Have you ever photographed something that you just couldn't get everything to look 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 and shadow. 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 turns into a lot of work.
Photomatix 3.0 is a program that can make that problem go away; or at least make it easier to deal with. Photomatix can help you to fix your blown out highlights as well as your flat shadows by offering two different solutions. First is through exposure blending where differently exposed photographs are merged into one with an increased dynamic range. The second is from tone mapping which is used to map a set of colors to another set to approximate the high dynamic color range. This is done because monitors and printers have a limited dynamic range and cannot handle the HDR without the mapping.
Photomatix 3.0 is a stand-alone program that runs on Mac OS X and Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/Vista. The Tone Mapping tool is also available separately as a plug-in that is compatible with Photoshop CS2 and CS3.
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 1930's and 40's 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 the f-stops. You need a minimum of three exposures generally bracketing a "normal" exposure. That is, you would first take a good, balanced image where some of the lights are washed out and the darks are faded. Then you take one 2 f-stops lower and one 2 f-stops higher (-2, 0, +2 most often work fine). Then you combine them in Photomatix for your new image.
Essentially HDR generation is a two step process. First you merge your differently exposed images into a single 32-bit HRD image. These though do not display very well on your screen because of the limitations of most monitors. Step two is to process the image via Tone Mapping which reveals the dynamic range which can be displayed on a monitor and subsequently printed. There are two tone mapping methods for processing the HDR image; Detail Enhancement, and Tone Compressor.
Detail Enhancement takes into account the local brightness context and you have a number of sliders and selections that you can use to get just the look that you want. The Tone Compressor works on a more global operator. That is the Tone Compressor is applied to the entire HRD source image
Along with the two step process described above, there is a single step process called Exposure Blending. With this, Photomatix will combine differently exposed images to show detail in both shadows and highlights. This does not always work as well when the dynamic range of the scene is high and may give a flat look to the image.
It is easy at first 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 real world, I find that it does more to emulate reality than what a traditional photo is able to accomplish.
If you look at the series of three images, image number one is what my camera took. For this demonstration, I really did nothing to enhance the photo. Could I have done things differently in taking the photo? Sure, but because of what was going on in the sky with clouds and the various ranges, there would have been compromises.
As I said earlier, the standard method for creating an HDR image is to bracket your exposures. In this instance, I took this image a long time ago and only had this one image so in this case I used Photoshop to bracket my images. Using an adjustment layer I created two more images; one at a minus 2 and one at a plus 2 and saved each of them.
I then pulled them in to Photomatix 3.0 and for image # 2 I created a blended image. This gave me a globally adjusted image where everything has a balanced, but much higher dynamic range to it. For image number 3, I used Details Enhancer which let me handle much more of the control and let me create an image with even more dynamic range. This third image was probably much closer to what I was seeing with my eye and what made me stop to take the image in the first place.
Another technique that is becoming more popular in the last year or so is what is called the grunge look. It is where an image is processed to the point of looking less like a photo and more like an illustration. The fourth image is one that I processed in that way. It has a gritty feel and looks more like an illustration than a photo.
Some will say, Photoshop can do HDR, do I really need Photomatix 3.0? In my opinion yes if you want to have full control over processing HDR. Sure you can do some basic 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.
Photomatix 3.0 is available for both Mac and Windows from HDRSoft for 99 USD or 75 Euros. The upgrade from 2.x to 3.0 is free of charge. They have a gallery if you want to see what others have done with Photomatix as well as a free trial version. I very highly recommend this product.