NIK HDR Efex PRO Changes Everything

I’m experimenting with NIK’s new HDR Efex Pro software and it makes it soooo easy to do high-dynamic range images.

HDR images are showing up everywhere. Trey Ratcliff’s Stuck in Customs blog (That’s one of Trey’s photos of the waterfall.) is a great place to explore what HDR photography looks like as is Eduardo Chacon’s site.

Also, if you look closely lots of magazines and newspapers (although the press photographers are loathed to admit it) are using HDR on some of their feature images.

Essentially all you have to do is shoot three or more images with differing exposure values (+2  0  -2  for example) that are of the same subject (best done with a tripod but handheld is possible) and open them all at the same time in Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop (64-bit only for now in PS) and then open HDR Efex PRO….and stand back because that’s it 🙂

HDR Efex Pro has a whole series of presets on the left side of the screen that change the basic look of the HDR image. Very cool. Plus there are the regular NIK HDR tool bar on the right side of the screen so you can make custom changes that suit your image.

So how do I know so much about HDR photography all of a sudden? I took advantage of NIK’s free online seminar on HDR this morning and believe me – HDR Efex Pro rocks and it’s so simple, even I can’t screw it up. (NIK hosts free online seminars that will show you how to use all of their products. NIK’s products are easy to use and really, really effective. They make me look like a much better photographer than I really am! How’s that for honesty 🙂

As most of you know, I have the entire NIK collection including the Nikon only Capture NX 2 RAW editor (which I still think is THE BEST RAW editor for Nikon’s proprietary NEF RAW files) and I also have the companion Colour Efex Pro 3 software that rocks with NX2.

Now I do get asked a lot at club meetings which software is best and since I have Photoshop CS4, Photoshop Elements, Adobe Lightroom 2 and 3; NX Capture 2, Picasa (from Google); IPhoto (for Mac) and I had Corel Paintshop Photo Pro I can state unequivocally – it depends 🙂 and you get what you pay for.

If you want to use the NIK collection (highly recommended for both its ability to make your images look better and ease of use) then for me it’s either Lightroom 3 or Photoshop.

Now I find Lightroom 3 as my go-to photo editor for my special events photography where it’s not unknown for me to shoot a thousand or more images that need editing and processing right away.

Yes you can do that in Photoshop but Lightroom 3 is also a very sophisticated data base that helps me keep my images safe and at hand. And, truthfully, I almost never use Photoshop anymore. Graphic artists and photographers working on single images love Photoshop and for good reason. You can do ANYTHING you want in Photoshop. But I have much more modest needs.

What I usually want to do is process hundreds of images quickly and professionally and I don’t want to take all day doing it. That’s a Lightroom 3 job.

So what’s with Capture NX2? When I am working on individual images – especially landscapes – then it’s NX2 for me and NIK’s Colour Efex Pro 3. The U-point technology is way cooler than Photoshop layers IMHO. It’s lightyears faster to work with and produces terrific results and costs $250 as compared to $800 for Photoshop.

I’ve never used Aperture for Mac but the NIK collection works with it and Aperture is highly regarded by professional shooters. NIK’s collection is $360 here in Canada and Aperture is $214. Finally Photoshop Elements 8.0 for Windows (and it works for Mac too) is $100 and NIK’s software is compatible so this is the least expensive solution.

What I recommend is to purchase or use one photo editor until you know why you might want to buy something more expensive. For most of my work anyone of the above would do but if I had to pick one it would be Lightroom 3 for its overall versatility and price point at around $370.

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Fall Colours

This looks like THE weekend for fall colours in southern Ontario. 

So how do you shoot leaves?

First, you should be shooting RAW if you have RAW photo editing software.

Second, a tripod would be nice (but not essential). You can use your self-timer if you don’t have a remote shutter control or shutter cable.

And third, you’ll want a digital polarizing filter that fits the lens that you use for landscapes. If you don’t have a polarizing filter (which makes the colours really pop) you can duplicate the effect in software.

So which software should you have?

Adobe Photoshop Elements costs less than $100 and it’s terrific. If you’re shooting tons of shots then Lightroom 3 has some advantages as it’s also a database for your images. Finally, if you’ve got a ton of cash then go buy Photoshop CS5. I love NIK software and I use Seim Effects (in Lightroom). If you’re shooting with a Nikon DSLR then Capture NX2 is fabulous and my personal favourite for landscapes. BTW NIK is coming out with a  HDR software package and based on my experience with the rest of their software I’d love to get my hands on a copy so I can do an evaluation for you.

Now if you don’t have a DSLR but just a point and shoot that captures images in JPG format don’t despair. I’ve used my two Fuji point and shoots on some of my vacations and the images are terrific. A point and shoot in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing will produce better images than those of somebody with an expensive DSLR, a bag of lenses and no clue about what to do next.

If you’ve got an 18-55mm kit lens, that’s perfect for shooting landscapes.

All the images here were shot by me and my wife during a trip to Algonquin Park last fall.

So get out there and have fun. Don’t forget to post your photos on Flickr so we can all view them.

Crazy clever

I don’t shoot HDR (high dynamic range) photography but if I did I’d go download Oloneo’s new software program right now!

(BTW the HDR photo here is from Trey Ratcliff’s wonderful Stuck In Customs HDR website.)

Why? Because this new software which is available for free right now in beta can do some amazing things to the illumination in your images. Actually what they are doing is incredibly smart yet relatively simple. If I’m guess right from what I saw at their website what the software does is combine photos (I’m guessing in layers) pretty much the same way as most HDR software (including Photoshop) works but the Oloneo engineers have brought forward controls so you can control the light values in each layer.

The website says the software can relight, tonemap and work as a RAW processor. Go watch the online videos and prepare to be amazed.

So what does this do? The software allows you to change the white balance in one layer while not changing the overall values. So if you’ve got a fireplace in one image you can control how the fire looks without affecting any of the other light sources in the photo. Here’s a link to Oloneo’s Flickr page.

Right now the software only works on PCs but when the MAC version is announced I will be looking at downloading a copy.

Here’s a comprehensive review at Photozine. com

Software – Which one is best for you?

It depends. That’s the answer to so much in photography. It depends on what you want to accomplish. So let’s rate the very best software packages by their usefulness. And let me say these are just my favourites and my list may not match yours or some other professional’s list. That’s okay. The idea is to have fun while creating the images you want to keep forever. These are my suggestions:

So if you’re a point and shoot family or vacation shooter and you just want to see your images after you’ve shot them I’ve got one suggestion for Apple computer users and one for PCs. For the Mac learn how to use IPhoto. It’s terrific and comes with your Mac. It will allow you to download and view all your images just about automatically. If you do want to make some changes like cropping or changing the brightness then IPhoto is perfect. It will also allow you to upload to email or your website effortlessly. The only caveat is to watch out that any changes you make to your originals aren’t reversible. What I do when I import my images to IPhoto is to burn a copy of all my images prior to any editing.

The simplest software for PCs is Picasa. This is a free program from Google and it’s great. It is also available on Mac.

Next up for the amateur photographer who wants to do more with their images my choice at under $100 is Adobe Photoshop Elements. Elements has been around forever and it is a very mature piece of software. Designed for the beginning photographer, Elements offers 80 or 85 per cent of the $900 Photoshop features photographers use for around a tenth the price. PS Elements is a bargain IMHO and if it was all I had to use I would not be unhappy. Best of all it is available for Macs or PCs.

Now let’s say you’ve been shooting for a year or so and you’re getting pretty good. Maybe your cousin asks is you could take some photos at a wedding. You’ve got your digital single lens reflex camera and the lens that came with the kit (usually something like an 18 to 55mm f/4 to f/5.6 lens) and since most weddings and receptions happen indoors you’ve bought an external flash and maybe a fast 50mm f/1.8 lens which Canon and Nikon sell for under $150. Maybe you’ve bought a second or third memory card. So you’ve got a pretty good kit for shooting weddings or other special events but what software should you use?

You could use Elements or IPhoto or Picasas but thanks to digital photography you’re likely to shoot several hundred images (I usually shoot well over a 1,000 at any special event I do.) and it’s going to be a very slow process looking at each individual image in these software packages and then you’re going to want to edit them. For wedding shots especially shots of the bride your images are going to need to show the wedding dress as absolute white (without losing any detail) and her skin tone exactly as she looks. You can do all this in the less expensive packages but about 99.9 per cent of all wedding and special event photographers are using a piece of software called Lightroom from Adobe.

I’ve got a copy of Lightroom 2 and it’s very good. Aside from being a better than average photo editor (and photo editing especially when it comes to digital noise has been vastly improved in the just releases Lightroom 3) it’s also a first-class data manager. Also the software is configured to run fast on any recent computer (four gigs of RAM is highly recommended) that is ideally equipped with two external harddrives (I’ve got two separate 2-terabyte drives plugged into my Mac and one 2-terabyte backup drive on one of my PCs). There is a bit of learning curve with any sophisticated software but LR2 or 3 is pretty easy to grasp. Lightroom works on both Macs and PCs.

For Mac fans, Apple’s Aperture is very similar to Lightroom and is highly regarded by many professional photographers.

Finally we come down to my last two picks. Photoshop CS5 is essential if you want to do any complex layout work such as magazine covers or posters. It is a huge, complex and expensive package but if you’re a professional shooter who has progressed past doing the odd wedding or other commercial shoot, it’s also essential. All kinds of plug-in software which can create all kinds of special effects and looks works in Photoshop. There is a ton of online training for Photoshop (as there is for much of the software above) and if you need it, it’s there. At just under $1,000 this is not a purchase one makes lightly. I have a copy of CS4 because after I bought Photoshop Elements, Abode offered me a deal to buy CS4 for $300 US. Could not get my credit card out fast enough. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Am I upgrading to CS5. Nope. New software upgrades don’t make my old software any less useful.

Finally and this is for Nikon shooters only but Capture NX2 is my favourite editor. This is mainly for processing Nikon NEF (RAW) files although it will work on JPGs and TIFFs taken with any manufacturer’s cameras.

It does a much better job of editing Nikon NEF files than any of the above packages including Photoshop. It uses what’s called U-technology to allow for the dragging of tools right off the menu onto the image. Colours, contrast and just about everything else can be changed quickly and accurately in seconds. In Photoshop for comparison you’re dealing with the need to create new layers. I took a day-long Photoshop course along with over 600 other Photoshop users and it reminded me why I like NX2 so very much.

Now remember what I said: This is just my list. There are hundreds of other software packages out there including the plug-in packages (I love the complete kit I’ve got of NIK Software which I use all the time. It works in conjunction with Photoshop and Lightroom and one filter package called Color Efex 3 also works with NX2. NIK developed the Capture NX2 software exclusively for Nikon.

So which package is best for you? See why I say it depends.

It depends on whether photography is just a fun thing or a serious hobby or a profession. It depends on what kind of images you shoot and how many. It also depends on how much money you want to spend and what results you are looking for from your files.

NIK Webinar Schedule

The good folks at NIK Software have announced their upcoming webinar schedule. If you own or are considering buying any of the NIK Software products (which I use and highly recommend) then this is a great way to learn how to get the most of of these great plugins. BTW don’t wait to sign up. The last series of webinars had as many as 1,000 participants registered and online.

NIK products work to enhance your digital darkroom experience when working with editing software including Photoshop CS4, Photoshop Elements, Aperture, Lightroom 2 and Capture NX2. The various software packages include noise reduction, sharpener, colour editor, various filters (used a lot by portrait and wedding photographers but very helpful for any kind of photography including landscapes) and a black and white convertor (which does as good a job as I ever did when I ran a black and white film darkroom.

You can buy all NIK’s software packages at one time for a big discount. See the NIK site for more details.

BTW there is lots of free information and a couple of books on NIK software which is really, really easy to use.

Mr. HDR

Trey Ratcliff whose publishes the popular Stuck In Customs website is the guy who has made high-definition ratio photography so very popular today. Trey’s site has had 21-million views so far. What Trey figured out was our eyes don’t work the way cameras work. Cameras can only record a limited range of light called the dynamic range. HDR photography helps reveal all the light that can be captured by the digital photographer.

Numbers vary depending on who is explaining dynamic range but here’s what I teach:

The human eye is a wonderful optical instrument that can record about 20 stops of light from absolute black to pure white and all the tones of grey in between. The best film cameras can record around 10 stops or so. The best digital camera can record around six stops. That’s why there is a different that you can see between a shot taken with a film camera and the same one  taken with a digital camera.

When landscape photographers shoot landscapes, they often they find that the range of light exceeds six stops from the darkest part of the photo to the most light. So they use a split filter that helps reduce the brightness of the sky so that the range of light is reduced enough that the camera can capture the image. HDR photography works differently. Instead of reducing the light spectrum to fit the camera, HDR allows the camera to capture all the light that is available and then reassemble it in software. The HDR photographer can either shoot a series of images (JPGs) at different exposure ranges and then using software combines them to produce a photo (like the one here that comes from Trey’s website) or shoot a RAW image and then create a couple of exposures in software and then combine them in the digital darkroom.

HDR photography can allow photographers to create images that are more like how our eyes actually see. Of course, this type of photography doesn’t produce a “real” image. It produces something a photo that is…well, you have to see it to appreciate it. The nice thing about HDR photography is anybody using readily available software can create HDR images.

For those of you interested in exploring HDR photography, here’s a link to 60-minute video that features Trey and HDR imagery. Trey knows how to explain some of the technical stuff in a nice easy way. He does go off the reserve a little with some of his philosophy but it’s not all bad 🙂

Here’s another site called HDR Spotting.

What the heck are plug-in filters?

As regular readers know, I LOVE my NIK Software products. I’ve got their sharpener, noise reduction, black and white convertor, color changer and effects software and I used them all the time. BTW to be fair to NIK here’s what they call their software 🙂  —  Sharpener Pro 3.0; Dfine 2.0; Silver Efex Pro; Viveza 2; and Color Efex Pro 3.0. These software packages are sold individually or you can get the entire collection (at a reduced cost). They work in conjunction with photo editing programs such as Photoshop (and Elements); Lightroom 2, Apple’s Aperture and Color Efex Pro 3.0 also works with Nikon’s really wonderful Capture NX 2. All of these editing programs work on JPG images (where the image parameters are set in the camera and you can’t changed them much) or RAW images where almost nothing is set and everything is changeable in software editing).

So what do I use and why?

For my commercial work I use Lightroom 2. I’ve got a big job on Saturday night shooting a formal dinner and gathering of about 100 people. I’ll likely shoot 500 to 800 images. Lightroom 2 is the only way to handle this volume of work easily. Now if I’ve got really serious photo editing issues (like removing scars or former lovers) I’ll use Photoshop (which honestly: I’m still learning but with manual in hand, it’s pretty easy for most of what I do to an image). If I’m working on my own landscapes I’m using NX2 which is by far the superior RAW editor for Nikon NEF images.

When it comes to plug-in filters I’ll probably run my 100 or so best picks through Dfine to reduce noise (noise in the digital world looks like old fashion film grain) and Sharpener to make the RAW images look as sharp as JPGs. The depending on the images I may run a few through Colour Efex Pro 3.0 filters. I love the golden glow filter for party shots but you must be careful not to over do it.

Once I get my 100 edited images finished, I’ll post them as high-resolution JPGs to my gallery so my client can have a look at them and pick what they want.

So you might ask: Why go to all that trouble? Why not shoot JPGs and be done with it?

IF, AND IT’S A BIG IF, I knew for certain that the white balance was perfect and the exposures right on the button I could shoot JPGs and all I’d have to do is just crop them to eliminate extraneous bits and pieces and I’d be done. If these weren’t important images, I’d be tempted and might just do that and save a bunch of time. But here’s what you can do with your RAW images. First of all my D-300 and D-90 are capable of taking RAW images with virtually no delay for processing as I’m not likely to shooting in continuous (sport-type) mode. Also, once I’ve got my RAW images loaded into any of my editing packages all of them will allow me to produce a batch of JPGs right away. So if I have a need for speed I can go this route.

But what if the white balance (the colour cast being emitted by the lights in the room) isn’t pure white and I am getting a slight yellow or green tinge. Well if I’ve shot JPGs I’m up the creek because they can’t be changed. Also, if I miss my exposure (and I’m likely going to be shooting with the flash all night) RAW will give me a four-stop ability to make changes. JPG – well, not so much.

But let’s get back to plug-ins. They work a whole lot better on RAW images because you can make so many changes without hurting the image quality.

One of the better websites for plug-in filters is a company called Totally Rad. They’ve just brought a $99 package of filters for Lightroom 2 which if I get my hands on a copy I’ll do a review. But in the meantime, you can do your own review. Totally Rad has an online preset page. You pick one of the photos they have as examples and then go down the list and apply the various filters in the package. Totally Rad filters are used by many of the world’s best wedding shooters.

I’m adding this note on Alien Skin which has a 20% off to help the Haiti Earthquake victims. I own a copy of Boken and it’s great fun.