Low-cost HDR renaissance on the Mac

In the past, Adobe Photoshop was the start and finish for High Dynamic Range photography software on the Mac, either with its built-in features or through third-party plug-ins. However, several inexpensive stand-alone titles are now available for the platform, giving Mac users a chance to explore this interesting and useful photo technique.

In the past, Adobe Photoshop was the start and finish for High Dynamic Range photography software on the Mac, either with its built-in features or through third-party plug-ins. However, several inexpensive stand-alone titles are now available for the platform, giving Mac users a chance to explore this interesting and useful photo technique. As the name suggests, high dynamic range (HDR) imaging expands the ranges of color and luminance in an image (photograph or scan). The usual way this is done is to merge several images, lighter and darker, than the "acceptable" mid-range image. This can bring out missing colors that may have been too-dark or too-light in the mid-range image. These technologies are called tone mapping. As we would expect, the just-released Photoshop CS5 has boosted its HDR capabilities. On Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider blog, Photoshop Product Manager Bryan O’Neil Hughes, on Wednesday listed a number of new features, including HDR:

There is SO much to say about HDR; re-imagined from start to finish…but I want to focus on the most minor part of the UI and one of the most major parts of what makes the new Merge to HDR Pro so unique – “remove ghosts.”  I believe that much of the abuse of HDR imagery (we’ve all seen it ;-) ) stems from a want to camouflage artifacts (namely moving leaves, branches, water, clouds, etc.)…”remove ghosts” solves that problem in a single click.  I think this feature combined with a host of other major changes will allow people to shoot HDR; shooters that haven’t until now because of the compromise in quality (I count myself amongst them).  In the case of ghost removal, the problem was so unique that we went beyond Adobe’s walls to an expert who focused solely on this one problem – thank you Greg Ward!

What about all of the people who like the dramatic aesthetic of HDR imagery, but either have older, single images or don’t want to bother with bracketing?  You can thank Scott himself for insisting that we expose a single image mechanism (a brand new feature called HDR Toning).  I recall telling him, “Well, you can ramp your single image up to 32-bits and then back down and that will prompt the dialogue”…to which Scott looked at me as if to say, “Really?… REALLY!?”.  Thanks Scott…and thanks to John Peterson for having it running in a private build by the time I stepped off of the plane on my return from Photoshop World West – incredible!
Hughes presents some before-and-after examples and they are worth checking out. There's a lot of automated magic in PS CS5, such as Content-Aware Fill and the Spot Healing Brush. This ghost removal feature in HDR Pro Merge is another. Fantastic. However, the cost of Adobe Creative Suite 5 is a barrier to many. And now there are some inexpensive alternatives, albeit with less automagic. In Feb., Ever Imaging released a Mac version of its HDR Darkroom, which was first on Windows. It costs $79. It supports batch processing of images, a RAW conversion utility and incorporates a variety of tone-mapping technologies, such as Local Tone Balancer, which reveals detail in both shadow and highlights and Local Tone Enhancer, which the company says, can help in extracting details in photos. Version 2.0 was released on Monday. Here'a bit about Version 2.0 from the company blog:
HDR Darkroom can be used for 16-bit Camera Raw Conversion with their innovative HDR tone mapping technologies but of course you will get better results with bracketed images.  It also has a powerful batch processing. Ever Imaging Ltd has made large efforts in adapting the default parameter setting of each Tone Mapping Engine to process various image contents automatically and nicely. Thus, their batch processing feature can process large amount of images without your interaction and automatically deliver batches of well-processed images to you.
Meanwhile, Ohanaware offers a bargain price for its HDRtist software: free.  In addition to merging multiple images, HDRtist can perform fake HDR on an image (as can Photoshop, of course).
Use the Strength slider to choose which HDR tone mapping method to use, or even a combined technique with it's nearest neighbor. Our 4 different Tone Mapping methods, range from compression, light, realistic to extreme.
I've used HDRtist on merged images and with its fake HDR as well. It's a very simple (slider and that's about it) program. In the image below you can see two versions of an image of my cat Hercule, the one on the left is the plain image from the camera and the right-hand one is the fake HDR from HDRtist. It's easy to see more of the stripes and detail in the brown sheet at the bottom of the photo.