A German developer with a long list of photo editing applications for Mac and PC has decided to start distributing its flagship HDR app to English speaking countries. HDR Projects Platin is the name and HDR controlled to a ridiculously granular level is its game. This newcomer on the worldwide market of HDR processing software is the most complete HDR app you can buy, but it isn’t perfect (yet).
The 64-bit HDR Projects Platin software is hampered by a literally translated user guide that confuses more than it explains in some areas. Additionally, the app totally relies on an alignment algorithm — no manual alignment possible at all. Those are the only two flaws that I could find. You really need a good user guide to get up and running fast (and even beyond, to make the most of the program) with this application. While the alignment algorithm is incredible, it’s not perfect. Handheld photographing will result in blurry edges, and if you want to take advantage of the many capabilities of HDR Projects Platin, you’d better use a good tripod.
The software has the following key features, according to the press release:
- Seven newly developed HDR algorithms ensure maximum design capability
- Selective HDR for precise results in every image area
- Superior contrast ratio for exceptionally natural, realistic results
- High-end HDR even from single pictures by generating exposure brackets automatically
- HDR in real time through highly optimised algorithms and GPU acceleration
- 51 different post-processing effects that can be combined, as well as customisable presets
- HDR painter for effective ghost reduction
- Adjustable HDR smoothing for removing unwanted halos
- Expert mode with five tone-mapping algorithms and 46 categorised photo filters
The software costs 149.00 Euros. Let’s see if those Euros are well spent. The first feature that I noticed and which gets high marks is the import file format list. That list is nothing short of impressive, ranging from JPEG over RAW (including Hasselblad) all the way up to HDR image formats. The interface on the other hand won’t derserve a design award. It doesn’t look like an OS X app at all, but I can’t say it looks like a Windows program either. Most importantly is that it’s probably the most powerful HDR editor available right now.
Import to HDR workflow
When you import LDR (Low Dynamic Range) images into HDR Project Platin (by importing from menu, toolbar, or by drag-and-drop) you’ll get a chance to set a colour profile, a white balance, colour noise removal, exposure optimisation, alignment with or without advanced algorithm and automatic ghosting correction.
With the colour space conversion and “true to shot/camera” white balance turned on, I got a HDR image with a heavy blue cast no matter what I did. The images were shot with the correct white balance applied in-camera, I imported the RAW files and if I imported these LDR images into Hydra Pro, everything looked just fine. The solution was to turn off colour space conversion. Applying a colour space on a HDR image doesn’t make sense as the HDR image is a 32-bit image (See: Bloch C., “The HDRI Handbook 2.0“, p. 35-37, Rockynook [review here]).
The reason it’s there isn’t explained in the user guide, but I suspect it’s an attempt to prepare for the tone mapping images that you’ll be able to export later in the workflow.
Once the images have been imported — you can import from one to 18 LDR images — you’re set to go. You’ll get a centralised viewer’s window with at left a column holding your LDR images and a HDR mask representing the areas of importance that contribute to the HDR image. Beneath these images are two sliders with which you can customise the level of importance of each image in relationship to the others and an exposure adjustment.
In this column you can also create (or turn existing images into) synthetic images. Synthetic images are copies of your LDR images that are manipulated by HDR Projects Platin in such a way that they “fill in the gap” between exposures. This should result in smoother HDR results. It will also serve to create “faux HDR” from one image. I didn’t test this feature.
Instead, I shot a HDR sequence of 12 images using a scene I could control easily. On the right side, I had a flightcase with the lid open turned away from the light. In the centre I had a colour target open with the colour patches turned slightly towards the light, and at left I had a colour target lit from close-by with a LED torch beam concentrated on the centre of the target. This allowed me to create a HDR where the details of the flight case contents (all black and dark objects inside) should be as visible as the brightly lit colour target.
It also enabled me to easily see the differences between HDR Projects Platin’s presets. The app’s user guide luckily does give you some information on each preset’s algorithm — it explains what each algorithm does and what its results should be. In this phase of the workflow, two sets of presets are available: the weighting algorithm with which the importance of each image’s areas of interest (interest meaning here: serving to create the HDR image) is calculated and the HDR algorithm itself.
There’s also a denoising option, a halo adjustment slider and a Day & Night controller.
If you have set the options in this phase to your liking, you could now just export your HDR image to an OpenEXR file. Most people will now start the second phase, which is tone mapping to “compress” the HDR image into something that can be rendered on mainstream monitors and printers again.
Tone mapping your HDR file
Tone mapping in HDR Projects Platin is a mind-blowing experience. There are seven categories of presets in the left column to choose from. That’s more or less the same as what you get out of Google/Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. But HDR Projects Platin goes much, much further.
Each preset can be duplicated and then fully customised. You can combine presets together for a truly unlimited array of artistic and natural effects.
If you’re not content just applying a preset, you can either create a new one or customise an existing one for just your current session. This customisation process is what HDR Projects Platin calls “Expert mode”, and in this case you’d better take that moniker literally. The first thing you’ll need to do is choose your preferred tone mapping algorithm from the first block in the right column. There are five of them and — this is unique! — you can apply them individually or any number of times.
Below the tone mapping list, there’s a list of post-processing filters. These are represented in categories (the background of each category of filters cycles through yellow for edge effects, green for geometric effects, cyan for exposure effects, etc.).
Effects you have selected and the effect parameters each sit in their own block. Did I mention you can undock each complete column so you can drag them anywhere you want on your screen?
The capability to apply one or more tone mapping algorithms several times in HDR Projects Platin is due to the fact that they’re just another effect. The other effects make or break your tone-mapped result. For example, “bleach bypass” will wash out the colours, while “colours-saturation-exposure” allows you to crank up the saturation and definition or punch of the image. “Photo reflector” adds a digital reflector that can be adjusted in terms of position and light colour. “Fokus” acts as a sort of bokeh filter, while “miniature world” gives you the tilt-shift effect many people are fond of. All of these effects have easy to use controls.
But we’re not done yet! If you find it difficult to see which areas are close to being underexposed and which to overexposed, you can turn on a “marginal pixels” tool. This tool works much like a video monitor’s faux colour screen, with exposure values shown on a colour scale ranging from white (over) to deep purple (under).
HDR Painting mode
Even after using all your skills to get an image that shows all areas with proper detail and has the result you want, you can still end up with areas that are not to your liking. That’s why HDR Projects Platin has a painting mode.
The painting mode is a complex tool for manual processing individual sections of an image. The word complex is not my opinion; it’s stated that way in the user guide! And complexity is what you get.
The painting mode is activated by switching back to phase one (which is a simple toolbar button click away) and use the “edit weightings button” besides each LDR image. If you click on these buttons right of each image, you’ll see them light up in red, green or blue. If you have more than three images in your list, you’ll look for the Master Image (it’s labeled by the program) and turn that button green, you’ll turn the darker image above red and the lighter one below blue.
You can now decide for yourself which areas of these three images will be made more important than the weighting the software has decided for. In essence you’ll be painting in the mask that represents the area of interest for each selected image.
The paint brush lets you add weight to an area, the paint eraser lets you decrease weight to that specific area. The complexity comes from the way this is implemented — here, it’s very clear an engineer has designed the tool, not someone who knows interface design. You can use other images than the Master and the two directly next to it as well. Additionally, there are no Undo capabilities as what we’re used to. Instead, you’ll undo with a paint roller. Not very intuitive! But powerful without a doubt.
There’s also a stamp in the painting interface. That one is especially useful when trying to create an area in all images at once. Finally, the blurring tool allows you to remove ghosts completely. This is done by combining the Add tool (the paint brush), the Stamp tool (working on all images at once) and the Blurring tool.
Although I believe the whole Edit Weightings or Paint section could be redesigned in a much more user-friendly way, I must admit it works perfectly, especially on ghosts.
Last but not least, HDR Projects Platin has batch export mode.