Hi, There are so many HDR software options out there now from Phomatix to other free options and the list is growing so what in your opinions from those who have tried the differant options give the most realistic finish to a photograph ie what you saw when you pushed the shutter.
Good question, Russ. The bad news first: there's no clear answer to that question just yet. The good news: there are three or four really good options for HDR processing (I'm speaking for the Mac side here), each with its own set of strengths. I haven't had much chance to play with Nik's new HDR Efex plugin yet, but I have used three other options pretty extensively. Here's what I'd say generally:
• Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR Pro: simple UI, moderate control over tones and colors; excellent deghosting process (simple to use, accurate); pretty easy to get a nice looking image on the first pass. The Curves with corner points is awesome... It's just a little obscure / not the most intuitive process ever. On the downside, not as easy to control specific areas of tone or color with the sliders, and the presets are not that useful IMHO. But for photo-real uses, the default workflow is well-suited to this purpose. In fact I'd say it's better used for this purpose than attempting a more stylized HDR shot.
• PhotoMatix Pro 4: wonky UI, lots of floating, odd-size windows (with screwy zoom controls) that don't always behave as (a Mac user would) expect, BUT, a LOT of control over those specific regions of tone and color. Just takes experimentation to learn and remember what each slider does in the Detail Enhancer's tone mapping controls. The downside of PhotoMatix IMHO, is all the extra clicks that are required to get you through the entire process (merge, deghost, process, save and open to Ps) as compared to Merge to HDR Pro. None of the steps are "hard" per se, there's just a lot of them. Some of the presets are pretty helpful in figuring out which tone mapping method you want to start with, etc. I would say on balance the results you get from PhotoMatix are more stylized than what you get from Photoshop but there's enough control there to make things look as natural or nutty as you want.
• HDR Expose 1.x: Very sleak, one-window UI with auto-collapsing panels that house all the controls. Control-wise, more than Photoshop, not as much as PhotoMatix. Some of the control properties in this app are not as intuitively named or set up as others, but the reality is that's part of learning software. There's always some button or slider that makes no sense to you at first; just have to experiment and find out.
The major weakness of Expose IMHO, is the deghosting. It is fairly simple to apply but the results are not great in many cases. I would say this app (when you can get a good deghost result) is also very good for producing photo-real results rather than more stylized looks, although again, certainly possible.
• Heard good things about HDR Efex from Nik. If it's as intuitive as Viveza and Silver Efex, then my guess is it's a good product that will produce pleasing results. One thing I did read about HDR Efex is that there are a decent number of presets that are helpful, as well as the fan-favorite u-point technology (which I think has a new name these days).
In short, if you're on a budget and are looking to create more realistic HDR shots, Photoshop CS5 is probably all you need. The real key is to give it enough information to work with, and that's all a function of how you bracket your exposures. Hope this helps some!