Review for SNS-HDR Pro
Minimum system requirements:
Verdict: One of the best ‘realistic’ HDR software with sophisticated built-in set of post-production editing capability to extract more local and micro contrast, no halos and ghosting artefacts and excellent detail recovery.
There often are times when your camera will not have the dynamic range to capture the scene you wish to photograph. Dynamic range is the ratio of maximum and minimum light intensities. (In other words, the Blacks and the Whites) In a digital camera, we are referring to the maximum measurable light at a pixel level saturation before its blown or burnt out to the minimum measurable intensity of light just above the noise floor. Dynamic range in cameras is measured in F-stops and also referred to as eV (exposure value) or Zones depending on context of use.
Real-world DR hardware perspective:
The Nikon D800 has a DR of 14.4 EV while the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III has a DR of 12 EV. High dynamic range is an essential consideration in landscape and Architectural photography due to the variation in light intensities often encountered. DXO mark has an excellent page where different cameras and their DR latitudes are measured. There are a few software tools used to address this limitation in DR on sensors, one of which is using HDR imaging.
Up until now I had given HDR imaging a pass because either it required considerable effort to get it looking realistic or a lot of it looked gimmicky, overdone and faddish. This of course was mostly due to my own limitations of understand how HDR software really worked. There are fewer examples of tastefully done HDR than there is the colour riot fare. But that is a philosophical debate that is beyond the scope of this review.
Enter SNS-HDR Pro:
SNS-HDR Pro is a serious intuitive HDR program written by Sebastian Nibisz, which really works extremely well for the photographer looking to create realistic images, easily. (And that is an understatement!). Some of the best software comes from developers who are enthusiasts themselves as they have an innate understanding of the goal at hand. Even more commendable is the fact that Sebastian does not have the backing, or should I say constraints of working within a big company. Your clams go direct to the developer who ploughs it back into making a great product even better. Program revisions are rapid and Sebastian keeps a keen ear to the requests of users. However, if you are a connoisseur of kitsch or just prefer those over the top saturated images, you'd best look elsewhere. This program is about realism not surrealism. So if you are essentially looking for wildly ‘artistic’ outputs there may be other programs better suited to your needs. It is an easy to use program that when given an image or a series of images, prepares a HDR image with 8 presets (not counting your custom ones) available for preview and further adjustment. The unique selling proposition of SNS-HDR pro is the Quality of Output. The images it puts out are simply stunning, (almost) free from artefacts, halos, ghosting and have extremely accurate automatic alignment. Once images are loaded, any tweaks you make are visible in real-time without long refresh times.
The idea of just loading up a single photo, a series of exposures or a batch process in a single go is a very appealing one. You can drag and drop images directly from windows explorer. You don't have to endlessly tweak a multitude of sliders and controls just to get a decent image. The presets are actually useful and do an excellent job of getting you close to your envisioned output.
Installation is a breeze. It’s not the fastest program to fire up, but when it does; you are greeted with a contemporary smart grey UI where you can customise all panels by dragging and dropping them.
You can set your language preference by clicking on the icon and selecting from the drop down menu. The default language is English.
The sample RAW Images for Processing:
On importing the image/images for processing you are presented with a dialog box like this: 1X =100%, 2x = 50%, 3x = 33.33% and so forth. What it means is that it will import your images at full size or reduced size to speed up processing time. You cannot however, save as a full size later if you have chosen a smaller reduction at the onset. You shall have to repeat the process for saving in different sizes. I hope Sebastian looks into this issue for a future implementation. Here you can also select the options to align the images, reduce noise and ghosting. This option is useful because you can save a lot of time if you leave the boxes unchecked when you have perfectly aligned frames shot on your tripod. If you shoot handheld, you can leave the alignment box checked. Noise reduction has to be specified at this stage before the merging of exposures or tone mapping process. It would be preferable to have noise reduction as one of the controls on the panel dock, so one could dial down the noise interactively instead of having to commit to a numerical value pre-emptively.
On clicking on ‘Ok’ SNS-HDR starts to do its number crunching magic, but it takes its own time to get around doing all the processing. It’s now a good time to get that coffee as SNS HDR crunches huge amounts of data. It would do better if this process could be speeded up a tad. It took 3 minutes 31 seconds to process 4 full size 21 Megapixel files from the Canon 5D MkII. Total file size of 4 RAW images was 101 MB. This is where the wait ends; tweaking the adjustment settings is a snap and real-time.
Processing in batches:
The best way to run the batch processing is to load one image, tweak the parameters to your liking, and then run the entire batch for processing. This is because Batch processing module uses the current set of parameters as a template for processing. The arrowhead button activates this tool. Batch processing is useful when you want to run a lot of images from a folder which will require unattended processing for long periods of time.
Processing in Series:
This is a function exclusive to SNS HDR Pro. It’s just like Batch processing except for the fact that it pauses for each set of exposures and lets you adjust parameters before proceeding to the next set. The button with gears activates the batch processing tool.
The correct Monitor profile is automatically applied by the software and is displayed by the Green screen logo on top.
Every panel can be moved, docked or float for access wherever you want it.
Global/Localised Luminosity (Brightness) control:
One of the amazing features of SNS-HDR pro is the degree of control accorded to the user. The brightness slider increases/decreases the overall brightness of the scene and on clicking on the ‘H’ (highlight) button on the side of the slider holds the general brightness in place while affecting the brightness or luminosity only on the highlights with localised effect. It is incredible to see otherwise ordinary clouds pop with clarity and definition without affecting the general colour or brightness of the entire sky. Of particular note are the highlight protection and the mid-tone contrast controls: the former affecting the threshold of highlight range and the latter making a delicate but discernible difference to the image.
Another useful feature is the colour/hue/saturation control slider. Individual colours can be specifically targeted for luminosity, saturation, micro contrast etc. Think of it like a graphic equalizer with an adjustable parametric sweep to widen or narrow the focus of the colour chosen in question. You can selectively boost the green saturation on foliage, reduce the contrast and boost the blue in the sky at the same time and even selectively boost a specific hue of green on the foliage by narrowing the focus of the tonal equalize control. Any colour under your cursor can be tweaked this way. Just like the Luminosity settings which can be global and have localised highlight effect, you can use the tonal equalizer settings in a global/local setting. Each can have a specific curve on the equalizer.
White Balance is extremely intuitive with the colour dropper tool, just point it to a part of the image that you see as white and the entire image is immediately colour corrected to the desired colour temperature.
History tool palette:
Unlike certain image processing tools where you have to retrace your steps in order to get to the earlier desired state, in SNS-HDR pro every step is documented in text history. Retracing is as easy as clicking on the previous chosen state.
The relatively new addition to SNS HDR makes the program even more versatile. You can selectively mask out areas for tweaking. Masks can be added (stacked) in layers to affect different portions of the image. Brush size is automatically decided by the relative size of zoom and is inversely proportional. Clicking on intelligent selection makes the job much easier. For example, selecting non-contiguous areas of a wall behind a fence or selecting skies between leaves. You must remember however that using the brush to paint in is actually the selection or active area and not the masked or protected area. You can easily invert the selection by clicking on the icon.
More Photos by Paul Van De Loo, Christian Weltle, Hans Berendsen and myself in a variety of real world situations can be viewed here:
So what are the shortcomings of SNS-HDR pro software?
There is nothing that is intrinsically wrong with the software; it’s a task to fault it. In fact, it is a brilliant piece of code. Sebastian deserves a special kudos for the quality of his renders that even the big boys have difficulty achieving, that said however we have come to expect an integrated seamless workflow in our image editing programs. More RAW Options, manual image alignment, lens profile support would be welcome.
There is no HDR or EXR output although it does load an HDR file that was created in another program.
In some cases you may notice a cross hatch type artefact form on specific parts of your images (Often visible near clouds) this is a limitation of the underlying DCRAW raw conversion process and not SNS HDR itself. After some trial and error I found the best workaround around this problem is to use your favourite RAW convertor to generate 16 bit linear TIFF files and feed SNS HDR with them.
Hardened HDR veterans will find that they do not have access to the nuts and bolts of the HDR process. Certain specialised HDR tools give the operator the choice of demosaicing algorithms and the entire 32 bit data process.
Suggestions for improvements:
It would be great to have more control over the RAW images like Chromatic aberration correction, Lens vignette correction, noise reduction manual control and the like( before the HDR process), that we have come to expect from other RAW convertor programs. This I say because SNS-HDR pro performs best with RAW files. Chromatic aberration should be corrected before the merging of images and the tone mapping function. When using a non-profile corrected image (Like a lens that has pronounced vignette and chromatic aberration) the program could possibly magnify undesired elements in the image. The current workaround would be to use your favourite RAW convertors to process your bracketed exposures to your liking; then export as 16 bit TIFF format and then import those exposures into SNS-HDR pro.
Proposed forthcoming Features:
Sebastian has informed us that there are new incorporations planned that include:
Support for GPUs.
Support for AVX instructions.
Tools for post processing.
Video processing module.
Saving parameters of HDR images in the database.
Integrated image Explorer.
Video and SNS-HDR:
For those of you interested in shooting time-lapse video on your DSLRs check out Dustin Farrell’s tutorial on titled ‘How to HDR Timelapse’ where he uses a Canon 5DmkII and SNS-HDR to create one of the most beautiful time-lapse videos in recent times. They are masterpieces of creative work!
You might want to check out his finished videos to know what I mean.
The latest and changelog info:
For the latest RSS updates you can point your google or other RSS reader to the URL with the Default Settings: on the SNS-HDR Forum. It shows you all Posts from the last 2 Weeks, starting from the oldest first.
Real World Test scenarios:
I wanted to put SNS-HDR to a real world test where we may not have everything under controlled and perfect situations. I have even included hand held bracketed shots at dusk just to see how well the alignment function works! I’ve also roped in the services of my extremely talented photographer friends so I could test SNS-HDR in a variety of situations, cameras and venues. Pictures were taken with Tripod, handheld, 3-5 aperture range multi exposure, jpeg input, and single exposure RAW to name a few.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my wondrously talented and awesome friends for their contribution which made this even more fun. +Paul Van De Loo, +Christian Weltle, +Hans Berendsen and +Charles Fromage. Thank you for being so awesome and supportive, your art is a real inspiration.
Paul Van De Loo used photomatix for the two photographs submitted vs. SNS-HDR version of the same. We both agreed that SNS HDR did a better job with the mapping, colour, shadow and detail accuracy.
Christian Weltle’s pictures are amazing as are his Photoshop and Lightroom chops. He used PS and LR 3.6 vs. SNS HDR. You can clearly see the more detail on the SNS-HDR version. No lens geometry correction was applied on the SNS-HDR version. Again, we both agreed that the SNS-version had more detail and was a real time saver.
Hans Berendsen was so kind to go out and shoot with the very short brief I had given. ‘Get me photos with a lot of DR and difficult lighting conditions’. His comment on seeing his own work processed on SNS was ‘fabulous!’
These fine gentlemen were not influenced in any way in arriving at their conclusions! Don’t forget to circle them and head over to their streams for some excellent work.
Lightroom Plugin: There is a third party plugin by Michael Kötter for more details click here https://github.com/michaelkoetter/snshdr_lightroom
SNS-HDR Pro is extremely easy to use and intuitive. It has one of the best, realistic tonemapping I have seen compared to the competition. In the informal and admittedly unscientific tests carried out; it has recovered much more detail than the competition using the same RAW files. It could possibly even resuscitate those files you may have deemed condemned. I highly recommend SNS-HDR pro. Head over to the site and download a demo for yourself!
Tips to get the best out of SNS HDR pro:
Still need to see more? Head over to the Flickr stream here.
8 Exposure HDR processed direct from RAW files in SNS HDR Pro