When it comes to HDR software, there are a lot of choices out there and they aren’t all created equally. The truth is that HDR programs are kind of like paint brushes, you can paint a picture with any of them but they will all give you different brush strokes. I know you are probably familiar with the likes of Photomatx and Nik HDR Efex but let me tell you about another option that can help you produce some of the cleanest, most photo-realistic HDR images around. It’s made by a company called Unified Color and it is called HDR Expose 3.
Unified Color has been making HDR software for quite some time. You might recall my article on their HDR Express product, which is kind of like HDR for people who don’t like sliders. Well, HDR Expose 3 is the much more mature and robust sibling to that program. There’s a lot to like about HDR Expose 3 but right off the bat is its ability to import images into the program directly from Lightroom (and Aperture) and then place them back into the Library once the program has completed the tonemapping process. You can also use it directly from Photoshop.
Once the images are ingested into the program, you land at the image alignment screen where you have a few choices, like picking a keyframe for ghost removal, or even manually aligning your images if so desired. With the major improvements included in HDR Expose 3, photographers are now able to capture handheld exposures even with numerous moving subjects, essentially eliminating the requirement for tripod-mounted shooting.
Once the images have been aligned and combined into a 32-bit image, the HDR image is then moved to the main work interface, where you have a large preview, a series of preset thumbnails, and slider pallets for making adjustments and taking full control of your image.
The presets are a nice way of getting in the neighborhood and the sliders give you the control to take the image the rest of the way home. I’m not going to go over all of them but I have to tell you that I am really impressed with the depth of control available for tweaking just about everything you might want in the image, including things like noise reduction, individual color saturation adjustments, tone curves, and much more.
So you may be asking yourself, why would I want to look at another HDR program and the best answer I can give you is realism. The images that come from this program just have a much more realistic appearance. They do what an HDR process is supposed to in pulling tonal details from the shadows and highlights into a single image, but without many of the HDR leftovers that we are used to seeing.
Check out the image above (be sure to click on it for the larger view). The HDR image is in the top-right corner. Notice how it has great shadow detail and still maintains excellent highlights and realistic color and density in the skies. The other thing I really like is that the images are really clean. If you process HDR files in one of those other programs, you probably are familiar with the sometimes grainy effect that you can get even in supposedly clean areas of the image. Check out this shot that was processed in a different HDR software.
Notice the bit of a halo where the sky meets the boxes and the amount of noise in the sky itself. This has always been one of the problem areas in HDR processing, how to get the tonemapping effect without the noise. Well, HDR Expose 3 seems to handle it without any problem. Check out the same HDR image that was processed in HDR Expose 3.
Of course it doesn’t have that mid-tone snappy contrast or grunge look of the previous version, but that’s sort of the point. If you want all the benefits of the tonemapping for shadows and highlights but want to maintain the photo-realistic look of the scene, you would have a hard time finding a better product than this. Of course I don’t want you to just take my word for it. Instead, head over to the Unified Color website and read all about HDR Expose 3 and all the other great products and then grab yourself a fully functional 30-day trial so you can see for yourself. It may not be the only HDR tool you’ll ever need, but it certainly is one that you want to have in your toolbox.
By the way, I am not a paid spokesperson. These are just my opinions and I really dig this software. Give it a try and I think you will too.