Photomatix 5 Review

Photomatix 5 is HDR photo editing software for fusing or tone-mapping multiple exposures into a single, high dynamic range photo. This Photomatix review details the pros and cons of the latest version of Photomatix, with screenshots from the program and sample photos that I’ve edited using Photomatix. All of the photos here have been processed with a myriad of different Photomatix settings, from more restrained exposure fusion to extreme tonemapping.

Despite my processing style eliciting a lot of comments regarding HDR, and while I admit that I have pushed the bounds on realism (I’d describe most of my photos as ‘subtle hyperrealism’), it has been rare for me to use HDR processing software when editing my photos up until getting Photomatix Pro 5. Instead, I’ve brought up the shadows and decreased the highlights of a single exposure in Adobe Camera Raw, or I’ve layered multiple images together in Adobe Photoshop and masked out certain areas by hand.

My main reason for not using Photomatix much until recently was that it didn’t really suit my style. While I felt the software was great for producing ethereal, textured, or dreamscape-like photos, it had limitations when it came to more realistic photos. More realistic, exposure fusions is something Photomatix has improved with recent versions, and Photomatix 5 really feels fleshed out in this department. Its exposure fusion feature is great, and the “real estate” preset is a great addition–but more on these later.

For those unfamiliar with Photomatix, here’s how it works.

Untitled-1 copy

When you open the program, you start by loading a set of bracketed photos or a single photo. Once you choose your photo or photos, you get a dialogue about alignment, ghosting, etc.

The ghosting and alignment features have been very strong in Photomatix for a few versions. I can’t say with any certainty that these improved with the latest version, but I had no complaints with them previously. Early versions of Photomatix weren’t as good, but that hasn’t been an issue for a while. The one gain here seems to be that you can specify whether alignment is of handheld or tripod-shot photos.

Once you get past this, Photomatix does its thing and presents an image with default settings applied. Adjustment sliders are to the left and presets with sample thumbnails are to the right.

Untitled-1 copy

A full-fledged Photomatix HDR tutorial is beyond the scope of this post (let me know in the comments if you’re interested in a tutorial blog post), so I’m not going to cover specific settings. I learned how to use Photomatix via RC Concepcion’s The HDR BookThis book is based on the last version of Photomatix, but the sliders and concepts are the same. There are also a variety of in-depth tutorials, like Trey Ratcliff’s Complete HDR Tutorial, but I think The HDR Book covers the down and dirty basics in a quick way.

Alternatively, you can just dive into Photomatix headfirst, screwing around with the sliders and seeing how they impact the photo. It’s a pretty intuitive program, and I know that’s how a lot of people approach it.

Tone-mapping processing is Photomatix’s flagship processing feature, and having tested other processing software, including Photoshop’s built-in HDR processing, I can say that nothing else can touch Photomatix when it comes to tone-mapping. Over the years, I’ve used Photoshop, Dynamic Pro, and a variety of “Merge to HDR” plugins in Photoshop, and none compare with the latest version of Photomatix. Photoshop has made strides with its tone-mapping in recent versions, but Photomatix is still well ahead of the pack.

This is ultimately the biggest reason to get Photomatix. Much like Photoshop is the market leader when it comes to all-around in-depth photo editing, Photomatix is the market leader when it comes to HDR. If you’re going to be doing a decent amount of HDR processing, Photomatix’s $99 price tag (for the “Pro” version I recommend–there are cheaper and more expensive options) is a no-brainer.

The Hall of Mirrors is the most famous room in the opulent Palace of Versailles (or the Château de Versailles) in the Île-de-France region of France.Read more:

It’s a new era with HDR photography. While HDR will likely forever have the stereotype of being heavily processed, rife with halos and grungy skies, anyone who actually uses Photomatix will see that it doesn’t have to be. Photographers can take a more nuanced and subtle approach, and can produce images that bear no resemblance to “conventional” HDR photos. I’ve personally already found a lot of success using Photomatix to process hotel room photos using the “real estate” setting, and I don’t think these photos (see below for an example) would strike people as normal HDR. This just scratches the surface of Photomatix 5’s versatility as an HDR processing program.

DSC_3379_80_81_fused copy

Photomatix 5 can be a one-stop shop for HDR photo editing. Since you can run the gamut on processing styles, you can choose exactly how much realistic the resulting photo looks. Personally, I still prefer using Photomatix in conjunction with Photoshop, as I like processing a more (what I’d call) over the top image in Photomatix, and then layer than with realistically edited photo in Photoshop, and blend the two images.

photomatix settings 002

I also still prefer Photoshop for finishing touches. Even in this regard, Photomatix is catching up, though. Once you’re complete your editing, there is a “Finishing Touch” menu that allows you to tweak contrast, color, and sharpening. This is a huge addition, as these are three things I most frequently find myself going to Photoshop to adjust after editing is complete. While they are a great addition in theory, the control over them is not nearly as fine tuned as it is in Photoshop (and Photomatix lacks the ability to apply these settings with masks), nor is it as good as it should be.

If you are used to this fine-tuned control, what Photomatix offers here probably will be insufficient for you. For many users, this final step allows tweaking power not previously used at all. It’s not really reasonable to expect Photoshop-caliber adjustments here–Photoshop is an incredibly expensive suite of software for all types of photo-editing, whereas Photomatix is specialty software for HDR. Still, it would be nice to see Photomatix continue to iterate on this and refine this, because there is room for improvement. It’s a good addition and if it continue to evolve, it will make Photomatix one-stop software for more and more photographers.

Overall, I highly recommend Photomatix Pro 5 if you want to get serious about HDR processing. The standalone program is the way to go as it provides the most options, and the most control over the finished image. Each version of Photomatix continues to improve on the previous, both in terms of the HDR processing engine and in the added features and presets. Even if you’re already running an earlier version of Photomatix, I think the gains in Photomatix Pro 5 justify the upgrade if your workflow regularly includes HDR (if it doesn’t, you might think twice about upgrading unless your budget allows). If you ask the world’s leading HDR photographers which HDR software they use, I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority will respond “Photomatix.” There’s a reason why. Go with the best and get Photomatix Pro 5. They have a free trial (although it’s essentially worthless for actual use due to the watermark it adds) so you can see just how the program performs, so there’s no real reason not to give it a try.

Your Thoughts…

Do you use Photomatix? What do you think of it? If you don’t use Photomatix but do use another HDR software, which one and why? Have any questions about Photomatix? Want to see an HDR tutorial here on the blog? I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments!

18 replies
  1. Linda Ramstead
    Linda Ramstead says:

    Tom, I would love to see an HDR tutorial! I normally use Lightroom for processing photos, but have played a little with Photomatix. It would be nice to have a better understanding of the adjustments that can be made within Photomatix and the final adjustments you normally make in Photoshop to make your HDR photos look more realistic.

  2. Laura B
    Laura B says:

    I got Photomatix last year when I was in an HDR class as part of the photography program I’m in at UGA. While I haven’t done much with it since that class, I’m starting to use it a bit more as I force myself to go out and shoot and learn and expand my ability and knowlege and…well, etc,etc.
    I thought I’d share that if you work at/are a student at an educational institution, HDRSoft will give you 60% off retail price of Photomatix. If you are a PHOTOGRAPHY student, they’ll give you 75% off. The process to apply for the discount was very simple, and I wound up getting the Pro/Essentials bundle for $29.99.

  3. George
    George says:

    Tom, thanks for this. I use Lightroom and am just getting interested in HDR. Are you familiar with Enfuse? Not sure I want to splash out the money for Photomatix, but I would love to start getting into this aspect of photography.

    On another note, I appreciate your efforts on this and your Disney Travel blog. As someone trying to learn as much as possible about photography and have fun doing it, any technical information and advice you put on either blog is awesome. Thanks again!

  4. Josh
    Josh says:

    I have fallen in love with HDR and especially HDR photography during my Disney trips. I enjoy the dreamy look of HDR but would love to see your process for a more “realistic” look to HDR photography. I would love to see your process, especially your use of Photoshop to adjust the photos. Thanks for the blog!

  5. KCmike
    KCmike says:

    Thanks for doing this Tom. I tried the trial version a year or two ago and like you had previously stated I didn’t care for much of the HDR out there and liked your terminology of “clown barf”. I have since changed my mind as I really want the quintessential image of main street all glammed up just one time! I can never get that look from a straight out of the camera approach. Maybe I should just plop down my money and give it a go.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I can’t take credit for the clown barf saying. I heard it a few years back from another Disney photographer. I want to say it was Cody Sims; I’m not sure if he coined the term or heard it elsewhere. Regardless, it’s a funny and apt term, right?!

  6. Melanie
    Melanie says:

    I’d like a HDR/Photomatix tutorial. I bought Photomatixa little while back, but just haven’t done much with it. Maybe I just need some inspiration 😉

  7. Maximus
    Maximus says:

    Do you think using TIFF will be better than JPEG for HDR processing? I used to convert the RAW files into JPEG by DPP and the process the JPEG with Photomatix.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, if that’s the route you’re going. This is the case because the TIFF files have more data in them, which theoretically means even more dynamic range. I prefer just using the raw files in Photomatix as they have the most data, and then doing editing to the TIFF file Photomatix produces in ACR/Photoshop.

      Neither way is right or wrong–we’re both essentially doing the same thing, just in a different order.

  8. Laura
    Laura says:

    Do you use RAW or JPEG images with Photomatix? I downloaded the trial version back in 2006, but wasn’t a huge fan of it; I’m thinking of trying it again but I only ever shoot in RAW and can’t remember the process from back then.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      You can do either raw or JPEG. I generally do raw for simplicity, but I know some people like to process the photos in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom first and convert to JPEG.

      A lot has changed with Photomatix since 2006!

      • Laura
        Laura says:

        I will have to give it a try then. You asked in your blog if anyone would be interested in an HDR/Photomatix tutorial; I would enjoy one!

  9. Tyler Bliss
    Tyler Bliss says:

    I don’t do a lot of HDR photography but now that I have recently upgraded to a D7100 I’m excited to experiment. In the few HDR shots I have processed, I have used a “Merge to 32 bit HDR” plug in for Lightroom 5. I really like this plug in as it produces a very “realistic” looking HDR product. Not that Photomatix isn’t worth it, but the $30 plug in could be a good option for someone who only dabbles in HDR. Great post! I have missed the technical details in your posts on this site. More would be welcome from me!

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      In that case, the $30 plugin is probably sufficient for you.

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m still trying to figure out how I want to approach the site. I always intended for it to be photography and travel advice, not just photos of the day, and I found myself just going the lazy route with ONLY the photos just to post *something*. I still want to have single-photo posts, but if I do that, I want it to be a before/after type thing where I go through some processing steps. At least, that’s what I think I have in mind.

      • Jon Gossett
        Jon Gossett says:

        Tom, you have inspired me to take up photography as a hobby, taught me which gear works, and taught me how much fun it is to be the last person in a Disney park. Of course I would love for you to teach me how to process my photos. I like the idea of a befor and after type post with a description of your processing. For me the detail the better.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] a “painterly” style heavily-edited photo. I did a ton of editing over the weekend, and posted a review of the program on my travel photography blog. (By the way, if you’re interested in me writing a blog post with tips for HDR photo editing, […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *