HDR Efex Pro 2 manages to make HDR relatively easy, and it produces ‘good’ HDR which is dynamic, rich and exciting rather than overprocessed and cheesy. It still wraps it up in a bit too much jargon (some of it specific to this particular software), but it does produce a good variety of ready-made HDR presets so that you don’t have to get caught up in the manual adjustments if you don’t want to.
What is it?
HDR Efex Pro is a tool for merging bracketed HDR exposures and then apply tone mapping and HDR effects to the merged image. This is the same process used by Aurora HDR, Lightroom’s HDR Merge tool and other HDR programs. It’s part of the DxO Nik Collection, which you can get from the DxO website.
How it works
There are two ways to create an HDR image with HDR Efex Pro 2 – you can load a single image (ideally a RAW file, which you can now do via the Nik Collection 2 and DxO PhotoLab) and use the software’s tone-mapping and HDR tools to pull out the shadows and pull back the highlights, or you can follow the more technically correct route and merge a series of different exposures. This is the route you’ll need to follow if the brightness range in the scene is too great for a single exposure, even with the extra dynamic range headroom of a RAW file.
HDR Efex Pro 2 does a good job of merging different exposures, removing chromatic aberration and controlling ghosting artefacts pretty well.
Once your exposures are merged or your file opened, you’re presented with a full image preview in the centre of the screen, an array of preset effects arranged in categories in a vertical panel on the left, and manual HDR tools stacked in a panel on the right.
Previous versions offered around 30 preset HDR ‘looks, and the Nik Collection 2 update adds ten new “En Vogue” looks to this list, and they offer a good range of effects and ‘looks’. HDR Efex Pro use the open image to display ‘live’ previews for each preset, so it won’t take you look to find a look that’s close to the one you want.
This is where you switch to the manual tools on the right for any fine-tuning, and these are organised into collapsible Tone Compression, Tonality, Colour, Selective Adjustments and Finishing panels.
The sliders in the Tonality and Colour panels are pretty obvious, but the Tone Compression sliders less so. Tone Compression presumably controls the extent to which highlights and shadows are equalised, with the Method Strength slider controls the combined effect of the HDR Method options below.
These consist of Depth Detail and Drama settings. These aren’t sliders as such because they have click-stopped positions corresponding to specific ‘methods’ which vary by type rather than by degree. For example, the Drama control offers Flat, Natural, Deep, Dingy, Sharp and Grainy settings which sound descriptive enough but give you no clue as to their purpose or technical basis.
Is it any good?
HDR Efex Pro 2 is a good deal better than most HDR tools out there on the market, with a wide variety of interesting and effective ‘looks’ and the ability to create HDR images that cover the creative spectrum from subtle-and-natural through to over-the-top. The new “En Vogue” presets in the Nik Collection 2 are a worthwhile addition, too.
Its results aren’t quite as clean and artefact free as Skylum’s Aurora HDR, but that’s a more expensive and more specialised tool. HDR Efex Pro’s controls and jargon aren’t always helpful, though, which is perhaps a bigger problem, as you end up rolling the dice with three HDR Method controls whose functions aren’t clear and whose interactions and permutations are almost endless.
However, it’s not hard to find an HDR ‘look’ you like with HDR Efex Pro 2, and it deserves proper credit for that given that many HDR tools are just too complex and difficult (and often ineffective). And remember this is just one plug-in in a bigger collection, so it’s great value too.