Posted on April 28, 2015
After reviewing the Photomerge Panorama feature in Lightroom 6 / CC and, apart from a few niggles, being generally impressed with the result, naturally I decided to review the Photomerge HDR feature built into LR6.
Now, I don’t generally do much HDR: I don’t often like the ‘look’ so I try and keep it toned down and as natural looking compared with what is considered the ‘norm’ for HDR. I purchased the Photomatix 32-bit merge to HDR plugin for LR a while ago and have been using it to create numerous semi-HDR images by merging the RAW files into a 32-bit TIFF and manually tone mapping them in LR rather than using the full blown Photomatix Pro software. This allows a more realistic look to be created: the key is subtlety. From looking at other reviews and trying the feature itself, if subtlety is for you then LR HDR is for you. If you like some of the more adventurous settings that can be found in the full blown Photomatix software, then it’s very unlikely that LR HDR will float your boat.
Trey Ratcliffe falls into the latter category. His blog review was the first I read on the HDR feature and it made me a little bit sceptical about it. Trey’s work pretty much falls well inside the borderline of what I find acceptable HDR imaging. On his ‘review’page there is only one image that I don’t wholly like (I don’t dislike it either, I’m just on the fence) and that’s the cottage/ sunset photo. Everything else is very nicely done, so I was a little worried when he stated he thought the HDR feature was, well, pants to put it politely.
That really meant that I had to try it to see what it was like.
So what is it like? Well, like the panorama feature it’s easy to use: there isn’t much to it. Select the files from the filmstrip and press Ctrl + H, or right click and select Photomerge>HDR.
Up pops a dialogue window:
Note once again it doesn’t fit the screen and neither can you zoom….please fix this Adobe!
Select if you want to auto-align the images (always a good idea), auto-tone the images (not a good idea) and the level of de-ghosting and hit merge.
As with the Panorama feature a single 16-bit DNG file is created having all the RAW editing capability of the single RAW files. Should you wish to change any setting after the HDR merge, say the white balance or exposure, you can do so. There is no need to edit the RAW files individually and have to remerge them again. It is a truly fantastic revelation: it’s a shame no other programs do this, but I guess now there is no need to.
And that’s it. If you were expecting anything else, then at this point you will probably feel very let down and disappointed. If on the other hand you love hand toning your images then this is right up your street.
If you’ve never done toning by hand before you are probably wondering what on earth LR has done to your image because it probably looks like it hasn’t done anything useful. At all. And that appears to be the consensus on the net: it hasn’t done anything useful, and why bother with it? To be honest I don’t blame you at all if you look at your image and come to that conclusion because it isn’t obvious what it has done. But trust me, it has. Read on and all will be revealed.
Here’s a set of images I want to merge: 7 photos overlooking Lake Windermere as the sun was setting. The scene isn’t brilliant I admit, I was just playing with settings at the time, it’s just that these popped up when I opened LR so it was convenient to use them.
So, put them in the LR HDR mixer, and out pops this file:
Looks a little similar to image number 4, the middle exposure (shown below) doesn’t it?
Not surprising a lot of people are scratching their heads. But hidden within that 16-bit image is a LOT of data. You just need to uncover it. A quick shuffle of some sliders yields this:
Now trying that with the middle exposure on its own gives you this:
Oh dear….. the ground is similar, but there is no detail in the sky around the sun and the clouds are blown out. In the LR HDR image, it’s all there. The image is much cleaner in terms of noise too. If you are a Canon shooter like myself then you’ll know that pushing the shadows hard is never a good idea. I don’t think I need be afraid of doing that again: noise in the shadows is very minimal, almost negligible in fact.
As a comparison I tried the Photomatix 32-bit merge to HDR plugin and this came out. The sun is burnt out there too. In all, not as good as LR (and bear in mind it’s a starting point, like the LR image).
When the exposure of the LR HDR image is matched to that of the Photomatix, it’s clear that LR is the winner.
So, a lot of ticks in the boxes at the moment, but what about performance?
To be honest, compared with the Pano feature, it’s a bit of a slow coach: it took 1 minute 10 seconds just to preview the image, and 2 minutes from selecting the files to getting the final DNG.
The Photomatix plugin on the other took 1 minute 40 from start to finish and that included selecting a lot more tick boxes and changing settings in the dialogue box, not to mention exporting the images in the first place.
However, as IQ is far more important, this tends to pale into insignificance. LR allows you to carry on working on images whilst the merging chugs away in the background so it’s not exactly a problem.
LR6 gets another thumbs up from me: just fix the annoying preview where it doesn’t fill the screen or you can’t zoom please Adobe!