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Software Review: Photomatix 4 From HDRSoft

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Have you ever photographed something and you just couldn’t get the light to work just right? You expose for the dark areas, and the light ones are blown out, or you try to get the detail in the light areas and the darks areas are just have no detail; they are just black. Sure you can bracket some exposures and then through the magic of masking in Photoshop, or your favorite editor, you can piece something together, but that just turns into a lot of work.

Photomatix 4 is a program that gives you the ability to take multiple exposures and merge them all together into one well balanced image. It will also let you take a single image and adjust the highlights and shadows to achieve a balanced image. The first method is through Exposure Fusion where differently exposed photographs are merged into one with an increased dynamic range. The second is through HDR Tone Mapping where the highlight and shadow detail in a single image are adjusted.

 Photomatix 4 – Image Courtesy T. Michael Images

A High Dynamic Range Image (HDRI or HRD image) is an image that is encoded in a format that allows the largest range of values possible so as to accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to deep shadows. First developed in the 1930s and 40s by Charles Wyckoff, it has only recently taken off due to the availability of digital cameras and available computer power needed to process the image.

The standard method of creating a HDR image using Photomatix is to take a series of exposures changing only shutter speed. Generally, you must use a tripod so as not to move the camera and it is best to use a remote triggering device. You should use at least three exposures generally bracketing a “normal” exposure. You set up your camera in Aperture priority mode so that the shutter speed is the only thing that changes. You want to set the ISO to a low value of 100 or lower. You do not want any flash used as well. If you have an auto bracketing feature on your camera, you can use that, but from there, I bracket at least 3, but usually between 5 and 9 shots at varying speeds.

Once you load your image, you are presented a close approximation of the merged image and with a settings window on the left side of the screen that will let you work with the two processes. The first is Tone Mapping that is applied to the merged 32-bit HDR image, and Exposure Fusion which combines the sources directly. The Exposure Fusion will give you more natural looking results and the Tone Mapping will give you a large variety of styles and can give you more of the gritty or artistic feels. Once you are satisfied you can save your image which finishes the merge process.

 Photomatix 4 – Image Courtesy T. Michael Images

What is New with Photomatix 4?

De-Ghosting is the process that gets rid of moving images within a final image. That is, when you take 5 shots of a scene, there is bound to be some movement. This can be as subtle as a barbwire fence line blowing because of the wind, or as obnoxious as a dog walking through. The de-ghosting process lets you circle what you want to de-ghost and pick which image you want to keep the item from. You can also choose to have Photomatix automatically detect ghosted zones.

Noise Reduction has been improved considerably in version 4. This can reduce chromatic and luminance noise. You have the option to increase or decrease the strength based on the noise level in the image. You can apply noise reduction on the source image, but it also can add additional processing time. You can apply it to the merged image once it has been created, and using the Reduce Chromatic Aberrations option automatically corrects color fringing due to chromatic aberrations of the lens.

Better smoothing throughout Photomatix Pro 4. The micro-smoothing smoothes local detail enhancements. What this does is that it has the effect of reducing the noise in the sky. This results in a cleaner look to the resulting image. Highlight-smoothing reduces the contrast enhancements in the highlights. This helps to prevent white highlights from turning grey and also reduces halos around objects placed against bright backgrounds.

Preset Thumbnails Panel is built-in and contains quite a number of user presets for Tone Mapping and Exposure Fusion. They show up as thumbnails in a panel alongside the preview. The panel can be set in horizontal on the bottom of the scree, or vertical orientation on the right side.

 Photomatix 4 – Image Courtesy T. Michael Images

Single image tone mapping is supported in an 8-bits/channel mode.

Unified dialog for HDR Tone Mapping and Exposure Fusion methods giving you a standard look and feel.

Viewing of Tone mapping or fusion settings are embedded in processed image.

Improved rendering of Tone Compressor tone mapping method with default settings as well as an extension of the range of the Tonal Range Compression settings.

Other improvements include options in preferences to customize default filename, ability to zoom via the mouse scroll wheel, ability to adjust tone mapping sliders via the scroll wheel, improved alignment based on matching, better multi-thread support for RAW demosaicing and fusion adjustment, and many more improvements to the system as a whole.

 Photomatix 4 – Image Courtesy T. Michael Images

Early on it was easy to disregard HDRI as a gimmick and at first I did, but as I started to study it and look at it in relationship to the photography in the real world, I find that it does more to emulate reality than what a traditional photo is able to accomplish.

Some will say, Photoshop can do HDR, do I really need Photomatix 4? My opinion is yes, if you want to have full control over processing HDR. Sure you can get good results by working with HDR in Photoshop, but if you want the control to really manipulate your images, you really need Photomatix, especially to create the grunge/illustrative look, and to take it to the max, you need both. I very highly recommend this product.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.
  • Jim

    Good article, i use 3 apps for my HDR work. I use Photoshop CS4, Photomatix 4 and i have just starting using Artizen HDR (their latest beta). After using Artizen for about 3 weeks now i think will be making the complete transition to Artizen cause for the last 3 weeks i have touched any app other Artizen for my HDR work.