Civetta challenges the Spheron Camera

The infamous SpheroCam HDR used to be the ultimate High-End HDR panocam. Not anymore.

Civetta is the name of this new toy by Dr. Marcus Weiss, who coincidentally also was a co-founder of Spheron. Now he's doing his own thing, and his new camera system seems to be a real winner.

What's different?

The SpherCamHDR uses a single-line CDD in a constant revolution, scanning the full environment as it turns. Especially in low-light situations, that can take a long time, and it's even slower when you max out capture resolution (because it has to turn slower).
The Civetta is built on Canon technology, and snaps fullframe pictures with a 15mm fisheye. That makes it more of a traditional panobot, with all the speed and resolution advantages. If you had the patience and real skills in lathing and milling, you could build such a panobot yourself. Except, it wouldn't look as slick, and it wouldn't be as easy to use.


That's where the similarities to the SpheroCamHDR come in. They are both monkey-proof; operation is stripped down to a single push-button. Apparently, that's what it takes to be applicable for crime scene investigation. Police officers don't like to be bothered with settings and stuff. One button, preferably a blinking one.
Both camera systems come with their own software suite that allows measuring distances in the final image, provided you took two HDRI's with a known distance. Although I must admit that the Civetta software suite doesn't look as sophisticated as the Spheron pendant (yet), and the final HDR pano will always be in TIFF32 format (that's 1.2 GB for 14144 x 7072 pixel capture).

Bottom line:

Civetta is faster, cheaper, higher resolution.
Whereas cheaper is relative, it's still 28.600 Euro. But hey - we're talking High-End here...

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Photomatix 3.2 and Tonemapping rants

Photomatix keeps the lead as the most popular tonemapper out there. And for a good reason - the folks at HDRSoft constantly listen to the user base, and keep delivering free updates.

What's new in version 3.2?

For a minor version jump from 3.1 to 3.2, there is more than you might expect.

Light Smoothing is now a regular slider, instead only a 5-step setting. That's especially awesome, because it is the most critical setting in the Photomatix - Smoothing is what swings your image between natural and artistic look. And now you're in full control over that. If you felt completely comfortable with only 5 steps, you can revert back to the old style by checking the "Light" box underneath.

Tool tips are now shown at the bottom of the tonemapping panel. They have also been rewritten, and they are actually quite useful. Now Photomatix basically explains itself!

My favorite is the 360° option, that has been repaired to treat the zenith properly. Before, fully spherical panoramas would get an ugly pinching spot at the Zenith. I tried it in 3.2, and I can officially declare Photomatix now pano-safe. But watch out - that option is now tucked away in the Miscellaneous section, so go dig for it.

Other improvements are

  • better multithreading
  • more supported RAW formats
  • floating histogram with RGB channel views
  • batch processing detects bracketing sets by itself
  • built-in tonemapping presets (which turn out to be great starting points)

Kudos to HDRShoft and thanks!
Grab your update here. If you don't own it yet, remember that the HDRI Handbook is your ticket to claim a 30% rebate! (saves you $30, so you basically get your book money back. You could use it buy another book for a friend, hehe)

next topic of the day:

Tonemapping Controversy

Even though I might not follow each photo forum thread on the web, there seem to be heated discussions about natural vs. artistic tonemapping. Purists even go as far as bashing on Photomatix in particular, which is about as ridiculous as blaming a hammer for a crooked nail. People make images, not software, and as an artist I find that making the software responsible for the look of an image is a personal insult. Talk like that degrades me from an artist to a button pusher.

And don't bash on the "HDR Look" either. Please. It only makes you appear narrow-minded and unable to see the big picture of what HDR really stands for. Scott Bourne wrote an excellent column about the issue at hand, and so did Robert Fisher and Darwin Wigget. All great photographers, with an amazing portfolio, that know what they're talking about. My personal perspective is that of an VFX artist, and honestly I find this discussion quite amusing. Want to know what I think?

HDR is growing up.

More specifically, HDR Imaging is graduating from High School to College. It now has to stand up to established photo techniques, and while the "Rebel Appeal" was able to get him chicks in High School, it will now have to show a more serious side. That's where it becomes professional.

Indeed, there are serious advantages in HDR: technical quality of the image data, and how far you can tweak an image before it breaks up in technical terms. That's a fact. DOT Editions for example, is a pro retouch house, is pulling some great stunts with relighting. Also, when people experiment with looks that they couldn't do before, then that's a good thing. It enriches our culture. We're just now figuring out how and why images are breaking up in visual terms. That's new. And I have even seen how going to the extremes, consciously overcooking, can create beautiful pieces or art. Luke Kaven's portraits of Jazz Musicians are my favorite examples.

That's my 2 cents.

PS: Just noticed that I forgot to update the sIBL-of-the-Month page. Literally forgot, threw it in the archive right away. Jeez. Especially when it's such a good one, a real movie location, showing off the new multiple light source feature in Smart IBL. Download here or Panoview here. And here's test render:

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Smart IBL v2.0 is better and bigger than ever!

border="0" height="340" width="610" alt="Smart IBL 2.0" style="margin: -20px 0px 0px -15px;">

[Rollover the image to see raw render output, lit with Smart IBL in Lightwave.]

Whenever this blog is quiet for a month, you can be sure we have something cooking:

Smart IBL 2.0 is the first major revision to our open source HDRI Lighting Kit. We updated the format itself, all scripts and programs, even the documentation. Everybody on the project was working really hard on it, including myself, Kel Solaar, Chris Huf, Christian Bauer, and Volker Heisterberg. And we're really proud of how it turned out.

What's new?

Highslide JS

Smart IBL 2.0 in Lightwave.

  • GPS tags: Choose your lighting set by region!
  • Standalone GUI: Is your 3d app's scripting language limited? Fear not, there is hope. Kel Solaar's amazing sIBL_GUI connects to Maya, XSI, 3ds MAX. Flawlessly.
  • Multiple Lights: Obviously better.
  • Automatic Update: Latest bug fixes and features delivered to your door (LW loader and sIBL_GUI only).
  • More new tags to build stronger and more accurate lighting setups: North direction, shooting height, date and time.

How to update

In Maya and 3dsMAX you have two options: Download the latest Loader Scripts or use the standalone sIBL_GUI.

XSI works only with sIBL_GUI, so get that.

Lightwave is the opposite of XSI, here you need the latest Loader Script.

modo 401 comes with a built-in environment preset system. Gwynne wrote a sIBL to Environment Preset converter just to do that.

The new sIBL-Edit is for everyone.

Highslide JS

sIBL-Edit makes full use of the 2.0 format.

Keep checking back for updates, Chris Huf is still squashing some minor bugs. That's just because he went all out (again) with additional features. For example, you can geotag your personal sIBL-collection by placing markers in Google Earth, export them as KML file, and load it into sIBL-Edit. Or how about printing a contact sheet with thumbs and descriptions of all your sIBL-sets? And not to forget: powerful keyword search-as-you-type. Way to go, Chris!

By the way - Chris is currently available. So, if you're thinking about tightening up your VFX pipeline before the next wave of big features hits, shoot Chris an email.


You also have to update your current sIBL-Collection. Old sets will still work, but you will miss out on the best new features.
Almost every set in the sIBL Archive has been updated. To spare you [and my server] downloading more than 500 MB again, follow these steps closely:
  1. Download the .ibl update package here. These are just the description files, the images haven't changed.
  2. Place each .ibl file in the matching sIBL-set folder. Just overwrite the old ones.
  3. Enjoy.

Dutch Skies 360 Promo

The cherry on top is delivered by Bob Groothuis. He's a master pano photographer from the Netherlands, a true HDR expert with field experience in VFX shoots.

Bob's Dutch Skies 360° collection is officially the first Smart IBL shop on the web. Each set is put together with much care, fully sIBL 2.0 compliant and loaded with bonus material. They're all gorgeous, tested, ready-to-go.

And because Bob is so awesome, he donated these seven sets for our free archive:

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Symposium and Workshop on HDR Imaging at Stanford

Where is HDRI heading?
Why is it so hard to build HDR cameras?
What is Dolby Vision up to, and where is the competition?
How much better will real HDR displays look, and how is this put into numbers?
What's the state-of-the-art in tonemapping, and will we need it in the future?

Leading experts will discuss all these questions at the HDRI Symposium and Workshop.

I hereby declare attendance mandatory for every HDR software maker!
For everyone else, it's still highly recommended. Cancel any plans for September 10-11 and sign up for the HDR Symposium instead. Seriously. All the original founding fathers will be there, plus the makers and shakers of tomorrow.

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HDR PhotoStudio sets a new standard for HDR editing

We've seen a bunch of new HDR programs lately, most of them very similar in the general approach: You merge an HDR, you tonemap, you do your fine adjustments in 8 or 16 bit, and then you save your final image.

Unified Color's HDR PhotoStudio breaks this workflow paradigm, and I love them for that!

So, what does HDR PhotoStudio do differently?

Highslide JS

Slick dark production interface of HDR Photostudio.

Very simple: The image is kept in 32-bit floating point at all times. Instead of one Monster-Tonemapping window, you get a full shelf of tools to tweak an image until your eyes are bleeding. You'd use the Shadow/Highlight tool to recover blown out areas, then use the Local Contrast tool to give it some punch, correct the White Balance, or selectively finetune some colors. One tool after the other. Each time you're working on the full image, you see exactly what you get, and you're still in 32 bit. Tonemapping can be that simple!

Waaaaait a minute ... isn't my monitor just 8 bit? How can this possibly be WYSIWYG when the image is kept in 32 bit?

Exactly. That is the fresh approach of this program! What you see on your 8 bit monitor is what you will get when you save it in an 8-bit format like JPG. There's absolutely no need to break the image down to 8 bit anytime before it's saved. See, your monitor doesn't have 4000 by 3000 pixels either, yet you can still edit your 12 Megapixel image. That's what the Zoom slider is for. The same way you can edit an image with high dynamic range on a low dynamic range device. That's what the Viewing Exposure slider is for (called Display Brightness here). Same thing, really.

In a way, this approach is actually more conservative than revolutionary, it's just as you would expect from a regular image editor. You load your image, you apply your tools, one after another. Until your like it. Back to old school, I'd say!

Tonemapping Quality

Here is a little quality evaluation on the infamous KitchenWindow.exr from my book DVD. If you tried tonemapping this yourself before, you will have noticed that this image has such a high contrast that it quickly turns into halo-hell.

Except for the bad quality of my animated GIF, this clearly confirms that HDR PhotoStudio isn't only very effective in suppressing halos, it's also very good in preserving a natural look.

Serious HDR Editing

Highslide JS

White Balance with a color wheel, wrapped in an intuitive professional interface.

What's really great about this new/old approach, is that you don't have to save in 8-bit. Whatever you did, you can still save your image in 32-bit. That opens a whole new world of usefulness, way beyond tonemapping as we knew it.
If you're preparing HDRIs for 3D lighting, texture, or matte painting, HDR Photostudio is actually outperforming Photoshop CS4 when it comes to White Balance, Color Adjustments and Noise Reduction. Seriously. Because Photoshop can't do any of this in 32-bit mode. Of course, Photoshop Extended still has HDR Layers and Brushes, so you couldn't entirely drop it either...

Now, this is the part where I was about to insert my standard rant about missing EXR support. But, thankfully, the programmer was listening and in the next version (coming soon) you can in fact save OpenEXR images. Currently available options are TIFF32 (wastefully big), and their own proprietary / highly compressed BEF format. The program comes with a BEF plugin for Photoshop, which is a nice touch, but ultimately only a standard format fits in everyone's pipeline.

Bottom line

You've rarely ever seen me wave the fanboy flag like this. But if you're serious about HDR editing, you need HDR PhotoStudio. Period.
Sure, it needs plenty of resources, but that's reasonable for full 32-bit editing. Currently, it doesn't work well with large images (>25 Megapixels), but as soon as I complained about this, head programmer Igor threw together a 64-bit version that solves that issue. So, extra points for listening to the user base.
There's no Mac version (yet), so that's bad. But that's about it.

As you've come to expect, the HDRI Handbook is your VIP ticket for getting a 30% discount. For you, my friend, that's $99.99 instead of $149.99. What a deal!

...and then, there was the

Montly update

The sibl-of-the-month is a scenic dirt road in Monument Valley (panoview here), especially for all you 3D car fans out there. We're currently in the process of updating the Smart IBL project to the next level, so if you're feeling adventurous today join the beta force in the forum. You've been warned!

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New Pentax K-7: The first HDR camera?

The answer to the question is: Yes and No.

Pentax just announced the new K-7, and the feature highlight is in-camera HDR shooting and tonemapping. It's truthful in both, meaning it really does shoot several exposures to cover whopping 17 EVs, and the onboard tonemapping renders very natural images. That is the "Yes" part of the answer.

The pity is, that both features are connected: The real 32-bit HDR image is inaccessible, the tonemapping result is all you get (in JPEG format). Love it or leave it!

Here's why I don't like this:

A) Tonemapping is the fun part in HDR photography. I appreciate in-camera merging of the exposures, but please leave the creative part to me!

B) It renders this mode useless for 32-bit applications of HDR, like 3D-lighting, advanced compositing, lighting analysis.

C) The term HDR is further watered down, reduced to tonemapped JPEGs. This is especially concerning to me, because it works against the overall goal of having a fully HDR-capable imaging pipeline (that ends up on a Dolby-HDR enabled display).

Please, Pentax make this camera a little less smart! Why disable RAW shooting when in HDR mode? No need to make up your own 32-bit file format, just save the merged HDR images as EXR files (before tonemapping)! And in an instant you made this camera 100% more professional.

With this in mind, jump over to Adorama to read fellow HDR buff Jack Howard's hands-on review. Jack seems a bit more ecstatic about the K-7 than me, maybe because he got such excellent results out of it. Looking at his slideshow, there is no doubt that this camera is a giant leap. Just not quite the right direction for me...

Further reference:
12-page Preview on DPReview
Official Pentax K-7 site

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