version being a significant improvement. The processing speed of the new version is noticeably faster, and the presets thumbnails panel makes choosing an attractive preset much easier. The ability to apply noise reduction to the source images, as well as manually deghost only parts of the image, are also notable improvements over version 3.
Also, you can choose to download a free and fully functional trial version of Photomatix Pro directly from HDRsoft. The trial version will never expire, but does leave watermarks on saved images. These watermarks can later be removed by the software once a license is purchased, as long as they have received no post-processing in and image editing program such as Photoshop.
Once you are ready to purchase a license for Photomatix Pro, you have the option to either purchase the boxed version from Amazon, or the downloadable version directly from HDRsoft . Purchasing from either source entitles you to the same benefits, such as free upgrades. However, if you do purchase the boxed version, you will still have to download your upgrades from the HDRsoft website.