The world can be very dark—and very bright. When those two extremes meet in one scene; for example the shadows cast by fir trees on a sunlit ski slope, camera performance can fall flat, and photographers have been known to weep.
No camera can match the human eye’s dynamic range: its ability to see and adapt to wide variations in brightness. Set your camera to capture shadow detail, and bright highlights will likely be blown out to a solid white. Set the camera to retain highlight detail, and shadows appear coal black.
MultimediaPhoto’s Photomatix Pro 2.2.3 gives digital photographers several tools for getting the highest possible dynamic range out of a scene. You can use Photomatix Pro to gently coax details out of dark shadows and bright highlights, or to create surreal scenes whose vivid colors and extreme contrast bear little resemblance to the real world. The steps aren’t always straightforward—and they’re complicated by the software’s funky design and scattered documentation—but if you can work through the complexities, the results can be stunning.
Creating an image with Photomatix Pro usually involves combining several shots of the same scene, each taken with a different exposure setting. By taking between two and four shots at a wide range of exposures, you ensure that you capture details in shadows and highlights alike. Photomatix Pro can open common image formats, including JPEG, TIFF, PSD, and PNG. In its batch-processing mode, it can also process Raw format images. Generally, you’ll get the best results by using either Raw format or 16-bit TIFF images, since these formats retain the most pixel data.
Because Photomatix Pro lets you combine multiple exposures into a single image, you’ll get the best results by mounting your camera on a tripod during your shoot. If your camera has an exposure bracketing feature and a fast burst mode, you can hand-hold your shots and then use Photomatix Pro’s image-alignment option, which does a good job of registering multiple images.
Your choice of scene can also affect your results. For example, if you shoot on a windy day, water, tree branches, and fast-moving clouds are likely to appear blurry in the final image, since they will have moved between each shot. Static scenes work best.
Once you’ve shot your source images, open them in Photomatix Pro and go to work. You have several options for combining images. In general, you’ll get the most control if you combine your source images into a high-dynamic range (HDR) image, then apply Photomatix Pro’s tone-mapping features to convert the HDR image into an 8- or 16-bit image (see screen shots).
If you’ve used the HDR features in Adobe Photoshop CS2, these steps will seem familiar. In my tests, though, Photomatix Pro provided more control and more pleasing results than did Photoshop CS2. Photoshop’s tone-mapping features often yield images that lack contrast and punch.
It’s worth noting that MultimediaPhoto also sells a Photoshop plug-in that performs the same tone-mapping functions as Photomatix Pro. The $69 Tone Mapping Plug-In doesn’t blend multiple exposures, but you could use it to process images combined with Photoshop’s Merge to HDR command—and as an alternative to Photoshop’s Shadow/Highlight command.
Photomatix Pro is surprisingly swift. On my dual 2.0GHz Power Mac G5, the program took less than 30 seconds to generate an HDR image from three 10.2-megapixel originals. You’ll spend far more time tweaking your image than you will waiting for Photomatix Pro.
My complaints with Photomatix Pro aren’t with its results or its performance, but with its interface, which has many rough edges. There’s an Undo command, but it doesn’t redo, making it impossible to toggle between two versions of an image. The crop function is awkward. The preview image in the tone-mapping window is too small for users of large displays. And the documentation makes you skip between the Help Viewer and MultimediaPhoto’s Web site.
Macworld’s buying advice
HDR photography is in its infancy, and getting realistic-looking results requires practice and patience. But an HDR image can be exquisite and far more evocative of an original scene than a straight photo. And it can be fun to create the kind of surreal scenes that are popular on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr. Photomatix Pro needs an interface lift, but its awkwardness won’t prevent you from having fun and adding more punch to your images.
[ A contributing editor to Macworld since 1984, Jim Heid is the author of The Macintosh iLife ‘06 (2006; Peachpit Press) and its companion Web site.]An HDR image is comprised of several shots taken at different exposures. A computer display can’t accurately render an HDR image, however, so your combined exposure will have a disappointingly contrasty look. You can use Photomatix Pro’s HDR Viewer window to assess how much detail appears in various parts of the scene. Here, the window is displaying grass detail at the location of the arrow pointer.To adapt an HDR image for display and printing, you use Photomatix Pro’s tone-mapping window, which modifies each pixel so that highlights and shadows display and print properly. If your original shots don’t encompass a wide enough exposure range, an HDR image can be prone to noise, which you can see in the tree in the left half of the shot.Rather than try to rescue the noisy tree, I chopped it down: some cropping and a minor Levels adjustment in Photoshop yields the final image.