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HDR Expose - Evolution of Perfection
When Unified Color released HDR PhotoStudio in 2009, I was stunned with the color accuracy and the natural look of the processed images. With their new release of HDR Expose, the successor to HDR PhotoStudio, Unified Color released further refined software that has more advanced processing options, is easier to use, and produces better results than the already stunning HDR PhotoStudio.
The interface of HDR Expose has evolved, too. All the controls are on the right side with a brightness histogram in the top right corner and the image controls below it. I love how the software keeps a stack of your previous processing steps, allowing you to go back and make changes to previously applied steps, without losing the changes you made later.
Instead of a review that is counting down features, I chose to demonstrate the processing steps. This should give you a good idea on the ease of use and some of the capabilities of HDR expose. Click the images for a larger view.
When you open HDR Expose, you can merge several differently exposed images into a single High Dynamic Range Image. Here I chose the first option, to merge five exposures I took at Dante’s View in Death Valley. I chose this image because it represents one of the most difficult images to adjust. It includes the sun itself and mountains that are backlit. Extracting detail and preserving a natural look will challenge any HDR software.
You can also batch merge images and even batch process images using recipes. A recipe allows you to bake your secret processing sauce into a recipe that you can then apply to a large number of images.
The created file does not look very compelling, yet. It basically represents the middle exposure of the set. A glance at the brightness histogram reveals that the image contains information outside the visible spectrum (dark underlain area).
Since the histogram was skewed to the right, I turned down the brightness level. To squeeze more of the curve into the visible spectrum, we have to reduce the global contrast (contrast power slider). Keeping the “keep local contrast” checkbox selected, the overall contrast appears to stay constant, as the software increases the local contrast power proportional to the decrease in global contrast power. I chose to deselect the box and boost the local contrast even more, since the picture could use it. Do not overdo the contrast settings! The settings I show are very extreme in accordance with the difficult subject of the image.
One of the most outstanding features of HDR Expose is their superior halo reduction. During the HDR process, the software works hard to keep the contrast the same, while squeezing the entire dynamic range into the visible range. The required local contrast enhancement causes nasty halo effects with any HDR software. This is especially visible if you have edges between bright backgrounds (sky) and darker foregrounds (tree, rocks).
HDR Expose can suppress these halos, but the process is very compute intensive. I recommend to tweak these settings as your final step as part of a recipe. When I selected the highest setting (Ultimate) on an image, my (older) Quad Core computer slowed down with 100% CPU usage.
I think this setting should come with a warning or get a separate dial to prevent users from accidentally triggering it. Further, it would be nice if I could send HDR Expose into the background with idle priority, while it chews threw these computations.
In fact, this was the only annoyance I found with the software, combined with the fact that I cannot minimize the GUI while it computes. I used a keystroke to bring up the Windows taskbar and work on other things in the meantime.
In the next step (Shadow / Highlight), I mostly reduced the highlight power, to bring even more of the sun and the backlit clouds into the visible range. I also tweaked the local contrast (LC) setting to improve the overall appearance. The results are subtle in these pictures, since I already used a strong global contrast reduction. With these settings, you can fine tune your image and reduce the shadow or highlight power individually.
Next I tuned the sharpness of my image. Since I started from pre-processed TIF files, I had already adjusted the sharpness. Ideally, you want as little interference as possible and would use RAW files for processing, in which case the sharpness slider becomes very important to counter the effects of the conversion.
Notice how each of the processing steps adds another tab to the bottom of your list. You can always go back to previous steps and tweak them, which is a cool feature of this software.
In this step, I boosted the saturation a bit and increased the warmer tones in accordance with a sunset. These edits are purely subjective.
One of the most amazing features of HDR Expose is the veiling glare tool. Notice how the picture above seems to have a less hazy look than the picture above it. Click on each of the images to see a larger version!
Veiling glare is the “tendency of bright objects in the scene to reduce the contrast everywhere within the field of view”. – Citation from this paper.
Scattering light inside the camera causes this. It is most notable on the mountains in front of the sun, which appear murky and hazy. The veiling glare tool lets you remove this murkiness.
Finally, I did some minor noise tweaks.
Then I saved the file in the BEF HDR format, so that I can tweak my image further should I decide to do so.
I exported a TIF file for further processing. I prefer to use 16-bit TIF in Photoshop. Oddly, you have to set the specifics for the file format in the preferences dialog and not during the actual save operation.
HDR Expose contains a variety of other tools for reducing noise, cropping, resizing, and rotating. Those are very useful if you process RAW files directly with HDR Expose, since you should always perform each operation as early in the pixel pipe as you can to avoid artifacts. Since I ran TIF files through HDR Expose in this test, I did not have to use these tools.
I removed some of the lens flare with Photoshop in the final image above. I prefer to use my own noise reduction techniques and did not use the tool in HDR Expose. I also made a small adjustment on local contrast. Despite the cleanup, the image resembles the output of HDR Expose very closely.
Conclusion and Discount Link
Unified Color remain a major driving force in the HDR image-processing arena. Their new product is a significant step up from the already superb HDR PhotoStudio.
Use this link to get 20% off the purchase price:
You get a free 30-day trial, so there is no downside to trying this out yourself.
Disclosure: The link tracks sales originating from my website. You get a 20% discount when you use the link, while I get a smaller portion of the profits from the sale which helps me to offset my cost and finance the coffee I require while staying up late to write for you. This did not influence my review. I encourage you to try the product before buying it.