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Nik HDR Efex Pro Review

by Theano Nikitas, November 2010 (updated March 2011)


HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imaging) is one of the more controversial techniques that has emerged on the photographic front. Its core purpose is to expand the shadow and highlight details in order to create a more balanced exposure with, as its name implies, increased dynamic range. However, many photographers started taking HDRI to the edge, producing dramatic photographs with extreme detail and textures.

Regardless of your position on realistic versus surrealistic HDR techniques, the process is here to stay with any number of software options to help you realize your HDR goals. One of the newest plug-ins in this category is Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. Like other Nik plug-ins, HDR Efex Pro is easy to use and incorporates the company’s excellent U-Point Technology for selectively applying adjustments and effects.

Like other Adobe Photoshop plug-ins in the Nik family, Nik HDR Efex Pro is compatible with a wide range of applications. I tested HDR Efex Pro on a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro running Max OS X 10.6.4 with 4GB of RAM using Adobe Photoshop CS5. (See System Requirements for program compatibility.)

Where to Buy

Please consider purchasing from one of our partners. By purchasing from them, you will be helping to support Photo.net.

Current owners of Nik Software Complete collection or owners of all five current products (Dfine 2, Viveza 2, Color Efex Pro 3, Silver Efex Pro, and Sharpener Pro) may qualify for a special upgrade price or a free copy of HDR Efex Pro. For details, see the FAQs at Nik Software.

You can also download a free 15-day trial at www.niksoftware.com.

Getting Started

Installing Nik HDR Efex Pro is extremely easy and, for convenience, you can elect to install the plug-in to Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Apple Aperture at the same time. Before you install, though, please see the system requirements and software compatibility at the bottom of this page.

With Nik HDR Efex Pro, you can work with a single image (see tutorial below) or a series of bracketed images. For the latter, we suggest a minimum of 3 images bracketed at the metered exposure, one over-exposed and one-under-exposed. The amount of exposure adjustment depends on the scene, the look you want to achieve and the bracketing limitations of your camera. Of course, you can always adjust the exposure manually for an even broader range if you’re working on a tripod. Essentially, you want to capture the entire dynamic range of an image so it’s best to check your histogram to ensure that you have a full information set. (For more details on creating HDR images, check out the new 2nd edition of Jack Howard’s book Practical HDRI, available at Amazon.com.)

The method of accessing HDR Efex Pro is different for each application and in Photoshop, there are a couple of options. For example, using the Photoshop CS5 method I prefer, you can select your images in Bridge, go to Tools > Nik Software > Merge to HDR Efex Pro to merge the images and open the HDR Efex Pro application. Alternatively, you can open your bracketed images in Photoshop, then go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Efex Pro. (This is where you can also use Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro for combining your images. Be sure to change the Mode to 32 bit before you hit the OK button so you can then open the image in HDR Efex Pro. More about this later.)

Alignment and Ghost Reduction

Nik HDR Efex Pro can work with single or multiple images. Using a single image is really simple and is the easiest way to get started if you don’t have a set of bracketed shots. As mentioned earlier, you need to change the image to 32 bit (Image > Mode > 32 Bits/Channel) before it can be opened in HDR Efex Pro.

I shot a series of images with the Nikon D7000 using its auto bracketing feature. Unfortunately, the camera’s bracketing function maxes out at 3 images but there was enough information to work with for HDR. Nik HDR Efex Pro will let you know if the exposure information wasn’t recorded to the EXIF data and will alert you to images that have the same exposure data, so you can manually adjust the bracketing sequence.

Set on continuous high speed, I was able to handhold the D7000 with fairly good bracketing results but there was some misalignment and a moderate breeze moving some of the tree branches. The plug-in’s alignment and ghosting reduction initially didn’t provide very good results when I used the Adaptive method and Medium strength. If I had used a tripod, the results would have been much more acceptable but I could see that I had moved the camera every so slightly when shooting. When I used the Global ghost reduction method at high strength, the images aligned almost perfectly. If Nik’s alignment and ghost reduction doesn’t work, try Photoshop CS5 or any other HDR software you might have on hand. After speaking with a few experts a while back, it seems that it’s not uncommon for one software application to work well on one image while another works better on a different image. So far, I’ve had no reason to look elsewhere for alignment and ghost reduction.

There’s a quirk in the program—or, perhaps it’s user error—but when Nik HDR Efex Pro opens from Lightroom, for example, there’s an Alignment and Ghost Reduction button along the top of the window so you can quickly apply a stronger (or weaker) alignment/de-ghosting process. There’s no button in Photoshop so if your first attempt doesn’t succeed, you have to go back to the beginning and start again—an annoying process, especially since Nik HDR Efex Pro isn’t the speediest of apps (at least on my laptop).

Nik HDR Efex Pro User Interface

Once you get your image(s) into Nik HDR Efex Pro, you’ll feel right at home if you’ve used any of the Nik Efex plug-ins before. Click on the Settings button (lower left) to change the default language, the default preview mode (single image, split image, side-by-side), background color (grey, white or black) and zoom state. For the latter 3 you can opt to make your last settings the default.

Help can be accessed from within the program, although I recommend going to the Nik site and downloading the Getting Started Guide, which is a basic introduction to the plug-in. Although HDR Efex Pro is fairly intuitive, it would be nice to have a more complete user guide for those unfamiliar with HDR and Nik plug-ins but Nik has a great series of video tutorials and has been sponsoring free and informative webinars as well, so there are plenty of learning resources if you have the time.

Along the top tool bar, you’ll find viewing options (full screen, single or split images), a Preview button (click on/off to cycle between the original and current iteration of the image), Zoom control (you can also hit the space bar to zoom in and out), the lightbulb icon to change the background colors from gray to white to black, and an arrow that hides and opens the right hand panel.

For quick and easy transition to HDR, the Preset Browser contains 30 presets, broken into categories such as Realistic, Artistic, Surreal, Landscape, Architecture and Special; you can opt to view all of the presets at one time. Organizationally, it’s easier if you save your most-often used presets to the Favorites folder.

As with other Nik plug-ins, you can also create, save and even share your custom presets. Visit the Nik site to see and download other HDR Efex Pro users’ presets. These presets can be easily installed in the application and, from past experience with Nik Silver Efex Pro, you should be able to find some interesting options on the site.

Nik HDR Efex Pro’s right panel provides a wide range of adjustment tools broken logically into several sections including a slider for adjusting Tone Compression and a long list of global adjustments such as Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Structure, Blacks, Whites, and Warmth. HDR Method offers 20 options ranging from fairly neutral choices such as Natural, Clean, Subtle to more obvious adjustments such as Dark Textures and Harsh Details. Intensity of each effect can be fine-tuned with a slider bar.

One of this plug-in’s strengths is, of course, Nik’s U Point technology. Like other Nik Efex plug-ins, HDR Efex Pro allows users to apply changes selectively by placing and adjusting control points. All global adjustments (exposure, contrast, saturation, etc.) are available from sliders attached to the control point, as is an HDR Method Strength slider. If you haven’t worked with control points before, there’s a very short learning curve and you’ll quickly see the benefits of this technology.

As much as I love working with control points, I was a little disappointed that decreasing exposure for the sky and clouds turned puffy whites into dull and/or dark greys. And skies with more blue than clouds often ended up looking garish (and not in a good way) when saturation was increased. But half of the trick with HDR is to find appropriate subject matter (stormy brooding skies work best, for example).

My other gripe is that there’s no rotate image control. When working with merged JPEG images from Photoshop CS5, my vertical shots were placed sideways (horizontal or landscape mode) in HDR Efex Pro. I’m sure others can work on images this way but my brain just couldn’t come to grips with the flipped orientation and, for now, I’ve limited myself to horizontal (or RAW) photos for HDR from Photoshop. Maybe Nik will deliver a version update with a rotate image feature. Otherwise, the software is really intuitive, easy to use and, with the amount of control it offers, Nik HDR Efex Pro is going to find its way onto the desktops of a lot of photographers.

Conclusion

With the ever-growing popularity of HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imaging) in all of its permutations, Nik HDR Efex Pro is a welcome addition to the equally-expanding round-up of HDR software applications on the market. Like all Nik plug-ins, HDR Efex Pro was thoughtfully designed and makes good use of Nik U Point technology for effortlessly applying selective adjustments.

Its intuitive interface, presets, and other one-click options are user-friendly, even for those who are just starting out in HDR. Perhaps the biggest learning curve, other than shooting images for HDR, is choosing the best alignment and ghost reduction options for each individual image. More advanced HDR photographers, especially those who have used Nik plug-ins before, will feel right at home with HDR Efex Pro and its control points. Regardless of skill level, though, all photographers will appreciate the software’s wide range of manual controls.

I don’t think that any software will convert me to a huge HDRI fan (except in the purest sense, i.e., to balance highlights and shadows) but Nik HDR Efex Pro, with its fine-tuning controls, has certainly sparked my interest in stretching the boundaries of some of my images.

Pros: intuitive interface, U Point technology’s control points, advanced manual options, presets that can be customized and shared, generally effective alignment and ghost reduction, 64 bit compatible

Cons: potentially slow performance (depending on system), alignment and ghost reduction not available from within plug-in when opened in Photoshop (but I’m still checking on this), no rotate image control

HDR Efex Pro Tutorials

When merging multiple images, I prefer to work from Adobe Photoshop CS5 Bridge since it’s easier to select the images to be merged. Here’s a quick tutorial to get you started.

From Bridge

1. Open the image folder and select the images you want to merge.

2. Go to Tools>Nik Software>Merge to HDR Efex Pro

3. A dialogue box will open in Photoshop. Click on each of the file names in the dialogue box (they will turn red).

4. Make sure the Alignment box is checked.

5. Check the Ghost Reduction Method box. I know from earlier trials that these handheld images need a little extra help so I selected Global and High strength but most images will do well with Adaptive and Medium. (In Lightroom and Aperture, you can access this dialogue box by clicking the "Alignment and Ghost Reduction button at the top of the main window.)

6. Click OK. The images will be merged and aligned. HDR Efex Pro will be launched. To check the accuracy, choose a zoom level from the Zoom drop down menu; then hit the spacebar to zoom in and out.

7. A preset will automatically be applied to the image when HDR Efex Pro opens. The default preset is pretty innocuous but under Settings, you can choose another default.

8. Select a preset and/or apply manual global adjustments using the slider bars in the right panel.

9. Add control points; be sure to press the small arrow at the bottom of the control point “tree” to expand available options. I started by placing a single control point in an open area of the sky and then lowered exposure, increased contrast, structure and saturation.

10. Click on the control point, press Option (Mac)/Alt (PC) to drag a duplicate control point to another area of the image. I did this several times to quickly—and evenly—adjust the sky, only changing the amount of the affected area.

11. I then added a separate control point for the foliage and duplicated the point to ensure that the foreground was evenly adjusted.

12. Once you’re happy with your image, click OK and the image will open in Photoshop. Beware, though, my three-image D7000 merge opened as a 91MB psd file, which I downsized and saved as a JPEG.

Single Image

If you tried accessing Nik HDR Efex Pro from the Filter menu in Photoshop, you were probably as frustrated as I was. Follow this tutorial and you’ll learn how to quickly and easily convert the image to 32 bit (which is required by Nik HDR Efex Pro).

1. Open the image in Photoshop. Go to Image>Mode>32 Bits/Channel.

2. Go to Filter>Nik Software>HDR Efex Pro. This will open the image in Nik HDR Efex Pro.

3. To keep things simple, I applied the Single Exposure 1 preset (any other preset will work as well).

4. In the Levels and Curves drop down menu on the right panel under the Finishing Adjustments header (scroll down if you can’t see it), I chose and applied Vintage 1.

5. Although I was happy with the vintage look, I could still see lens vignetting in the upper corners (the fault of the point-and-shoot camera I used). To cover up the vignetting, I chose the Level 3 Vignette from the drop down menu above Levels and Curves.

6. Adjust more parameters if you’d like or click OK to open the image in Photoshop.

System Requirements

Windows

  • Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7
  • AMD or Intel processor
  • 2 GB of RAM (4GB recommended)
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4 through CS5 (64-bit compatible only), or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 through 3.0 or later (32-bit and 64-bit compatible)

Macintosh

  • Mac OS 10.5 through 10.6
  • Intel processor
  • 2 GB of RAM (4GB recommended)
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5 (64-bit compatible only), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 through 3.0 or later (32-bit and 64-bit compatible), or Apple Aperture 2.1.4 through 3.0 or later (32-bit and 64-bit compatible)

Where to Buy

Please consider purchasing from one of our partners. By purchasing from them, you will be helping to support Photo.net.

More

About the Author

Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 15 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how to” articles and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and on Websites including American Photo, CNET.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, Digital Photographer, First Glimpse, Imaging-Resource.com, macHOME, PCPhoto, PC How to Digital Photography Buyer’s Guide, Photo District News, PopPhoto.com, and Popular Science. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras. More »


Original text and images ©2010 Theano Nikitas.

Article revised March 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Saad Salem , December 05, 2010; 02:31 P.M.

So surprised to read on the Mac requirement an ( Intel processor ) only. Does this means it would not work on a mac supplied by the original non Intel processor like the G4 or G5 ????

Theano Nikitas , December 10, 2010; 09:54 A.M.

Hi Saad,

That's my understanding. Also, Photoshop CS5, Lightroom 3, and Aperture 3 all require Intel-based Macs.  If you're using an earlier version of Lightroom or Aperture (see system requirements in the review) and Mac OS X 10.5, then you might want to contact Nik Software support to see if Nik HDR Efex Pro will run on your machine. I suppose it's possible but it doesn't seem likely. 

--Theano

Saad Salem , December 05, 2010; 02:31 P.M. So surprised to read on the Mac requirement an ( Intel processor ) only. Does this means it would not work on a mac supplied by the original non Intel processor like the G4 or G5 ????

R A , November 18, 2011; 04:21 P.M.

Thanks !

/RA


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