HDR Software Comparison - Why the Merge to 32-bit HDR method is the Best

For many years I have been using HDR post processing as part of my photography work flow. Like many photographers I started out using Photomatix as my main software of choice but for years I was frustrated by the results I was getting.  Although I got good results with some images, most had many problems such as noise, soft details, and strange artifacts. I would spent hours fixing these frustrating byproducts from Photomatix until I discovered a revolutionary new plug-in.  It was this revolutionary new plug-in that changed my photography post processing methods forever and finally gave me the results I had been searching for!  What is this new plug-in you ask? It is the Merge to 32-bit HDR plug-in from Photomatix.

This new method is so amazing that I wrote a whole tutorial sharing my step by step technique on how I use this plug-in to get amazing results. If you want to learn more check out my Merge to 32-bit HDR Tutorial here.

But don't take my word for it! Decide for yourself which HDR plug-in you think gets the best results!

Below are the HDR results from three of the most common HDR plug-ins out there.

  1. Photomatix - Tonemapping Method
  2. Nik Software - HDR Efex Pro 2
  3. Merge to the 32-bit HDR plug-in

Using the same raw files I processed the same image using each of the HDR plug-ins. Each result came out completely different and in my opinion there is a clear winner, but I'll let you judge that for yourself. Check out the results below. [border]

Photomatix:

Notice how much noise there is in this image? Some heavy noise reduction could help but I would lose a lot of detail and sharpness trying to fix this and I don't think I could ever get it to look as good as the original. Also the tone mapping has done some interesting things to the middle of the photo. Because the Opera House is the brightest part of the image it has tried to darkened these areas to compensate but unfortunately did a terrible job and has also darkened the sky right along with it. To fix this I would need bring in one of my other exposures and replace the sky to get it back to something usable. Between the noise reduction, sharpening, and sky replacement I would spend hours trying to get this back to something I would be happy with and who wants to spend hours doing that? I don't!

Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2:

This plug-in has done a much better job. The noise in the image is much cleaner when compared to the Photomatix version and the final look is actually not bad. However there are some interesting things about this image. Did you notice more saturation and a red tint in the warm tones? I have noticed that HDR Efex Pro 2 has a tendency to add this red tint and I'm not sure why. This can sometimes look ok but does shifts the color to something different then the original white balance. This could be frustrating if your trying to get a true color match.  Also HDR Efex Pro 2 is much slower to use then photomatix or the Merge to 32-bit plug-in and image processing times tend to be long when exporting back into lightroom. Overall though HDR Efex Pro 2 does give good results and is not a bad place to start even with these issues.

Merge to 32-bit HDR Plug-in from Photomatix:

This method has given me the best and most consistent results. Not only is this plug-in fast but as you can see, from the below image, the final results are noise free, have consistent color from the original raw files, and retain great detail. Hands down this is the best method I have found for HDR processing above all the others!

If you want to learn more? Check out my Merge to 32-bit HDR Tutorial