Updated post to let readers know that Vantage Point is now an affiliate of Unified Color and can offer a 20% discount with offer code 'Valentino'
I started playing with HDR’s in early 2006 beginning with Photoshop CS2. I liked the idea but I had mixed feelings about the results. Then, like many, I graduated to the dedicated HDR software, Photomatix. Results were better but with many captures it was a challenge to get a desired look. Although I do like the artistic possibilities of HDR processing I also want to be able to create a natural look that is closer to what I actually saw after my eyes adjust to each tonal range. To that end Photomatix has evolved nicely and with version 4 and the Fusion option it easier to achieve a more natural look and still have the option to create the artistic, tonally compressed result often associated with the acronym, HDR. However, when it comes to many of my extreme captures that can include both the hot sun and shaded areas Photomatix Fusion just can’t get me to where I want to go. In those cases I either need to work the result much more in Photoshop or, more often than not, do the whole thing manually by blending exposures in layers. I have gotten quite good at blending, which gives me plenty of control to produce very realistic results, but the search went on to find better tonal mapping software. Mind you a realistic look may not be my ultimate goal, I do love the Impressionist look I can create with Topaz Simplicity, but natural never goes out of style. Well, my search ended when I discovered Unified Color HDR software.
I have extensively tested Unified Colors software for about two weeks on various types of captures and the results have been spectacular. There are several things that sets them apart starting with the ability to work in 32-bit space. Other HDR software like Photomatix, Photoshop’s HDR Pro, Nik’s HDR Efex take the 32-bit file and convert down to16-bits for tone mapping to create the LDR. Yes, the final result is a Low Dynamic Range image since it can be viewed completely on your monitor. The ‘HDR’ is the original 32-bit file with a range so big it can’t fit on your monitor until it is tonally mapped to an LDR (and then misnamed HDR). Another major difference is that you work on luminosity and color separately - similar to working in Lab color space. That means you can make changes to brightness and contrast, within reason, without color shifts to preserve the real colors - have you ever noticed color shifts when doing tone mapping on whatever you are using now? From their website, “the only solution capable of creating HDR images that truly unlock the full range of color as perceived by human vision...built around our groundbreaking Beyond RGB™ Color Model.” White balance can also be adjusted and I don’t mean a warm to cool slider but real WB control that lets you remove or add color casts as desired in 32-bit space - you can even blend different WB to accommodate different light color by working in layers in Photoshop with their 32-bit Float plugin.
Another great feature is their 32-bit BEF format that saves the most information in a relatively small file size. UC software is full featured so you can do most, if not all your work, including color tuning, sharpening, noise reduction, cropping, tilt correction, resizing... then save your work as a 32-bit BEF file instead of a 16-bit Tiff file and save about 80% of the space. For example, a 12mp file from a Nikon D300 is about 70MB as a 16-bit Tiff, 35MB as a .HDR, and only about 12MB as a 32-bit BEF file - about the size of a RAW file. In addition the BEF file format also lets you embed key words unlike a .HDR file making searches that much easier. Also, even though UC lets you work in 32-bit space you can also make adjustments on 8 or 16 bit files.
Halos, which are a common problem with HDR’s, are easy to controlled with a powerful Halo Artifact tool which can be applied after making adjustment in the Brightness/Contrast and Shadow/Highlight modules. Halo removal is important if your goal is a natural looking result. Lastly, one of my favorite tools is Veiling Glare. Veiling glare has an additive affect on HDR’s and manifests itself by loss of contrast in the shadow to mid-tone regions. This tool works like a magic adding a contrast punch to the shadow regions that can make a huge difference in the result. In essence this takes care of that glassy look which sort of resembles stacked filters.
Unified Color offers both a standalone version, Expose, and a Photoshop plugin, 32-Float. Expose includes a merge-to-32 bit HDR engine, batch processing, and a few other tools like resizing and cropping. 32 Float working inside Photoshop with all types of 8, 16 and 32-bit files and formats and lets you easily work in layers to double process and blend variations. Consider this, you have a bracketed image of sun setting behind a mountain ridge. The color light in the sky is warm but the color of light on the shadow side of the mountains is cool. What to do? Well, I have double processed and blended RAW files for exposure and WB for years, now I can do the same with an HDR, WOW!!! You can do this because you can make adjustments to WB (in 32-bit space) that cannot be done with other HDR programs. If you are shooting an interior with different types of light like fluorescent and incandescent this feature is wonderful. If you are shooting an interior with a window the light may be a different color but you might also find it best to process for the outside and then the inside brightness then blend the best of each, all in 32-bits.
All the above may sound great but what about the results? Does it really let you create a natural looking HDR? I think so but a picture is worth a 1,000 words so take a look at my gallery of natural looking HDR images processed 95 - 100% with UC’s tone mapping software. If you like that type of result then do your own testing with their 30 day trial - available for both Mac and PC. I think the results are incredible (and can be pushed much further than I did) but you need to take the time to learn. The more you understand color and how to read a histogram the better you can analyze your image and decide which treatment to apply. In many cases you may only need to play with one or two sliders to get the desired results and not have to fiddle with it any more in Photoshop. This software is great but never trust a review completely, try it for yourself. In the Part II of this series I discuss the differences of several Merge to 32-bit HDR programs. Each will work in UC’s software but they are not all equal and I have concluded there are valid reasons for having at least two methods to create the 32-bit file depending on what was captured.