a11 December 2014

Realistic HDR images using Contrast Optimizer in Photomatix Pro 5

High Dynamic Range photo tone-mapped using Contrast Optimizer.


As you probably know, one of the many changes introduced in Photomatix Pro 5, was addition of 2 new processing methods:
  • Contrast Optimizer and
  • Fusion/Real-Estate 
Both can produce very natural looking images but today I would like to focus on the first of them.
When I first tried Contrast Optimizer while we were still implementing changes for Photomatix Pro 5 at HDRsoft I immediately felt in love with this tone-mapper. It produces results which I always wanted and made my workflow a lot easier. Ever since then Contrast Optimizer has become processing method of my choice - I use it almost exclusively for majority of my new high dynamic range photos.

What I love about is, is that its output is very clean, natural, halo-free, has nice clarity and can be processed even further in Photoshop. It's closer to Lightroom's tone-mapper (yes... Lightroom does tonemap images too) than to Details Enhancer. Also it's one of the simplest to master methods available in Photomatix Pro as default preset, which is Balanced, is great already. I usually just move one or two sliders and I'm done. It doesn't require me to spend several minutes fiddling with the settings. Also I found out that it can produce results similar to Oloneo in terms of naturalness and realisticness. So if you're fan of Oloneo Photo Engine you might want to give Photomatix's Contrast Optimizer a test drive.

Although Contrast Optimizer works best for me when doing natural HDR processing, it can be also used to produce more surreal or grungy type of effects. Even though I'm advocate of natural tone-mapping there are cases when this might be useful, eg. in so called urbex photography (which means 'urban exploration') which are often quite heavy on the post-processing to produce this very special mood of loneliness, danger, etc. However, I'm not expert on this. In fact I have never captured any urbex photo.

Using Contrast Optimizer

Now, back to Contrast Optimizer. Generally speaking, as I already mentioned, default options for Contrast Optimizer are a good starting point because they produce natural looking images already. There are, however, a couple adjustments that you might want to make.

  1. The first thing I usually do is to drag Lighting Effect slider to 0. This works really well for landscapes. However, for night scenes in the city it is often better to leave this slider on its default, i.e. 20 because this slider is responsible for prominence of shadows (and in landscape scenes making them brighter might result in surreal look).
  2. In some cases doing above might darken the image. If so, there is easy fix - drag Midtone slider a bit to the right (to around 2.0 - 3.5). Alternative would be to move Strength to the right to around 55 - 60.
  3. Often I also decrease White Clipping and Black Clipping to avoid clipping highlights and shadows respectively. Note that although it's often good to drag Black Clipping as far as to 0, it's not always the best idea for the other option. Usually you have some bright highlights in your photo (like sun, bright sky, street lamps, etc.). If you drag White Clipping to 0, they will look a bit dull and artificial. So in case you have strong light sources in your image, I suggest to go to around 1.5 - 3.0 depending on the image.
And that's basically all the changes you need to make to make your image look really great and natural.

But if you're still not happy with the results, try dragging either Strength or Tone Compression just a little bit to the left.

Finally, one interesting thing. If you have a single LDR (low dynamic range) photo you might also see great improvement in how it looks when you use Contrast Optimizer on it. The effect of using Contrast Optimizer in such case are better colours and clarity. Just load your single LDR image into Photomatix Pro, select Balanced preset and voila - exposure and colours of your image will be generally much better.

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