Some of you may know that I like to to HDR photos from time to time. It is a controversial topic, some photographers hate it, some love it. Personally I think it is one of many tools for creatively retouching an image. It certainly is more arty than realistic though. However, it is a popular technique so I created HDRs from the same source images with different tools for you to compare. The tools where: HDR Efex Pro 2 from the NIK Collection, Photomatix Pro, Luminance HDR 2.3 and the Canon HDR Tool which is part of the Digital Photo Professional Tool.
All images where created from 5 source images (jpg) shot with a Canon 6D in auto-bracket mode with an offset of -2,-1,0,+1,+2. Only the Canon tool was used with only 3 images because it can only handle 3 images (-2,0,+2). The resulting HDR was exported as tiff and converted to jpeg after auto-adjusting the color levels (for better comparison of the results) with The Gimp.
I will not talk too much about the GUI and handling, after all this is sort of personal preference anyway, but to put it in one sentence for each tool: The Canon tool is very simple but misses some options for fine-tuning. Photomatix is a powerful tool with lots of options packed into a well organized GUI. HDR Efex Pro has not as many options but is still very powerful and easy to use. Luminance has come a long way and now has a nice GUI that is organized and has many different methods for tone mapping but fewer options per method.
All tools have a preview of the resulting HDR and at least HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix use the GPU for processing (I am not sure if luminance does that in 2.3). Luminance is the only free tool, the Canon Tool is free of charge (when you buy a Canon cam). The others do come with some extra costs. All tools are available for MacOS, only luminance is available for Linux also.
Enough talking, lets see the images. I tried to choose similar effects for similar results, but this is exactly where the different options of the tools come into play. Order is HDR Efex Pro, Photomatix Pro, Luminance (method used here was Mantiuk 06 because the result comes closest to the results of the other tools in terms of the look) and the Canon tool:
next up is Photomatix Pro
next image is the result of Luminance HDR
and last but not least result of the Canon HDR tool
To wrap things up: I like Luminance HDR a lot, not only because it is free and available for Linux and MacOS, but because you can go crazy with the tool and for some scenes it produces a unique look (that I really like). For cleaner (or crazy in a different way) images I use Photomatix and more recently have used HDR Efex because it is a little easier and faster to use. Personally I never used (and probably never will use) the Canon tool because it just misses too many options that can make the difference. Unnecessary to say that normally there are more steps (tools) needed to produce a good looking HDR, at least some additional processing with The Gimp.
Happy Holidays to everyone, enjoy!