The Throwdown for the Best HDR Software


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Which HDR software is the best?

Today I’m comparing the new HDR Merge in Lightroom CC with Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro to figure out who makes the best HDR software.

I’ve long been a Photomatix fan, but with the arrival of Lightroom’s new capabilities, and not having used Nik for awhile I thought it was time to try them out side by side. My findings? They each have their strengths…and weaknesses.

The shot(s)

I’m working with a 3-frame, handheld, bracketed shot captured at the San Diego waterfront last year. Here are the original shots, with minor Lightroom adjustments (HDR Prep Preset, white balance, crop).

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Original Images | Best HDR Software

Lightroom CC HDR Merge

Settings: Deghosting: High, no auto-tone

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software
Lightroom CC HDR Merge

Pros:

  • Simplicity
  • Saves as DNG (RAW)
  • Natural looking tones/contrast
  • Not overly HDR-ish (as in not ugly, over-the-top processed)

Cons:

  • Few options
  • No selective deghosting
  • High deghosting setting left visible artifacts rendering the photo practically useless (more on this later)

You might ask why I chose the “high” deghosting setting….well, as I mentioned earlier, this shot was handheld, and there was the tiniest bit of movement in the boats from the ripples in the water. A lower setting had very noticeable halos/ghosts.

Photomatix Pro

Settings: Default with whites slider moved to ‘0’, Deghosting “Very Strong – 90”

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Photomatix Pro | Best HDR Software
Photomatix Pro

Pros:

  • Selective Deghosting available (not used on this image)
  • Still natural, but a bit more of the HDR look (detail & vibrant colors)

Cons:

  • Noise/artifacts, especially in the shadows

Nik HDR Efex Pro

Settings: 100% Ghost Reduction, Default preset

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Nik HDR Efex Pro | Best HDR Software
Nik HDR Efex Pro

Pros:

  • Natural looking, with a touch of the HDR look

Cons:

  • Details are a bit soft
  • Some noise/artifacts
  • No selective deghosting

Close-up Comparisons

Prior to additional post-processing (which is a normal part of my HDR workflow) we’ll compare how each program affected the detail areas.

Noise Comparison | Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software

Lightroom CC is the sharpest of the three, all have some degree of noise, Photomatix Pro shadow noise is more pronounced.

Noise Comparison | Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software

Lightroom CC is the smoothest (least noise), Photomatix Pro has more detail in the clouds and is more vibrant than the others.

Photoshop & Topaz

My HDR workflow is never finished out of the HDR software. I usually take my photos into Photoshop and finesse them to get my final look. That usually involves plug-ins such as Topaz Adjust and/or Clarity or Macphun Intensify. In today’s example I used both Topaz Adjust & Clarity. I wanted a more “HDR” look (vibrant & detailed) and also to exaggerate the noise/artifacts to see how each file handled it.

If this photo were headed toward my portfolio I would use a much lighter hand with the effects and take a selective approach to minimize the artifacts.

For each photo I did the following:

Lightroom CC

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Lightroom HDR Merge with Topaz Clarity & Adjust | Best HDR Software
Lightroom CC + Topaz Adjust & Clarity

Photomatix Pro

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Photomatix Pro with Topaz Clarity & Adjust | Best HDR Software
Photomatix Pro + Topaz Adjust & Clarity

Nik HDR Efex Pro

San Diego, CA Marina Sunset | Nik HDR Efex Pro with Topaz Clarity & Adjust | Best HDR Software
Nik HDR Efex Pro + Topaz Adjust & Clarity

At a glance, I think all three look pretty good, but my personal style lends itself more to the Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro versions. Lets examine the details:

Noise Comparison | Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software

Noise & artifacts all around! The Lightroom CC version is a bit sharper, but has a lot of color noise in the shadows. The Photomatix Pro version has a good deal of luminance shadow noise, and the Nik HDR Efex Pro version has quite a bit of haloing around the letters on the boats.

Noise Comparison | Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software

More noise! The Lightroom CC version is again the smoothest. Both the Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro versions are more detailed and vibrant, but the noise is much more pronounced.

Noise Comparison | Nik HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Lightroom HDR Merge | Best HDR Software

You might think that the Lightroom CC version is winning…and you might be right except for this – notice the arrow above. See the difference to the right of it? Much noisier than the left. This is where Lightroom applied their deghosting overlay. Its super obvious in the water, and in the sky making the photo pretty much unusable as-is. The Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro version blend MUCH better. The Nik HDR Efex Pro version has a bit more detail in the water, and I like that.

So which one is the winner?

It all depends on the photo you are working with. Lightroom CC did a good job creating a natural looking HDR image. Its big problem is the deghosting. I would choose this method IF I’m photographing something perfectly still (from a tripod) or where the movement (like water or clouds) can add to the look and feel of the shot WITHOUT having to use the deghosting tool. If you are shooting handheld, or your subject is moving, this isn’t the best tool to use.

Nik HDR Efex Pro did a good job, all around. Its one drawback is that it doesn’t have selective deghosting, just percentage settings so the effect is applied to the entire image, not just a small portion that might need it. If you don’t have Photomatix, but you do have the Nik Collection, you can make great HDRs with this tool.

Photomatix Pro is, and will continue to be my go-to choice. Yes, it seems to produce the most noise, but there are tools out there to help manage that. The feature that makes this software a winner for me is the selective deghosting. You can apply the deghosting effect to small (or large) areas…but only where needed. (Save 15% on Photomatix Pro by HDRSoft using this code at checkout: angandrieux)

The choice is yours

At the end of the day it all depends on which process works best for you and your photographic style. Let me know in the comments what you think, and which HDR software is your favorite!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links which means that I may receive a commission if you click on one of the product links and make a purchase. I only share products that I believe will be valuable to my readers. All opinions are my own.

5 thoughts on “The Throwdown for the Best HDR Software

  1. I said I thought Photomatix was no longer being supported – I’m wrong as I just checked (I did not need an update) which I should have done prior to posting the first time – Mea Culpa and sorry.

    1. No worries 🙂 I think Photomatix is still a great program but it’s been eclipsed & surpassed by Aurora HDR which wasn’t around when I wrote this article.

      Aurora HDR is my go-to these days, but it is Mac only, so I think Photomatix is still a great option for the Windows crowd. However I’ve heard rumors that Aurora is working on a Windows version. We’ll see what happens!

      1. Angela, great blog. I’m just getting into the HDR piece of photography and was in market to shop Photomatrix. I almost purchased but saw a few of your comparisons for best HDR software. That last comment sold me onto Aurora. I demo’d it and I love it. Thank you!

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