If you search Nik software on Photofocus.com, you’ll quickly ascertain that I am a big Nik fan. Their plug-ins have consistently performed better than most of their competition for years in my opinion. So when Tony Corbell from Nik called me and said, “We got HDR,” I was excited. I was allowed to play with the beta version of HDR Efex Pro before it was released and I knew right from the start Nik was on to something. But is it right for you?
The current leader in the HDR space is Photomatix Pro. Read my review of the latest Photomatix version here. It is powerful and relatively inexpensive. It also enjoys a large installed user base. Nik had a tough hill to climb in taking on Photomatix. How did they do? Read on.
Photoshop introduced HDR a few versions back. But without tone mapping, it was virtually useless and difficult to understand. This gave rise to third-party sources to provide software that does both the HDR merge and creates a tone map. When you see these interesting images that offer up a very wide dynamic range, it’s usually the tone map that gives the image its HDR “look.”
HDR is very popular, but it hasn’t been around that long in its current form. Many photographers I talk to avoid it because they are simply unsure they can master the skills necessary to use HDR effectively. Nik spent considerable time developing four tone maps that are easy to use in HDR Efex Pro. The software is simple to load and works in conjunction with Photoshop CS5, Bridge, Lightroom and Aperture.
I think that if you already use ANY Nik product, you’ll have a head start with HDR Efex Pro because the interface is similar to all of its other products. Also, in my opinion, it’s much nicer than Photomatix Pro’s interface.
Ease of Use
Hands down, this is HDR Efex Pro’s number one advantage over all the current HDR plug-ins. You don’t have to be a scientist to use this product. It’s presets are amazing. You can simply point to a preset (you see a thumbnail representation of your image there) and away you go. The presets can be tweaked. You can create your own presets and you can even download additional presets from the community of Nik users on the Nik website.
Nik developed the U-Point interface some time ago and I was thrilled to see it built in to HDR Efex Pro. This means that you can do more to finalize your HDR shot from the plug-in and save time jumping back into Photoshop to finish the image. You have what amounts to layer-style control over the effects. If you think the preset you selected is perfect EXCEPT for where it covers the sky for instance, you can simply use the U-Point technology to remove that effect from that part of the image. It’s easier to use than layers in Photoshop, but not quite as powerful. You can’t do actual masking, but you can do about everything else. I love it.
HDR Efex Pro is both 32-bit and 64-bit compatible for Lightroom and Aperture, Photoshop and Bridge. I think it integrates better with these programs than Photomatix does. Photomatix doesn’t allow its full feature set to work from within some programs. Nik’s plug-in is 100% operational in all four of the above-listed environments.
HDR Efex Pro offers very reliable and accurate previews. I believe it does a better job of showing you what your adjustments will look like than any other program in its class.
Nik HDR Efex Pro can be more expensive than Photomatix Pro. It retails for $159. 95 as compared with Photomatix Pro’s retail price of $99.95. (Note that if you bought the Nik Complete Collection this past summer, you may be entitled to a free upgrade that includes the new HDR Pro. Contact Nik Software to see if you’re eligible. If you bought the Complete Collection before that, the upgrade is only $99, thus eliminating the cost difference.)
When I asked Nik why their product was more expensive, it boiled down to development cost. Nik does all of its own development and created four new tone-mapping (to Photomatix’s one) for the new Nik HDR plug-in.
It takes Nik HDR Efex Pro longer to merge and tone map than it does Photomatix Pro. I also think Photomatix Pro does a slightly better job at ghosting control. Neither of these is a deal killer for me, but these shortcomings, nuanced as they are, will bother some people. I assume that as the product matures past version 1.0, this will become less and less of a problem.
There is no white balance tool in Nik HDR Efex Pro. You also can’t control chromatic aberration. There is no batch processing capability. There is no built-in noise reduction. None of these are deal killers for me. These features do live in Photomatix Pro, but some of them work better there than others and you can work around these deficiencies in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture etc.
Is it right for you? There’s only one way to find out. You can download a free, fully-functional copy of Nik HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software. My advice is to try it out before you buy it. Most people love it right away. But it’s nice to have a chance to find out before you press the buy button.
In a perfect world, you could afford to buy both Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro. I have found that between the two programs, there’s nothing I cannot do.
If you’re a super power HDR user like Trey Ratcliff, you may want to wait for version 1.1 or for Nik to at least lower the price so that your choice between Photomatix and Nik HDR Efex Pro is apples to apples. If you’re NOT an HDR power user, and most of you aren’t, and especially if you are new to HDR, Nik HDR Efex Pro is the single best piece of software you can select to make great HDR images.