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HDR Efex Pro is a plug-in from Nik Software that works with Photoshop CS4 and CS5, Lightroom, and Aperture. I like it for a few reasons. It's very well-integrated with Photoshop or whatever host application you're using. It offers great results in terms of image quality, and it has the best interface and controls of all three of the HDR tools that we're looking at here. You can download a free trial of the software from the Nik web site and as we did with Photoshop and Photomatix, we're going to merge the same three images that we merged before, but this time using HDR Efex, so you can see what it offers.
Again, there are a number of ways of getting images into HDR Efex. The easiest though I think is to start in Bridge. And the reason I like starting in Bridge for all these things is because I've got a nice view of the images that I want to work with, I can tell exactly where the bracketed sets are, and I can easily select them in here. Getting images into HDRsoft is a little bit hidden in Bridge. As you'll recall for Photoshop, we went up here to Tools and down to the Photoshop menu and there was a way to get to Merge to HDR Pro. We don't have a way of getting to HDR Efex Pro from here.
instead, we have to right- click on one of these images. Now, if you're on a Mac and you're using just a one-button mouse, then that's Ctrl+Click. And I get this menu. If I scroll all the way down to the bottom, there's a Nik Software pop-up. Now, I have two options: Merge to HDR Efex Pro or Tone Mapping. This allows me to do a merge in one step, save an image, and then tone map it later. I need to do the merge, so I'm going to pick that and I get this. This is just like before in Photomatix where I have the option of adding or removing files that I've selected.
Got a couple of other options here. I can open the result as a Smart Object. This is a way of having some kind of nondestructive editing if I wanted. If you're not used to working with Smart Objects, don't worry about it. If you are used to working with Smart Objects but you are not sure if you want to do it here, that's okay because you can always convert something to a Smart Object later in Photoshop. I can choose to align and I can choose to reduce ghosting and if I do choose Ghost Reduction, I have a few methods. I don't have any moving objects in here so I'm not going to do Ghost Reduction, but I do want Alignment.
So I'm going to hit OK and it's going to start loading and merging. I find generally that alignment in HDR Efex is better than it is in Photomatix, but not necessarily always quite as good as it is in Photoshop. So again, if you run into a problem where you can't merge an image in HDR Efex, that's okay. You'll be able to merge it in Photoshop and then tone map it later here. And we're going to look at all of these workflow issues later as we move on through the course.
When it's done, my HDR Efex interface comes up and I see my merged result. First thing I'm going to do is make this a little bit bigger so that you can get a bigger preview. If you've used other Nik plug-ins, you should recognize this window. It's a pretty standard Nik interface. And right off the bat you will probably also notice that while this image is already looking better than either the Photoshop or Photomatix merges did right when they done, one of the things I like about HDR Efex is Nik has really tried to streamline the process to make this as simple as possible and get you to good results as quickly as you can by very intelligently deciding what good default parameters are and giving you some sliders and controls that are far more intuitive than what you'll find in either Photoshop or Photomatix.
So over here on the left I've got a bunch of presets. These are just Nik's predefined presets that ship with the package. They're divided into categories. I might consider this a landscape image, so I can click on the Landscape category and get some presets for that. If I'm going for that Surreal HDR look, I can get that over here. I'm going to skip those for now because I want to explore the sliders. As with the other options that we've looked at here, sometimes it's good to start with a preset. Sometimes you can just dive right into the sliders. These are all pretty intuitive though. Tone Compression is the only thing that might be a little confusing to you, because it's just not something that we deal with in any other image editing process besides HDR.
Increasing Tone Compression tends to make my image less contrasty, possibly even a little darker, but it might bring up some more detail here and there. Decreasing gives me a more realistic look. But as you can see already, I'm losing detail in the clouds. So if I want a more HDR-y look, I go here with the idea that I'm going to have to do some editing later to pull contrast back into the image. If I want a more realistic look, I go here with the understanding that I might risk blowing out highlights or stopping up shadows.
I'm going to put this at 0. All of these fields are actually editable. I can click on one and just enter a numeric value, so I'm going to put that back to its default position. Exposure does just what you think it would. It brightens or darkens the image in regular exposure values. That is, in stops. If I dial this up to 1, then my image gets brighter by one stop, which dramatically overexposes it. This is a way of brightening and darkening my image and just as with any exposure adjustment, when I'm doing this, if I'm going up, I'm keeping an eye on highlights to make sure I don't overexpose things.
If I'm going down, I'm keeping an eye on shadows to decide whether or not I've got the detail that I want. So right away I can pretty easily put back in the brightness that I wanted. The image looks a little flat now. Let's go down here, LOUPE and HISTOGRAM, you've probably noticed that flying around as I mouse about. I can put the mouse somewhere and automatically see a magnified version down there in the Loupe. But I can also go over here and mouse over the palette somewhere and I get this little pop-up bar and I can say I want the Histogram instead of the Loupe and now I get this Histogram. That's what I want right now as I'm doing these tonal adjustments.
So I'm looking pretty good here. This is the three-channel Histogram. Whites over here, blacks over here. I've got some latitude here. This image is a little low contrasty, not super low contrast, but I've got a lot of extra room down here underneath my darkest tone before I hit black. Actually my darkest three-channel tone is right there, so I've got a lot of room there, I've got a lot of room there. So I'm going to spread my contrast out. I'm going to increase the Contrast slider, and my image is going to get more contrasty. Now, as I do that I'm starting to get a little worried about the sky. It's starting to blow out a little bit. So I'm going to pull my Exposure slider back down to buy myself some latitude to increase contrast.
And right away my image is picking up a lot of punch. Saturation does just what you would expect. Increases or decreases color saturation, and just as I was saying in Photomatix, if you're really looking for that HDR-y look, you might want to lean heavily on the Saturation slider. Structure is what in Photomatix was called microcontrast. If I increase Structure, let's switch back to the LOUPE here so you can see, I basically get a lot of tiny little sharpening adjustments all around my image. It is possible to take Structure too far and get a very chunky looking image, an image with halos around the edges of its details.
Blacks does just what you think it would do. It increases the blacks in the image. This works a little more intuitively than the Photoshop one does. As I drag to the right, the blacks get darker. as I drag to the left, the blacks get lighter. So this is just like the black point slider on a Levels adjustment. Whites does the opposite. Let's remove the white point independently of the black point. So I can brighten and darken my image with these sliders. They differ from Exposure in that they are only affecting the white and black points. Obviously other tones are stretched. Overall tonal relationship remains the same.
But these are like the white and black point sliders on Levels. Warmth lets me basically change the white point as if I was doing a white balance adjustment. I can warm up my image. I can cool down my image. I'm going to leave it about where it was. HDR Method, there are lots of different algorithms for taking 32 bit data and crunching it down to 16, and Nik provides a lot and here they are. They're trying to be descriptive in their names, but Clean, Crisp, Halo Reduction, Subtle, Sharp, Dingy, Grainy, Illuminate, Diffused, Fresco, it's difficult to tell exactly what they're going to do.
Don't worry about trying to understand them. I think it can be, a lot of times people think, "Well, I can't figure out what these are doing and I need to be able to remember them." And if you are the type of person who worries about really trying to understand blending modes in Photoshop, don't worry about it. Just switch to them and see what you like. Experiment and play. I've changed to Clean. Didn't see any change because I need to increase the Strength of the Method. So I'm going to put that on Clean and drag it up, and now the image is just changing in a lot of different ways. My clouds have gotten a little more HDR-y, the image has brightened, the color saturation has increased.
So these are just different ways of processing the image. Dingy goes even chunkier and weirder. Let's pick one that's maybe way out there, Textured. Make sure it's not that Textured. Again, sometimes you've just got to play around with these and see what happens. You will probably find ones that you like more for certain types of images than others. I typically find Clean or Crisp are good for landscape images with skies in them. One is brighter than the other. As you change Method you may need to alter the global adjustments that you've already played with.
Sometimes it's best to pick the method first. Next I get into Selective Adjustments. Control points. If you've worked with Nik Software before, you've probably encountered control points. I hope you've encountered control points. They are amazing tools. They allow me to very easily perform selective edits without having to do any masking. I don't have to try and select things. I don't have to try to paint masks. Here I am just making a localized contrast adjustment to the clouds without having to do any mask cutting or anything. I'm not going to explain how these work right now. We're going to do a whole movie on this.
I'm just going to throw that here and do some of the adjustments that I want. And then later we'll look at exactly what they're doing. If you're already familiar with control points from maybe Nik Silver Efex or Viveza or Nik's CaptureNX2, these work exactly the same way, so you should feel pretty comfortable with them. I'm just going to throw a little bit of Brightness onto the top of the car here. Woo, maybe not that much Brightness. Finishing Adjustments, one thing I really like about HDR Efex is I've got all sorts of post-processing effects I can apply in here. I'm going to throw a vignette on this image, darken the corners up there, maybe even go darker.
It brings a lot more attention to the center there as I've done that. It makes me think I might need to put a little bit of brightness back into the image, so I'm going to go there. And then finally I have these Levels and Curves adjustments here. Don't worry about trying to understand these icons. I still haven't entirely figured them out. These are going to apply canned Levels and Curves adjustments to create both tone and color adjustments to the image. So here's a photographic adjustment which has increased the color and saturation in the image. Here's a Dark Contrast adjustment.
Let's go for one of the vintage ones. It makes it look like it's an aged photograph. These are just nice post- processing things that you can add. All of these get wrapped up into these presets over here. So those are the basic controls. We're going to be looking at them in more detail as we go through it. I hit the OK button now, the image will process, and I will end up with a result. As you've seen, I got to this particular state of this image much quicker than I could in Photomatix using terminology that personally is a little bit easier for me to understand, because it's a little more like terminology that I already know.
In fact, even as I'm talking to you, I can't just help but sit here and tweak some more, because HDR Efex is so easy to use. So I definitely recommend taking a look at this piece of software. You need something in addition to Photoshop. You still need Photoshop for retouching and other operations. Both HDR Efex and Photomatix are great. You're not going to do wrong with either. But think about how you work and how you like to work, because one might work better for you than the other. And as we look into more of the features of both programs, the choice of what's right for you may become more clear.
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