A familiar situation: the casual amateur photographer wants to take the landscape photo of his life, but the picture coming out of the digital camera shows pretty little resemblance to the real world. The sky is a radiant blue, but the land is just a dark silhouette.
The photographer then takes another picture, this time filling most of the view with the landscape. It does look all right, but now the sky is too light, and instead of the striking blue and the fluffy clouds, there is just a colorless, white veil. Taking the photo this photographer wanted is far from impossible. You'll only need some preparation, and Photomatix Pro.
Photomatix Pro is a software for enhancing the dynamics of digital photos. Simply put, it helps you see details in light and dark areas that have hitherto been only showing black or white blots. You'll just need 2 or more photos of the same theme, differing in brightness. After choosing the landscape or city scene, you have to take multiple photos of the place using different exposure times. The most convenient way to do this is using Exposure Bracketing, a feature present in almost any compact digital camera today. You may want to use a tripod to make sure that the areas in all the pictures are precisely the same, without any displacement. If you haven't got one, set the camera to sequence mode (also called "travel shot"). By soft lights (e.g. in cloudy weather) using single step differences in exposure will suffice. In strong light (e.g. summer sunshine) use double step differences for a nicer result. You should take about three photos: one overexposed, one with the suggested settings, and one underexposed. The overexposed photo will show the details in the areas that would naturally be covered in shadow, however, the whole of the picture will be too light. Likewise, the underexposed one will correctly display the details and colors in the excessively light areas. Blending the areas of different lightness into a single picture will be the task of post-production and Photomatix. The Combine feature offers 5 different blending modes for merging the photos.
After starting the program, load all three photos in the main Photomatix window. Click File/Open, as usual. The next menu item offers the five different methods for Combine. They are: Average, H&S Details – 2 Images, H&S Details – Auto, H&S Details – Adjust és H&S Details – Intense. Here are the three photos taken with different exposure settings.
This is the simplest command, separated from the others. It can be accessed by pressing Ctrl+A as well. It simply calculates an average of the selected pictures for creating a new one out of them. The process is fully automatic, there are no options to set. You should use two photos with a small difference in lightness. They are processed quickly into a combined picture. Average has another drawback: if you didn't use a tripod, and therefore your photos show a little displacement, the resulting picture will be blurred. On the other hand, this feature is undoubtedly the fastest of all, so it is an ideal choice if you are in a hurry, or have too many pictures to process.
Details – 2 Images
The feature "H&S Details – 2 Images" goes one step further than Average. As indicated in the name, it uses 2 photos. Once again, you should choose a pair with a low difference in lightness, or else the result will look unnatural. Compared to the previous option, it has the advantage of being able to process hand-taken photos with a fair chance if you select Align to correct manual disposition. Apart from that, the process is automatic, you haven't got any more options. Remember to use photos with a low difference in lightness.
Details – Auto
Another step in evolution. The Auto feature offers the same single option, Align, and fully automatized processing. There is a difference, though: you are not limited to two pictures anymore. You can use as many as you want. Of course, considering processing time, you might not want to use more than 3 to 6 photos. Obviously, using more than 2 pictures will produce better results than those of the previous features.
Details – Adjust
Adjust offers much more sophisticated options, at last. At the top of the dialog, you can see the Blending Point slider, used for weighting the mixing of light and dark images. Drag it to the left the make darker areas dominate, or to the right to emphasize the lighter ones. The other slider, Radius, controls sharpness where light and dark areas meet. You can inspect your changes in a large, zoomable and scrollable preview window. Of course, you again have the possibility to Align the photos precisely.
Details – Intensive
The best blending option, but also the slowest one. You have three options and a preview area—this time, it is smaller and cannot be zoomed. First, the two processing methods are Light and Enhanced. The former is the basic way, while the latter offers a nicer result, along with significantly increased processing time. The next slider controls Precision of the selected method. A higher setting produces more precise, natural-looking areas where light and dark areas meet, but once again, also means that you'll have to wait more for the final result. The third option should already be familiar: again, it is Align.
The blending of photos with different exposure using the presented features is just one way to use Photomatix. This method has the advantage of being able to enhance dynamics without increasing color noise, the photo will retain its natural look—unless the lightness differences between the original photos are too big—, and all five methods are relatively easy to use. The drawbacks are long processing times in some cases, and being unable to cope with large differences in exposure.
Next time, we'll be discussing Photomatix's HDR and Tone mapping capabilities, which will open new perspectives compared to the features described above.
(Trial version of the software can be downloaded from www.hdrsoft.com.)