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.

 

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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 Jack C (not verified) on 26. August 2010 - 3:30  (56735)

Tony,
First off, great site and thanks for your hard work doing the testing for us!!! My problem - I have a Sony A500 and have been experimenting with the exposure bracketing. I have saved pictures in the Sony RAW format .ARW. My problem is that neither Essential HDR Community nor Picturenaut 3.0 will even load the .ARW file! Sorry-to be fare, Essential HDR will load the image, but it is just a bunch of vertical lines. Even with a JPEG file, Picturenaut did not image match the 3 photos properly. I have a friend who has Photomatix which handles the JPEG files very nicely, but I was hoping to be able to use the .ARW files since that is my camera's output.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

by brabason (not verified) on 17. September 2010 - 19:15  (58015)

Sony must be like Olympus with a weird RAW format not recognised by many converters. Olympus even has different RAW file formats for different cameras all called .ORF. Even Photomatix cannot read these files. I think this is your problem with Sony.

by tony on 26. August 2010 - 7:51  (56746)

Picturenaut states it handles all raw files, so I am not sure why it can't handle yours. I have Nikon D5000 and it handles the raw images very well. Did you change your weighting settings? Sometimes its worth changing the settings.
Also it seems strange you are having problems with both software's. I suggest possibly to look at your computer and see if it has enough memory and CPU to handle the software, as I suspect even if you had Photomatix it would do the same thing. My system is a 64bit 6000+ dual core 3GB. and handles it well, which is what I would expect with 4GB of memory, hoping soon to increase to 12GB's.
Did you use a tripod? How far out were the images in alignment? Did you tick the alignment box? Let me know your outcome

by Jack C (not verified) on 26. August 2010 - 18:13  (56767)

I am going to try this experiment on another computer. The first test was on a Win 7 Lenovo T60 laptop with core 2 duo processor (2 ghz) and 2 gb of memory. Wouldn't think that would be a problem, but will try it with a more powerful machine. BTW - the .ARW files load just fine with the Sony provided RAW Image Data Converter software. I have a Win 7 Lenovo 510 with an i5 processor and 4gb of memory that I will try this on later today and will let you know.

At any rate, I can load the .ARW with the converter, increase and decrease the exposure, save all three as jpeg, and Photomatix handled it nicely, just couldn't read them directly. Also handled the three other jpeg files and did the image matching nearly flawlessly.

I did not use a tripod, but was sitting on the ground and had the camera sitting on my knees when I took the picture(s). As I mentioned, Photomatrix handled the original 3 separate jpegs very nicely, but Picturenaut did not. I will try it on my other PC to see if it is a processor/memory issue.

Of course, there is always room for USER ERROR here!!! LOL

by tony on 26. August 2010 - 18:22  (56769)

The forum on Picturenaut is an excellent source of info and will always help as well. They want to know what struggles you have as they want this to be right

by Jack C (not verified) on 27. August 2010 - 17:21  (56830)

Thanks! I haven't had time to do the experimentation on my other PC yet, but I will let you know as soon as I do. It is really a strange thing - wondering if it is a Sony RAW image issue. I will say that the memory comment makes me think more about this and I'm anxious to try it on the more powerful PC.

by Tom C (not verified) on 24. August 2010 - 22:37  (56658)

I downloaded Picturenaut, ran the program, got an HDR image, Saved it into my picture folder, and then tried to open it in PhotoShop Elements 5.0. It wouldn't open. Tried to open it in PhotoImpact 6. It wouldn't open. The problem is I don't think it was ever Saved -- all that showed up in my picture folder was a file with a logo in it.

by tony on 24. August 2010 - 23:31  (56659)

There could be a couple of reasons.
1 You saved it when you were doing your adjustments in HDR tonemapping. In which case it only saved the settings of alterations which would be a file called LOGMAP.
2 You saved it in one of the file formats .EXR - HRR.PIC - .FM -
If you saved it as a TIFF all software will read it. If it in the other formats that could be your problem. If none of these it might be an idea to throw the problem onto the forum that Picturenaut have.
I really hope you resolve the problem. Let us know the outcome
Tony

by Braam (not verified) on 11. November 2010 - 19:27  (61051)

I had the same problem on my first try - the default setting for TIF files was to save as a 32bit version, which nothing on my PC would open. I changed it to 16bit and all was well.

by Century22 on 21. August 2010 - 19:50  (56477)

HDR photography works by combining several photos of the same scene, taken at different exposure settings, into one photo.

Fascinating. I will have to add this tom my many photo tools.

I will also have to remember to take several shots of a subject if it is in the condition of light/dark using different exposures. That way I can gain the best of both using this method.

This is a new one to me. Sounds like a great tool. Thanks!

by tony on 22. August 2010 - 7:07  (56509)

Send a link to your photos when you have had a go at them. Would always love to see your results

by Daveschuley (not verified) on 16. August 2010 - 6:29  (56100)

Thanks for the work you put into this site Tony.

by tony on 16. August 2010 - 7:32  (56105)

Thank you for your kind comments

by gry (not verified) on 9. August 2010 - 23:12  (55699)

I find myself coming to your blog more and more often to the point where my visits are almost daily now!

by MidnightCowboy on 10. August 2010 - 8:51  (55731)

And you are most welcome. There is no extra charge! :D

by justjess (not verified) on 30. July 2010 - 15:09  (55195)

i tried to download picturenaut, but all it will give me are pdf files. i even made a donation to see if that was required to download. no luck. any advice?

by tony on 30. July 2010 - 17:27  (55199)

I can see how you got confused. The link is the green arrow and you clicked on the PDF which it points to. Click her
http://www.hdrlabs.com/mint/pepper/orderedlist/downloads/download.php?fi...
And hopefully it should all download
Its great that you made a donation, it keeps these softwares going and updated. So I shall say thank you

Hope it gets downloaded now

by Anonymous on 25. June 2010 - 12:57  (53105)

You might like to try a free program I've been developing called AutoHDR - much simpler and limited to processing 8-bit images for now but it produces some very nice results and has no watermarks or limits on file size (although it can get slow on really big images). You can download it from http://www.autohdr.co.uk

by tony on 25. June 2010 - 17:10  (53122)

Not one I have yet seen and will take it through its paces and if its okay will put it up as a best of. We will see and thanks for the link

by tony on 25. June 2010 - 18:37  (53126)

On assessment its not at the stage I can include it. Its great that it takes one image and that it adjusts light and shade, then tone maps the image quite well. I can't believe though that the largest file I can achieve is BMP and not TIF. BMP is old hat and out of date. I shall continue to assess and see the results, but if it had a tiff format that would be a break though.

by Anonymous on 25. June 2010 - 19:47  (53137)

OK, no problem. You can drag/drop tiffs in but it only processes them in 8-bit. An older version did support 16-bit but I've removed that feature for now while I consider other options for RAW/DNG support instead. I'll let you know if/when that changes.

by Anonymous2 (not verified) on 12. July 2010 - 8:06  (54133)

You can try it with *uncompressed* 16-bit tiffs now. It works with ones created with dcraw and SilkyPix but I haven't tested with other sources. For some reason Irfanview has trouble reading the saved versions but everything else manages fine.

by Anonymous on 19. June 2010 - 0:13  (52439)

ESSENTIAL HDR COMMUNITY EDITION puts a text line of advertising for their brand at the bottom of the photos you output and is limited to 1 million pixels

by Anonymous on 19. June 2010 - 6:47  (52449)

It does. I usually clone it out or chop it off. Hope that helps. But saying that I usually only put my stuff on the internet and not print and for this its just right

by Anonymous on 25. May 2010 - 23:20  (50316)

Qtpfsgui/Luminance HDR is not free for Windows users. Picturenaut is though!

by tony on 26. May 2010 - 7:43  (50335)

Thats new and I shall reconsider its placement. You can download the older version. But I will now consider taking it off now I think. But $15 isn't a lot in the scheme of life, although that is not what this forum is for. Thanks for that

by Anonymous on 7. May 2010 - 18:20  (49297)

The link for Qtpfsgui goes to Luminance download page which doesn't appear to have a Windows version.

by tony on 8. May 2010 - 9:45  (49332)

Its easy to miss, just go down the page
http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net/download.php
Its there

Hope you have good results

by captainkimo on 20. April 2010 - 6:33  (48013)

Here's my quick take from the new version of Picturenaut. Includes video and a HDR sample created from the program. I do like the results, I'll start producing more HDR photos from Picturenaut soon.

http://captainkimo.com/picturenaut-free-hdr-photography-software-for-pho...

by tony on 20. April 2010 - 7:48  (48019)

Thanks for the link its very clear and precise. Great website. Just to state from my earlier statement about going out today, my wife has had different ideas so thats is crossed of. I have however found some RAW NEF images and combined them together with Picturenaut and it never wavered once the image came out fine. So I didn't see the 'Flaw'. Its a great software, I am not still impressed with the plugins though. So go ahead and use it with RAW files

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