It has been over five years ago since I last reviewed Photomatix Pro, the gold standard for HDR software. Photomatix Pro 5 and its associated plug-ins are more powerful than ever. Photomatix Pro 5 adds a Contrast Optimizer Tone Mapping method and an Exposure Fusion method for Real Estate, multiple settings in batch operations and the ability to create faux HDR images from one LDR image with Fusion settings.
Since I last reviewed Photomatix, the app has come a long way. It hasn’t changed much in terms of output quality, which has always been excellent but it sure has evolved in terms of options, methods and interface. Compared to other HDR apps, Photomatix Pro 5 finds itself in a league of its own.
For my review, HDRsoft provided me with the full bundle, including the plug-ins for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. The plug-ins don’t support all the features of the stand-alone app. However, most of the tone mapping functionality is always included.
Stand-alone version of Photomatix Pro 5
One of the first things you’ll notice when reading through Photomatix’s user guide is the lack of a limit to the number of low dynamic range (LDR) photos you can use. In almost every other HDR app, you’re limited to three or seven shots. Photomatix will happily take as many shots as you need. I tried Photomatix Pro 5 with 14 photos and it didn’t even slow down the Mac.
When I tested Photomatix five years ago, I remember the interface to be a bit cluttered, with a lack of guidance and above all too many options available simultaneously. You can still opt to have a lot of windows all over the place, but by default Photomatix Pro 5 offers a nice unified two-window approach. Help text is now displayed in a small panel whenever your mouse hovers over any sort of feature, be it a button or a slider.
Photomatix Pro is and always has been, a true HDR app, meaning you can select to create a true HDR image (OpenXR, Radiance…). The Tone Mapping and Exposure Fusion methods allow you to create a displayable version of your HDR image, but as many of you know they are low dynamic range images that “compress” all the greyscale values of the HDR image into a “common” format any monitor can display.
To compress your HDR image into a tone mapped or fused end-result, Photomatix Pro 5 offers an easy, linear workflow from which experienced users can break free by clicking a button in the starter panel.
Actions that need to be done before you begin experimenting with Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion are only available in the first stage of the workflow. An example is deghosting, which makes little sense for you to do when you’re already deciding on looks. Some other HDR applications do allow you to remove ghosts anywhere in the workflow, potentially creating a mess in the process.
Deghosting with Photomatix Pro 5 is powerful without depending too much on “magical” algorithms. Whereas some of the competing developers like to insist on automating this process in an effort to highlight the one major algorithm they’ve developed in every product they release, Photomatix Pro 5 likes you to have control. The same applies to the alignment feature.
If automatic alingment doesn’t work — you get tripod and hand-held algorithms, and it takes a lot of motion to have it fail — you can easily draw a selection around the moving object and decide to have it replaced with the same object in one of the LDR photos of the series you’re using.
The best HDR apps will give you total control over how you compress the HDR values into a displayable end-result. If you have enough control over the process you can create any number of finishes based on one HDR image. All those versions should bear at least a relationship of colour balance to the HDR image. For example, some HDR apps introduce a green colour cast when you increase overall colour cast. Photomatix doesn’t.
Photomatix Pro 5 allows you to apply one of three colour profiles to the result, which is pretty unique in this market niche. In the Tone Mapping algorithm, you have a choice between Details Enhancer, Tone Compressor and in the newest version 5: Contrast Optimizer.
Of these three methods, Details Enhancer gives you the most control, while Contrast Optimizer offers a realistic look where local contrast areas can be fine-tuned to your liking. Exposure Fusion offers Natural, Intensive, Real Estate (new for version 5) and two automatic methods without controls. There’s also a setting for two images, where all you do really is change the “weighting” of the images in the end-result. The Real Estate setting is a natural setting, especially useful for showing interiors with the outside clearly visible in one shot.
With all methods, Photomatix Pro 5 offers a nice range of presets. These can be applied as they are, but most people will take them as a starting point and fine-tune until they have their own unique HDR look. Of course, you can create new presets yourself.
You can also use Photomatix Pro 5 to create a “faux HDR look” from one single raw image and in version 5 you can even apply an Exposure Fusion method to that one photograph. But it remains a “faux” HDR image look as it cannot but lack the huge dynamic range a true HDR image has to offer.
At the very end of your HDR processing, you get a chance to apply some finishing touches with the “Finishing Touch” window. Here you can tweak contrast, colour and sharpening.
Finally, Photomatix Pro 5 allows you to batch process images. It took my iMac i5/3.1Ghz about two minutes to go through two operations on the 14 test images. Batch processing is an especially important feature if you shoot a lot of HDR. The batch window enables you to enter all parameters and use presets for the whole batch.
It does require you to remember what the presets will look like before you’ll end up with the results you want, because none of the batch operations shows you any preview. That would defy the purpose of having a batch functionality entirely.
Photomatix in Photoshop CS6 and Aperture
Photomatix also comes as a plug-in. If you already have Photomatix Pro 5, you only need the plug-in for Photoshop if you want to use the Tone Mapping methods from within Photoshop CS2 through CC directly.
The standalone Photomatix Pro and Essentials include Tone Mapping as well as Exposure Fusion. The latter is not available in the plug-in for Photoshop.
With the Photoshop plug-in you are not always working with the 32-bit HDR image either. In Photoshop CS5, CS6 and CC, HDR Merge Pro defaults to the low dynamic range 16-bit image. Older versions seem to do it correctly. Also, when you’re working in Photoshop you will have to change the bit-depth of the 32-bit HDR image after Tone Mapping to a lower bit-depth in order to be able to output clean and picture-correct images.
Of course, the plug-ins don’t support Batch Processing and the ability to tone map very large HDR image files. Due to memory limitations imposed to Photoshop plug-ins, the Tone Mapping plug-in may get into issues of insufficient memory when processing relatively large images. On my iMac 27”/i5-3.1GHz (mid-2011) I didn’t get into trouble with 12MP images, though.
The Aperture plug-in also lacks some important functionality that is available to users of the stand-alone version but more options are available than in Photoshop. For example, there still is one Fusion option (Natural) available in Aperture.
In Aperture you are also certain to be working with the 32-bit image as you’ll be starting with the LDR images (including the Photomatix deghosting tool) before you get to the Tone Mapping process.
Photomatix Pro 5 is a HDR powerhouse. It offers the right mix of features, presets and automation functionality to please the most demanding photographers. The developers have the interface right as well as the feature set. Over the course of the past five years I have reviewed many of Photomatix’s competitors, including Nik Software’s once excellent HDR plug-in and the short-lived English version of Franzis’ HDR Project Platin.
Except for Nik’s product, all of these apps lacked either elegance or power, or both in order to really appeal to anyone who is serious about HDR photography. With Nik having been acquired by Google and the subsequent handling by Google of these products and technical support in particular, I believe Photomatix Pro no longer has any competition that really matters.
The stand-alone version of Photomatix Pro 5 costs 99.00 USD.