NIK HDR EFEX PRO 2 – A Review Told Through My European Travels

It’s no secret that I’m not an avid practitioner of multiple exposure techniques, preferring to capture everything I need in a single RAW file. Occasionally, if absolutely necessary, I will hand blend two exposures. That does not mean I can’t appreciate a well-done HDR. However, I’ll confess that I’m not a fan of the way it is implemented in the vast majority of cases. Halos, ghosting, over-saturated colours (especially blues) and flat-looking contrast with no deep shadows are some of my gripes.

So what does Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2 have to offer me? Surprisingly, quite a lot actually. I was interested to see how it performed as a Photoshop plug-in to create pseudo-HDR images from a single RAW file. Like Color Efex Pro 4, reviewed last week, I wouldn’t use it on my serious landscape photographs. As an example, here is the HDR software applied to one of my Brittany landscapes, captured on the magnificent Finistere peninsula.

Finistere (Photoshop only)

This involved a fairly elaborate workflow in Photoshop to bring out the subtle warm light on the cliff, give definition to the pink clouds in the sky and increase contrast to emphasize the layering in the composition designed to create depth. It took 20-30 minutes in the Photoshop digital darkroom to complete the job. Using HDR Efex Pro, I simply chose the best looking of the 33 preset solutions. You can make global or selective adjustments via a panel on the right and also some further HDR variations using the drop down tab named “HDR Method”. Fiddling with these additional controls didn’t improve the image to any significant degree, so essentially this was a one click conversion to pseudo-HDR. As you can see, it does a serviceable job but can’t provide the control I need in Photoshop to fully optimize a landscape image. I can see that it could be of potential benefit to someone with rudimentary processing skills.

Finistere (HDR Efex Pro 2)

I tried HDR Efex on a number of my travel images that might benefit from a different look to my usually photo-realistic interpretations. The first travel photo is one from the Italian hilltop town of Bergamo. I was surprised that my friend had never been there despite being based in northern Italy. Since it was only a short drive from Milano, I suggested that we check it out. It really is a gem of a town and anyone going to Milan should make an effort to visit. There are a number of delicious culinary specialties that the Bergamaschi seem quite proud of. Casoncelli is the regional pasta, parcels filled with meat, amaretto biscuits and pears in a butter sauce. Polenta features in many of their other dishes. I recall ordering them at a trattoria for dinner and the waiter nodding sagely in a manner that suggested I was giving all the correct answers to an exam. My companion did not get the same positive responses when requesting her more generic Italian items. The next day we stumbled upon a courtyard where I was rather taken by the mosaics on the floor and the mid morning winter sun casting some striking-looking shadows. The light was already a bit too harsh for my likings, nevertheless I convinced my friend to strike a few poses and snapped a few frames.

HDR Efex Pro 2 Screenshot

Bergamo (RAW at default values)

The dynamic range was a stretch for my Canon 5DMkII. One of the problems with trying to find a middle ground for both highlights and shadows is that neither are ideally exposed. This was the case here and I was interested to see how the HDR software handled it. The alternative would have been a lengthy and difficult triple RAW processing job in Photoshop. I opened the RAW file with all the parameters set to zero and let HDR Efex do its job. The results were impressive, some nice details appearing in the mosaics and pillars as well as a degree of highlight recovery. I’ve put up three versions for comparison, the RAW file appearance with everything zeroed, a one click HDR conversion and a finished version with some Photoshop for perspective correction and cloning out a distracting spike on the fence.

Bergamo (HDR Efex Pro)

Bergamo (HDR plus finishing in Photoshop)

The next example comes from the town of Honfleur in Normandy. It was a wet overcast morning after traveling from the nearby seaside resort of Etretat. Honfleur, known for its picturesque old port and appeal to artists is not surprisingly, a popular tourist destination. Unfortunately after a night in the car and a fruitless dawn shoot at Etretat, I was somewhat lacking in motivation and inspiration. An old Citroen parked in a square prompted me to make a few pictures. Things improved soon after when crowd gathered and a French journalist struck up a conversation with me, explaining that the celebrations for the two day Fete des Marins were about to start. She was apparently covering the event for a magazine.

Once again I used the opened up the RAW file without any adjustment in ACR and immediately launched HDR Efex in Photoshop. Using one of the presets I was able to restore a great of detail and add some much needed punch to the image. Some of the reds and blues became over saturated, no doubt partly due to this particular HDR setting causing under-exposure. I made some levels adjustments to increase brightness in PS and the result was quite pleasing. The Citroen seemed a bit comical in appearance so I didn’t mind the slight cartoonish look to the image. I could have reduced the saturation for a more realistic interpretation.

Honfleur (RAW at default values)

Honfleur (HDR Preset)

Honfleur (HDR plus finishing & crop in Photoshop)

Back to Italy. Before making my way to Trento and Lake Garda, I stopped off for a night in Asolo, a beautiful town not far from Venice. Situated on a hill and a favourite of many poets, writers and artists, it has been dubbed “town of a thousand views”. Apart from the panoramic vistas and elaborate topiaries there are some charming streets and buildings. I decided to use the Granny’s Attic preset to create a vintage look to a photo of a building’s facade.

Asolo (RAW adjusted in ACR)

Asolo (Granny’s Attic Preset in HDR Efex Pro)

And here’s a second image of the same facade using the same HDR preset combined with Nik’s Viveza to bring our even more texturing.

Asolo 2 (Granny’s Attic in HDR plus Viveza)

The final example uses a combination of my usual workflow in Photoshop followed by HDR Efex and Color Efex or finishing. The photo is from Dinan, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Brittany. There are several parts to it, including a historic centre, lovely gardens with panoramic views and an old port. If you wanted a few days of downtime in a Breton town, Dinan would be my number 1 choice.

First, I used levels adjustments in Photoshop to bring out the definition to the many textured surfaces in the image. Next, I used the Grannie Attic preset in HDR Efex to give even more contrast and for the vintage effect. This had some nasty effects on the sky which I masked out in Photoshop and tweaked the lighting with further levels adjustments. Finally I completed the warm retro feel by adding the ‘Polaroid transfer’ filter in Color Efex.

Dinan (RAW at default settings)

Dinan (Levels in Photoshop)

Dinan (Granny’s Attic preset HDR Efex Pro)

Dinan (PS + HDR + further finishing in PS)

Dinan (HDR + PS + Color Efex Pro 4 Polaroid effect)

While the processing in the last image tends to draw the most attention, I’m going to reiterate my view that processing software are a finishing touch to image creation. It can’t save a poorly conceived, composed or exposed image. Let’s look at the steps needed to produce the RAW file in the first place. There’s nothing like street photography or reportage to keep you on your toes. When I spotted the old car coming around the corner, there were only seconds to find a composition, get physically into position, choose the ideal exposure for the wide dynamic range, freeze the action with a fast enough shutter speed and then time the decisive moment. Until the camera becomes a virtual extension of the body through practice, getting out and shooting should be the top priority. It’s better to have a great image on file that hasn’t yet been optimally processed than a well-processed but mediocre shot.

N.B. Larger versions of many of these images can be found on the Magic Hour Travelscapes facebook page.

This entry was posted in Brittany, France, Italy, Postcapture, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to NIK HDR EFEX PRO 2 – A Review Told Through My European Travels

  1. Jeremy says:

    This is a very nice review, well written. Thanks

  2. Pingback: HDR – An Informed Choice | Magic Hour Travelscapes Unplugged

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