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Unified Color HDR PhotoStudio Review
The successor to HDR Photostudio has arrived. Read my reviews of HDR Expose to find out what has changed and learn more about the new software.
In the fascinating world of technology, nothing is ever static. Once more, a company from the San Francisco Bay area set out to change the world forever.
Unified Color have just released new software, HDR PhotoStudio, which promises to satisfy color fanatics and bring HDR to the masses. Unified Color invited me to review the software and write an honest review.
As always, I will update this page as new updates become available and I will try to answer your questions if I can.
HDR PhotoStudio distinguishes itself from its competitors through its radically new approach to color representation, which is based on human vision instead of monitor profiles. This makes images completely independent of current display and printing technology.
According to Unified Color, this means their software is the only application that offers true color integrity. Adjusting brightness or contrast will not affect the way colors look and, thus generate extremely pleasing results, which is a huge advantage in HDR image processing, where we map shadows and highlights of a much higher contrast ratio.
The application delivers on this promise and makes HDR images look much more realistic than any other software can.
New Ways of Seeing
Downloading and installing HDR PhotoStudio was a breeze. The software looks and feels surprisingly mature. Unified Color have done their homework and kept the interface clean, simple, and intuitive. The editing process is very different from other tools.
I tried to open the same TIF files I used for a previous HDR image in HDR PhotoStudio. The software asked me to generate a camera profile before opening the images. According to UC’s website, each RAW converter applies proprietary curve manipulation and, thus distorts the data from the RAW file. The calibration process tries to reverse this mapping as good as it can. Eventually, I used RAW files and handed them directly to HDR PhotoStudio.
Initially, I had a few problems understanding how the software works. I was looking for a tone mapping option, while I already had all the sliders available to me. Unified Color calls the process "Dynamic Range Mapping", which makes a lot more sense, as we map the DR of the High Dynamic Range picture to suit our low DR monitor.
With so much to learn, the documentation underwhelmed me. Obviously Unified Color spent a lot of time and effort creating a unique product, but forgot to include good documentation. On their website UC explain the features of the software in colorful ;-) terms, but the user interface documentation is rudimentary.
Joyce (UC representative) promised to deliver the documentation shortly and to include some video tutorials for impatient people like me.
I rarely take anything else but RAW images, but I like to perform some common tasks during the RAW conversion process that are missing in HDR PhotoStudio.
I never bother with white balance on location and tweak the settings in the RAW converter. This is necessary to equalize the white balance for combinations like HDR images via traditional methods.
Since the color fringing of my wide-angle lens is bad, I normally correct that in the RAW converter as well, especially when I plan to enlarge the print.
Sometimes I create an HDR from a single RAW file (+/- 2EV) to pull detail out of it. I am not sure if this is possible with HDR PhotoStudio.
In the current version of HDR PhotoStudio I am missing these options as the RAW converter is running in the background without any options to adjust.
Fortunately Unified Color takes feedback very serious and they are already working on some of these points and will add more functionality over time. With that kind of response, they are sure to win a lot of hearts in the photography community.
Curiously the RAW converter gave me a slightly larger image than Adobe Camera RAW. I have seen this before with RAWShooter and I believe it is due to the size of the anti-aliasing filter core used by the tool. I loved RAWShooter for its super crisp output, but I have not done any comparisons on UC’s RAW converter by itself.
How does it look?
HDR PhotoStudio creates images that look real. I ran a test case with an image of Aztec Butte and compared the result to some test cases that I processed with Photomatix. HDR PhotoStudio produces very neutral and real looking images that do not look like HDR images at all.
As you can see from the results, PhotoStudio looks very color neutral while the color of the snow changes with different levels of tweaking in other programs.
Click the comparison picture for a larger view.
Would you like some airbrush with that?
I put the results of this comparison up for voting on a photography forum. I told people to look beyond obvious differences and problems (halos) and vote which picture they liked best.
The opinions split almost equally between HDR PhotoStudio and Photomatix DR. Some of us prefer the look of one tool over the other. I wonder if that will change over time as more and more HDR PhotoStudio images will hit the forums and user tutorials will show up.
Unified Color took a big step in the right direction and they promise to take the second step soon. I am excited to see the world of HDR changing.
The user interface is unusual but delightful. Everything is expressed in terms of power which is easier to understand than some abstract number. If you want your images to pop, just increase the contrast and saturation power. The interface is built with the user in mind, hiding all the complicated stuff and keeping everything simple.
Rotate, Crop and Resize
These tools are exactly what you would imagine them to be.
Brightness / Contrast
You can adjust your brightness up to 3 stops up or down and you can tweak the contrast power from 1/3 to 3. Start by adjusting your brightness for your highlights before pulling details out of the shadows later. Remember that you work with 32 floating point images, while your monitor can only show a much narrower range. Depending on your input data, you can get extreme results without running into problems with clipping. Due to UC’s new way of handling color, offering true color integrity, even large adjustments of brightness and contrast retain the exact colors without washing out or muting colors when we adjust the brightness of an image.
I have not had much use for this tool in my current image, but from conversation with UC it seems that this tool cancels the “whitish haze” created by light reflecting from lens elements inside the lens. Expensive lenses often have multi coating to deal with this more or less efficiently, but some of it always remains. The Whiteness tool can cancel this and, thus give you more vivid colors. I will try this with some night shots and report back soon.
Shadow / Highlight
This tool lets you do the actual dynamic range mapping. You can independently adjust the shadow and the highlight power and set the mid-tone point. In most cases you will decrease the shadow and the highlight power to bring detail from the highlights and the shadows back to the picture, which is the reason we work with HDR in the first place. Throughout this process HDR PhotoStudio faithfully preserves the colors in the highlights and in the shadows, giving the blended image a much more natural appearance. Use the Halo Reduction before you apply your final setting, since it is rather slow but worth using.
Use this to make your image pop. I usually adjust contrast in Photoshop, but I like this tool since I can apply the same halo reduction slider and easily get the same results that would take a longer time achieving in Photoshop
Since I usually sharpen in Photoshop, I didn’t pay particular attention to Sharpness. You can get the final result from HDR PhotoStudio without having to go to Photoshop, but for me it makes no difference.
I boosted the saturation of my test image slightly and decreased the hue by a very small amount. This gives a more reddish appearance of the stones and makes the image pop more.
Since my Canon only supports 3 brackets (+/-2EV), I often do not get the entire shadow range (e.g. the entrance to the granary in my image is black). The more detail I pull from the shadows, the more noise I will see. The Noise Elimination tool helps, but I like to be more selective (e.g. shadows vs. highlights), since Noise Reduction always eliminates detail.
Clicking the little gear icon in each of the tools brings up a new dialog box that lets you save presets and apply recent transformations.
Since you will do all editing in the 32-bit space, you have many more options without having to fear clipping or banding.
One thing I missed was a histogram. I am so used to looking at histograms to judge my images that I felt their absence. The tools are extremely easy to use, but a bit more control wouldn’t hurt at times.
Unified Color hit the competition where it hurts. HDR PhotoStudio delivers stunning results with ease while keeping true to the color of the image. Professional photographers will be delighted by the new opportunities this software brings. In my nature work, I usually have more freedom of interpretation than studio photographers who need to keep the exact tonality of product and skin colors in their work. If you care about color, you need to try this software!
The HDR PhotoStudio image in my example exhibits none of the typical HDR image problems such as the obvious strong halos. This will increase the acceptance of HDR photography and blur the lines to traditional photography even more.
Although we all love our sliders and options, I think Unified Color could gain even faster acceptance if they would include a couple of presets with their fabulous software that demonstrates their capabilities to people testing the free trial and if they would supply tutorials. Fortunately everything is laid out very intuitively. All adjustments are made in terms of “Powers” instead of some abstract number. Altogether, it did not take long to become familiar with the interface.
Thankfully you can download a 30 day trial of the program from Unified Colors’ website and try it out to your heart’s content before you buy the program at a very reasonable price. Use the link below or enter the code AGUNTHER to receive a 15% discount and buy the software at just $127.99
Unified Color has updated their software and added tools like White balance and they have added Presets to help you creating HDR images.