Easter Egg #1: Unlock all file formats in HDR Express

HDR Express is a refreshingly simple tonemapper, powered by the same high-quality engine like its big brothers HDR Expose and 32Float.

But it also shares their lame HDR merger, inferior to Photoshop CS5, Photomatix, and a dozen other alternatives out there. If you want better alignment, clean ghost reduction, or batch processing you're better off baking EXR files elsewhere. But wait - you can't load these EXR files in HDR Express, or can you?

Yes, you can! It's all in there: OpenEXR, Radiance HDR, 32-bit TIFF. You just have to unlock it.

The super-secret unlock code goes like this:

  • Start HDR Express while holding the Command key (CTRL on Windows).
  • Keep it held until the start screen comes up, then press the F key in addition.
  • HDR Express will now kindly offer to enable extended file formats, hit OK and voila!

From now on HDR Express will load and save all common HDR file formats. Nifty trick, eh? You'll only have to do it once, and it also works with the the 30-day demo.

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By the way, this will also enable saving in standard HDR formats. Which is the reason why it's locked away in the first place: it may confuse HDR beginners (the main target audience of this program). However, if you know what you're doing, this is a great way to boost details in an HDR image, change white balance or saturation - without actually converting it down to 16 bits. For using it in this manner, I do recommend starting out with all settings on zero, though. Here's a handy preset for that.

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Artifact-free Ghost Removal algorithms? Yes, please!

It's been a while since I pointed out some interesting white papers. Time to catch up.

Let's start out with the centerpiece of last blog post: Ghost Removal. How does that work under the hood, and why is Photoshop CS5 so much better at it?

As general rule of thumb: However tempting, you should not get into the habit to leave Ghost Removal checked “just in case”. That’s because this option will tell a software to use as little information from as few source images as possible. It will operate under the assumption that blending pixel values from different exposures is a bad thing. Instead it will try to establish a single exposure as the dominant source of information, and use the rest of the exposures as supplemental sources only. The result is more noise and less color fidelity, most noticeable in the extreme ends of the dynamic range. For that reason, ghost removal should only be used when an exorcism is really necessary.

But when we really have a ghost at hand, then the things that set good ghost removal apart from lousy ghost removal, are these:
  • How well can it detect a moving object?
  • How successful is it in masking the moving part out of all the other images?
  • How much information can it still use from the non-ghosted, clean areas?
Photoshop CS5 excels in these key areas, and that's why it delivers so well. If you care about the exact formulas used in Photoshop's algorithm, have a peek at the HDR tech bible / 2nd revision. But it's definitely inspired by this very readable paper:

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Artifact-free High Dynamic Range Imaging

by Orazio Gallo and some folks from Nokia Research.

All examples in this post are taken from this paper. What they do is to cleverly isolate the treatment only to the ghosted areas, otherwise they just proceed with averaging as many good pixels as possible.

The funky colormap on the right shows how many source images actually contribute to the final HDR image, for each area. As you see, the algorithm gathers plenty of detail on the ground, but uses one image less for the spot where people walk through.

The result comes out pretty clean.

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Gallo's paper explains how they do it. Read it!
Read it twice and very thoroughly if you're an HDR software developer, please!

PS: Hui, another one of those long blog posts. Tipped by David in the Forum. Thanks!
Guess it would be easier if I'd just post a pretty image every now and then, like everybody else does. But I promised you hard facts in the title of this blog, and so I'll just stay on course...

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Aprils Updates: Nik HDR Efex, Oloneo & Gigapan

Another month, another flood of updates in the ever-spinning world of HDR imaging.

Nik HDR Efex Pro 1.2

HDR Efex is finally supposed to be rock stable on 32-bit operating systems. I can neither confirm nor deny, never actually witnessed any crashes, but that's because I'm in the warm embracement of 64-bit WinXP / Mac OS for a while. As a bonus, Nik also threw a new ghostbuster in the mix. Heard nice things about it, but I can hardly see a difference myself.

Here is a little deghosting test with a tough example:

Bottom line: Can't beat Photoshop CS5's Automatic Ghost Removal! But that's no wonder, since Adobe had this feature done by El Maestro Greg Ward himself. HDR Efex seems pretty much on par with Photomatix's automatic mode, but that's actually their lame option. Photomatix's user-guided Selective Deghosting is the good one, it comes in second-best overall. Although in this case it requires a lot of extra work, and still ends up clipping the blacks on the palm leaves. Or the whitecaps on the waves, that's your selective choice, basically.

Oloneo PhotoEngine 1.04

PhotoEngine goes into the next beta round, merrily inviting everybody. This is one of the most raved about new-school tonemappers, providing excellent speed, a fistful of great color tools, and an innovative ReLight mode. The new beta includes:

  • Look Presets, ranging from "Natural Soft" all the way to "I love Halos!"
  • Natural Mode, that doesn't seem to do anything (but sure sounds good)
  • Batch Processing, that allows in-between image reviews (awesome)
  • Panorama-safe mode, which I still have to test. (please please work!)
  • and several bug fixes.
Still, no Mac version in sight, and no word on the final pricing yet. For now, it's free and fully functional until June 1st. Grab it!

Gigapan Firmware Updater:

Our good friend Googlebot has snooped out the secret download page of the new Gigapan EPIC firmware. As mentioned last month, this update adds the highly anticipated HDR bracketing option. For some strange reason it's not linked anywhere on the Gigapan homepage, but when you google for "Gigapan Firmware Upgrade" it will happily take you there.

PS: Atlas, the freeware tone-mapping plugin for After Effects, now works on 64-bit Windows. Hurray for Open Source!

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Lightsmith lets you craft your own studio light

Thomas Mansencal, restless author of sIBL-GUI, has landed another hit with Lightsmith. That's a new class of presets, that will unfold into individual HDR-mapped lights.

Lightsmith is a great companion to the classic, all-encompassing sIBL-environments. It enables you to art direct the lighting, even create a studio lighting from scratch, and still benefit from the richness in color and dynamic range that only HDR images can provide.

Watch this trailer, it's pretty spectacular:

If sIBL-GUI hasn't auto-updated itself already, get the new version here. And you can find the downloads to all the new Lightsmith-sets in the sIBL-Archive. Note, that this is still in the early stages, currently only supported in sIBL-GUI, and only for a limited list of renders:
More setup templates are to come. If you have a clever idea for a setup in one of the unsupported renderers, we would love to hear from you in the forum.

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Special sIBL-set released for Artists Help Japan

Ever since the launch of this site, almost 4 years ago, I'm giving away a new sIBL-set every month. Today, for the first time, it is not free.

For this special edition sIBL I want you to donate to the Artists Help Japan fund. Seriously. Do it now.

See, many of the most popular sIBL-sets in the Archive are from Tokyo, and while shooting these I fell deeply in love with this town. I find it a personal offense from mother nature to mess with the wonderful people there. So I picked out the nicest of the Tokyo panoramas for this special occasion. It will not appear in the sIBL Archive, and it will disappear from the web when the fundraiser is over.

Get the Tokyo Tower Special sIBL here.

By the way, this sIBL-set is not only useful for 3D artists. The fullsize panorama included in the set can also be used in 2D compositing. With After Effects and the awesome Trapcode Horizon plugin you can create virtual camera moves like this one:

Trapcode Horizon Test from Christian Bloch on Vimeo.

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Mike Seymour test drives HDRx on the RED Epic

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image from fxphd.com
We already talked about the HDRx mode of the new RED EPIC camera here and here.

Now fxphd dean Mike Seymour received a pre-release model that most digital filmmakers would kill for, and the first thing he did was to strap that puppy to the hood of a car and race it around town. Famed DV Rebel Stu Maschwitz was also involved, so that might as well be his brilliant idea.

And here's the footage they got out of it: No remote controlled exposure adjustments, no visual effects, just some sensible grading of the HDRx material to show off all the dynamic range captured.

So, how does that work? When put in HDRx mode, the RED camera will capture two exposures for each frame, and lay them down as A Track (hero exposure) and X Track (highlight details). It does that by using a double-readout method. Shortly after the shutter opens, it will read the X track, then wait a bit (without resetting the sensor), and then read the actual hero exposure. Pretty clever.

Read more in the related post on ProLost and on FXguide. Mike and Stu are currently traveling New Zealand, shooting more incredible HDRx footage for the next term's RED training classes on fxphd.com. All their adventures are blogged about here.
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