HDRi software has been getting a bad press recently, perhaps due to some of the very extreme “surrealistic” images that are readily found on the web and in particular on Flickr. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The more subtle combinations of multiple exposures of a scene can produce a beautiful and more realistic result. In my quest for the best in HDRi software, I’ve been taking a look at Picturenaut.

Picturenaut is open source software being developed by HDRlabs. When you download the software, which is completely free (though a donation is welcome), there is a pdf file that you can download to show how to install it and basics of use. This proved to be very well written and easy to follow.

Using the same tree, photographed in 5 shots with 1 exposure between each, I made a comparison between PhotomatixPro and Picturenaut conversions. Picturenaut aligned and combined the images a little faster than Photomatix, though on just one testing I think it would be unfair to say that this would always be the case. The Picturenaut controls were easy to use and the large preview enabled accurate control of the tone mapping. There are two global tone mapping interfaces, Photoreceptor Physiology, which is said to protect underlying colours beneath highlights, and Adaptive Logarithmic, which creates a smooth logathithmic compression. These are to be combined in a future version, but at the moment you have to choose one or the other. I used Photoreceptor Physiology. Once you have adjusted any of the sliders, the main image is quickly updated with the changes and I found it (on this image) much easier to achieve the result I was looking for than with Photomatix.

Reading around the subject tells me that the global tone mapping in Picturenaut does not carry with it the risk of severe haloes and surrealistic blends, which you can get with local tone mappers like Photomatix. So, the resulting blended image is more realistic. For those people who like the surrealistic blends of Photomatix, I would suggest that you won’t find those in Picturenaut. However, it is rumoured that, for those individuals wanting a more extreme blend of images, Picturenaut will, in fact be introducing a local tone mapping feature in a forthcoming version.

I imported the resulting tiff file into PhotoShop, where I carried out the same “finishing” to the image as I had with the Photomatix image, except for the sheep on the horizon, which I left in the Picturenaut version. The results are very close, see below.

Tree with PhotomatixPro

The Photomatix sky is very slightly darker and more saturated. Cloud detail and contrast is also very slightly better in the Photomatix version. Fine detail of the branches and tree trunk is very slightly better in the Picturenaut image. Both exhibit a good crisp blend of the images (which were taken on a tripod but in strong wind).

In addition to HDRi production, Picturenaut also features “automatic image alignment, exposure correction, colour balancing, noise level compensation, automatic computation of the camera curve from the source images.” Additionally it offers 7 different interpolation options for resizing HDRs. There are a number of plugins available for Picturenaut, which I have not yet tried, including HDRShop plugins and a collection by Francesco Banterle.

This is a very first impression and I cannot say, with fairness, which software is better. I need to make some comparisons with more extreme variation of lighting.

However, I did find the Picturenaut experience more enjoyable – there is a real feel to what you are doing with the sliders and the preview gives a realistic view of the final image. I will certainly be looking more at Picturenaut and for those not wanting to buy Photomatix Pro, Picturenaut is a very real and very free alternative.


HDRi comparison…Photomatix Pro vs Picturenaut…a first look — 8 Comments

  1. Pros & Cons of HDR multiple exposures vs differential RAW opening of same image and subsequent layer masking?

  2. Hi Mike
    Blend of multiple exposures give much more richness of detail throughout the image and does away with the need to mask areas off – notably the difficulty in masking off trees against sky, which is a nightmare! The problem with multiple exposures is subject movement between the exposures, e.g. wind on grass. Also, if you go too far, the result looks very unnatural (but you might like that!)

    Try them both and see which you prefer!

  3. I’ve given my very first shot at HDR today. I started out with three shots at -2,0,+2 (AEB at 5fps mode with Canon 30D). I haven’t used a tripod and so there was a minute shake. I found that Picturenaut didnt handle the image alignment as well as Photomatix Pro. I havent tried with shots taken on a tripod. I bet without the shake both would’ve given me similar results. I hope Picturenaut gets better with its image alignment in the next releases.

  4. Hi Suman
    I have had the same experience with hand held shots. In fact I have found that the best way to align hand held HDR shots is via the Photoshop “align layers” feature. Once the shots are aligned, they can be cropped and output to files again. After some time with both Photomatix and Picturenaut, my preference is for Photmatix, but Picturenaut still does a decent job and it’s free! I have been told that the latest PhotoShop version does a much better job at tone mapping than previously, but I have no experience of it as yet.

  5. I create artificial exposures in camera raw and use the place command of the different versions of the same photo to create HDR
    with life subjects. The results are very encouraging.

  6. Hi Charles
    Yes, it is certainly possible to get the most out of a RAW image by doing that, but it is not to be confused with HDR. This is because you only use the original low dynamic range output from the sensor, meaning you are using LDR methods. So that method won’t work when the dynamic range of the subject is outside the dynamic range of the sensor (i.e. beyond the range of recovery of highlight and shadow detail from a single exposure). HDR comes into its own in those circumstances. But you are right in saying that the method you are using creates some very satisfactrory results.
    Meryy Christmas!!! Chris

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