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.
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.
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 Book. This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!