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For the last few years HDR Soft’s Photomatix Pro has been the software of choice for HDR Professionals.  It’s been endorsed by some of the most prominent HDR photographers in the world, and because of this, has become the industry standard for premium HDR software.

Recently HDR Soft updated Photomatix from version 3 to 4, and the results have been pretty impressive.  Let’s take a look at some the new program and see if it still reigns supreme as the world’s best HDR Software.

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Workflow

For me, one of the most important components in HDR software is a good workflow.  It has to make sense to me, be easy to create the results I’m looking for, and be speedy.

Photomatix 4 accomplishes all of this and more.

There’s been a big shift between Photomatix 3 and 4 in the sense that now you have the ability to “pre-process” an image before you even get started with the indepth adjustments.

This entails noise some noise reduction tools that actually worked surprisingly well.  The most useful change between 3 and 4 was the ability to “semi-manually” fix ghosting issues.  After you select your photo combination and hit go, there’s a good chance that certain parts of your photo just don’t quite line up.

Florida HDR Photo using Photomatix

HDR Photo Created in Photomatix 4

You now have the opportunity to select specific parts of the photo that don’t work, and the software will automatically make layer adjustments to remove the ghosting.  I was skeptical, but overall it seems to work pretty well.

Performance

Overall, Photomatix is fast. Significant improvements in speed have been made between the last version, and it remains that this is one of the speediest HDR programs on the market. If you’ve got a Core 2 Duo processor or above, you’ll be flying along, and this is really important when you’re trying to process a lot of shots at a time.

The speed is most notably different when you’re used to using HDR Pro in Photoshop CS5, and it’s quite a bit faster than HDR Efex as well.

Processing

As mentioned above in the workflow section, Photomatix is largely unchanged in terms of the process you go through to create an image. However, there have definitely been some updates that make processing much more flexibile

One of my biggest gripes about Photomatix 3 was the lack of solid visual presets.  Yes, you can tweak sliders to your heart’s content, but unless you’re pretty seasoned with the program, it can be difficult to achieve the specific results you’re looking for.  With the latest version, there are a variety of presets you can start with, and then make minor adjustments from there.

This allows you to ensure that when processing multiple images you can achieve the same general style, while making slight adjustments for photo differences.

While I don’t think that Photomatix is quite up to the standards set by Nik’s HDR Efex Pro in this regard, it’s still a notable improvement from it’s last version.

This is also a step away from the “Photomatix look” which many photographers have complained about.  Meaning, while it’s a good look, it’s difficult to capture different processing styles in Photomatix.

Even with the new presets, many things are largely unchanged.  You still have the primary adjustments of Strength, Color Saturation, Luminosity, Micro Contrast, and Light Smoothing prominently displayed in the workflow.

All of the other fine-tuning adjustments are still there, and work just as well as they always have.  That said, I do wish they could have expanded them a bit to feature some additional adjustments such as “blacks” and “clarity”.

Downsides

A lot of people were hoping this upgrade would make for the first true HDR program that completely stands alone.  Unfortunately it doesn’t quite get there.  You’re still going to need to touch things up in Photoshop, especially if you’re looking to do any kind of serious layer masking.

I’ve also found that if you end up shooting handheld, the image alignment isn’t quite as good as Photoshop’s HDR Pro.  For those of you shooting on more entry level cameras like the Nikon D5000 or Canon Rebel xi, this will be more relevant to you due to lower frame rates.

Update February 2012

After using Photomatix 4 for the better part of a year on dozens of photographs, I can safely say that my original assessment of the software's image alignment is not true.  The alignment capabilities of Photomatix 4 have far outweighed both that of Photoshop's and any of their competitors.

Handheld HDR Photo edited using Photomatix

This an especially relevant thing to point out considering that most of my shooting is unfortunately done handheld.  I'm not the best when it comes to carrying around a tripod, so I tend to use the bracket mode on my D5000 or D90 and capture 3 photos from there.

I've even found myself having to occasionally switch from HDR Efex Pro (I use this for darker, grittier images at times) to use Photomatix because the alignment tools are so much better.

Exposure Fusion

Also not mentioned in the original review is the new exposure fusion feature.

When the original review was written I spent most of time time using the same workflow as I did in Photomatix 3 and just focused on tone mapping, however over the last few months I've spent much more time learning about the exposure fusion controls, which are pretty cool to say the least.

Essentially it seems like using the Exposure Fusion modes allows you to create images that are much more realistic at depicting a scene in it's natural state.  This is especially true when shooting interiors.    While in the past Photomatix may not have been the best choice for people doing say, real estate photography, this new mode seems to really make it a more viable option.

Keep a look out soon for an in depth tutorial of exposure fusion along with image comparisons between fusion and tone mapped photos.

Conclusion

With Photomatix 4, HDR Soft reaffirms it’s place in very top echelon of HDR software.  The increased ghosting features, a decent array of presets, and the exposure blending modes are proof enough that Photomatix is the best HDR software out there.

That said, even though it still reigns supreme, there's increasing competition these days and we're seeing very solid programs from Nik, Adobe and others.

I hope that HDR Soft can continue to put out updates that push the process of HDR further, and appeal to even more photographer's and their needs – which they've shown they are capable of with this release.

To receive 15% off your Photmatix purchase type in HDRpromo15 into the Photomatix Order Page.

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