HDR Darkroom 3 Software Review

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Digital cameras may be making incremental improvements with dynamic range capabilities, but are still lacking in terms of what they can capture. Bracketing multiple exposures of the same scene and merging them together with tone mapping software is one way of creating an HDR photograph allowing you to capture the full range of the scene in front of your camera.

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The people at Everimaging have recently upgraded their HDR tone mapping software offering to its third edition, and as a result today we’re going to talk about HDRDarkroom 3. It’s available for both Mac and Windows users, and a free trial version can be downloaded from their site.

What’s Cool About HDR Darkroom 3?

The number one thing that stands out to me is the user interface. The simplicity of the way that HDR Darkroom 3 uses presets to get you started with tone mapping is unique, and takes a lot of the work out of finding the right starting point. The program is also stripped down in a way that gives even the most novice HDR photographer an easy learning curve to get started.

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When you launch the program you can choose from three different import methods: New HDR, Single Photo and Batch. These work as you might expect where New HDR allows you to choose the set of bracketed images that you’d like to work on, single photo allows you to tone map a single photograph and batch processing allows for processing a batch of HDRs using the same settings.

For this review I’ll be using a three bracket set I took while photographing waterfalls recently. When importing photographs you can have HDR Darkroom 3 align the images by either a fast method or advanced method. When switching between the two options there is no difference to the user interface (both options are completely software driven) so I’m assuming this is just going to depend on the amount of time it takes for the merge to be completed.

On top of the alignment you can also have HDR Darkroom 3 take care of ghosting effects by checking the appropriate box. Again, this is a very simplistic approach, where the user is left at the mercy of the algorithm inside the program with no ability to customize which areas of the photograph to focus on, or the intensity of the ghosting effect removal.

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After importing your image you are defaulted to the ‘Classic’ preset which is a very standard almost uninteresting HDR image. On top of this preset the program comes packed with 15 more for you to choose from and the option to save any modifications that you’ve made as custom presets.

HDR Darkroom 3, unlike the other programs in the industry, actually forces you to start with a preset. You choose which one you like best for the image that you’re working on and each one will change the image to achieve a particular look.

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When you have found a preset that you like for the image, you can then customize it to your liking with three different sliders for Saturating, Exposure and Vignette as well as an advanced button for more freedom in the editing process.

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Once in the advanced section you have access to many of the tools you might expect like: tone mapping, basic exposure and contrast control, highlight and shadow adjustments, white and black point adjustments, and other tools for color, smoothness and even lens correction.

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Overall, HDR Darkroom 3 does do a good job at processing a bracketed set of photographs with a slick, easy to use interface to boot. However, for those who do want a little more control, it might be just a bit too limiting. One of the biggest things that I felt was missing was a local adjustment brush for finer control over where effects were being applied.

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How’s HDR Darkroom 3 handle worst case high dynamic range?

The waterfall photo above that I used for the walkthrough is a fairly easy shot for an HDR process as its low on dynamic range and won’t really push the software to its maximum potential. But, I didn’t want to be too unfair in the introduction.

So let’s take it a bit further, let’s try and and do something close to a worst case scenario HDR. The image below is made up of three bracketed images shot at +2, 0, -2 directly into the sun. Plus there’s snow and shadows in the foreground to deal with as well, making for a truly difficult shot.

Admittedly HDR Darkroom 3 did struggle here, I tried to recover those highlights in the sky, but no matter what I did they were always blown out. Below are screenshots of three different presets plus advanced adjustments that I applied in order to try to control the image.

Sunset-HDR-Darkroom3.2 Sunset-HDRDarkroom-3.3 Sunset-HDR-Darkroom3

While the presets make for some easy switching between different effects of HDR, the overall fine-tuning control of the process is lacking in some situations. On most occasions when I went to reduce the highlights I was left with something that was lacking detail and muted in color. Not to mention the sliders are very heavy handed and effect a much larger portion of the tone curve than the respectively named ones in Lightroom.

The best I was able to come up with, shown below, has a few issues with haloing around the trees (the blown out highlights around the sun. It’s something that you may be able to fix in Photoshop later by masking in the sky from one of the brackets, but that’s beyond the scope of this review.

HDR Darkroom 3

HDR Darkroom 3 Final

Compared to the Merge to 32-Bit Lightroom Plugin by HDR Soft

Being that this was a challenging photograph it’s worth checking out two other HDR options to see how they would handle the same scene. Both of the options I’m testing below are offered by HDRSoft. One of these is very budget friendly at a price of $29, while the other one is more comparably priced to HDR Darkroom 3 listing for only $10 more at $99.

Our budget friendly option is a plugin called Merge to 32-bit HDR for Lightroom. It’s a very simple process that really strips out the tone mapping process of creating an HDR image, but still allows you to merge the data from a bracketed set of photos directly inside of Lightroom 4 and greater. For more about how it works you can read Five Minutes to Realistic HDR using Lightroom and a 32-Bit Plugin.

Now it’s not surprising that the 32-bit plugin struggled with this photograph, as after all, it is very limited. However, because it imports the 32-bit TIFF file back into Lightroom for you to work on, I think it may have handled the highlights in the sky slightly better than HDR Darkroom 3, it’s a judgement call, but for the price difference I’d say it’s a win.

LRPlugin

Merge to 32-Bit HDR Plugin for Lightroom

HDR Darkroom 3 Versus Photomatix 5.0

Next up would be the flagship offering from HDRSoft, and one of the leaders in the HDR tone mapping word, Photomatix 5.0. It’s no surprise to me that Photomatix did a fairly decent job with the foreground detail and even most of the sky, it still had some problems with the sun, but that’s not surprising given the circumstances of the image set.

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Photomatix 5.0 + Quick Lightroom Cleanup

Overall I’d argue that this particular image set is one of the more challenging that you will run through an HDR tone mapping software, and all three options above gave it a fair attempt.

My thoughts on the three software in terms of how they did overall:

  • Photomatix 5.0 – Probably did the best overall job at merging the three images. However, it’s a more involved process, requires more training, and ultimately isn’t a standalone editor you’re going to need to clean up the tone mapped image in LR or some other program after the fact.
  • Merge to 32-Bit plugin – It’s quick and dirty. You are able to collect more data from the scene and basically create an HDR image without ever leaving Lightroom all for less than 30 dollars. Yes it’s limited, but it’s also affordable.
  • HDR Darkroom 3 – Like I said at the start of this article – I think HDR Darkroom 3’s best features are its user interface and intuitive preset oriented process of tone mapping images. I’d argue that it struggles the most when it comes to complicated scenes mainly due to the fact that the localized tone controls of highlights and shadows are a bit heavy handed and could stand to be more refined.

Would I Recommend HDR Darkroom 3?

HDR Darkroom 3 is a bit more affordable than some of the other premium tone-mapping solutions out there and does make a fair attempt at providing a good amount of the basic functionality into a nice looking and affordable package.

I think it boils down to this…

If you’re the type of person who likes to keep it simple and you don’t mind giving up a bit of control for the sake of simplicity then HDR Darkroom 3 might be the best option for you. But I’d urge you to check out the Merge to 32-Bit plugin first, as it may be all you need considering the price points.

However, I just can’t recommend it to those who are looking for a full featured product with total control over the HDR tone mapping process – there are better tools for the job such as Photomatix Pro and the small amount of savings here just doesn’t justify what you’ll give up.

Have you used HDR Darkroom 3? Tell us your own thoughts on it in the comments below – after all I’m just one opinion.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
HDR Darkroom 3
Author Rating
3

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John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro an online community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. Join today! John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos. This course covers the most important techniques you need to learn when getting started with photography.

  • Sam Stone

    I’m sorry, but this is everything that’s wrong with photography.

  • Michael Owens

    I need to know if this is better than Photomatrix! 🙂

  • Why is HDR Darkroom 3 cost $19.99 from the Mac App Store?

  • Did you read his summary Michael? I did some tests on my end too and it doesn’t handle two things very well: ghosting issues, and high dynamic range. There’s little you can do to adjust the problems other than masking back a single image. In my opinion, no it’s not.

  • Good question actually!? I don’t know why they sell it for $99 on their site and it’s on sale in the app store for $19.99 (regular $39.99). I’d ask them. We don’t have anything to do with this company, just did a review that’s it.

    For that price maybe grab it and give it a try.

  • Phogropathy

    That is a very good question and at that price it’s definitely a much more appealing product.

  • Michael Owens

    I actually don’t know how I missed that you know Darlene. I had just woken up when reading this article, maybe that was it – yes, I am using that as an excuse, and sticking with it!

    I have downloaded a demo, I’ll give it a go – but nothing has come close to Photomatrix to me, HDR Effex has come close, but no cigar!

  • Michael Owens

    Why? Some people don’t like gritty black and white portraits, but that doesn’t mean its wrong.

    HDR is a great way of getting detail out of shots, and if its overdone, or done with one image (pseudo HDR) it looks absolutely terrible.

    Take a look here, and then tell me that HDR is a bad process.

    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/03/10/35-fantastic-hdr-pictures/

  • Phogropathy

    There’s far more wrong with photography than HDR. The ‘selfies’ craze for example has done far more harm to the photography world than HDR imho.

  • I gave this a go myself and threw some pretty darn tough images at it. It did “okay” but not great. Here are my results. This is from a set of 4 images, 2 stops apart and they are a bit on the long exposure side so the tree and leaves are moving.

    I just have the free trial version so it adds the watermark. But you can see the issues. There is NO way to control the deghosting process or fix it. So that’s a bit of a mess.

  • second attempt using Photomatix 32-bit plugin, the one John mentioned that’s like $29. You have to set it up to allow you to choose the proprocessing and get into doing the deghosting manually. I tried auto and it did even worse so not sharing it. This is manual deghosting, 32-bit image back into LR and tweaked there where I added some graduated filters on the doorway, and an adjustment brush on the sky to pull more detail. I also pulled the basic sliders: highlights down, shadows up, clarity up, Then I also did another Adjustment brush on the column in the middle and tree trunk, as well as the darker clouds – they got a little too dark. This is the result of all that.

  • Lastly this was done in full Photomatix Pro and mostly same adjustments in LR – this help??

  • Well . . . to be perfectly honest, I’m not crazy about 30 or so out of those 35. Sorry. To me they are mostly overdone. Problem is that article is 6 years old and we’ve come a long way with HDR since then. I look at my stuff from 2010 and cringe. Here is some good HDR in my opinion:

    http://photos.photographybyvarina.com/Forests-prairie/
    – a lot of her stuff is done using luminosity masking and manually blended in PS though not tone mapped

    dPS writer Gavin Hardcastle – https://plus.google.com/u/0/+GavinHardcastle/photos
    http://500px.com/gavinhardcastle
    https://digital-photography-school.com/author/gavinhardcastle/

    OR
    http://500px.com/peterstewartphotography

    Klaus Herrmann – also has written for dPS
    http://500px.com/farbspiel
    https://digital-photography-school.com/hdr-vertorama-photography-create-mind-bending-images/

  • Michael Owens

    Hiya,
    You were intrigued as much as me then, to do all these experiements, but thanks. I think it’s clear from your images, that Photomatrix Pro is still the go to programme for HDR.

    Btw, what a view! Gorgeous!

  • Michael Owens

    Well yeah, but as examples – they showcase how HDR can be done right, and yeah some are overdone, but compared to some…

    I do like the luminosity masking, its sort of HDR, just not quite, but with fantastic tonal ranges making the image appear better.

    Some nice examples though, further showcasing that HDR in the wrong hands is a monstrosity, but in the right hands, with care and attention, it can accentuate an images look and feel immensely!

  • thanks – yes. I teach an HDR course here locally so it’s sort of my job to try things and provide options. So far nothing has ever beaten Photomatix and I’ve tried a lot. The view is from a farm where we had dinner in Viñales, Cuba from a recent photo tour I led there in January.

  • well see, there in lies the problem – what IS HDR really? Is it a technique? Technically Ansel Adams was doing HDR photography way back when, when he created the Zone System. I did HDR in the darkroom when I did dodging and burning. All HDR is – is a scene that has “high dynamic range” – so it’s about the scene being captured, not a process. I think that’s where so much confusion starts. Tone-mapping does not = HDR exclusively that’s just one way to do it. Masking is another. Layers in PS is another. Using a graduated filter when shooting – sure, arguments could be made for that also.

  • Michael Owens

    HDR is the process of combining the images to bring out the high, mid and low ranges of a scene/subject, so yes, its still a process.
    It’s not something you can do without using that software.

    (As Tone Mapping ONE image is not HDR – stupid looking pseudo HDR, which for me is sacrilege to the name of anything HDR orientated)

    Maybe I am in the wrong place after all then, as all my comments are being overly examined and dissected. I’ll just browse from now on.

  • Phogropathy

    HDR really is an interesting concept and one that many people struggle with defining, but in a few years, we might not even need to define it…

    Just think about the rate at which technology develops – things get smaller and more affordable every year. I believe DPS ran a post using examples of how the new line of medium format digital cameras are pretty close at capturing full dynamic range already so it’s only a matter of time before this technology is developed for their smaller bodied cousins.

    Not saying that it’s going to happen overnight, but the writing is certainly on the wall and as an HDR tone-mapping company I’d definitely try to plan some sort of failsafe into my road map. In this light I think HDR Darkroom 3 has actually done a very good job we may only need a quick preset adjustment to get the look we want in the future. Who knows really?

  • DMontague

    How does the Nik software compare with Photomatix? Is there a review you can point me towards?

  • mma173

    Since you are comparing HDR software, I would recommend that you give Oloneo a try. I don’t know how does it compare to the new Photomatix but IMHO It gives the most natural results.

    I, for myself, use Photoshop to manually blend the HDRs. This picture is an example.

  • Sorry you feel that way Michael, I see it as a discussion, each having their own opinion and entitled to it. Feel free to disagree with me and John or anyone else. I do hope you continue commenting and opening discussions. If I know one thing about photographers – they are full of opinions and egos. But like I said – to each our own. Do what works for you at the end of the day.

    I opened the discussion on “what is HDR” and my position is that it is not defined by one single process but covers many options. Feel free to disagree.

  • Jason

    The luminosity masking is something I’m very interested in learning. I have it a shot after reading the article the other day but it didn’t work out to well for me. The colors changed in a bad way for me. As soon as I have time I will practice more. The pictures I have seen done like that look better If you want it to look as natural as possible. I do use Photomatix and am usually very happy with the results for the most part.
    This is one I did a couple weeks ago, I like it but I’m sure other people will say it’s overdone. The good thing about photography is it’s more or less your opinion, what you like and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks unless it’s for a client of course.

  • Michael Owens

    I dont know of any reviews, but I use Nik and Photomatrix, and always found Nik’s to be of underwhelming nature in its final images. There are lots of presets, and all can be tweaked, but they all still look overly fake to me.

    Where as Photomatrix, just has a better overall quality.

  • Michael Owens

    I wish I was confident enough in Photography to have an ego! I maybe a 20 yr veteran with Photoshop, and know a bit about the HDR processes having worked with it for quite a few years now, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a pro!

    Like Photography (3 years into it for me now), I am still learning everyday!

  • DMontague

    Thank you!

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks for the tip, will look into this Oloneo, thanks.
    Your image, very crisp. I love the sky!

  • Dave Pearce

    Why do some people feel they have to rubbish what others do all the time. All these “over done” comments make me laugh. If that’s how someone wants their image to look then it’s done just right. Just because soe. Don’t like that look doesn’t make it any less valid.
    It’s a style, just like using black and white to cover up failings in images and calling it “moody”
    Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is entitled to it, but it seems some think thier opinion is better than others, which of course it never is……IMO 🙂

  • and that’s all any of us can do! I learn stuff daily too!

  • not overdone to me – a slight glow of the blacks but it makes it a bit ominous which matches the subject. Kinda spooky!

  • Jason

    It was one of those shots I did real quick because I was running out of time (girlfriend was ready to leave).. I didn’t compose the shot the best I just new I wanted to keep the mid day sun behind it. I wasn’t going to do anything with the picture until I was bored and messed around with it. I switched it to black and white and adjusted the highlights all the way down and then I liked it. Thought it was a bit spooky looking myself which is why I like it now.

  • Michael Owens

    I just love the fact that photography, like any art, is progressive and open to interpretation in many different ways, one persons diamond is another person coal.

  • Alan-James Hendry

    Most people are “overusing” the software which give terrible gaudy images there are of course lots which are really brilliant, in my opinion if you have to really look to see if an image is HDR then it is normally good. So don’t overdo the effect.

  • bita

    I hope your head doesn’t hurt too much! ????? ?????????? ???? ????

  • raha

    Great article! Been thinking about looking more into luminance masks. This helped a lot.???? ??????????? ????????

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