Have you dreamed of taking incredible HDR photos? While smartphones and certain point-and-shoot cameras now include built-in HDR modes, to capture stunning HDR images like those seen in magazines you need a great camera and special software.
From well-known applications like Photoshop to niche software like Photomatix, a wide variety of HDR photography applications are available for PC and Mac. While all offer the same basic features, the quality of the results they produce differs.
In this guide, we look at six of the best HDR software applications for amateur and professional photographers interested in producing crisp, eye-catching HDR photos like those seen in professional photography magazines.
To use these applications to their fullest, you’ll need a DSLR camera. Enroll in our EasyDSLR Digital Photography Course for Beginners to learn about how to set up your camera for stunning HDR photography.
Photomatix is the first application we’ll be looking at. It’s a dedicated HDR photo editing application built by a company called HDRsoft, and it’s the choice of many professional HDR photographers.
Available in two editions, Photomatix Essentials and Photomatix Pro, a license for Photomatix costs between $39 and $99. Most users will want to purchase the Pro edition, which includes a free plugin for users of Photoshop Lightroom.
As the choice of most professional HDR photographers, Photomatix has a massive range of features that make producing HDR images simple. Power users can make use of features like tone mapping and multiple-exposure image stitching.
Although Photomatix lacks the versatility of other photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop, its focus on HDR photography and its massive range of features make it a great choice. For many users, the low price point is simply the icing on the cake.
Are you interested in using Photomatix to create amazing HDR images? Enroll in our Learn Advanced HDR Editing with Photoshop and Photomatix course to learn how you can produce stunning HDR images with Photomatix Pro.
While Photomatix offers the best dedicated HDR image editing experience, its full feature set falls short of that offered by Adobe Photoshop. The industry standard in photo editing for over a decade, Photoshop remains as popular as ever before.
Photoshop CC, the latest version of Adobe’s popular application, includes a built-in feature for editing HDR photographs. The results are good, the images are crisp and great looking, and the software’s familiar interface makes it very easy to use.
However, Photoshop’s ‘Merge to HDR’ feature, which you can use to create your own HDR photos, isn’t quite as good as the results offered by Photomatix. Despite this, it is much easier to use, making it a good choice for beginner HDR photographers.
Photoshop’s HDR features also automatically crop and align your exposures, giving you a quick and simple outcome that looks great. Power users can also install a wide range of custom HDR plugins for Photoshop to enhance the images it produces.
Do you want to produce your own HDR images using Photoshop? Our Photoshop for Photographers course shows you how to use filters, levels, color balance and many other features to create stunning digital photographs using Adobe Photoshop.
Luminance HDR is a free application offering a surprisingly large range of features for amateur and professional photographers. Although its focus is HDR, Luminance can be used to carry out a wide range of simple photo editing tasks.
Although its interface is a little bit clumsy, the results produced by a power user are excellent. Users can easily drag and drop images into the software, and its auto-align feature makes lining up and cropping your exposures incredibly simple.
While Luminance HDR doesn’t quite compare to Photomatix or Photoshop, its price point (the software is open source and free) makes it a great choice for beginners on a tight budget for photo editing software.
Want to take better photos? Enroll in our course, The Fundamentals of Photography, to learn how to master great exposure and composition for better photos with your DSLR camera.
The GIMP, also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an open source photo editing application that’s popular among designers and photographers. This simple yet powerful app shares many features with Adobe Photoshop, although it’s nowhere near as comprehensive or versatile.
Although the GIMP isn’t specifically designed for HDR photography, it can be used to produce impressive HDR photos with the right combination of RAW photo files and settings. Its price point also makes it a great choice for beginners on tight budgets.
Despite this, producing HDR images in the GIMP isn’t simple, and it’s generally only recommended for power users. While Photoshop reduces HDR photography to just one mouse click, GIMP requires several layers masks and complex blending options.
Darktable is an interesting application. Completely open source, this software is an excellent choice for photographers interested in managing their RAW photography files and producing impressive images at the same time.
Processing HDR images in Darktable is possible, but the process isn’t as pretty as it is in Photoshop or Photomatix. Users will need to be familiar with tone maps, local contrast enhancement, and other photo editing principles for HDR to work well.
While the steep learning curve makes Darktable better for experts than beginners, this software’s free price point and surprisingly large range of features make it an excellent addition to any digital photographer’s editing suite.
Do terms like ‘tone maps’ and ‘contrast enhancement’ confuse you? Learn the basic principles of photo editing by enrolling in our course, Foundations of Photoshop.
HDR Efex Pro
HDR Efex Pro is one of several applications included in the Google Nik Collection – a suite of photo editing applications released by Google. With a simple interface and a wide range of options, HDR Efex Pro is a powerful and user-friendly application.
Instead of adjusting hundreds of settings to produce the perfect photo, HDR Efex Pro makes it simple with plenty of built-in adjustment presets. Select a photo you love, a look you like, and export your image for printing, sharing, or online publishing.
Learn more about HDR photography
HDR is one of the most interesting styles in modern photography. Learn more about this fast-growing photography movement with our in-depth blog post on developing your own HDR images in Photoshop.