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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.
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…
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.
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…
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…
May 19, 2011 07:01 pm
If what you really want is a natural looking photographic result, then HDR software may be the wrong tool for the job. Consider using exposure blending instead, e.g. Lr/Enfuse.
April 16, 2011 07:57 am
Mark - I felt the same way about twitter when I first started. It's actually one of the most powerful and efficient marketing tool for photographers and businesses out there. It takes dedication and a lot of time to get followers though so most people give up I think. If I send out a tweet that links to my site or any others site, and the right people retweet it, it can be in front of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people instantly. It's a great tool!
As far as the ghosting goes, no there is not a 'semi-manual' ghosting removal on Express. Ghosting is easily removed however by masking in original exposures in photoshop. This wasn't anywhere close to being an issue for me.
Joe Palffy - I respect your opinion, but I think calling me a lier is a bit overboard :-), it's just my opinion. Photoshops HDR Pro is clunky, cumbersome, and produces poor results in my opinion. If you've achieved some great and noteworthy results, please share some links!
charlemagne - Sorry for the delay in getting back with you. As I mentioned above, I don't like Photoshops HDR algorithms. I have spent countless hours in Photomatix and HDR Express and both are great programs with different strengths and weaknesses. I haven't found any strengths with Photoshop's HDR Pro. It's much slower, and yields poor results every time I've used it. I'm not saying it can't produce good images, I'm just saying I gave it a few chances to impress me and it never came close. HDR Express blew me away the first time I used it.
April 15, 2011 11:52 pm
an interesting review for anyone trying to choose HDR soft ware
im getting more confused everyday but i will get to the bottom of this
Hey Brendon, ive tried twitter and find it the biggest waste of space going so having to follow you to get a discount is more trouble than its worth!
April 15, 2011 11:30 pm
Ok ive tried this product for 30 days now and im not that impressed. images with slight motion in them are blurred even using the people and car settings, is there a way of highlighting the problem area like you can in photomatrix and hdr expose? im now going to try expose and see how i get on.
April 15, 2011 09:24 am
wow those do look more realistic than PhotomaxPro which i use sometimes but it never gives me the desired natural result i want so i just leave my RAW pics to Lightroom which i cannot live without.
i'm going to give this one a try.
April 14, 2011 12:10 am
I was also using Photomatix only, but will try this software now.
Thanks for the comparison.
April 4, 2011 12:36 am
Photoshop CS5 has the HDR PRO feature, which only has 2 extra sliders, and they are not worthless, so saying that this is easier to use is a lie, besides PS also has a lot a presets, which can simplify things (and of course save your own), and it can also work in 32 bit.
It might take a bit more fiddling around in PS, but you soon get the hang of it.
Photography is expensive but the software part of it is the cheapest part of it, that's if you're not using a ~100$ point & shoot camera
March 17, 2011 10:25 am
photoshop..... worth it
lightroom...... cant live with out it
get over it and dish out the $$$
guess what photography is expensive
March 13, 2011 11:17 am
Thanks for your reply! It now makes things clearer to me. Though expensive, I don't consider Photoshop to be a waste of money. On the contrary, I am actually planning to buy it. I was only wondering whether it was worth buying an extra program such as HDR Express, since the latest version of Photoshop already included some HDR tools.
March 12, 2011 11:37 pm
You don't absolutely have to take your HDR result to Photoshop or Lightroom/Aperture, but most people find that it helps to polish up an image. You do have the choice to create a tonemapped image from any program (HDR Express, HDR Expose, Photomatix Pro, NIK HDR Efex, and others) and save it as a TIF or JPG with no further modifications.
As for whether or not using Photoshop or Lightroom or Aperture is a "huge waste of money" is a subjective evaluation. I, for one, think those programs were worth every penny I spent on them, so I have no regrets at all.
Photoshop can create an HDR image, although many people don't seem pleased with the output. PS is known for merging images quite effectively, but the tonemapping process leaves something to be desired, in my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
March 12, 2011 10:02 am
Thanks for the review James, im new to HDR having just made the leap into digital SLR world. I have been reading your articles on HDR and you seem pretty much hooked on Photo matrix, has this now changed to this new program?
which would you reccomend that i buy ?????
March 12, 2011 10:02 am
This is one of the reasons why I asked earlier about HDR Pro, which is already included in Photoshop CS5. :-)
So far, no one replied...
March 11, 2011 02:11 pm
I'm interested in HDR, however after reading a view blogs and sites on "how to"; I've come to the conclusion, spending $99 on a software program and then still have the need to pull the image into PS or LightRoom or some other Adobe variation seems like a huge waste of money.
This process seems a lot easier for those with experience using both programs, but its rather daunting when you have no experience with either program.
The last step in most of the HOW to on HDR all seem the same..." pulled my HDR image into PS or Lightroom for the final touches.
$100 is a lot to spend/waste on program that is suppose to yield HDR results; shouldn't it provide the best quality, eliminating the need to use PS.
Which begs the question, why can't PS create the HDR image since its used to much to achieve the "final" image." Why the need for two programs?
March 8, 2011 10:53 pm
Dave Hill shoots just like everyone else...with a camera. The "Dave Hill Look" is achieved in post and easily replicated with the Photoshop plugin LucisArt or by following the quick and dirty tutorial over at DIY http://www.diyphotography.net/creating-that-dave-hill-look
March 8, 2011 04:45 am
How does HDR Express compare to HDR Pro in Photoshop CS5?
March 8, 2011 01:21 am
Ach! You've divulged my greatest secret... I LOVE HDR Express and use it regularly. I find that it produces realistic results in a short time. Anything else I want to do to tweak the image, I accomplish in Photoshop. Nice review.
March 7, 2011 02:30 pm
I still want to know, how to shoot like Dave Hill
March 7, 2011 11:04 am
Thanks for the comments everyone!
March 7, 2011 07:13 am
I tried the trial, but I still think Photomatix gives better results.
March 7, 2011 06:06 am
I use Photomatix for my HDR workflow. About a month ago I trialled HDR Express and tried to repeat the look I had achieved with Photomatix on this shot
Seaport Village III: http://t.co/Iw41kaV
Using HDR Express I was able to more or less get the same treatment using their workflow - I would say that HDR Express is easier to use right off the bat. Is it better, not so sure. For the first time HDR shooter, I would suggest trying this along side of Photomatix and decide which one suits your taste.
March 7, 2011 04:12 am
A steep learning curve does not equal bad software. Having said that, I will give this one a whirl just to see what it can do over Photomatix.
March 7, 2011 04:02 am
Very nice outcomes. Im a big fan of subtle HDR. I may have to set photomatix and hdr efex pro aside for a week and give this one a look.
March 7, 2011 02:56 am
Good information. The results are subtle but nice. I think I will give it a try!! Now if I could only get that 20% off you mentioned.
March 7, 2011 02:24 am
Excellent review -- comprehensive and detailed. Thank you!
March 7, 2011 02:13 am
I know just enough about PP work to crop and remove dirt. I'm curious how you can say you did a couple minor tweeks in PS when the results look totally different ! To a casual observer it would look like Express did 10% and PS did 90%
March 7, 2011 01:04 am
Wow...Great Software,Award winner for me.
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