Nik HDR Efex Pro – Review

I am a big Nik fan. Their plug-ins have consistently performed better than most of their competition for years in my opinion. I’ve been using their HDR Efex Pro
since it was in Beta. It’s been out of Beta for more than six months now and I’ve used it more and more each day. Here’s what I think of it after using it on a regular basis.

For a long time, the leader in the HDR space has been 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.

Pros:

Interface
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.

U-Point
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.

Integration
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.

Previews
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.

Compatibility
I’ve used HDR Efex Pro extensively from both Aperture and Photoshop and generally have very good results with few crashes during round trips from one program to another. I’d rate this very, very solid but not absolutely perfect.

Customization
You can customize the interface, the way the image looks while you’re working on it and your own presets. Well done.

PUSH:

Price
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. It’s free however as part of the Nik Complete Collection and despite its retail price, Nik HDR Efex Pro is available at Amazon for much less.

Speed/Performance
It used to take Nik HDR Efex Pro much longer to merge and tone map than it did Photomatix Pro. But due to improvements in the Nik product since it originally shipped, I’d say they are on even ground here.

CONS:

I think Photomatix Pro does a slightly better job at ghosting control. This is not a deal killer for me, but it will bother some people. I assume that as the product matures, this will become less and less of a problem.

Missing Features
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. Personally, this software has grown on me to the point that I use it almost exclusively for my HDR processing even though I own Photomatix Pro. I do use the two together sometimes and often even throw Topaz Adjust into the mix for good measure. 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.

As long as you are 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.

Highly recommended.

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This post sponsored by Adorama – More than a camera store

About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

Posted on May 30, 2011, in HDR, Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great review. Thanks! I am just starting to experiment with HDR and is good to see different reviews of Photomatix and Nik software.

  2. I also own and use both programs. HDR Efex Pro has come a long way since the early betas, and I’m very pleased with the results I get from it. The U-Point technology (same as Capture NX 2 uses) is incredibly intuitive and powerful, and gives you flexible creative control. I still find myself rendering HDRs with both programs and picking the output that I like best. It’s a toss up which program I use most for single HDR images. However, for panoramics and timelapse photography, Photomatix Pro’s batch mode wins every time!

    I’m very happy to see two great contenders in this arena. Competition is always good for the consumer.

  3. I do my fair share of HDR processing and I’d say that 8 times out of 10 I’m using the technique to create an image that still looks pretty natural.  I own both photomatix and HDR Efex and while I really like the “U-point” I still find that I get more pleasing results in a wider array of circumstances with Photomatix. 
     
    I find HDR Efex to be harsh.  Images tend to look abrasive and take on this impressionistic look that I really don’t care for.  I have better luck in most conditions with photomatix but the output of these plugins is usually not the last step for me.
     
    A lot of times I’ll do both photomatix and HDR Efex when I’m exploring how I want to process an image.  Sometimes I’ll generate an HDR with each application and then bring them into photoshop as layers. That allows me to choose which areas I like best from each to make a final composite.    Often when I’m using HDR Efex I find the results to be too potent directly out of the plugin so I’ll use that tone mapped output as a layer above one of the other single frames from the bracketed set and use the opacity to just add a bit of depth to selected areas. 
     
    Oh and something else I like to do on occasion is use a single frame, run it through one of the hdr plugins and then use layers, opacity and masking to just add some punch to the final print. 
     
    Here’s one that processed the other day using HDR Efex and selective layer blending to get a single image:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/trevisualize/5862584964/
     
    Both tools have their strengths.  I had thought that I would eventually gravitate towards one over the other but I regularly use both.

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