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As I mentioned earlier, Photoshop often does a much better job with aligning multiple image than does either Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro. It doesn't mean that you give up on those programs for alignment. They might be fine, especially if you are using a tripod, but if you're shooting handheld, you may find that you've got to do your merging in Photoshop. Let me show you what the difference is here. This is, I am looking at 100%, a 1:1 pixel ratio, of this image that was merged in Photoshop. Now, I didn't bother finishing it. Don't worry about the fact that it's a little drab.
Just pay attention to the sharpness, and here along this column, and this is the same set merged in Photomatix. Much softer in here, all of these details are much softer now. By the time we shrink this movie down for delivery, I don't know how apparent this will be, but imagine, if you will, that this image is much softer. Trust me, if you do some tests on your own of handheld images, maybe just as you're working, you will find that very often in Photomatix and HDR Efex your merges come in a little bit softer. Adobe has built very, very good alignment technology into both CS4 and CS5.
So what do you do if you run into that problem? Maybe you've been merging along in Photomatix and everything works great and then you hit an image. It was a windy day, you've got a set of images that you were just having trouble standing still, and you were doing your best to shoot similar images, but you came out with some camera shake and they are not merging right. I am going to go in here. Let's say that these did not merge well in Photomatix or HDR Efex. What I will do is merge them in Photoshop. So I am going to go up here to the Tools menu > Photoshop > Merge to HDR Pro. So you've seen this process already.
It's going to go through and merge them into a single 32 bit image. What I need to do after that's done is save that out as a 32 bit file. Photomatix and HDR Efex can read certain 32 bit file formats. So this will take that whole merged, aligned, mess of data that we have right here. I am going to make sure that Mode is set to 32bit. If I do this, which is where I normally perform my tone mapping in Photoshop, if I am doing it there, this isn't going to work, because it's going to spit out a 16 bit file. I can also spit out an 8 bit file if I want.
I am going to go here and make sure that this says 32 bit and I am going to say OK. And it doesn't have to do any tone mapping or anything. It's just pouring that huge data rich blob of 32 bit goodness into a file here. When it's done I will do a Save, and I just need to do one little thing to make sure that it saves in a format that Photomatix can read. So I have Untitled_HDR2, I am going to go up here and choose File > Save As, and I want to be sure that my format is set to OpenEXR. This is an open standard for 32 bit files. And I am just going to through that out on the desktop.
Save this file, and Photomatix can now read that format. So I am going to go out here to my desktop and here is my untitled exr document. I can just drop that right onto Photomatix. Takes it a while to load all that data, but when it's done, I end up here. Now I can start my tone mapping process. I just hit the Tone Mapping button. It gives me an initial tone map and I'm ready to go. If I want to emerge in Photoshop and tone map in HDR Efex, that's a little bit simpler because HDR Efex is a plug-in to Photoshop. So here in Photoshop I've done my merge already.
Now, with this document open I can go Filter > Nik Software > HDR Efex Pro and it will simply open that image and start its tone mapping process. So this is a very easy procedure. So if you find yourself frustrated with soft images after you do a merge into either one of these programs, you can fall back on merging in Photoshop and then continuing with your normal tone mapping, wherever you like to do that.
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