Best Free High Dynamic Range (HDR) Software

Introduction

Imagine that you are inside a large Gothic cathedral, and the sunlight is streaming in from the windows on to a beautiful painting. You pull out your digital camera and take a photograph of the beautiful artwork on the church wall near one of the windows. You need not have bothered. Your digital photograph will be a flop. Either the painting will be dark and barely visible, or the window will appear as a glaring and dominant white area that is hardly recognizable as a window. Or both.  The problem is not your camera.  The problem is that the dynamic range of the scene exceeds what the camera is able to capture.

Since the birth of photography, photographers have attempted to increase the dynamic range that a photograph captures to recreate how our eyes see.  A camera is able to capture a dynamic range of about 1:1,024 where the human eye is capable of seeing somewhere around 1:65,500.  In the days of film, bridging this gap occurred in the darkroom.  Today it occurs in the computer using a very nice program called HDR or High Dynamic Range.

There is an abundance of information on the web regarding HDR photography, so I will only cover the basics here.  The photographer will take several different exposures of the same scene encompassing the gamut of range in the exposures.  You would have an exposure for the brightest area of the photograph and several exposures - at least 1 F-stop apart - bridging the gap until you have an exposure for the darkest area of the photograph.  The HDR program then takes this range and reduces it down to a usable, reproducible range.  You can understand that compressing that much information doesn't always yield the best results the first rattle out of the box.

HDR is often mistaken for micro-contrast.  Micro-contrast is different process where the details of the image are enhanced by increasing the contrast in small lines next to each other.  Many HDR programs include micro-contrast just to make things look different and cool.  You can create and HDR image without introducing micro-contrast and you can introduce micro-contrast without using HDR.  For this purpose, we are talking about HDR only and my goal was to reduce a wide gamut to a usable one.

Some quick tips for your HDR photographs.  

Use a tripod.  The images must align properly before they can be blended and if you hand-hold your camera, the software may be unable to align them correctly creating some odd ghosting in your image.  I would recommend using a cable or remote release as well.

Use manual exposure or a "bracketing mode" on your camera to get your exposures.  Separate your exposures by at least one f-stop.  I personally separate my images by 1.5 f-stops.

If you need more information, there is a lot of it out there.

Detailed analysis and sample images can be found here.

  Read this article in Spanish (Español)

 

In a Hurry?

Go to details...  Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide

 

Discussion

The difficulty I encountered while reviewing these programs was not knowing what the skill level of the reader would be.  Novices at photography and those that do not want to spend a lot of time on their computers will prefer a different program than someone who is highly skilled at computer usage and picky about their photography. In my review, I have attempted to illuminate the assets and liabilities of each program to help you decide what is best for you at your level.

Fusion F 1 is the free version [predecessor?] to Fusion 2.6.3.  You will need to look towards the center of the web page to find the link for the free version.  Fusion would become my primary pick of the group.  It yielded the best result on the handheld test and produced very good results on the other tests.  I obtained better results using the SUM operator rather than the HDR operator.  Fusion's interface is a little dated, but I found the controls clearly labeled and the preview responsive and accurate though small.  When using the SUM operator, I did have problems with halos around areas of transition from light to dark.  This is fixable by increasing the "smoothing" slider.  The online documentation is minimal and the built-in help did not work - so you're kind of on your own here.  Overall, I feel it gave good results with average work.  Best for the photographer who wants to spend a little more time with the image.  Luminance supports all major incoming file formats including RAW; but unfortunately only saves in JPG.

Luminance HDR imageLuminance HDR (Qtpfsgui) is an open source project from Source Forge.  It would come in second my tests.  It produced an acceptable result from the handheld test and good results from default settings.  One advantage to Luminance is the thumbnails it creates using the different algorithms available.  It makes it easy for a user to pick a thumbnail that they like and then make small adjustments.

However  the interface is cryptic and lacking description and documentation that I found was wanting.  What does the "Beta" slider do?  Most is trial and error and big "reset everything" button would be very helpful after chasing a rabbit down a dark hole.  It would also be nice if the preview refreshed itself after making a slider change instead of having to remember to press the "tone map" button every time.  And do note that after you have made all your choices, you should change the render size to as large as possible as it has been rendering low res all this time.  

I did have a little bit of an issue with the larger render not matching the low-res render.  This would be solved by getting in the ballpark at low resolution, moving to medium resolution and tweaking more and then finally rendering at high resolution.

Luminance did create good results with default settings as well as options to fine tune the image making a suitable choice for amateur and serious amateur photographers.

Luminance supports any incoming camera file including RAW formats.

PicturenautPicturenaut is the easiest to use of the group.  The interface is straight forwards and easy to use and yielded decent results using default settings.  It would be a good choice for those who do not want to get into the bowels of a software when making an HDR image.

Picturenaut had problems with the alignment of the handheld images, so do use a camera support (which you should anyway...)  Picturenaut also does not offer as many different algorithms to chose from so tweaking for perfection is not always a potential.  I had my best results with Adaptive Logarithmic.  The documentation on the website was a nice resource for HDR in general. 

Picturenaut supports popular file formats including RAW.  Because of the simplicity, it is the best choice for the novice photographer.  

 

FDRTools BasicFDRTools Basic is the scaled down version of FDRTools. It offers the greatest ability to fine tune and tweak the finished product.  For those familiar with using histograms and curve tools, this will not be intimidating. 

Unique to FDR is the ability to control how much and what part of each image figured into the equation as opposed the the normal software that is only adjusting the output.  This ability is not only just in the luminance, but in the saturation and contrast sections giving the devoted user quite the opportunity work ad infinitum on their image.  The web site has a 80 page PDF file that details many of the deeper aspects of the program.  The translation from German is occasionally rough.

FDR had problems with the alignment of my handheld photographs.  There is a way to manually tweak the alignment; but this was not sufficient for my trial set.  The results from FDR using default settings were often far from acceptable and I would spend more time fussing with FDR than the other programs.  The more changes I made, the slower the preview became.  In spite of the myriad of controls, my results with FDR were muddy and lacking definition.  My overall impression of FDRToolsBasic was that it had more potential than I was getting out of it.  For the avid photographer/computer geek who really wants to get into the gritty detail, this program could be your ticket.

FDR will import all popular formats including RAW.

Last but not least, click here to see a real-world example of these programs' performance.

 

Related Products and Links

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Quick Selection Guide

Fusion
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Best alignment of hand-held images. Controls well labeled. Best results were obtained using SUM operator rather than HDR operator.
Old style interface. Halos can occur on areas of great contrast when using SUM operator. Poor documentation. Only saves in JPG (-1 star).
http://fusion.ns-point.com/
F 1
1.9 MB Integrated/2.2 MB portable
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
This product is portable.
Windows XP or higher
Luminance HDR
4
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Good results using default settings. Thumbnails of different algorithms.
Cryptic interface. No live refresh - render to see the effects of moving the slider. Moderate results on handheld image test. Poor documentation.
http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net/
2.4.0
16.3 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Open source freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
WinXP/Vista/7 or MacOS X, most Linux distributions
Picturenaut
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Easiest to use, good results with default settings.
Poor results on hand-held images. Not as much tweak-ability as other programs.
3.2
3.9 MB
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
Windows 98 / ME / 2000 / XP / Vista
FDRTools Basic
3
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Greatest amount of control over finished product. Very good documentation.
Results often looked muddy. Refresh on preview can be slow. Did poorly with handheld images.
2.6.1
Windows 7.8 MB – OS X 7.3 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
There is no portable version of this product available.
at least Windows 98 or OS X 10.3

At least 512 MB memory – Processor: at least Pentium 4, PowerPC G4

 

Editor

This software category is maintained by volunteer editor Photo Addict. Registered members can contact the editor with any comments or questions they might have by clicking here.

 

Tags

HDR photography, HDR photo, high dynamic range software, HDR freeware, HDR free software.

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Comments

by Lanaka on 15. June 2013 - 19:47  (108548)

FYI, just downloaded fresh copies of installers for Luminance and Picturenaut. Noticed that Picturenaut now offers separate x86 and x64 versions. Just figured you ought to know. Haven't tested them yet as I'm almost out of time (start work in 15 minutes).

by MidnightCowboy on 15. June 2013 - 23:37  (108549)

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The product details have now been updated. MC - Site Manager.

by Webgremlin on 20. January 2013 - 22:05  (104681)

Removed Essential HDR Community from article due to author website no longer being available. If anybody knows authors website please let us know and we can put software title back into article and quick selection guide.
Thanks.

by wwkudu (not verified) on 30. September 2012 - 8:12  (99986)

Fusion is definitely not free though. The license currently sells for $25. It may be worth it, I am yet to use it enough, but it does not belong on this list.

by MidnightCowboy on 30. September 2012 - 9:40  (99991)

The portable version is freeware which is where our link points to.

by wwkudu (not verified) on 30. September 2012 - 15:04  (100001)

Thanks mnc - I did download the portable version. The resultant images are labelled along the side/bottom with "Fusion HDR - fusion.ns-point.com", so yes, it works, but having the added labelling is a downside that should perhaps be mentioned.

by GrandBrand on 30. September 2012 - 18:29  (100010)

This is apparently something that they added recently, thanks for info, it'll be included.

by srikanth (not verified) on 4. September 2012 - 4:46  (98729)

I have downloaded Fusion by ns-point software and the auto alignment tool is very fast.Anyone has idea about the algorithm used in ns-point?

Can anyone suggest which is the fastest Hdr image alignment algorithm
rather than Median threshold bitmap alignment and SIFT feature based which consume lot of time

by GrandBrand on 30. September 2012 - 13:03  (99998)

Sorry, I do not have such detailed knowledge on this.
My personal favorite is hugin's align_image_stack, but it's not the fastest I'm afraid :(

Sorry but you're left with Google unless someone knows this here!

by 195five (not verified) on 29. April 2012 - 11:24  (92755)

Great article. I have directed a friend here so that he can appreciate HDR. This site offers a user friendly intro to the technique, which he will appreciate, plus some free software links to try the technique.

I have used Picturenaut and FDR Tools on my Windows machines, your assessments I can relate to. I am currently trying out HDRtist (free version) on my Mac machine.

If I really want to get heavy I use Photoshop (still running CS3), but for fun and family stuff all the above are great.

by GrandBrand on 29. April 2012 - 18:31  (92773)

Thank you! Let me tell you, this page (HDR soft) is a combined effort of a few editors.

By the way, I also recommend Luminance HDR. It provides you with a choice of quality mapping algorithms. Worth checking out!

by Jonw (not verified) on 9. February 2012 - 22:15  (88603)

Luminance shuts down every time you try to save a file. I am using a MAC. Not impressed so far...

by GrandBrand on 11. February 2012 - 10:42  (88669)

Hey! I must admit I do not own a MAC and therefore didn't have the opportunity to check Lumi on that platform. But your comment is very valuable and thank you for it! I'll try investigating this issue online and contacting the devs.
I'll also see about changing the rating/reviews.

EDIT:
I have contacted the head of the project. He says he is working on a MAC himself and has not heard of any issues of the kind you mention.

by MarcoT (not verified) on 13. November 2011 - 16:24  (83215)

Great article. I went with Picturenaut several months ago, today I went to look for updates and the site was not coming up. Maybe they're down for maintenance. Do you know anything?

by GrandBrand on 14. November 2011 - 9:19  (83253)

http://www.hdrlabs.com/picturenaut/index.html everything works for me ;)
It might've been maintenance or some temporary issues...

by MattW (not verified) on 19. September 2011 - 2:21  (79862)

Tony,
Thanks for the excellent article. I downloaded FDRTools Basic on my MacBook Air and completed my first HDR image in less than 30 minutes from "Download FDRTools" to "Save". Granted, it was far from professional-looking (my three pictures were taken with the camera hand-held, not on a tripod), but not bad at all considering that it was my first ever go with HDR. I'll download Picturenaut later when I'm sitting at my Windows machine.
Cheers!
-Matt

by GrandBrand on 19. September 2011 - 22:00  (79918)

We're glad you enjoyed it. Also, congratulations on your success ;)
If you're adventurous enough, check out Luminance HDR (obviously it's free - we're talking freeware only here @Gizmo)- it has nine different tone mapping algorithms! It's not a perfect program though. I will review it soon. Picturenaut is very user-friendly and fast, so sure, go ahead and try it out.
Thanks for your comment!

by Rob (not verified) on 29. July 2011 - 12:25  (76445)

Unfortunately the Essential HDR CE gets the thumbs down, basically because it doesn't actually work at any level. Won't even load pictures!

by Rob (not verified) on 29. July 2011 - 12:26  (76446)

oops, should have read which OS it runs on!

by Henri de Feraudy (not verified) on 31. May 2011 - 20:05  (72995)

I have used lots of HDR software and quite frankly I found with time that Essential HDR is quite disappointing on lots of subjects. For one thing it clips away a lot of the dynamic range of the picture. It often yields dreadful colours of night scenes.
The examples on their website are cherry-picked. However it is different to the rest and cannot be imitated, so I often experiment with different renderings (including those of Essential HDR) and
choose the one I like the best.
Essential HDR detail enhancer can be very good on trees and forest scenes.

by CHH944 (not verified) on 15. May 2011 - 4:58  (71912)

Very Good

by tom2010 on 29. November 2010 - 8:05  (61776)

I got to know from HDR group on flickr that HDRpad is a free software. It seems a good app. Unfortunately, there is no version for Mac ... :(

by Yurko (not verified) on 20. November 2010 - 22:15  (61441)

Unfortunately, Essential HDR Community Edition 1.0 obligates you to buy it if you decide to install it: "After accepting this license agreement, the Licensee must contact the Vendor to obtain a license for commercial use of the product" (excerpt from License Agreement that is displayed at beginning of setup process).

Anyway, thanks for your review, Tony!
It helped me to start playing with HDR.

by Mike2012 (not verified) on 4. November 2010 - 8:19  (60755)

I run Qtpfsgui 1.93 on OSX and Linux and never had a crash, ever. I'm really sad to hear that you have issues, because i think Qtpfsgui beats pretty much anything, including Photomatix (which i bought, but don't use anymore) and the other programs mentioned in this article. The user-presets in Qtpfsgui is really useful and save me hours of work. The different tone mapping schemes that comes with it covers virtually anything you want to do, from simple compression to extreme over-cooked tone-mapping.

If you have problems to make it work, take your time to fix - it's worth the effort!

Cheers,
Mike

by Danny Davies (not verified) on 22. February 2012 - 19:11  (89261)

Hi Mike.
I agree with you, it's free and should not take long to adjust to it. I saw.... qtpfsgui.org ... advertise on you-tube. I use it on my laptop, using windows 7.I have used it successfully on a number of photo's, and it's up to the user to choose what he/she likes. So do yourself a favour and try it.

Good luck.

Danny.

by Bravo (not verified) on 11. October 2010 - 16:55  (59395)

It's typical of SONY to have files that many converters can't read, or read properly. That's not on purpose, I am SURE! :-)

by Hristo (not verified) on 20. September 2010 - 0:35  (58132)

Luminance HDR/QTpfsgui is free (again?), obviously the reason for that is because the new version turned out to be worse than the old one.

http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net/

by tony on 19. December 2010 - 16:30  (62934)

This should be allowed to be put on as the top choice again. Its tonemapping abilities are far better than the others. Its great to see it free again

by wilddunk (not verified) on 3. September 2010 - 18:23  (57218)

Fusion
I think this one will be worth keeping an eye on,it only deals with merging jpgs & i have run only a single jpg to create a pseudo HDR and i am really impressed by the results on the downside there is no instructions so far and there is a quite a choice of settings
anyway let us know what you think

http://fusion.ns-point.com/

by tony on 3. September 2010 - 18:29  (57219)

Funny enough I downloaded it yesterday. Did a couple. Not entirely happy with it. but will be keeping an eye on it. Thank you. If anyone else could give their evaluation would love to hear them

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