RAW File Processing: Photomatix Pro vs. ACR/Lightroom

[Update 1/15/12: Added tests for Unified Color’s HDR Expose 2]

This is the third in a series of articles abut passing images between Lightroom, Photoshop and various plugins. The other posts include:

In this post I’ll examine the best way to get RAW files into Photomatix Pro. We’ll look at three methods: (1) using the default Lightroom method of exporting an image to Photomatix Pro; (2) opening RAW files directly in Photomatix Pro (and using Photomatix Pro’s RAW file converter); and (3) exporting bracketed TIFF files from Lightroom and then opening these files in Photomatix Pro (ie, using Lightroom’s RAW file converter, essentially that of Adobe Camera Raw or ACR).

We’re only trying to evaluate these workflows and the quality of the two different RAW converters, so to keep things simple we’ll start with a single RAW file. The first/left image below is a low-dynamic range (LDR) JPEG exported from that RAW image in Lightroom with no corrections or adjustments. It’s generally overexposed, but there are substantial areas that appear entirely blown out. However, because the original is a RAW image, we can possibly recover some detail from those highlights that don’t appear in a 0EV LDR JPEG.

      

The second image was made by selecting Plug-in Extras…Export to Photomatix Pro… in Lightroom. This creates a single TIFF image which is then opened by Photomatix Pro. I used Photomatix Pro’s default settings and returned a 16-bit sRGB TIFF to Lightroom, which I then exported as the JPEG above. There is virtually no recovery of any burned-out highlights in the resulting image.

The third image is the result of opening the original RAW file directly in Photomatix Pro, using its default processing, saving the results as a 16-bit sRGB TIFF from which the above JPEG was made. You can see that some of the details in the blown-out areas have been recovered.

I then used the technique which I recommend in order to save/recover as much dynamic range as possible when working with Lightroom and Photomatix Pro to create the image below.

The steps to create the above image are a bit more complex that the other workflows. The first step was to export three different 16-bit ProPhoto TIFF files from Lightroom. All three were from the same original RAW file as was used for the first two images, but the Exposure slider in Lightroom’s Develop module was set to 0.00, -2.00 and -4.00 respectively. I then opened all three TIFFs in Photomatix Pro as a set of bracketed originals. As you can see, this process recovered far more detail in what at first appeared to be the blown-out areas. (Don’t worry about what appears to be a shift in color. This is a separate issue and is easily resolved.)

These tests support the general understanding of many experienced HDR photographers that the Lightroom/ACR RAW file processor is dramatically superior to the one built into Photomatix Pro and that Lightroom’s Export to Photomatix Pro should be avoided in all cases. To take advantage of this workflow in realistic situations (eg, when you have bracketed originals instead of just one) I recommend following Klaus Hermann’s Five TIFFs method.

Update: Based on a friend’s suggestion, I decided to compare Unified Color’s HDR Expose to Photomatix Pro. Below are two images from HDR Expose. The first was made using the application’s own RAW processor. The second was made from the same three bracketed TIFFs as used for the last Photomatix Pro test.

If you ignore the differences in saturation, which are fairly easily corrected, these two images are quite similar to one another and to the three-TIFF Photomatix Pro output. When you consider that the left image was made without the hassle of first exporting three different TIFF variations, it appears that HDR Expose would be a better choice for this test case. This is even more so when you further consider that the left image above requires less color hue and saturation correction.

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3 thoughts on “RAW File Processing: Photomatix Pro vs. ACR/Lightroom

  1. so this is just for taking a single RAW file and turning it into something Photomatx is then pull more dynamic range out of, right? Not a suggested replacement for actual bracketing?

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  2. Hi, Alian. It applies to bracketed images, too. I used a single image to to keep the demonstration simple. All RAW file processors extract a subset of the data available. For most images, the defaults will be to throw away some data in both the shadow and highlight areas. If you shoot bracketed exposures and the highest and lowest EV images show all the detail you want using the default settings of your RAW processor, then you don’t need to do this. But you’re not then taking advantage of RAW. It’s like shooting three or five JPEGs or TIFFs. If you want to recover blown-out highlights from your lowest-EV RAW image or shadow detail from your highest-EV image, then create two additional TIFF images at 2EV and 4EV lower or higher, respectively, from the most over- or underexposed originals.

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