Photomatix Pro from HDRsoft is a stand alone application that allows you to use multiple bracketed exposures to create a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. This can be achieved in Photoshop CS3 but not as easily, or with the same amount of control, that Photomatix provides.
As well as being able to blend multiple exposures you can also use Tone Mapping to pull out amazing shadow detail from either multiple exposures or from a single image.
I use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop CS3 to post process my work but have found that Photomatix has added a new dimension to many of the images.
The three bracketed exposures on the left have been combined using Photomatix to produce a single HDR image. (Mouse over the large image for a more detailed view)
HDR images have much more detail in the bright and dark areas but will not display correctly on a monitor. Photomatix processes the HDR so you can display or print it.
You can also create a pseudo-HDR image from a single RAW file. This method can achieve very good results and often brings out far more detail than can be obtained by the RAW processing software itself.
Photomatix Pro User Interface
Images are imported into Photonatix using the Generate HDR menu item which then produces a single HDR image. You then select Tone Map. The interface then allows a variety of parameters to be changed to produce you final image.
Details Enhancer: takes into account whether it is in a bright or dark area and maps it accordingly. This is the default mode and the one which has been my preferred option. Tone Compressor: Ignores the local brightness context of the image and compresses the whole image into the 0-256 range of an 8 bit monitor.
Strength: controls the amount (strength) of the contrast enhancement.
Color Saturation: Controls the intensity of the color.
Light Smoothing: Controls the compression of the tonal range which in turn affects the global luminosity level. Keeping the slider on the left will give you a more natural look whilst moving it to the right will boost shadow and brighten the image.
You can see the effects visually via the histogram but the visual feedback via the preview widow is more effective.
Sub menus take you to Tone, Color, Micro and S/H (shadows highlights) adjustments. These control color temperature, saturation highlights etc. Micro Adjustments allow the fine control of local detail and noise reduction.
The working area can be resized and an inspection loupe is provided to allow an much more precise view of the effect of each of the adjustments.
You can save your settings as a preset and then you apply (process) the the image. The output can be a 8 bit JPG or 16 bit TIFF file. Note if you saved the HDR image prior to Tone Mapping you can easily go back and try different settings.
There is much more to Photomatix including batch mode operation and the individual processing of RAW to optimize dynamic range.
I am still learning how to use this powerful application but have obtained images that I did not think were possible. Keeping the final image as natural looking and believable is important, although you may be after a specific HDR effect in which case a natural look may not be what you want.
I thoroughly recommend this product as a vital part of your digital imaging workflow. Photomatix Pro is currently at version 3.0 is available for both Mac and Windows and costs $99.