Nik Software HDR Efex Pro Review and Tutorial

Are you thinking about doing some HDR photography?  Have you heard of Nik Software?  Have you heard of HDR Efex Pro?  Do you want an easy way to create stunning HDR landscapes?  Read on!


Nik Software - HDR Efex Pro - Review and HDR Tutorial

As you can tell by looking around my site, I am a big fan of HDR photography.  It's a great amount of fun for me to craft these images via the HDR process.  Up until now, I have used Photomatix exclusively for the merging of my images into an HDR photo - and it has worked great.  I have really enjoyed Photomatix and do believe it does a great job.  However, I had been hearing about all the Nik Software products over the last six months or so, and wanted to add their "Complete Collection for Aperture" to my software arsenal.  Well, it turns out they recently launched their own HDR photo product, called HDR Efex Pro.  I had heard some good things about it and figured I would give it a try.  Why not, right?  It's important to learn new things, yes? I fully assumed that after trying it I would then return to my normal photo processing workflow, especially since Photomatix has recently released their own update, Photomatix 4.0.

Well, the truth is I have not gone back to Photomatix.  I was and still am blown away by everything you can do with HDR Efex Pro, plus all the other cool products that come in their Complete Collection.  It is an amazing and wonderful product and I love making my HDR photos really come to life with HDR Efex Pro!

So I thought I would put a little review and tutorial together so that anyone that may be interested in the product can get a somewhat virtual tour of this amazing software product.  By the way, I use Apple's Aperture 3 product as my main photo editor, as well as to manage my library, and it is also quite amazing.  Anyways, I bought the Nik Software Complete Collection for Aperture.  That way, all the products in the Nik suite just function as plug-ins to Aperture.  It makes it easy for me and everything is easily managed back in Aperture 3.0.  So, without further delay, here is my review and tutorial of Nik Software HDR Efex Pro...

Pros

* Very powerful, ability to selectively edit within the photo (very cool feature!!), including the ability to control light, contrast, saturation and other things within parts of an image

* Very intuitive and easy to use - no manual needed (plus some e-learning on the Nik Software site)

* Plugs in directly to Aperture, therefore I just edit from Aperture and never have to re-import photos when they are done, etc - makes it easier for me to manage and slightly streamlines my workflow

* No need for Photoshop, at least as far as my workflow is concerned

Cons

* Slower than Photomatix - at first, this bothered me but in reality it has become a non-issue simply because once everything loads into HDR Efex Pro, you can accomplish just about everything you will need for an image

* That's it - it's a wonderful product and really doesn't have any cons!  Yeah!!

Ok, so here is how you get started...

First, while in Aperture, select the shots you intend to merge into an HDR shot. Below I have selected 6 exposures that I took while in Balboa Park in San Diego.  In case you are curious, these were shot at f/16 with exposures ranging from +1 to -4.

After you select them, you go to your menu/toolbar up top and click "Photos", and then "Edit with Plug-In", and select "HDR Efex Pro".  Note that this will take a couple of minutes while the software thinks about all the fun you are going to have, or maybe it's just doing something I don't understand, but either way it takes a couple of minutes.  I find this to be a little slower than Photomatix.  Frankly though, it is worth the wait.

And then, you get to the HDR Efex Pro landing page, which looks like this: 

So first, a few things about the landing page and how it is laid out.  There are a whole bunch of preset options, which are on the left.  If you scroll down, you can see even more.  There are a bunch, and I find that some are cool, some are awesome, and some I will never use.  But, that is ok.  Everyone has a look in mind for a photo so I am sure there is something for everyone.  If you click on the preset, the image in the center will automatically update to match that preset.  Here is a closeup shot of the preset menu:

As you can see there are Preset Categories that you can click on, and it will filter the preset previews for you.  I usually just scroll through and give them all a once over.  Usually something will catch your eye immediately.

Here are a couple of examples of Presets.  First, a Preset known as "Realistic Balanced":

Then here is "Realistic Strong".  See the difference?  It has a little more of an "HDR look".  Hopefully that makes sense!

And one more example, this one known as "Vibrant Textures". That is the one I selected as my base preset, before I make some additional adjustments to it.

Once you select your base preset option from the left, you can make further adjustments by using the menu options on the right.  You can make "Global Adjustments", "Selective Adjustments", and "Finishing Adjustments".  The real power of this product, in my opinion, is in the "Selective Adjustments" menu.  More on that in a minute.  Here are what the menu options on the right look like.

The "Global Adjustments" menu, which as the name implies will apply any slider adjustments made there across the entire image.

Below that, the "Selective Adjustments" option, which is essentially giving you the ability to - you guessed it! - make adjustments selectively within the image instead of across the entire image.  It is very powerful and very cool.  This is the key thing that really makes this product, in my opinion.  More on that in a minute.

And finally, the "Finishing Adjustments" option...

 In the case of this image, I opted to make some "Selective Adjustments", otherwise known as adding some Control Points to the image.  If you want to learn more about Nik Software and their Control Points, please go to their HDR Efex Pro site and read about it: http://www.niksoftware.com/hdrefexpro/usa/entry.php 

As I said, it is very powerful and basically eliminates the need for most other photo editing products.  I have never been a Photoshop master, and don't want to be, and I find that with Nik Software I can skip using Photoshop entirely...which is nice!

Here's how it works.  First you click on the box next to where it says "Add Control Point" and then click on the part of your image where you want to add that control point.  Once the control point is added, the fun begins.

You click on the little circle and it expands the menu to give you several options.  It looks like this:

Ok, here is what all that stuff means.  First, the little circle with the yellow around it controls the size of the control point.  In other words, you can slide it back and forth to increase or decrease the area of the photo in which you want these adjustments to take place.  Next, all the other sliders make the actual adjustments, just by sliding them left or right.  Oh, and here is what all those letters stand for:

* Exposure - just like changing the exposure compensation in your camera - lighten or darken the area

* Contrast

* Saturation

* Structure

* Blacks

* Whites

* Warmth

* Method Strength

Those should be mostly self-explanatory.  What I usually do is drop in a control point, mess around to get the look I am going for, and if necessary you can copy another control point off of the original, which will take all the current settings with it (after your adjustments).  That is really handy because if you are working on a sky for example, it's impossible to remember every adjustment you made.  You copy a new one and it brings the settings over.  Nice!

As I mentioned earlier, the control points are the real gem in this product and make all the difference in the world in terms of output.  After I finish using several control points, and making several adjustments, I just click "Save" and it finalizes the image, saves it and dumps it back into Aperture, where it all began.  I also decided to run this image through Color Efex Pro, another great Nik Software product and added a "Glamour Glow" filter to it just because I liked the effect.  Then I made some finishing adjustments in Aperture.  Here is the final image after all this software fun:

 

So, for comparison purposes I also processed the same photo in Photomatix and Photoshop Elements.  Here is that final photo:

Listed below are the key differences that I notice between the two photos.

In the HDR Efex Pro photo (top photo):

* the sky looks better and does not have little pink splotches in it

*the green in the palm trees and the distant bushes is far more vibrant

*the lighting and detail is much better at the top of the steeple

*the lighting is more evenly balanced across the entire structure

*better and more realistic detail in the lavender bushes in the front left semi-foreground

*the pink flowers in the foreground are more realistic and less saturated

In short, I find that HDR Efex Pro has rendered an image that is more realistic and more pleasing to my eye. What do you think?

Thanks for reading this far and for stopping by!  Please leave any feedback in the comments section below!