HDR Plugins… a Life Saver!

Several months ago I tried my first HDR image using HDR Pro in Photoshop CS5. I have been taking images for years that could be combined to create HDR images. Whenever I saw a scene that was too contrasty or just couldn't be captured by my camera, I would shoot three or more frames (-2 exposure, 0, +2 exposure for example). I've explained a bit about HDR in the past in a previous post.

HDR Image bracketing by Lindsay Adler
When shooting HDR, you need images that capture detail in the highlights, shadows and midtones that will later be combined with Photoshop or a plugin.

As you know, I'm not a travel or nature photographer, so HDR has been purely a tool for fun and creative expression.

Anyway, I successfully did my first HDR images but found the process unenjoyable. I tried using HDR Pro and a version of PhotoMatix. It was difficult, unprecise and didn't allow me much control over the exact application of the effect. In fact, it allowed only global adjustments, and even those were rough. To be honest, I was a bit uninspired and discouraged by the whole process.

I recently discovered Nik Software HDR Efex Pro and it has forever changed how I will look at HDR images. Now they are practical, I have control, and they won't devour tons of time Photoshop. The image used as the lead image in this blog post was achieved in approximately 5 minute (start to finish) using Nik's plugin. I had tried to achieve a similar effect with the same images in HDR Pro, and it took me 20 minutes in that dialogue, then another 15-20 retouching to perfect. If your time is important, than you better get a plugin for this!

* Nik ISN'T paying me to say this. I wanted to share this because I previously thought that HDR images were annoyingly difficult to execute, and now I see just how easy it can be!

If you want to do HDR, you need a good plugin. There are a few on the market. I have not yet tried OnOne's plugin, but Nik's is great.

Here are some amazing benefits.

I. Nik's presets are incredible. Nik gives you previews of a couple of previously defined global HDR adjustments. It is extremely likely that one of these presets will get you close to the look you want... some are 'artistic' (over the top) HDR, others are more natural and subtle. Below you see the default preset in the center (just kind of 'averaged out') whereas you see all of your preset options on the left.

Default result of Nik HDR Efex by Lindsay Adler
The immediate default results for Nik's HDR plugin are excellent. While it certainly needs some tweaking, it starts off MUCH better than Photoshop's built-in HDR program.

II. The controls for effecting HDR make sense. They are pretty straightforward. The only more technical term is 'structure'. I like to describe structure like HDR detail or 'crunchiness' of the effect (detail pulled out of the shadows and highlights). The more HDR detail you want to pull out of a scene, the more you should increase your 'structure' slider.

III. Finally, this particular plugin uses Nik's technology of control points. What does this mean to you? This means I can apply certain aspects of HDR selectively to different areas of the photo within the plugin. For example, I can apply additional 'structure' in the foreground of an image perhaps to bring out detail in the rocks, or lighten up a specific area of the photo. This gives you ultimate control over the HDR effect and for me was essential to getting the necessary quality out of my images.

Nik control points all you to make localized adjustments to your HDR image
Nik control points all you to make localized adjustments to your HDR image
Nik Control points allow you to apply localized HDR adjustments to your image.
Nik Control points allow you to apply localized HDR adjustments to your image. In this instance, I can add 'structure' (HDR detail) to specific regions of the photo, increase the contrast, desaturate certain areas, and much more.
HDR Monochromatic Preset in Nik HDR efex: by Lindsay Adler
I began working the plugin by testing out the monochromatic preset, which was beautiful and close to ideal right from the start.



In the image above, you see the 'monochromatic preset' without any additional adjustments...  I think it looks great, and it would have taken me a lot more effort in HDR Pro (Photoshop's default program) to achieve similar results.


The "realistic strong" preset of Nik HDR Efex.
For this particular image, I decided to "realistic strong" preset of Nik HDR Efex. By looking at the presets I was able to choose the rough settings (starting point) for the look I wanted to achieve.
Compare before-after of Default HDR and HDR Preset
Nik allows you to compare your adjusted image to the default image at any time while working in the plugin.
HDR Image of Moraine Lake by Lindsay Adler
Using HDR Efex by Nik, this image took me approximately 5 minute to complete start to finish.