HDR (high dynamic range) processing can be a beast of a hill to climb. Especially with all the complicated programs out there for generating HDR images from multiple exposures. After all, what are you supposed to do with those seemingly endless amounts of sliders? Just learning to control the sliders can take quite a while to learn. Programs like Photomatix and Unified Colors HDR Expose can be guilty of having a bit of a learning curve. Because of this problem of not knowing how to control sliders, you see example after example of poor HDR images around the web. Images with blatantly obvious halo’s, blown channels, ghosting, and psychedelic processing are the usual suspects.
Unified Color just released a program called HDR Express that aims to simplify the HDR process down to just a few crucial sliders. This could significantly cut the learning curve of HDR down to a minimum while still producing great results. Unified Color’s primary focus is built right into their name: Color. Good color balance and a natural feel are major ways to separate a good image from a bad one. White balance is absolutely crucial, and if you push an image too far past where it should be, it can be impossible to bring it back in Photoshop or Lightroom as a last step.
In this post, you’ll get a look at a new program called HDR Express. We’ll look at what Unified Color says this program can do, and then compare it to actual results by putting a set of bracketed images through the program to see if everything adds up. Let’s go.
Introducing HDR Express by Unified Color
From the Unified Color website: “HDR Express™ is a game-changer in HDR Software. It combines all the critically acclaimed power of HDR Expose with an intuitive interface to give you fast, beautiful HDR results that you never believed were possible. HDR Express demystifies HDR software by giving you the controls and presets you need to create realistic or stylized HDR photos in the blink of an eye. And, HDR Express is based on Unified Color’s patented, ultra-wide, 32-bit color space to make all your captured color blossom in your final photographs.”
So, let’s put this software to the test. Unified Color claims that HDR Express…
- is a game changer
- demystifies HDR software
- is intuitive and easy to use
- produces fast, beautiful and realistic results in the blink of an eye
My Test of HDR Express
For this test and review, I decided to push HDR Express from the get go. I loaded seven bracketed exposures into the program using the Export from Lightroom preset. Here are the seven exposures I chose. Recognize that bridge? I’ll give you a hint, it’s in Madison County, Iowa.
In Lightroom, I simply right clicked on the highlighted images and chose “Merge and Edit in HDR Express.” This is a plug-in that comes with the software when you purchase it or try the trial version.
Exporting seven 21-megapixel (25 mb) files to any program is a beefy process, so I didn’t expect it to go super fast. Unfortunately, this became a significant issue with the program. This export process took 3 minutes and 10 seconds on my system from export to showing the default image in HDR Express. However, the program more than makes up for this lost time (more on that a bit later). Here’s the default image without any changes made whatsoever.
Pretty nice huh!? That’s one of the things I keep noticing with HDR Express; the default results are pretty much good to go! They just need a few minor tweaks here and there to get what I’m looking for. Let’s go over the work flow and sliders one by one. This should be easy, they are pretty intuitively labeled and there aren’t many options to mess with here.
Histogram – One thing you have to realize and adapt to with Unified Color software is that the programs work in 32-bit mode. They have another special program called 32 Float that allows you to work on the image in Photoshop in 32-bit as well. Working in this mode prevents all the nasty color shifts that are apparent in some other programs. That’s also why the program can run a bit slower than others. When the default image shows up, you’ll notice that the histogram shows clipping on each side, but there is still information on the other side of the histogram boundaries. You need to now move the sliders around until the light information of the histogram fits inside the highlighted box, or at least get it as close as possible.
Brightness – For this image, I didn’t mess with this slider too much. I adjusted it to +2 just to bump it up a tad.
Highlights – This is the first slider that holds a great deal of power. If you have any clipping on the right side of the histogram, move this slider to bring the highlights back into play. Just be careful with it, because if you don’t have enough light information from your brackets, then your whites will become muddy and gross looking if you push the slider too far.
Shadows – This slider performs the same function as the former one, but with the left side of the histogram. For this image, I moved the slider to the right to 113.
Black Point – A good black point is pivotal to a great image. Adjust this as far as you can go in the image while keeping the histogram in good shape.
Contrast – Same here, contrast is very important, especially with an HDR image. Sometimes these things can become somewhat washed out and almost look like there’s a film over the lens. Setting a good black point and contrast ratio will produce a really nice looking image.
Saturation – I bumped this up just a hair to bring in a bit more red into the side of the bridge. Just make sure your histogram doesn’t spike above the box in the middle anywhere.
White Balance – With this image, the white balance was pretty spot on, that’s one thing I love about this program. If it isn’t for any reason, just grab the eye dropper and click anywhere in the image that you see white. This will set that point as the white balance for the image and produce a great color balance for the entire image.
Warmth – The eye dropper is actually going to affect this slider. You can use this to further tweak it if you’d like.
Tint – Same thing here, you can tweak this around a bit to perfect your white balance. I didn’t use this slider at all for this image.
Pretty simple, yes? Here’s the image after moving the sliders around, with absolutely no editing done in Photoshop.
Here’s what is so cool about Unified Color software: I’m basically done with this image! HDR Express got me pretty much 90% of the way there. All I need to do now is pull it into Photoshop for some quick and minor touch up work. Here’s what I see in the image that needs fixing.
- There’s slight ghosting in the branches on the left side and the foliage beneath the bridge.
- My lens was quite dirty, as you can probably see in the sky by all the dust spots.
- I’d like to bring in a bit more detail in the bridge. I’ll use Topaz Adjust for that.
- There are a few chromatic aberrations in the image that you probably can’t see at 600 px wide. I need to get rid of those as well
After knocking out that list, here is my final result…(oh by the way, final time spent in Photoshop – 7:16)
HDR Express completely surprised me. This program is designed for simplicity in editing, for people who don’t know how or don’t want to mess with a bunch of confusing sliders. I thought I wouldn’t care much for it because of this fact. I’m sort of a control freak when it comes to software programs and I like having power over as many aspects of the image as possible. The thing is, you don’t really need that much control when the program is capable of these results right out of the box! I will definitely use Express more often than not in the future. Most images in the past have taken me anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours in photoshop to complete. Remember how I said I’d get back to how Express made up for the 3 minute wait? Well, my total time to process this image was just over 10 minutes! That’s from Lightroom, to HDR Express, to Photoshop and exporting the image out to my portfolio folder.
As far as the claims that Unified Color made about this software program…
- This program is definitely a game changer. I couldn’t recommend this more for beginners or even advanced photographers looking for natural results.
- It definitely demystifies HDR software by making the process easy to use. I didn’t even look at the instruction manual for this program and was able to run with it immediately.
- Definitely intuitive and easy to use
- While it doesn’t load images in the blink of an eye (not by a long shot), it certainly allows you to edit the image in that way once it is loaded. The process is super quick and the sliders update the image immediately. Like I said, I will gladly trade potential hours of processing for a few minutes of load time.
Buy or Try Unified Color Software
With any program, it’s always a good idea to try a program out before you purchase it. If you don’t like it, you aren’t out any money, and if you do, then you get a chance to test it out for before you make a decision. Be sure to check out the Unified Color website for more info. They offer a 30-day free trial or you can purchase the software for $99. If you’d like a link for 20% if you decide to purchase, be sure to hit me up on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) and send you the link through a DM (you must be following me for me to DM you).
Here are a few more images processed with HDR Express…