HDR PhotoStudio full review

HDR PhotoStudio can produce detailed, in-depth, full-dynamic-range images by combining several exposures of the same scene.

Today's cameras and scanners can capture an amazing range of colors, highlights, and shadows. In editing, however, we reduce the amount of data to 8-bit or 16-bit, thereby losing much of the visual dynamics inherent in the pictures. That's why HDR (high dynamic range) pictures have become more and more popular. And Unified Color Technologies' HDR PhotoStudio 32-bit image editor, allows you to tap the full potential of HDR images. True HDR is 32-bit, but most programs (such as Photoshop or Photomatix Pro) have little or no support for editing the full 32-bit data.

On startup, HDR PhotoStudio's splash screen offers three options: create/merge a new HDR image, open an existing image, or batch processing.

Choosing the first option allows you to select the images you want to combine to make your HDR image. Typically, you'd use several captures of the same scene, each taken at a different exposure, in order to obtain as much data as possible in the shadows, highlights, and midtones for the final merged result. HDR PhotoStudio supports importing RAW file formats from all the major camera companies, plus TIFF and JPEG images. After you choose your setting for Automatic Dynamic Range Mapping (None, Fast, Optimal, or Quality), you simply click Merge, and the program goes to work.

How quickly it works depends on the size of your files and the number of images you are processing. Merging four 15.7MB NEF files using Quality mapping on a Lenovo W700ds laptop (dual core, 64-bit, 4GB RAM) took 1 minute, 1.16 seconds. Merging 15 files of the same format took 3 minutes, 20.32 seconds.

Our merges did not automatically produce a beautiful image. HDR PhotoStudio, however, has a nice set of tools for tweaking the image's color, exposure, and focus while using the full 32-bit data, which is what sets this program apart. And because you are dealing with so much data, editing brightness and contrast won't affect colour or tonality, and vice versa.

We found the interface very accessible in general. Though several of the icons are not industry standard, recognising them becomes second nature. HDR PhotoStudio's tool set is limited to exposure, colour, and focus controls, but each tool provides some very fine detail options. For instance, you can set the exposure values separately for highlights, midtones, and shadows. Colour tonality works quite nicely on individual eyedropper-selected colours, too.

In our test image, we were able to adjust specific colors, such as the reds and greens in a ribbon, and various browns in pinecones. Noise reduction did a good job with both color and brightness noise, without significantly reducing sharpness. One unique tool is the Veiling Glare adjustment; it reduces the effect of light reflections, which can drastically cut down on contrast when several different exposures are combined. HDR PhotoStudio can save your editing history as a "Recipe" (that is, a macro) for use on other images, as well.

As accessible as the interface is, we would have appreciated some in-depth explanations and how-tos. Unfortunately, the Help menu is online, and is more descriptive than explanatory. Nor is it comprehensive - for one thing, it completely overlooks batch processing.

HDR PhotoStudio's proprietary BEF file format retains the full 32-bit image, plus the complete editing history. For that reason, Unified Color suggests that BEF is an ideal format for archiving. An included BEF Photoshop plug-in enables conversion of an HDR image into an Adobe-compatible format; alternatively, you can save to TIFF, BMP, or Open EXR.

Our resulting image had an impressive depth of detail in highlights, midtones, and shadows, with great colour tonality and saturation. And unlike some HDR images we have seen, it looked quite natural rather than heightened. Unfortunately, you cannot see all the detail and color dynamics in the image shown here, because it is a screen capture that was saved as an 8-bit JPEG and output via comparatively low-dynamic-range technology.

And that's the major problem with HDR images. At present, photographers are limited in where and how they can use a full HDR image. Still, what HDR PhotoStudio gives you is access to a far larger gamut of color and light, as you create the picture that you will output as a conventional 8-bit or 16-bit image.

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HDR PhotoStudio: Specs

  • Windows XP or Vista
  • 12.6MB hard disk space (to accommodate all Unified Colour Downloads, plug-ins)
  • 2GB RAM
  • 2.8GHz CPU, multi-core processor for the best performance