Photomatix Pro helps you to conjure back details in the shadowed and light areas of your photos. A blue sky becomes blue indeed, and the landscape sports original colors instead of a black silhouette. Combining the HDR and Tone Mapping features of the software is really worth explaining. This is what you will find below.
Last time we discussed Photomatix's basic dynamics increasing tools. Now we can take another step forward, looking at HDR—High Dynamic Range—pictures.
The basic problem is the same as before. A digital camera is unable to reproduce in a picture the things the human eye sees. Lighter areas often get too white, and the darker ones too black. If you take at least two photos of the same theme with different lightness values, Photomatix is able to produce a single (HDR) image out of them by taking from each one the areas with appropriate lightness and blending them together. You can take three or more pictures of the theme. Although processing time will increase, but the chances for a good result will grow, too, as the software will be able to choose from more alternative picture parts.
Click File/Open or HDRI/Generate HDR (and Load Images afterwards) to load the photos. The photos have to be of the same size or else HDR will be disabled.
You should choose Use Standard Response Curve on the next dialog, and select Align LDR... at the bottom. The latter can help if the photos were taken without a tripod and they are slightly displaced when compared to each other. The software will try to fit them perfectly in order to avoid motion blur.
The third step will take a few seconds (up to several minutes on slow computers). This is when the HDR image is being computed. The HDR image you get might look worse than the original at the first glance. Use HDR Viewer, displayed beside the photo, to check the results accurately. Simply hover the mouse pointer above the desired photo area and the HDR photo part will become visible.
But how will you get a normal photo, say, a JPEG out of this HDR picture? How will the blue and the flecks of clouds get on the bleached sky, and details in the shadows present themselves? This is what Tone Mapping is for—processing the presently raw HDR image into a traditional format. You just have to specify a few options to tell the software what kind of final picture you want. The conversion feature can be accessed by clicking HDRI/Tone Mapping after the HDR photo is ready.
After you start Tone Mapping—and following a short calculation period—a dialog is displayed, with a preview image that shows the result of the conversion correctly. The preview on the right already shows something resembling more of what the human eye would see. This is what you will have to refine in order to get a photo as close to reality (or what you had in mind) as possible.
Unfortunately the preview image cannot be zoomed, so you'll have to carry out the following steps based on this small picture, which can sometimes lead to an inferior result. This is because using overly large values can produce an annoying noise in the pictures. In general, you should keep in mind that "less can be more" when using Tone Mapping. Improper settings can make your photo look unreal and graphics-like.
The first option is Dynamic Range Increase. The default value of 0 can be adjusted up to +/-10. You should change it in very fine steps and constantly check the results in the preview area. Excessively low negative values can make the photo too dark, while high positives lend it an unnatural look. Effect Strength, set to 100% by default, should generally be kept lower in order to preserve the picture's above-mentioned natural character. Color Saturation is fairly obvious, while White Point and Black Point control the lightness of the picture. Next, you have to set the blurring of the areas where darker and lighter picture parts meet (Smoothing), and Microcontrast. Setting Smoothing to Low (out of the three possible values) produces sharper borders when blending areas of a light sky with a dark block of a building. Microcontrast controls the contrast of the details. Its ideal value is 0. Increasing it will increase contrast of the finer details, but alas, it will also strengthen noise. Decrease it to weaken granularity, but take care not to make the photo flat and dull.
The controls in the upper right corner are all that remains. For normal JPEG pictures, use 24-bit pixel depth, while for uncompressed TIFF images, 48-bit should be selected. 360° Image is for panorama pictures. When selected, the program will align the edges of the picture. You should only use it when really dealing with a 360° panorama image.
You can observe the advantages of Tone Mapping well by looking at the final photo. You got the "blue" sky you desired, and shadowed areas are showing a lot more details now. We used stronger settings in this experiment to illustrate the abilities of Photomatix, which also made the blue sky greyish. Once again, the tagline is "More can be less".
(Trial version of the software can be downloaded from www.hdrsoft.com.)