I hear a lot of complaints in today´s photography community about the widespread unnatural looking, oversaturated and overcooked HDR photos. I might have a solution for all photographers who want to achieve natural looking and well-balanced HDR images.
Below are my first observations and impressions after practicing heavy use of HDR Expose 3 for one week. In the future, I am planning to put together an HDR Expose 3 Tutorial and maybe an article where I will compare it with other major HDR players.
At the end of this post, you can find 6 photos I have created specifically for this review to demonstrate the potential of HDR Expose 3.
HDR Expose 3 Review
Below is my blog’s first posted photo where I used HDR Expose 3.
As a photographer with a graphic design and video editing background, I was around the graphic industry for more than 15 years, and I was sure that I knew all the major players in every segment of the industry. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered Unified Color, a company that I had never heard of before, which produces an exceptionally solid, refined and mature product as HDR Expose.
They market the product in a very unusual way. It is very technical with some mumbo jumbo, for example: high-precision 32-bit floating point mode, adaptive tone mapping, and beyond RGB color space. It seems as if the product was designed for engineers, not photographers.
But fear not my friends! Even if it sounds very intimidating, the program itself is very easy to use with a logical workflow and modern user interface.
You can skip all that technical stuff. As a photographer, all you have to know is that HDR Expose 3 allows you to produce natural looking photos of the highest quality without compromising the color information of the original image(s).
Below is the schematic view of the HDR workflow I find most effective:
- Lightroom (export to HDR Expose 3)
- HDR Expose 3
- Align and Merge
- Tone Map
- Lightroom (reimport from HDR Expose)
Integration with Lightroom
This is very important to me. My entire photography workflow is Lightroom-based. When I import photos, I start with Lightroom and finish with it by publishing the final images directly from Lightroom to SmugMug, 500px and Flickr.
HDR Expose 3 is fully integrated with Lightroom. You directly export bracketed photos from Lightroom to HDR Expose, and when you are done, it saves the tone mapped file to the original location of the bracketed photos and at the same time, it reimports a new HDR file to the Lightroom catalog.
Plus I really like the option to use or disregard Lightroom edits when exporting bracketed shots to HDR Expose 3.
Align and Merge
HDR Expose 3 has the most advanced ALIGN module that I have ever seen in any HDR applications. It has options for every situation you face as a photographer.
HDR Expose Alignment Options
- Merge Static Images – your camera is on a tripod and your scene is not changing from frame to frame. Example: interior or architectural shots.
- Automatic Alignment – your camera is on a tripod, you have some movement in your composition. You let the program align the brackets automatically.
- Manual Frame Tuning – designed for handheld shots where you can adjust the Key Frame Tuning from SOFT (0) to HARD (24), depending on any changes from frame to frame.
- Manual Adjustment Points – you can manually select key points in every bracket. I found this option to be very useful in extreme cases, where HDR processing seems to not be possible. Example: I was on a ferry in New York, and it was moving fast and was quite shaky. I was shooting a handheld camera, and I had a bunch of moving objects around me (yachts, boats, etc). By manually selecting key points in each frame, I managed to align them seamlessly.
And of course, there is the GHOST tool where you can manually draw a selection around the object that you want de-ghost. It is pretty effective.
When you are done with the alignment of your bracketed shots, press the Merge button and the application opens the TONE MAPPING module.
As you can see below, it has tons of features. Some of the features are standard for most HDR programs (Tone Curve, Color Settings, Geometry or Crop Tool)
But there is a set of features that are unique for HDR Expose 3. Below is the list of features that I found noteworthy.
Selective list of HDR Expose 3 features
Histogram – standard feature for all graphic programs, but this one has something extra.
The screenshot on the left displays a histogram of the photo before it was tone mapped. As you can see, it has an extreme Dynamic Range of more than 16 stops (16.59 EV) and the light grey rectangular shows a dynamic range of standard monitor. It tells you that 50% of the image information cannot be displayed.
The screenshot on the right displays a histogram after the image was tone mapped. Now, 16 stops of the dynamic range was tone mapped to the 8 stop image.
I really like the way you can visually adjust the tone mapping to make sure that you preserve all the information of the original images.
You can also drag the light grey rectangular to the left or right, thereby making the image brighter or darker.
Veiling Glare – very unique and useful tool to recover an image from atmospheric haze. I tested this feature on my recent New York photos from an early afternoon when the humidity was off the charts and the air was full of haze. Veiling Glare helped me to get rid of all murkiness completely without introducing any halos.
Tone Mapping – the set of features looks pretty standard without any surprises. The real surprise is the way in which they affect your photos. Since HDR Expose 3 does not use sRGB color space, adjusting any Tone Mapping controls doesn’t shift the colors of the original image. For example: by increasing the contrast, it does not boost the saturation.
Another surprise is the total absence of halos, even if you crank up all sliders. HDR without halo problems is very refreshing.
The last and the easiest step. HDR Expose has one very useful and unique option here. Besides saving the final image as a TIFF or JPG, you can also save your HDR project as a BEF file, which allows you to open it later in HDR Expose and continue editing.
As a photographer, I use HDR technology to produce balanced and natural looking photos. HDR Expose 3 gives me complete creative control and helps to achieve my goal.
It is great to see another very capable player in HDR space.
HDR Expose 3 Photo Samples
Below are examples of HDR processed photos where HDR Expose 3 was used.