Canon 5D Mark III and Dolby's JPEG-HDR

Seems like hell has frozen over! The new Canon 5D Mark III has an HDR mode, and what's even more important: wide bracketing. Chuck Westfall from the Professional Engineering & Solutions Division at Canon USA explains it like this:

The important part is that you can also save the original exposures. Fully automatic "HDR art mode" always looks great on paper, but ultimately it takes out the fun of creating something unique. Michael James has been collecting all the relevant (and sometimes conflicting) info on HDR in the 5D Mark III on No need to repeat it all here.

In the meantime, something of bigger magnitude happened at the Mobile World Congress:

Dolby licenses JPEG-HDR to Qualcomm

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JPEG-HDR shown on an Android tablet with full exposure control.
(image credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)

This is the type of HDR mode I have been waiting for. JPEG-HDR is a true HDR format, it preserves all the dynamic range and can be re-exposed and tonemapped any way you like. On top of that, it is disguised as normal JPEG for programs without HDR capabilities. This movie wraps it up quite nicely:

Putting real HDR capabilities into the Qualcomm's next Snapdragon S4 processor is a stroke of genius. Because it will be instantly available to an entire generation of Android devices. Samsung Galaxy, Blackberry, HTC Evo … all together that's 340 devices running on the current generation Snapdragon S3 processors. The S4 is the first snowball that may unleash an avalanche. It also supports the OpenCL standard and has advanced GPU-acceleration for the Unreal and Unity 3D engines, which will make many people in the CG world very happy. The unconfirmed rumor on the streets (PCmag) is that another unannounced chipmaker licensed JPEG-HDR. Canon? Nikon? Sony? Who knows…

Head over to CNET to read the full story, or read Qualcomm's Press Release on Snapdragon S4.
You can also read an introduction to JPEG-HDR in my HDRI-Handbook (p 57-59). It was written 5 years ago, but this is the first time this tech is actually coming out of the closet.

So these are the two major game changers of last week.
I don't want to sound ungrateful, but if everybody could please just stop revolutionizing HDR Imaging for a month or two; some people are trying to write an HDR-book down here.
Thank you very much.

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Lightroom 4 and HDR

A photo friend told to me once, that HDR is like alcohol. "You need to get horribly drunk a few times to understand what’s wrong with that" he said. Some people may get hooked, sure, but most find their personal threshold and then use HDR occasionally in socially acceptable doses.

Lightroom, however, is like crack for photographers. You had no idea what all the fuzz is about, but once you tried it there is no escape. It inevitably becomes the centerpiece of your entire workflow. Suddenly everything seems so easy, effortless and fun. Photographers in an advanced state of addiction don’t go out without their Lightroom library, even if it’s just on the iPad.

And now Adobe Labs cooked up Lightroom 4 beta.

This new version will let you
  • apply more targeted edits to selected areas,
  • manage videos (even edit them to a degree),
  • trace your steps on a GPS map,
  • create and order photo books from Blurb,
  • soft-proof prints.

All the features above are well documented in the DPReview hands-on Preview and Ian Lyons’ Digital Darkroom. I'll just concentrate on the part relevant to HDR.

What's with HDR and Lightroom 4?

Specifically, what's with developing RAW files to be merged to an HDR? That's still the primary use case, LR4 still doesn't support HDR directly. But it does have a new color engine under the hood, with better quality.

So, it's better?

Yes and no. Adobe shot slightly past the goal line. It’s true that Lightroom 4 extracts more dynamic range from a RAW image. And it's true that this is absolutely awesome for single shots. But when you have an exposure sequence, that's actually counter productive. For HDR the overexposed shots are supposed to look like way, because clipped highlights signalize the HDR merger to look at the next image for better data. But when every image is individually optimized with a smooth film-like shoulder for the highlights, that is throwing a big monkey wrench into the inner mechanism of HDR merging.

Show me!

Okay, here's a bracketing sequence is in 1 EV steps. If you drop the second and fourth shot, that would represent the typical 3-frame +/- 2 EVs most people shoot. No, it's not a perfect sequence; it just barely covers the dynamic range of the scene. In Lightroom 3 it takes some dirty tricks to squeeze the last bit of highlight data from RAW headroom of the first image.

In Lightroom 4 it's easier. The RAW headroom data is automatically squeezed out, but from every image. Even those that barely have any. That waters down the resulting HDR, and all highlight details are mushed together. Here's how that looks like after merging and tonemapping:

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Both images merged with Photomatix and tonemapped with identical settings (Default preset, +8.0 Detail Contrast).

Long story short: These are the development settings for Lightroom 4 to get optimal HDR results.

These settings will make sure the highlights (that LR4 recovers anyway) are not compressed so tightly together. They basically iron out the shoulder kink of the tone curve. I tried it with a dozen different images, and these settings consistently result in 1.5 to 1.8 EVs more dynamic range in the HDR.

Go ahead and give it a try! Lightroom4 is a free download from Adobe Labs. Free until March 31 (but of course, you’ll be hooked by then).

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Happy New Year with sIBL GUI 4!

Welcome to the future!

Thomas Mansencal updated the universal HDR lighting setup machine sIBL_GUI to version 4. The beta version was prematurely leaked on CGChannel, but now it's considered stable and ready for prime time!

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Sexy dark interface with tag cloud and improved search.

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Inspector view with large previews and Bing GPS maps.

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Integrated editor to customize setup scripts and IBL sets.

It's a really great update!
Here are some feature highlights:

  • Faster startup (up to 600%)
  • 64-bit architecture on all platforms
  • Dark interface, matching the 2012 editions of Max and Maya
  • Inspector view with large previews
  • Bing maps, that can occasionally dig out great areal photos
  • Tag cloud and improved search to quickly find the lighting set you need
  • All-new setup templates for latest editions of Max, Maya and XSI
  • New API with developer docs
  • Integrated script editor

Especially the script editor is a huge leap forward. Power users are now able to integrate sIBL-GUI seamlessly into any existing pipeline. It features syntax highlighting for MEL, MAXscript, Python, IBL files - so you can effortlessly tweak a setup script template to do exactly what you want, or permanently change the lighting parameters a sIBL-set.

Download sIBL GUI 4
(Also grab the latest helper scripts!)

This release cost Thomas Mansencal 7 months of coding, gray hairs, and gallons of coffee. I think it's certainly worth a donation. Doesn't matter if you send him a beer ($5), a movie ticket ($15), or a nice dinner for two ($60) - it's the gesture that says Thank you, keep going!

Also, please tell us in this quick survey what version of MAX, MAYA or XSI you're using. This will help us make sure sIBL-GUI actually works for you.

Archive Updated

Along with this big release, we also updated the sIBL Archive. All the monthlies from 2011 are now in there, and everything is remastered with proper preview images. That also includes all the Dutch Skies 360 sets from Bob Groothuis (Thanks!) as well as the LightSmith studio lighting sets.

If you've been an avid collector (I know many of you check in every month), you can just download the Update Pack instead digging through 1.4 GB of downloads again. Saves you time and me server bandwidth.

And according to tradition, there's also a new sIBL-of-the-month.
I'm kicking off the new year a pretty unique one: The makeup mirror in the backstage area of a steampunk circus. It is of course a movie set, that's why it looks more authentic than a real circus ever would. Full-size panorama is here, and I couldn't resist to drag it through Nik HDR Efex to create a surreal image of this twisted place:

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HDR Video now open for everbody

No doubt about it, HDR Video will be the hottest thing in 2012.

It's quite amazing to see all the cog wheels fall into place. This X-Mas we seem to have a neat cuckoo clock together, with all the parts working. It's just waiting for you to wind it up…

MagicLantern puts an HDR Video mode in Canon DSLRs

Your 550D a.k.a. Digital Rebel T2i capturing more dynamic range than a Canon's C300? For free? Hell yeah! That's Magic Lantern for you, Sir.

I expect the real hype to go all bada-boom when this Magic Lantern version comes to the 5D.

And for the next step - tonemapping moving footage - there is now this:

Ginger HDR for After Effects

John Hable made great progress with this new tonemapping plugin. Previously codenamed Natural HDR, its name is now Ginger HDR. The open beta is available now (until Jan. 8) and there are some great video tutorials to get you started.

Finally, it needs a media player that can deal with straight, un-tonemapped HDR video. And here we get even two new options:

goHDR Media Player

The cool part is, that the goHDR Player can also be hooked up to a real HDR displays. That's because Alan Chalmers and his gang at the University of Warwick share the dream of an end-to-end HDR pipeline. They have access to a Spheron HDRv camera, and they seem to have found a way to repurpose current LED-LCD panels to display real HDR content.

XDepth Video Player

Available for public beta testing upon request now. This one has the interesting twist that it works with a variety of codecs. It fuses a Hi- and Low Exposure clip together in a backwards-compatible way. Means - you can play the resulting HDR video stream even without the special player (but will only see the Low exposure).

So there you go! Plenty of things to play with over the Holidays, in case the rest of the family falls into a food coma.
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Review: HDR Expose 2 and 32Float v2

Unified Color has just updated its flagship software HDR Expose, along with the plugin version 32 Float. Big update, lots of ceremony.

Bad news upfront: some of my favorite features are gone. But the good news is: It seems like they are no longer needed, and on the bottom line the program is now much faster, more stable and easier to use. So in the end, it's a good update!

Here is a quick rundown:

Previously, you could stack up any operation in any order. Apparently that got many people confused, so now the order of operation is fixed. Does it take out flexibility? Sure. But it certainly makes the most common workflow fly much faster (i.e. tonemapping). Especially since all operations are preconfigured to deliver a decent natural result by default.

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The new Preset system is kind of cool, because you can save presets that only affect certain parts of the processing flow. Just like in Lightroom. Very cool, very versatile.

Previously, there were 4 settings for halo removal. That's gone, replaced with a fully automatic halo removal. Believe me, nobody was more sceptic about this change than me. But it turns out that the new halo removal does not slow you down a bit (as the old one did), and actually performs flawless so far.

Previously, the program was pretty slow, and got slower the more operators you added. Now that's fixed, obviously. It's really fast now. Maybe calling it realtime goes a bit too far - it's not as realtime as SNS-HDR, PhotoEngine, or Picturenaut (meaning the image does not change while you drag a slider - only after you let go). But it's always responsive and by gut feeling a 1000% speed boost from before.

I do miss the Radius setting for local contrast, no idea where that went. Access to medium-sized detail is a little bit harder now and can only be achieved with a delicate balance between Exposure, Highlights, and Shadows settings. Oh well. In exchange there are new Tone Curves and Dodge/Burn brushes. Both rather simplistic, not really worth any further discussion.

What turned out really good, though, is the Batch Processing. It gives useful feedback about the detection of bracketing sequences, and you can have multiple look presets applied in one go. It's similar to Hydra, but better.

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Fortunately unchanged are the excellent White Balance tool, Color Tuner, Veiling Glare correction, Noise Removal, and Sharpening. All pretty unique features in the context of an end-to-end floating-point pipeline. If tonemapping in HDR Expose doesn't tickle your fancy, doing all these things to polish and cleanup a 32-bit HDR image certainly should. You can still feed that result to an artistic tonemapper of your choice, and get a much better final with less post work to be done. HDR panoramas that are color corrected in HDR Expose even still qualify for CG lighting, because all the uber-white highlight data is not only retained but properly beautified along with all the rest. For that type of workflow, the full 32-bit round trip, I recommend the "Reset" preset as starting point.

So there you go. The important goods are still there, and everything is now faster and friendlier. Head over to Unified Color and see for yourself.
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Let the sunshine in

Whenever this blog goes quiet like this, you can bet that I'm working like a madman on the second HDRI-Handbook. So, please excuse my brevity.

However, I do keep up with regular site update duties. Picturenaut 3.2 is pretty much ready for prime time and will be covered in a separate announcement later.
Today, let me just present the new sIBL-of-the-month:

Go ahead, take a really close look at the palm leaves! You will not find any ghosting or even deghosting-related artifacts anywhere.

The wind was blowing like it wanted to push sailors over the edge of the world, and I still shot this in 9-exposure bracketing bursts. Any HDR photographer will agree that these are impossible conditions. A little miracle was necessary, and it was delivered by the ghost removal option in Photosphere. That's right - Greg Ward recently updated Photosphere to version 1.8.7U, and now this cute little freeware program has more advanced ghost removal than Photoshop CS5. Fully automatic with pristine results. How awesome is that?

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