Are you looking for the best HDR software to create stunning photos? Whether you are a landscape photographer, or capturing candid portraits and special moments,High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is a powerful tool for artists. It offers the ability to produce images with amazing highlights and shadows, using an array of pictures taken at different exposures.
With so many programs available, it can be difficult to decide which one is the most reliable – that’s why we have put together our top five choices for the best HDR software on the market! Read on for details of each program, plus helpful tips for using these products in your own photography projects.
How Do you Capture HDR Photos?
Of course, all of these software programs work best when you give them the right types of original raw photos to work with! So, let’s talk about the different ways to capture HDR photos in the first place.
It is true that you can create the HDR “look” using a single exposure. If you want to do this, then you need to make sure your exposure is absolutely perfect. The correct technique is known as “Expose To The Right”, or ETTR. Simply check your histogram and make sure there isn’t a gap in the image data on the right-hand edge of the graph. Also, check your “blinking highlights” warning, to make sure you haven’t clipped any of the important highlights in your scene. This technique will give you the best possible raw files for single-shot HDRs.
To achieve the maximum HDR effect, however, you’ll want to capture multiple, bracketed exposures. This article about Bracketing will help you understand everything you need to know! Basically, after you’ve captured a middle or “correct” exposure, you then capture additional exposures; some are brighter and some are darker, allowing you to capture more than enough image detail in both shadows and highlights. Then, you’ll use one of these HDR apps to combine those exposures smoothly!
1. Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic
Adobe Lightroom’s HDR merge tool is our top choice, not because it is absolutely the best, but because it is a good balance of simplicity, convenience, and good image quality. Lightroom HDR Merge allows you to combine multiple bracketed exposures into a single image with a greater dynamic range, and very smooth transitions between each exposure..Here are some of the pros and cons of using Lightroom’s HDR merge tool:
Lightroom HDR | Pros & Cons
- Easy to use: The HDR merge tool in Lightroom is straightforward and easy to use. You can quickly and easily merge bracketed exposures to create an HDR image without needing specialized software.
- Preserves image quality: Lightroom’s HDR merge tool preserves the quality of the source images, and produces a raw DNG file you can edit almost identically to your usual raw editing workflow. This ensures that the final result is a high-quality image with a wider dynamic range.
- Creative control: The HDR merge tool in Lightroom offers minimal but adequate creative control, allowing you to adjust the settings for exposure, contrast, and other attributes such as Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks.
- Save time: Merging bracketed exposures manually can be time-consuming, but Lightroom’s HDR merge tool automates the process, from directly within your main workflow, saving you time and effort.
- Requires multiple exposures: To use the HDR merge tool in Lightroom, you need to have multiple exposures of the same scene. If you only have a single exposure, you won’t be able to use the tool. (Just edit your raw exposure as you normally would; use the Shadows/Highlights sliders to maximize your dynamic range!)
- Limited Manual Control (Tone-Mapping, etc): Since the Lightroom HDR Merge feature creates a raw DNG file, your control during the HDR process itself is highly limited compared to all our other HDR app recommendations. You’re just going to be processing your resulting HDR files as if they were regular raw files, but with greater dynamic range.
Lightroom is a universal workflow tool, and there’s a good chance you’re already using it. So, whether you’re just starting out as a photographer or you’re merely curious about HDR photography for the first time, it’s likely that you’ll start here. Why not? If you’re already paying for the Adobe Lightroom $9.99 monthly subscription, you should try out its HDR tool.
2. Photomatix Pro
Photomatix Pro is, quite simply, the original HDR software. It has been around since 2003, when digital cameras were just starting to become mainstream, and when digital sensors’ dynamic range was not very great. So, the folks at Photomatix have literally two decades of experience creating the best HDR software.
If you’re looking for the most advanced tools, in-depth manual control, and a general variety of results that suit any and every visual style or aesthetic, Photomatix Pro is our recommendation.
It also has easy-to-use automated modes with impressive results, too, for those who want that. Here are some of the pros and cons of using Photomatix Pro:
Photomatix | Pros & Cons
- Greater exposure/tone control: Photomatix Pro offers an incredible level of control over the HDR merging process. You can achieve very different results by using different process algorithms such as Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion, with subsequent methods such as Details Enhancer, Tone Compressor, and more.
- Additional advanced features: Photomatix Pro offers several advanced features, such as tone mapping and ghost removal, that are not available in Lightroom’s HDR merge tool.
- Automated batch processing: Photomatix Pro allows you to batch process multiple images using the above tools, saving you time and effort.
- Dedicated real estate photography tools & presets: One genre of photography where HDR photography is frequently used with high volumes of images is real estate photography. Photomatix Pro gets our hands-down recommendation for this, as it has a wide range of options, especially for interiors. Click here for more info about how we use Photomatix Pro for real estate photography!
- Supports various file formats: Photomatix Pro supports a wide range of file formats, including RAW files from popular camera brands. Also, HDR results can be created
- Steep learning curve: Photomatix Pro has a steeper learning curve than Lightroom’s HDR merge tool. It can take time to master the software and achieve the desired results.
- Price: Photomatix Pro is a paid software, of course, which may not be feasible for some photographers who are for example already paying for a Lightroom or other subscription/license.
- May result in unrealistic images: HDR images can sometimes look unrealistic or unnatural, particularly if they are processed too aggressively. It’s important to use the tool carefully and exercise restraint when processing the final image if you’re looking for natural, realistic results.
- May introduce noise and artifacts: In some cases, Photomatix Pro may allow noise or other artifacts to sneak into the final image. This can be particularly noticeable in areas of fine detail in transition zones between exposures for shadow areas, or wherever motion is present.
Overall, Photomatix Pro offers more advanced features and greater control over the HDR merging process than Lightroom’s HDR merge tool. However, it has a steeper learning curve and a higher price point. It’s important to use the software judiciously and exercise restraint to avoid creating unrealistic or unnatural images.
Photomatix Pro 7 can be purchased for $99 with a basic Lightroom and Capture One plugin, or $119 for the Pro Plus Bundle which includes full HDR Batch Plugins for Lightroom as well as Tone Mapping for Photoshop.
3. Affinity Photo Tone Mapping Persona
Affinity Photo’s Tone Mapping Persona is a good balance of advanced tools and user-friendliness. It allows you to create HDR images that are natural and realistic, or stylized and fine art.
Affinity Photo Tone Mapping Persona | Pros & Cons
- Flexible controls: The Tone Mapping Persona provides a familiar range of flexible controls, allowing you to adjust basic different aspects of your image, such as highlights, shadows, contrast, and saturation. Plus, more advanced techniques such as Tone Mapping (of course) are offered.
- User-Friendly Interface: The new “Persona” interface will be decently familiar to anyone who has used Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Although it’s not identical, the learning curve isn’t very steep.
- Excellent image quality: Maintain a full 32-bit workflow from start to finish, for maximum smoothness in tonal transitions.
- Non-destructive editing: The software allows non-destructive editing, which means that you can revert back to the original image at any time during the editing process.
- Value: Affinity Photo is on the more affordable side of prices for HDR software!
- Limited compatibility: While the software supports a range of file formats, it may not be compatible with the latest camera models. Therefore, it’s important to check the software’s compatibility with your camera before purchasing.
- Resource-intensive: Tone mapping can be resource-intensive, especially when using multiple high-megapixel raw files. Therefore, this app may require a powerful computer to perform fast and effectively. This means that you may need to invest in a powerful computer with a high-performance graphics card to run the software efficiently.
Overall, Affinity Photo’s Tone Mapping Persona can be a powerful tool for creating HDR images, but it may require some investment in terms of both time and resources to get the best results.
To access Affinity Photo Tone Mapping Persona, you’ll have to purchase the entire Affinity Photo 2 Suite. It is priced very fairly at a one-time payment of $69.99. There is also an iPad version for just $19.99!
4. Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 (Nik Collection 5)
Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 is an HDR app that is part of the Nik Collection 5 software by DXO. For those photographers who are looking for an entire suite of creative tools, this may be a perfect fit!
We could write an entire article on the different tools in the Nik Collection, such as Color Efex, Viveza, Dfine, Silver Efex, and more. We’re only going to focus on the pros & cons of their HDR Efex Pro 2 plugin.
Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 | Pros & Cons
- Comprehensive controls: The HDR Efex software offers a comprehensive set of controls for fine-tuning your images. You can adjust different aspects such as contrast, saturation, highlights, and shadows to achieve the desired look.
- Wide range of presets: Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 comes with a wide range of presets that you can use to quickly and easily create high-quality HDR images. The presets can be further customized and adjusted to achieve the desired look.
- Easy to use: Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 has a user-friendly interface, which makes it easy to use even for beginners. The software’s workflow is intuitive and easy to follow.
- Integration with other software: The software works as a plugin with other software, namely, Adobe Lightroom, and Photoshop. This means it naturally incorporates into your existing workflow.
- Limited compatibility: Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 is not compatible with all camera models. This means that you may need to check compatibility before purchasing the software.
- Resource-intensive: HDR processing can be resource-intensive, and Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 is no exception. You may need a powerful computer with a high-performance graphics card to run the software efficiently.
- Limited control over the HDR process: While the software offers a useful set of controls, it’s not the most advanced and comprehensive. This means that you may not be able to achieve certain effects or fine-tune certain aspects of your image.
Overall, Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 can be a powerful tool for creating HDR images, especially for those who are new to photo editing in general and are curious about all types of artistic, stylized edits.
The Nik Collection 5 is priced at $149 for the entire suite, including HDR Efex Pro 2.
5. HDR Merge | Skylum Luminar Neo (Aurora HDR)
Skylum Luminar Neo, is a software that includes HDR tools for creating high dynamic range (HDR) images. Here are some pros and cons of using this software:
Skylum (Aurora) HDR Merge Luminar Neo | Pros & Cons
- Easy to use: Skylum Luminar Neo is designed to be user-friendly and intuitive, making it accessible even for beginners. Its interface is clean and easy to navigate, and the software’s workflow is straightforward.
- Wide range of editing tools: Luminar Neo includes a wide range of editing tools that allow you to adjust various aspects of your images, such as contrast, exposure, saturation, and more. The software also includes advanced features such as AI Sky Replacement and Portrait Enhancer, which can save time and provide high-quality results.
- Non-destructive editing: Luminar Neo supports non-destructive editing, allowing you to make changes to your images without altering the original files. This makes it easy to experiment and try out different looks without the risk of losing your original files.
- Limited HDR tools: While Luminar Neo includes HDR Merge tools, it is not as feature-rich as dedicated, purpose-built HDR software options. This may limit your ability to achieve certain effects or fine-tune certain aspects of your image.
- Complex purchase options: In the past, Skylum sold its HDR app as Aurora HDR, which could be purchased by itself. Now, in order to get Skylum HDR Merge, you must have an active Luminar Neo Pro subscription. Alternatively, you can purchase Luminar Neo outright, and have an existing (2019 and newer) Aurora HDR purchase, or purchase the lifetime (perpetual) version of LUminar Neo and add the complete extension pack.
- Limited compatibility: As we’ve mentioned for basically all non-Adobe software, Luminar Neo may not be compatible with all of the latest models or file formats. Simply put, Adobe is usually the fastest to update their software every time a new camera comes out, and other programs usually take a little while (or a long while) longer.
Overall, Skylum Luminar Neo can be a useful tool for creating HDR images, especially for users who are new to HDR processing. Its affordability, ease of use, and non-destructive editing are significant advantages. However, it may have some limitations, and its HDR tools, compatibility, and resource requirements.
Luminar Neo can be purchased as a one-time purchase for $149, but to get HDR Merge you must purchase the extension pack for a total of $348. You can also access HDR Merge with a monthly or annual subscription to the Pro version of Luminar Neo, for $119 per year or $14.95 per month.
Conclusion | Best HDR Software
Ultimately, your decision will depend on a number of factors. Do you want your HDR software to be as simple and effortless as possible, or as advanced and powerful as possible? What is your creative style; is it natural and realistic, or is it stylized and artistic?
Based on your own answers to these questions, one of the above options is definitely going to be the best HDR software for you!