Tutorial: HDR Expose – A First Look   2 comments

Hi, again —

I’m glad you stopped by.

What follows is a ‘first look’ at a new HDR program, HDR Expose from Unified Color.

Full Disclosure: When I first published this entry on July 14, 2010, I had absolutely no affiliation with Unified Color.  I am now somewhat affiliated, in that I can offer a 20% discount on all Unified Color products.  Click on the menu item above for more information.

On Monday, July 12, 2010, Unified Color released a new version of their HDR processing program, now called HDR Expose (as in “exposure.”)  This represents a significant update of their previous program, HDR PhotoStudio 2. With a completely new interface, a new histogram function, and new features — especially those in the anti-ghosting and anti-halo areas — it’s enough of a departure from the previous product that it probably deserves the new name.

I’ve only had a little bit of time to play around with HDR Expose, but… so far, so pleased.  I believe it represents a huge step forward for Unified Color, as the interface is far more intuitive and useful than the last version. Although I liked HDR PhotoStudio 2 well enough, it was sometimes a bit of a mystery in my struggles to contain the final output.

For those who would like the bottom line: If you’d like an alternative method for processing HDR brackets, and if you’d like a more ‘realistic’ look than what has so far been generally available in HDR/tonemapping programs, this is a great choice.  At an introductory price of only $99, or a free upgrade if you’re an existing HDR PhotoStudio 2 user, you really can’t go wrong.

Simply put, HDR Expose is great at producing realistic, true-to-life images from multiple exposure brackets. You can still pass a single exposure through it, and you can work with most file formats, including .hdr, .exr, .bmp, and others. It has the added benefit of editing everything in 32-bit precision, so all that wonderful information is kept intact until you render the final image down to LDR display (typically 8-bit JPG for most web usage), or pass the 32-bit output to another program for further editing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love programs such as Photomatix Pro 3.0, and I’m looking forward to the update to version 4 of that product.  Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of real estate and interior shoots, and I’ve found that since the clients don’t give much artistic latitude for personal expression, having a program that strives for realism is a big plus.  It’s fairly easy to go “over the top” with some programs (a common hit that HDR processing tends to take) and this helps reign in that impulse.

As far as I’ve seen, the new HDR Expose also helps to tame some problems that I wasn’t able to address before.

Let me walk you through the new program for just a short ways.  I’m going to show an image that gave me a lot of trouble using Photomatix and Photoshop CS4 — probably the most problematic image I’ve yet processed — and how the new HDR Expose seems to address those issues very nicely.

We’ll take a 9-exposure set, merge it to HDR in the new HDR Expose program, and then make adjustments up to a certain point.  (Perhaps I’ll have to write a “second look” entry sometime later.)  You may recognize this image as being the Tuscan-style house remodel that my wife and I worked on last year.  We did the decorative plaster finishes on the walls and ceilings, and designed the floor finish, a classic shellac and wax over new walnut flooring.

Here is the final image from before, as worked in Photomatix 3 and Photoshop sometime in late 2009:

As you can see from the image, it was a very bright day.  This image was processed in Photomatix Pro, then taken to Photoshop for further edits.  No matter what I tried, though, I couldn’t really address the light bleed coming in from the back doors and windows, nor the reflection of the same light on the new floors. Although I tried masking in various exposures, creating low-exposure layers, etc., I just couldn’t tame the bleed, so I went with my best version, hoping that someday… someday…

Looks like I’ve finally solved my problem.  Let’s bring those same 9 RAW exposures into HDR Expose, using the ‘Merge to HDR’ function.  The initial merge from HDR Expose looks like this:

Note that the persistent glow from the back windows remains.

Using a basic example from Unified Color’s website, I’ll set about tackling the light issue.

The first thing to notice — and it is new — is the histogram display. This histogram effectively shows you the dynamic range of the underlying image, but if you look carefully for the lighter gray band in the histogram, you’ll see the dynamic range that can be displayed on most output devices, which, as we know, is limited today.  This immediately tells you that although you can’t see all the detail in the highlights and shadows, it IS there… it’s just out of range at the moment. Using 0EV as the white point, we can see that there is information both above and below the range that can be displayed on your monitor.

The first thing we do is to lower the display brightness of the image.  I’m doing this to determine at what point the “blown out” highlights display as I’d like to see them:

By using the display brightness slider, located in the bottom left of the window, we can lower the display brightness and see that the highlights are not truly blown out of the image.  In a sense, this is like looking at one of the darker brackets taken on site. Note that this does not change the file in any way, but allows us to look into a variety of ranges of the file.

Now, knowing that -8EV brings the highlights into check, we first bring the brightness slider back up to 0EV, and then begin 32-bit processing, starting with the Brightness/Contrast settings:

Above, I’ve lowered the Brightness slider to -8.00EV, targeting the value that we saw when altering the display brightness.  They kinda look the same, don’t they?, but it’s not much use to us in this form. You can also see from the histogram that most of the shadow area falls outside of the display range.

The next step is to lower the contrast power in the same dialog:

Lowering the Contrast Power in this way basically squashes the histogram, placing most, if not all, of the data within range of the display.

But, as you can see, the results look pretty flat. Crappy, even.

Did you really think we were done?

From here, we move into the Shadow/Highlight dialogue in order to bring back more information:

As you can see from the above, by altering the Midtone Point, Highlight Power, and Shadow Power sliders, we can begin to lighten up some of the darker shadows to a more reasonable level, as well as managing those pesky highlights.  Tonally, at this point, the image is getting more toward ‘reality’ as my eyes saw the scene that day.

But is still looks bad.  Almost as though the scattered light has created a veil over the entire image.  As luck would have it, HDR Expose has a Veiling Glare function:

By setting Veiling Glare to -6EV and -100%, the entire image gets more sharp and clear, as though you have lifted, well, a veil from over the image.  Veiling Glare is meant to take the stray light that bounces around the inside of your lens, causing bleed and scatter, and bring it under control.  I’ve used this example exactly because of all the scattered light inherent in this image!

Now, since the image is still a bit dark, I’ve decided to go back to the Brightness/Contrast dialogue to adjust a bit further.  This is also in line with the ‘recipe’ provided by Unified Color:

I boosted both the Brightness and the Contrast Power to bring back some light in the image.  It was a very bright day, after all, and was well before the client hung the heavy, dark curtains in back.

Finally, I used HDR Expose’s Sharpness function to bring a bit more clarity to the image, and I’ll stop processing at this point:

Looking at the above image, I can tell you that we still have some work to do, but I wanted to make this relatively brief.  In the above examples, I was deliberately ham-handed on some of the settings.  You know how it goes: When you’re in a rush, you just slam the sliders around until you get close to what you want. When you have more time, you can tweak the settings more carefully, and that’s exactly what I’d do here.

HDR Expose has further functionality to help edit this baby.  I’d probably look into the Color Tuning and White Point settings to more carefully adjust color balance, although that said, the room really does look a lot like what you see in the last example.  Also, you may have noticed that there are anti-halo functions on some of the dialogues… as you increase Contrast Power, haloing tends to be introduced, so you can hit these sliders — with varying degress of power — to knock the halos back even further than you see here.  There’s even a “Maximum” setting for “Reduce Halo Artifact.”  How cool is that?

The astute amongst you may have noticed that as we added these edits (did I mention that we’re working in 32-bit precison!?), they were stacked up on the right side under the histogram.  This is a working history, and you can, at any time, go back into each dialogue to adjust settings, and then, if you like them, save the whole shebang out as a “recipe” for later use on similar images.

I’ll certainly write a “second look” article when I can, because it occurs to me: What other things can we do if we combine assets?  As I like to say, “The great thing about not knowing all the rules is that one can break them without compunction.”

So now I’m thinking: Since the output from HDR Expose can be in 32-bit native .BEF format, or 32/16/8 bit TIF, or .HDR, or .EXR format, what would happen if we then took that output and fed it into other programs?  Sure, we could take it to Photoshop for more 32-bit editing, or render it down to 16-bit and apply some filters (e.g., NIK, OnOne, Topaz, etc.), but what if we used… ???

Stay tuned.  I have a really cool idea!



Posted July 25, 2010 by Rob Hanson Photography

2 responses to “Tutorial: HDR Expose – A First Look

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  1. Nice post Rob… I’ll have to take Expose for a test drive when I have time. I noticed with the expose version you have and even amount of light. Problem is it looks flat because of that. Your Photomatix version looks better because it has more depth.

  2. Hey, Kimo — True, the last pass shown here looks flat. That’s why I mentioned that I still had work to do, and that I was a bit ham-handed on the sliders.

    Now I’ll have to finalize the image and post it as a followup. Thanks for prodding me in that direction!

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