Review: NIK Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2.0

The HDR Efex Pro upgrade to version 2 is major: High Dynamic Range photography has never been easier or better than with Nik Software’s new version. If you’re after more natural results: they are possible in less time. If it’s drama you’re after, the presets offer instant HDR with enough drama to turn even the smoothest scene into a pack of grunge.

The merge dialogue window.

I consider Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro as the best HDR plug-in for Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom. I consider it the best HDR application, period. But I can’t call it the easiest to use, or the most user-friendly. Version 2 changes all that.

First off: the results you’ll achieve with HDR Efex Pro 2 aren’t going to be better than with HDR Efex Pro 1, at least not if you do exactly the same as in version 1. The results will be better because the plug-in enables you to take better decisions, preview results in a better way, and offer a couple more features to end up with an even more polished finish.

IT Enquirer rating

10/10
URL: nik.com

Pros
  • merge preparation
  • ease-of-use
  • Graduated Neutral Density filter
  • ghost reduction and alignment accuracy
  • efficient interface
Cons
  • none
Price (approx.): €99.95

New to version 2 are:

  • The HDR merge preparation screen
  • A chromatic aberration reduction control
  • Addition of a Tint control for proper white balancing
  • Graduated Neutral Density control
  • Unified interface — if you know the latest versions of any other Nik plug-in, you’ll know how to work with HDR Efex Pro 2
  • History browser; as in Nik’s other last-version plug-ins
  • Better Loupe tool with clipping alerts
  • Depth control

Under the hood, Nik Software lists a new tone mapping engine and improved ghost reduction and alignment. Let’s start with these two. It’s very much possible the tone mapping engine was improved, but to be honest I found the first engine far superior to other applications anyway, so while it’s always good to improve the essential technology of a tool, this one already was so good, I couldn’t really tell the difference with version 1 — perhaps it gives us a bit more control over small changes in HDR effect?

The ghost reduction and alignment algorithms have improved and this one visibly so. Photos that I couldn’t even get in sync with the previous version’s manual tools, will now line up perfectly. Of course, the best is to start with perfectly aligned images. No algorithm can compete with that.

The HDR merge screen is now a separate screen with its own controls. It’s here that you can now decide over which photo of the series will be used as the master for the HDR result. If you have photos containing moving objects, selecting a different master will result in a different merged image. For example, selecting a master based on an image containing the object partially visible, may result in the entire moving object to be visible in the resulting HDR image. Experimenting goes a long way here, while the screen in realtime updates to help you make a choice.

The interface with the parameters expanded.

The merge preparation screen consistently showed the image as too dark with respect to the resulting HDR image in the HDR Efex Pro 2 working window, but that is less of an issue than you might think, because the relative effect of changing the merge characteristics onto the brightness of the image seem to be correct.

In the merge preparation screen you’ll also find a chromatic aberration correction tool. It works exactly the same way as Aperture’s.

In the working window, the first thing you’ll notice is the clutter free interface. It’s all nicely categorised and palettes are collapsible. The interface now corresponds almost one-on-one with the latest versions of Viveza, Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro.

The addition of a Tint slider to the Color section makes it possible to correct for white balance inside HDR Efex Pro 2, which is more simple and certainly quicker than correcting the series of shots you use for the effect.

The Loupe tool now allows you to view hot and cold areas — the same way as with Color Efex Pro 3.

The interface with the Graduated ND filter visible.

Of all the new features, I personally like the Graduated Neutral Density control the best. It allows you to apply a neutral density filter inside HDR Efex Pro 2, which is especially appealing when you’re shooting an image of which only the part above or below the horizon you want to have the high dynamic tone range you can’t achieve by shooting one photograph. I applied the Graduated ND filter on a sunset photo, leaving the area above the horizon exposed to the full HDR effect, and darken the one below so to add drama to the image.

You could do this with U-Point controls too, but that would require much more work and a more careful approach not to have the U-Point masks bleed into areas above the horizon.

Depth control is useful to add a bit of local contrast to the HDR image.

Version 2 of HDR Efex Pro is certainly worth the upgrade, and if you didn’t already have this plug-in, now is certainly the time to try it out and see for yourself.

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