About a year ago when I picked up my copy of the original HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software, I was pretty skeptical. I’d been using Photomatix for so long, that I was unsure that anyone would be able to come in with a better product and blow me away.
While I don’t know that HDR Efex Pro was any better than Photomatix it was much better than I was expecting, and for certain types of shots, I found it to be a great alternative to the offering from HDR Soft.
Since then, those two programs have made up about 95% of HDR that I’ve done – so you can imagine how stoked I was to see that HDR Efex Pro was getting an upgrade – the newest version being called, you guessed it, HDR Efex Pro 2.
Recently I’ve started using some of Nik’s other products on a much more regular basis. Color Efex Pro 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2 have made their way into my regular routine of editing – part of the reason being because it’s so incredibly convenient.
I open up Photoshop or Lightroom, and sitting there waiting for me is a nice little box with all of Nik’s plugins.
I’ve found no suite of editing plugins to be this useful, and thus you could say I’m becoming a big fan of what they are doing. My only complaint was that I still haven’t found a noise reduction solution that I was happy with – then I just realized they had one of those too, which I’m sure I’ll pick up soon.
All of that being said, those other programs aren’t why we are here. We’re here to write an indepth HDR Efex Pro 2 review.
So hold on tight, this is going to be fun. Keep in mind I used a variety of different types of shots to really get a sense of how this software handles different situations. I’ve done no further touch ups with any of these, because I wanted to give you an accurate representation of the images straight out of the program.
I also find that too many of these reviews just spout off new features. If that’s what you want, just head over to the Nik site. This is based on my actual experience editing images with the software.
At first glance you’ll see a very familiar looking interface if you’ve used prior versions of HDR Efex or any other Nik plugin.
Upon opening it up for the first time I was, however met with a screen I wasn’t familiar with. I entered in my brackets for my first shot, hit the “merge dialog” button (I think they need a better name for this, how about something easy like, you know, “pre-process”? But I digress..), and was taken to a page for pre-processing that was completely new to me.
All it took was editing one image to get really excited about this new addition.
Essentially its the easiest way I’ve found of any software to detect ghosting and select the base image that you want to use. You can select your desired level of ghost reduction, as well as use a handy slider for setting the starting exposure of the image – a very welcome addition.
The final result:
If you’ve used HDR Efex Pro in the past, for the most part you’re going to feel right at home. The layout is very similar, albeit with a few pretty important tweaks.
The first shot I loaded up is one of the most difficult I’ve come across to process. I recently took a trip to Jordan and visited Petra by Night. The minute I took this photo, I knew it had a lot of potential, but every time I’d put it in either Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro it gave me a grainy, over satuated, and seemingly unworkable starting image.
This was no different. The presets on the left scared me a little bit.
However after digging into the settings, I was stunned at two things:
The more photos I’ve edited with HDR Efex Pro 2 the more I continue to say to myself “Wow, I can’t believe how much control I have over these images.”
Sure there are probably solutions out there that can give you the same level of control, but they’re often they’re buried under tons of sliders and settings, and simply aren’t user friendly.
Take this image of the Planet Hollywood hotel in Vegas for instance. I knew this shot would be difficult to make work. The light spillover into the sky was initially awful, and there were multiple cars and pedestrians on the strip in front of the camera.
Again, I didn’t find the presets to be very helpful here (as with most other programs I’ve used, I found the presets to be relatively useless in night scenes), but within 45 seconds of tweaking some sliders – namely the blacks and shadows I found myself with a pretty cool photograph.
The results here have me feeling the same way I did when I jumped from Photoshop to Lightroom. I recently started using Lightroom more for batch image editing, and the controls of highlights and shadows are incredible – in some cases even leaving me without a need for HDR.
I experienced this same revelation in jumping up to the new HDR Efex Pro 2. The highlights and shadows tools give you so much flexibility – much more than I’d expected.
Unlike Photomatix which has a specific function for exposure blending, HDR Efex Pro does not (that I saw), but I wanted to try a little experiment.
On my trip to Amman, I took these quick brackets of my suite at the Kempinsky Hotel. Nothing special, but I wanted to see how various software would handle the very drastic differences in lighting.
With Photomatix, I got terrible results using basic HDR, but their “exposure blending” feature worked extremely well.
So I opened up the same image in HDR Efex Pro 2 and let it do it’s thing.
The results really surprised me. With no editing at all, it came back almost perfect. I was really surprised by this, and it makes me think that there could still be space for this software in real estate and interior photographers arsenal.
Because I know you want really want to know what the good and bad is, I’m just going to give you my opinions on it.
Whenever I use Photoshop my favorite window is the history. I love being able to tweak and change without worrying about screwing up something I liked. Nik added a full history feature here, so you can see every single step in the editing process – very useful.
As I mentioned I now feel like I have full control over my HDR images, which to be honest, is something I’ve never felt before – with any program.
Integration with Adobe and Other Nik Products
I can’t wait to pair some of these shots with Silver Efex. You don’t see a whole lot of black and white HDR, but I think it really allows for some creativity – especially with the selective color features of Silver.
Bottom line, for me being able to do everything in Photoshop without having to open up a separate program is huge. I found these plugins to work more seamlessly than expected.
It took me a long time to get on board with the different control points. While I still find them somewhat cumbersome to use at times, the increased flexibility is huge. Personally I found them the most relevant when doing black and white stuff, but there were definitely a few exposure and color corrections I made in HDR Efex 2 using the control point tools.
Presets Seem to Be Less Useful than Before
It could just be the types of shots I’ve been editing for this review, but while I used to use some of the presets as a pretty good starting point, in the dozen or so images I’ve already edited, I don’t think I used them once.
HDR Method Settings a Little Harsh
Generally speaking I like the new HDR Method settings. They are straight forward, and the ones geared towards realism work great – however, I just can’t imagine a time when I’d use some of the others.
For instance if you select “detail”, the soft is way too soft and accentuated has way too much structure. You see that with “drama” as well. “Natural” and “deep” work well, but I just don’t see myself using the others that much.
Once again, I won’t go as far to say that this software is better than Photomatix. If you really want to get serious about HDR I think Photomatix might have more options for you.
That said, as an intermediate photographer I’ve never had so much fun editing HDR images, as I did with HDR Efex Pro 2. I felt like I was in control and could easily do everything I wanted in a familiar interface and workflow.
The upgrade was even better than I expected it to be from the previous version, and I could very easily see this being my go to editing program for nearly all my HDR work.
Use the coupon code “hdrsoftware15″ for 15% off any Nik Software products, including HDR Efex Pro 2.
+Max Spiker has been playing with Photoshop since 2000 and HDR photography since 2005 when he discovered it on Digg. He's been a fan of the technique ever since.