Photomatix vs Hand Blended HDR

View from a Cave House in Cappadocia (Photomatix version)View from a cave house in Cappadocia

Selime Monastery, Cappadocia, Turkey (Left: Photomatix version | Right: Hand Blended version)

In my previous post, I talked about how I used the concept of Luminance Masks from Tony Kuyper’s blog to make a hand blended HDR as an alternative to Photomatix. This post shows a side by side comparison of the Photomatix version of the image on the left, and the hand blended version on the right.

Bear in mind that I haven’t worked as much on the Photomatix version, which could be made to look a little better, but it still serves as a good comparison. Also bear in mind that I’ve only done one hand blended HDR to date and many, many Photomatix ones, so Photomatix has the advantage there. I’m not going to talk much about how to do hand blending as Tony does an excellent job of it on his blog, and I recommend that you read it.

Here’s what I think so far:

    • Ease of Use.
      Cave with a View (Photomatix Settings)

      Photomatix tonemapping settings used for this image.

      Photomatix is far and away the easier of the two techniques to use. Tonemapping your three bracketed images in Photomatix takes all of a minute, and the final image can then be cleaned up and adjusted in Photoshop, which should take from a few minutes to an hour at most. Hand blending requires far more decision making, followed by a lot of selections and actions in Photoshop. These can be speeded up by automating in Photoshop, but even so this first image took me three evenings to complete. With practice, I could reduce the time a lot, but it would still be nowhere near as fast as Photomatix.
    • Control. Photomatix has a few sliders to twiddle and then it throws out a tonemapped image. There’s not much control, but it does what it needs to do very well. The downside is that you can only work on the overall image, and you seldom get it that you are happy with the entire image. Hand blending lets you have an incredible amount of control. You can split your images into as many zones of tonal range from light to dark as you like, and you can decide exactly which ones to blend together in which part of your image. The choice is so open that it’s quite overwhelming, but that’s the fun of it. On the image above, I think Photomatix has flattened the rock texture in the cave too much, and has done odd things to the sky, but has improved the texture on the light ground outside the cave. Hand blending allowed me to improve the inside rock texture, although I think I could have done a better job on the outside ground.
    • Picture Quality. 
      Cave with a View (Photoshop Layers)

      Photoshops layers used for hand blended HDR instead of Photomatix tonemapping. The bracket set is arranged from darkest on top to lightest on the lowest layer, and the luminance masks are carefully created to ensure the best blend of the three images.

      The way in which the techniques differ makes a big difference in final image quality. Photomatix blends your three bracketed photos together into one tonemapped image, and in the process can increase the amount of noise in the image considerably. If you go too aggressive on the settings, you can also get unpleasant looking haloes forming on edges between light and dark  areas (for example at the rock / sky edge of the above image). With hand blending you layer your bracketed photos on top of each other in Photoshop. You then use masks to determine which parts of which image you want to see. Because you aren’t processing the underlying images, you aren’t increasing noise, forming haloes, or producing other undesirable effects on your image. The difference is very apparent to me when I look at a full size version of each of these images, but makes less difference at web sizes.
    • Look. Photomatix has a look that has become quite prevalent in the world of HDR. Some people love it, some hate it. I enjoy it, especially when not overdone, but it remains a very distinctive look. What I’ve enjoyed about hand blending so far is that it doesn’t seem to automatically have a look, or at least it’s more natural, and you are far more free to make the HDR image match your memory of the scene.

In summary, Photomatix will allow you to process your HDRs quickly, they will look pretty good, but will have a distinctive Photomatix look. Hand blending will take considerably more time and Photoshop skills, but will allow for a better quality image with a very high degree of control in the blending and final look.

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