Let’s take a look at the best HDR software that you can use to produce high contrast and high dynamic range images.
High Dynamic Range or HDR is a popular effect in photography. It involves capturing a larger range of light stops from the darkest black to the brightest white. This happens by combining two or more images of the same composition, each of which entails a different exposure setting relevant for a particular section of the composition.
In other words, an HDR image represents a higher dynamic range than you would otherwise get with a single exposure. Which in turn means you get more details out of both the highlights and shadow areas of your images.
Most modern cameras come with software that allows combining of two or more images and thereby creating a single image with a higher dynamic range. Even smartphones and of course point & shoot systems come with this feature. However, the problem with these systems is that there is hardly any control over what the final output would be like.
The best solution is to shoot with a DSLR or an interchangeable lens camera. At least any camera that allows you to shoot in RAW and use a feature known as Auto Exposure Bracketing. When you have the different exposures you need you can then combine them together and post-process them to produce the results you need.
Here are the best HDR Software options in 2021:
- Photomatix Pro (Best Choice)
- Aurora HDR (Also Great)
- HDR Efex Pro
- Adobe Lightroom
- HDR Projects 7
- Oloneo HDRengine
- Luminance HDR
Create HDR photos and adjust them in the style you want, from realistic to creative, using one-click presets and a large range of settings. Incl. Lightroom Plugin.
Save 15% with Coupon Code PHOTOWORKOUT
Photomatix Pro is a product developed by UK Based software company HDRSoft. It is probably the oldest dedicated HDR software that’s been around. Many photographers would vouch that they have used Photomatix as their first ever HDR software.
Already, Photomatix Pro garners a sizeable following when it comes to editing and developing HDR imagery. Version 6 of the product releases a number of exciting new features.
Details Enhancer vs. Tone Balancer
One of the problems of overdoing the HDR effect is that the result looks far too obvious. There is literally very few blacks and whites which tend to suggest that the software has been stretched to produce an unrealistic effect.
One of the tools inside Photomatix Pro that can be held responsible for this is Details Enhancer. Details Enhancer can sometimes create those really weird over the top results that go against the whole concept of a contrasting yet realistic landscape photo.
For editing landscapes, choose the Tone Balancer tool inside Photomatix Pro. This produces the sort of results that are realistic and looks good. Of course under each of the tools you can adjust the sliders to produce a more tasteful result.
Just as with everything else in photography, HDR effects too, depend on the personal taste and preferences of a photographer. So, overdoing the effects can have disastrous effects.
Related Post: Luminar 4 vs Luminar AI
One of the latest features of the software is the ability to blend in a hitherto unedited frame with an HDR image. This basically gives one more option to the photographers to produce a slightly more contrasting result. This can, however, be adjusted. You can change the opacity to ensure a result more to your taste. This prevents the overdone effect.
Still, on the new features of the software, Photomatix 6 has a new Brush tool feature. This brush tool allows you to make adjustments to specific areas of a photo. The Brush tool is available under Color Settings. So, saturation, temperature, and brightness whatever changes you make to an image those don’t have to be global.
The brush tool works for even the blending tool. Meaning, you can brush over the areas where you don’t want the blending effect to take place. A new Detect Edges tool does a great job of knowing where the edges of the photos are and that takes care of any unintended application of the brush tool.
While most HDR software would require that you shoot from a fixed platform, such as a tripod so that the alignments are uniform across all the images, Photomatix do not have any such requirements.
Another tool that may be useful, depending on whether you are coming from Lightroom or Photoshop or using Photomatix Pro as a standalone product, is the Straighten tool. The Straighten tool allows you to straighten things like a straight line or the horizon line or a straight building which may appear curved due to imperfections in the lens. If you use any other standalone software you don’t need this tool. Ideally, if you are using Lightroom or Photoshop, then these tools are more than enough for you to take care of these little adjustments.
Photomatix HDR Software Sample Images:
Image Source: Photomatix, get more sample images here.
User Assisted Ghost Removal
Finally, a word on the User Assisted Ghost Removal tool. If you have dabbled a bit in HDR photography you would no doubt know that taking multiple images in an urban environment will definitely capture one of more moving elements in the frames. A person or a car or a bird. This creates a ‘smearing effect’ in the final image which is known as Ghosting (not the same as in lens Ghosting).
All good HDR software do come with a built-in ghost removal function. But they don’t tend to do a great job because they are not psychic. The User Assisted Ghost Removal tool goes a step ahead of the built-in Ghost removal tool. Using this feature you can mark out the area that you need to be corrected. You can even select the frame that you wish to use.
We have reached out to the team behind Photomatix (HDRSoft), and they have agreed to give PhotoWorkout.com readers 15% off on the regular list price (use the coupon code “PHOTOWORKOUT” at checkout).
2. Aurora HDR
Aurora HDR is yet another HDR software, which some photographers such as Serge Ramelli claim to be the best HDR software on the planet. I personally feel that is a bit over-exaggerated.
Let’s take a look at some of the features of Aurora HDR software.
New: Windows Version
This software was only available for the Mac, but now a windows version was released (Aurora HDR is now available, incl. the Windows version).
HDR Tone Mapping
One of the most powerful tools available in the software is the HDR Tone Mapping. The most instantly gratifying application is the HDR Look. This is the slider that increases or decreases the HDR effect. Overdo this and you will end up with results that are completely over the top.
There are a number of options to add custom textures, bracketing the HDR mode as well as adding back some of the original images into the frame. Just like Photomatix Pro, there is an option to selectively include or exclude areas that will have the effects of these adjustments.
This selective adjustment using creative adjustment layers is what makes Aurora HDR one of the best HDR software in the business.
Handling of RAW files
There is one area where Aurora HDR has a major advantage over Photomatix Pro in terms of how you can open RAW files. With Aurora HDR you can import the RAW files directly into the software or export them through Lightroom with or without the changes you have made quite easily.
With Photomatix Pro, however, if you wish to open RAW files you will have to find them on your hard drive and then open them directly in Photomatix Pro by going around Lightroom. There is a Photomatix Pro plugin for Lightroom. However, you can only export TIFF files. The same goes for Photoshop.
Related Post: Aurora HDR Review
Both this software save any change information in separate sidecar file and Photomatix Pro does not have access to that file. Additionally, after you are done with the adjustments in Photomatix Pro you will have to reimport the finished the photo back to Lightroom library.
One more aspect where Aurora HDR wins is the interface. Definitely, with the new 2017 interface things have become a lot more responsive and intuitive. Comparatively, the Photomatix Pro interface is cumbersome and not as responsive.
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3. HDR Efex Pro
Nik has always been a company that produced fantastic filters and presets for Photoshop. They have also come up with the new HDR software – HDR Efex Pro. Still quite nascent in terms of existence, this new software brings a third perspective to the growing HDR market.
The thing about HDR Efex Pro is that the software is built to function as a plugin for your choice of photo editing application. Thus, when compared with something like Photomatix Pro, you have a different workflow. Some people may like the convenience, of not having to move back and forth between two software. Others might not like it. This is a subjective thing and I am not going to comment on that.
But personally, when using both software I felt that HDR Efex Pro missed the ability to add the active/open files to HDR directly, or have some sort of a workflow to open files directly into the application and from there on import it back to Lightroom or other application of choice.
All of the HDR software that we have discussed thus far comes with presets. Presets make it extremely easy for photographers to quickly give certain effects. A thing that I like about the HDR Efex Pro software is that it groups the presets into meaningful image types. So, you have groups like Landscape, Architecture and Artistic. The grouping system followed by Photomatix Pro is, to say the least, confusing.
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Nik’s HDR Efex Pro also has a simpler labeling mechanism when compared to some of the other HDR software that we have seen. It appears that they understand that not everyone who wishes to use an HDR software has a deep understanding of photographic terminologies. So, labels like Contrast, Blacks, Whites, Exposure etc. are easy to understand and work with.
Nik U-Point Selective Adjustment
This would probably sound similar to you, having seen the other two HDR software. This feature basically allows you to make localized adjustment to contrast, exposure, saturation and those sort of things. Again, whether or not you would want your HDR software to take care of these changes depends on your preferences and your workflow.
Even before you start looking for an HDR software to take care of your HDR imagery, there are some options that you can try locally. That is if you have Lightroom or Photoshop installed on your computer. Lightroom comes with a built-in HDR Photo Merge feature. This feature allows you to merge two or more images within Lightroom to create an HDR image.
There are a few blending options available too. One is Auto Align and the other Auto Tone. The first one is useful for the purpose of aligning images. That is required when the images are shot hand-held. If you have shot the images using a tripod then you don’t need this to be checked. The second feature produces a decent merging job for the images.
Photo Merge, as I had mentioned before, does a ‘decent’ job of merging the images and producing a good HDR image. It is simple to use and there is not much to play around with. To some extent that is a good thing. Why? Because you have a quick and easy way of creating HDR images. You don’t need to go too deep into any settings.
Just like any other HDR software, Adobe HDR Merge also has a deghosting mechanism in place. This technique has four settings in Adobe HDR Merge: None, Low, Medium, High.
Now for a useful tip when using this technique in Adobe HDR Merge: You should turn on Deghost Overlay. This will give you a preview so that you can be sure of the extent that this will affect your image. I have found this feature to be best used in the “Low setting”.
We hoped you like our comparison post about these top 4 HDR software applications.
Additional HDR Editing Software we have tested:
An addition by Paul Skidmore
EasyHDR is an interesting program – I feel that if it had detailed post-processing tools, it could be the best HDR editing software available. That being said, AuroraHDR, unfortunately, has more to offer.
This does not detract from the quality and performance of EasyHDR, however. It is a simple program that allows you to quickly create high-quality HDR images. In addition to this, it does not require a powerful computer to run – a basic computer with 4GB of RAM can run EasyHDR smoothly.
I also liked the different presets this program has to offer, and feel it is a well-rounded product.
- Simple, easy-to-use interface
- Streamlined HDR process
- Fantastic quality HDR images
- Limited post processing tools
When we covered HDR Projects 7, it was an interesting program – I felt it had great potential, but certain aspects let it down. For example, the HDR quality was not the best – images were OK, but sometimes the final result was not what I expected.
The HDR merging process itself was straightforward although the user interface was sometimes confusing. Despite this, this program had an excellent array of presets and a great selection of post-processing tools.
I feel that if the user interface and HDR quality was improved, this could be rated as one of the best HDR editing software available.
- Full RAW image editing
- Over 180 different presets
- UI is often confusing
- Edits do not update in real-time
For me, Oloneo HDRengine was a surprising success. When I initially opened the program, I was not expecting much from the basic interface and style. That being said, it has great performance and does create sharp, and clear HDR images.
An issue I found, was that the HDR process wasn’t at first clear – It took me a while to figure out how to import images and start the merging process. Once I had figured this out, it was quite straightforward.
The main downside I found with Oloneo HDRengine which prevents it from being one of the best HDR editing software is the lack of post-processing. You can alter the tone mapping, and apply a minimal choice of presets, and that is virtually it.
- Quick HDR process
- Accurate, detailed HDR images
- Intuitive UI
- Practically no post processing tools
- Minimal guidance on first usage
Last but not least we have Luminance HDR. I did not have a bad experience using and testing this program – I just cannot rate it as one of the best HDR editing software programs available. The main issue I had was the layout and interface – it was not initially intuitive and caused me issues.
It took time to figure out how to alter the interface into a usable layout – this is not something you should have to do when opening a program. Once I had figured this out, it was OK to use it. The HDR process itself was quick and effective.
In addition to this, the HDR composite quality was fantastic – the images were clear with great definition and detail. Regardless, the program also lacks post-processing tools and has a limited number of presets. Ideally, if you were to use Luminance HDR, it should be used in conjunction with other editing software.
- Fast performance
- Excellent quality HDR images
- No post processing
- Limited presets
- Confusing user-interface
In short, HDRtist shows a lot of promise. For a low price, it offers a fair amount of tools to adjust tonality, color, and sharpness in your HDR compositions. With the ability to hone in on the small details and handle large files, HDRtist makes a concerted effort to show off photos in the best light possible.
Nevertheless, there are some areas that definitely need a little more attention from Ohanaware (the maker of HDRtist). The frequent processing issues and potentially slow edit times are a major issue for any user hoping to use NX2 regularly. Furthermore, poor UI and confusing terminology make it hard to take the reigns and understand exactly what it is that you’re doing.
While the software does have a lot of easy to apply presets and effects, they tend to be too heavy-handed to use in any sort of professional setting. But, when working manually, you can bring out details that might otherwise have been missed without straying too far from reality.
How to Choose the Best HDR Software?
I hope you have found the above information insightful. Please do not dismiss any of these programs – they are all viable choices and offer great HDR functionality. It is clear, however, that AuroraHDR is the overall winner. It is an exceptional program that is easy to use. Furthermore, its post-processing features and presets are extensive.
But how do you select the best HDR software? The logical choice is obviously Aurora HDR, but you must consider your own situation and usage too. I would suggest looking at the following points before making a decision:
- Frequency of use
- Availability of editing software
- Main purpose of HDR photos
- Computer specifications
Regrettably, the cost is always a factor – it shouldn’t be, but not everyone has the same amount of disposable income. Always purchase software within your means.
In addition to this, you must consider your current software library, and how much detail you want from your HDR photos. For example, I extensively use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop – these are advanced programs with excellent post-processing features.
I would, therefore, prefer to use the best HDR editing software just for creating the raw HDR images – I would then import the HDR image into Lightroom for further editing. To that end, I may not need the advanced post-processing of Aurora HDR – consider your own circumstance and choose the best HDR software that fits accordingly.
Finally, consider your own computer specifications. I am lucky to have a decent spec computer that can run most software with ease. Not everyone has that luxury. If you have a basic computer, you may, therefore, struggle to run some of the powerful HDR programs effectively – a basic HDR program like Photomatix Pro may, therefore, be a better choice.