HDR PhotoStudio is dead. Long live HDR Expose!

The fine folks at Unified Color have changed more than just the name.

It's a complete overhaul, in the user interface and in the internal logic. What remains the same is the philosophy: You can edit your HDR in full 32-bit up until the end - when you save the image. It's really up to you if you apply just a color correction, de-noising and cleanup work on an HDR destined for lighting a CG scene. Or to take it to another tonemapper, for that matter. But you can just as well keep tweaking the look in HDR Expose, reveal highlights detail and work out small local contrasts until it looks nice on your screen - then you have effectively tonemapped your image in HDR Expose.

So, what's new?

  • Lightroom and Aperture plugin included for seamless integration
  • Colormanaged Display
  • Editable History Stack (can be saved as Recipes)
  • Live Histogram
  • 64-bit, GPU and multicore acceleration

It's all about the creative workflow

Highslide JS

Working with HDR Expose takes on the form of creative jam sessions. There's no pre-determined set of tools to use, instead you decide for yourself what sliders you need and stack as many of them as you want. For example, if you want to extract local contrasts with the Highlight/Shadow tool twice, just add this effect again.
Think of these operators like Adjustment Layers in Photoshop. Every effect works on the result of the previous one, but you can always go back in your operator stack and tweak the settings without loosing anything. With a tiny plus icon above the stack you can save the entire list as a recipe, which will then be ready for batch processing or as starting point for the next image.

Non-technical thinking

Technical decisions, like bit depth and compression of saved files, are all kept out of the way in the preferences. You set your workflow settings once you installed HDR Expose, and won't be bothered with that stuff again. I recommend setting up in your calibrated monitor profile right away, and choose TIFF: 16 bit / LZW and EXR with PIZ compression.
The same applies to the Lightroom Export plugin: You do your settings once in the overall Export dialog, and from there on you just invoke the plugin silently with the context menu.

High-quality legacy

One specialty that HDR Expose inherited from HDR PhotoStudio is the excellent halo reduction. Whenever you touch local contrasts (possible in multiple tools), you can set the quality of the halo reduction in 4 levels: Preview, Moderate, High, Ultimate. Calculation times can increase tremendously when switching to Ultimate, but when you need that extra bit of quality, it's there.

I had the chance to play with an early beta version, and so the 4th image in the tonemapping comparison on the Real HDR page (labelled "Photoreal") was actually created with HDR Expose. According to the survey below the images, people really liked the results a lot.


I was about to complain about stability issues I experienced with the beta, but now I'm happy to report that the release version turned out rock-stable (even on 32 MegaPixel imagery). There is, however, still some untapped potential for speeding up the performance, especially in Batch mode. There is no option to take panoramic projections into account, so you'd better be careful when applying local contrast enhancements to spherical panoramas. Despite the built-in ghost reduction, the HDR Merge module is not the best-in-class either.

Bottom line:

HDR Expose is currently the only software providing an end-to-end HDR workflow. It's indispensable for VFX artists to fine tune HDR lighting maps and highly recommended for photographers to create a natural tonemapping. It offers an unrivaled amount of control over colors and details, so it's a perfect match for control freaks like me aiming for the perfect picture.

After all, HDR Expose is a free upgrade for HDR PhotoStudio users. For everyone else there is a promotional offer of $99,- until the end of the month, but if you own the HDRI-Handbook that offer is in fact permanent for you. You'd just have to pick up your coupon on the software page...

So what are you waiting for? Download the demo or watch the new tutorial videos! Oh, and don't forget that June 26 is the deadline for Unified Color's HDR Contest phase 2!

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HDR Video in the real world

Sure, you've probably seen the amazing timelapse HDR videos by Jay Burlage. Maybe you've already updated your Promote Control's firmware and tried some HDR timelapse yourself. But in the real world, shooting timelapse footage is rather the exception than the rule.

Digital video suffers from the same dynamic range limitations like photography, maybe even more because only very few video cameras offer RAW output. You may be able to tweak colors, framerate, shutter speed and grain to make video look like it was shot on film, but a clipped sky and blocked shadows always remain as the dead giveaway that the original source was a digital sensor. Soon this is about to change - with HDR video capture.

And while everyone is waiting for the RED Scarlet to arrive with a real HDR shooting mode (which is rumored to be still and moving footage), stereographer Graham Clark from E3D Creative came up with this brilliant example of a real world HDR shot:

More MOTION HDR from E3D Creative on Vimeo.

Graham explains:

Shot on 2 Red One's without MX upgrade with the OmniRig using 2 Ruby 14-24 zooms at 16mm with no geometric or lens fix in post. Tone mapping done in AE CS5 32bit project, added a little saturation on the HDR. This was shot at about noon with no lights or bounce, it was almost impossible to see into the shadows with our eyes as it was so bright out."

The OmniRig he's referring to is actually a Stereo-3D rig with a beamsplitter, which makes it possible to set the eye distance to 0 and simultaneously shoot different exposures with two cameras. It looks like this:

OmniRig on the Cartoni Twin 3D head from E3D Creative on Vimeo. More great photos on the E3D Creative website.

It does bear a striking resemblance to the 1930's three-strip technicolor monster cameras, doesn't it? When a stereo rig is misused like this for dynamic range increase, there's also an interesting technological parallel to shooting in color at a time when there is only black-n-white film available.

With 3D on the rise there are actually quite a few beamsplitter stereo rigs available now, notably from 3D Film Factory, 3Ality Digital, and Technica3D. For DSLR shooters like us, the best option seems to be the 3D-BS Mini Rig for $2,895. Unless of course, you'd just order a semitransparent 50/50 mirror and start building your own rig... or simply hire E3D Creative for your shoot!

PS - Monthly Update:

The Hot-on-Flickr gallery is rebooted for July, and to celebrate the WorldCup the free sIBL-of-the-Month is a football stadium from my hometown Halle.

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Today is International HDR Day

That's right, June 26 is International HDR Day as proclaimed by Rick Sammon and Trey Radcliff. June 26 also happens to be International Day against Drug Abuse and the International Day in Support of Torture Victims. Coincidence or clever planning?

Trey Radcliff and Rick Sammon are both authors of HDR books (here and here), both leaning towards the surreal-artistic side of HDR imaging. Some may argue Trey and Rick are largely responsible for promoting the overbaked "HDR Look", characterizing HDR as a trendy thing that you can agree or disagree over. It's true, funky styles do put HDR in the public spotlight. First reaction is always "woooaaaa". And by the time you've seen 100 images with this look, you either fell completely in love with it, or you're bored out of your mind and hate it.

The problem with that is, most people never even get to the point to discover that HDR is more than a one-trick-pony. If you go all the way, and really make use of a 32-bit pipeline, you will discover that there are serious advantages of an HDR workflow: truly lossless image editing, full exposure control, mastering any scene contrast without the need for artificial lighting, even down to fully preserving the light in scene so it can be virtually revisited anytime in the future. These things make a big difference for commercial real estate photographers, compositors, VFX artists, anyone with the need to take full control of an image.

Anyway, in celebration of the International HDR Day Trey and Rick invite everyone to submit one image to the DPExperience Flickr Group. Full contest details here. They will nominate a winner, that will receive a signed copy of their books. Which are useful as inspiration for beginners, just make sure you don't get stuck at the "Look ma, I'm creative" level.

No matter how different my view on what HDR is all about, there's one thing that I completely agree with Rick and Trey: HDR should be fun. And I believe everyday should be HDR Day. So here is my contest entry:

Highslide JS

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Sneak peek at Nik Software's upcoming HDR tool

Nik Software, famous for filters plugins like Sharpener Pro and Color Efex Pro, is ramping up to enter the ever-growing HDR/tonemapping arena.

The unnamed HDR tool is currently in early development, somewhere between Alpha and Beta stage. At first sight it looks like an interesting blend between Magic Bullet Photo Looks and Lightroom, and it already features Nik's ingenious Control Points for truly localized adjustments, a wide variety of presets, and seamless Lightroom integration.

To see Nik's new baby in action sign up for a personal sneak peek webinar.

Here's a leaked recording of an earlier webcast, raw and uncut. Shortcuts to highlights are:

05:20 - Lightroom to Nik Software HDR via plugin, merging to HDR.
07:00 - Demo of some tonemapping presets.
09:10 - Alignment and De-Ghosting (fully automatic)
14:00 - Appearance setting
16:20 - Curves
18:00 - Toning a single JPEG (yuck)
25:00 - Localized changes using Control Points (nice)
33:00 - Painterly look walkthrough
40:00 - Q&A chatroom:
- It will be a plugin for Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop CS, maybe Bridge.
- Ghost Removal included.
- No fixed release date or price yet.

Nik Software HDR Tool Sneak Preview from minus kronor on Vimeo.

Personally, I would rather care for using these tools while keeping the image in 32-bit mode, enabling color-correction and fine level tuning on real HDRIs. We will see how the Photoshop plugin version will turn out.

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Introducing: Real HDR webgallery

About a year ago Rafal Mantiuk invented HDR-HTML, which is a clever way to display HDR images on a website with a real exposure slider. Now I took that technology, polished it a bit, and came up with a beautiful new HDR Web Viewer.

This is the beginning of a whole new gallery section, but it also brings up the old question again: What do you consider a "Real HDR Image"? There are many different opinions about it, all of them very valid, and I would like to use this opportunity to make it the subject of a survey.

Go check out the Real HDR Viewer!

Please do participate in the survey on the bottom of that page, takes only a second.
And then tell a friend so we get another opinion!

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Friday Webcast: HDR in CS5 with Jack Howard

Something to look forward to on Friday:

Jack Howard will open up his bag of tricks for you, showing off all the new HDR features in Photoshop CS5. It's a free O'Reilly web seminar, all you have to do is sign up and tune in at 10 AM (Pacific Time). That's right - it's broadcasting live on the world wide web, and you can get your questions answered in a Q&A session afterwards.

Sign up for Jack's Webinar here.

By the way - Jack just updated his "Practical HDRI" book to the second edition, featuring the latest techniques including CS5 and HDR PhotoStudio. It's a must-have for professional HDR photographers, now open for pre-order on Amazon.

Update: If you missed it, you can watch a recording on O'Reilly's Webcast site or with Adobe Connect (which is how it was broadcast).

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