Update Headlines & Dutch Skies 360 Contest

A glorious lot of HDR programs were updated lately.

Hydra 3 Pro now has a new targeted adjustment mode, that looks like the perfect blend between Nik's U-Points and Lightroom's Adjustment Brush. Plus batch processing, presets, and complete interface makeover.

SNS-HDR Pro 1.4.3 has a mask feature now, allowing you to vary tonemapping parameters in specific areas. Also sports curves, sharpening, vignetting and a 360-pano-safe mode. That pretty much answers all my critique points from last review, so now I have to find something else to mock about.

PhotoEngine also has batch processing and supports a flurry of new RAW formats. Gotta love that trend, there's nothing like a good batch mode to get a first look at a weekend shoot.

ProEXR 1.6 for After Effects is now faster and offers a workflow bridge to Nuke. It can also export all your After Effects layers as unflattened OpenEXR layers (explained here). Way cool!

Picturenaut is coming to OSX! So far the commandline tool for HDR merging is ready: MKHDRI. Useful for automated tasks, for example with SmartShooter (getting integrated as we speak).

And then there's Bob Groothuis.

He just finished the Dutch Skies 360 Vol.4 collection, which turned out to have the most amazing and versatile skies ever. Seriously. Bob packs in so much extra material that Vol.4 fills a Blu-Ray (or 4 DVDs).

To give you a taste of it, Bob sponsors this November's sIBL-of-the-month. It's a 321 MB download (no kidding!). It contains some excellent background plates in RAW format as well as 11k panos of each exposure, even Bob's tonemapping settings. And the clou: if you render something nice with it, you can enter in the Dutch Skies 360 contest and win cool stuff! Participation alone will earn you another Dutch Sky, so there are no losers.

More on the Dutch Skies 360 Render Competition

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Hands-free HDR Shooting

Today, I'd like to talk about tethering. That means, connecting your camera to a laptop and shooting extreme exposure brackets fully automatically.

The cool thing about tethered shooting is that your computer screen becomes your viewfinder. You can have a really close look at sharpness and see exactly what you get, because the images are beamed via USB connection directly to your hard drive. Several remote capture applications even allow direct HDR capture.

Clearly the slickest one is Sofortbild. It's free, but only works for Nikons and Macs. Just my kind of combo! So I made a quick screencast of one-click hands-free automatic HDR capturing:

So this is about as convenient as it gets. But it also demonstrates that shooting speed is a critical factors for HDR bracketing. You can clearly see the clouds move between shots. I might have pushed it by configuring RAW capture in very small EV steps, but nevertheless: No tethering software can shoot as fast as your camera’s built-in autobracketing. This is a fundamental problem, rooted in the USB connection. There is always at least one second delay between frames. So instead of 5 fps (the average DSLR autobracketing rate) you get 1 fps at best.

Here is how that image turns out after toning:

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Still, the big advantage is that you have a huge viewfinder. That's why tethering is typical for professional photo shoots. I'm talking about the kind of shoot that can't be distinguished from a movie set; with a trailer full of lighting gear parked aside, an army of grips jumping around, and a make-up girl holding on to a pink purse with mysterious content. For actual field work in one-man-rebel-style, it's much more complicated.

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Roger Berry from IndiaVRTours.com custom-built this slick tethering setup.
You certainly don’t want to sit your laptop down in the dirt, so you need an extra stand for it. And once you google for “laptop tripod mount”, an exciting new world of expensive accessories will unfold in front of your eyes: from tether tables over sun shades all the way to cup holders.
If you have the craftsman skills of a Roger Berry, you can also built your own laptop tray by heat-bending a piece of metal, coating it with rubber foam, and then clamping it onto the center column of the tripod.

When it comes to tethering software, the professional solution comes from Breeze Systems and is called DSLR Remote Pro. It’s available for Mac and PC, loaded with features, and allows detailed control of virtually every setting on Canon EOS and some Nikon cameras. After autobracketing it can call up any HDR program and hand the pictures over to make an HDR image right away. It is meant as backdoor link to Photomatix, but it really works just as fine with any other HDR merging utility. It's $129 to $179, depending on your camera model.

More budget-friendly is an app called SmartShooter from Francis Hart. It’s only $50 for any camera model, also works on Mac and PC. The interface is very similar to Breeze’s software, maybe even a bit nicer.

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SmartShooter doesn’t have a dedicated autobracketing mode, but it has something better instead: a versatile scripting interface. It comes with over 15 pre-made scripts, including HDR timelapse, focus stacking, and automatic FTP upload. The scripting language is very simple and well documented, and it’s not hard to modify one of the many example scripts to exactly whet you need. That means endless configurability in an affordable package.

Breaking Update News

Another great free app is HDRcapOSX. Coincidentally, it was just updated to work with OSX Lion and the latest Canon cameras. HDRcapOSX is all commandline, but that means you can hook up a Mac Mini (sans screen) and let it snap timelapse HDR all by itself. Saved directly as OpenEXR sequence. Yay!
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New Beta: Smart IBL for Lightwave

Finally, the wait is over for Mac users: the new Smart IBL loader and the OSX version of Lightwave 10.1 are friends again. Part of that fix must be credited to Newtek, who actually changed a few things in 10.1 especially for me. Thanks, guys!

There are so many changes and new features in this release, that I really can't tell for sure if I accidentally broke something somewhere else. That's why I decided to call it a beta for now; I need your input for this. It's also not entirely feature complete, but should be stable and is definitely a big improvement over the previous version.

For example, the new Inspector tab will make it a breeze to find just the right environment in a large library. And yes, it totally works on the Mac now. Yay!

Pick up the beta in this forum thread, and let me know what you think about it.

New sIBL-of-the-month

I don't always announce them, maybe I should. Why not? This one I'm particularly proud of: it's the staircase of the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

My photographer friends might appreciate some insight of why I like this one so much. Just check out the source files for this panorama:

These are all JPEG brackets with the white balance completely off. Yet, after they were merged and stitched to an HDR panorama, it was a matter of two clicks to perfectly correct white balance in Unified Color's 32Float. The result still has more than 20 f-stops of dynamic range, which is partly due to the fact that the initial exposure range was aligned to the brightest detail, capturing at least one unclipped image of the skylight and the fluorescent lamp.

So, against the conventional wisdom of "RAW is always better", the HDR workflow somewhat redeems the JPEG format for capturing the source files. It helps of course that Nikon's firmware has very effective correction for chromatic aberration, otherwise CA would have been one of the last remaining reasons to stick to RAW capture...

Also, there was no way to shoot this panorama leveled. Instead, I had to lean my tripod against the handrail and spin the Nodal Ninja on a ca. 30 degree tilted plane. PTGui had no problem straightening the horizon automatically after I set a few vertical control points on the door frames.

So there you go, enjoy this new set and happy testing of the new Smart IBL 2.4 beta for Lightwave!
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Assorted news from the HDR-Video corner

The puzzle pieces are starting to come together. Right now HDR-Video is still a very tight niche, but it's soon to become just as common as HDR images.

AMP prototype, second generation

Mike Tocci and his gang at Contrast Optical have designed a new slick housing for their AMP HDR video camera. It's now is a modular system, with a sturdy lens/sensor box separated from the actual recording unit. And it looks damn sexy too. Here's an exclusive sneak peek:

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Here the camera is outfitted with a Nikon lens, but the word is that any lens mount is possible. The new housing is actually much smaller than it appears in the picture. It fits in the palm of a hand; the soft groove on the back is actually a very ergonomic thumb grip.

NaturalHDR for video tonemapping

Tonemapping moving HDR footage is a challenge. Photomatix and other local tonemappers tend to introduce flickering, because they adapt to the image content and treat every frame as individual photo.

To change this, John Hable set out to create a tonemapping plugin for After Effects, that is optimized for video footage. It's called NaturalHDR, was announced at SIGGRAPH, and is now in private beta phase. Here is a sneak peek trailer:

John previously worked out the filmic tonemapping for the award-winning look of the video game Uncharted (here's his GDC presentation), so he knows exactly what he's doing. He also started a new blog with some really good articles on human vision and natural/painterly tonemapping. Check it out at 19lights.com.

Shooting HDR Timelapse with Jay Burlage

You're probably wondering how these HDR clips were shot, as HDR video cameras are still in prototype stage. Jay Burlage did that, and has all the answers for you. He's the master of HDR timelapse and recently built his own business (and open source community) around awesome robotic DSLR dolly sliders.

Check out this video tutorial, where Jay goes into detail about planning and setting up HDR Timelapse shots:

Pretty slick dolly, isn't it? The only thing I can't get too excited about is the user interface of the controller unit. I'd much rather prefer an iPod/Android connector or NintendoDS, so there is a rich user interface for more intuitive interaction.

Upcoming HDR Video player

XDepth, formerly known for its excellent HDR image compression technology, is currently working on a high-performance HDR video player for both Windows and Mac. It will have elaborate exposure and toning controls, run GPU-accelerated, and use a backward-compatible AVI compression scheme.

extreme HDR Video camera developed at Q5Innovations

Another player enters the race, or rather sidesteps into it.
Q5Innovation has a history in building polarization imaging technology for medical, underwater and security/defense applications. Now they signed up Dr. James Plant, who is on his way to create a monster HDR camera. Preliminary performance specs are targeted for up to 160 db (equals about 26 stops of dynamic range!!), 120 fps at 6x HDTV, and incorporating the option for both OpenEXR data format as well as in-camera tonemapping ability.

Time to talk freely

So yeah, HDR Video is definitely evolving fast. My only fear is that we will end up with a lot of isolated solutions. To make sure all the puzzle pieces will fit together to form a smooth workflow some day, I think all involved parties should talk things out.

For that reason I created a new forum section dedicated to HDR Video:

So, register or log in, and let's get the open discussions started! If you've made an HDR video before (via timelapse or other means), post it! If you have a wish list of how you want HDR video to work for you, post that too! And if you have some HDR video technology in the making, get in touch with prospective users and listen carefully!
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Burning Man and Picturenaut Beta

I spent the other week in Black Rock City. It was a truly mind-blowing experience. Burning Man is something between a party marathon, a spiritual journey, and a civilizatory utopia. Maybe a bit of hippie convention and survival camp mixed in. You're surrounded 24/7 by an explosion of creative insanity. It's surreal - yet it feels so much more natural than the real world. Instead of commerce there's joyful sharing, instead of cars there are bikes, instead of rigid laws there is common sense. Black Rock City very quickly feels like home.

So this month's sIBL is for all you burners out there.


There is also a new Picturenaut 3.2 beta version.

Highlight feature is the simple export of an HDR-HTML web widget like the one above. It's pretty stable, so grab the beta from the forum and post any bug reports or comments. And if you find it flawless, just leave a thank you.
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Review: SNS-HDR Pro. It rocks!

I'm just coming from a review marathon of 20 HDR programs for the upcoming book revision. Turned out that one application really stood out from the crowd. I figured it would be mean to not share this with you right away, because you can most certainly use it for some great photography in the meantime.

This software with the somewhat cryptic name is written by the Sebastian Nibisz, a photo enthusiast from Poland. Without big company backing he put together a very impressive tonemapper, that deserves my personal newcomer award. It’s super-intuitive due to full-on realtime feedback and extremely halo-resistant.

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The classic KitchenWindow example from the DVD has never been handled so gracefully. No halos, but full color control instead.

Parameters like Microcontrast and Microdetails mimic the classic settings in Photomatix, but in addition there are separate controls for Highlights Protection and Midtone Contrast. These two sliders really make a difference, in other programs these can only be affected indirectly by getting a bunch of conflicting sliders in a delicate balance.

SNS-HDR also includes excellent hue/saturation equalizers. These color tools are not completely unique by themselves, but are rarely implemented with such a simple interface and so much flexibility. No other tool will let you fine tune the color range affected by each equalizer control point, or setup a separate equalizer curve that affects only the highlights. In fact, most parameters can have a separate value for highlights, indicated by a little H button. This extra bit of highlight control is super-useful in practice and is very easy to use. Thumbnail presets, history, white balance tool with color picker, color management with monitor profiles—all the important features are there and implemented with excellence.

A unique treat is the Series Processing function, which is exclusive to the Pro version. Series is just like Batch Processing, except that it stops for each set and lets you adjust the toning parameters. Makes it faster than manually digging through an entire folder of brackets, but puts you back in control of the result. Very cool.

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So what’s missing? Well, there is no HDR or EXR output. Which might be fine considering this is a purely photographic tonemapping software. The HDR merge function is very good, but can’t be top of the class without more RAW options and manual control over alignment and ghost removal. Sharpen, noise removal and chromatic aberration correction would be nice to have as well. But this is really just nitpicking, it’s actually hard to find a serious flaw in this fine program.

There are three editions: a free command-line version, which is just a fire-and-forget tonemapper and may be interesting for setting up an automated workflow. The Home and Pro edition are really what I was talking about here, priced at $42 and $120. Both are largely identical, except the Pro edition includes batch processing and is licensed for commercial work. For the casual hobby HDR shooter I would recommend the $40 Home edition in a heartbeat. Sebastian is nice enough to grant my readers an exclusive 30% discount,so you can pick up your Pro edition for $85 here.

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If you’re a former Photomatix user, and want to ramp up your game in the tonemapping department, SNS-HDR is an excellent companion app. The separate highlight treatment and tendency to produce a natural appearance makes it the real estate photographer’s best friend. In fact, it was my good friend Michael James who turned me on to it, another victim was Jay Burlage who used it for many of his HDR timelapse videos. For a full-on introduction check out Michael's video tutorial (on a slightly older version).

Probably the only thing that keeps SNS-HDR from overtaking the world is that the website is only available in Polish. And Google's auto-translation looks a bit scary. Have no fear, head straight to the download button on www.sns-hdr.com

PS: Please - won't some volunteer jump in and properly translate that website for Sebastian? I really don't want him to get distracted from adding selective ghost removal or other awesome stuff to SNS-HDR, so please somebody keep this monkey off his back…
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