Oloneo PhotoEngine Review
Product Category: HDR Software
Manufacturer: Oloneo SAS
System Requirements: OS:Windows XP with Service Pack 3 (32-bit or 64-bit), Windows Vista (32-bit or 64-bit)
Windows 7 (32-bit or 64-bit) Hard disk: 200MB of available space CPU: 1.6 GHz Intel or AMD with SSE2, dual-core recommended RAM: 1.5GB Screen: 1280 x 720.
- Great-looking and pleasing HDR images in just a few clicks;
- Fast rendering live preview of changes;
- Offers a high level of control for the advanced user.
- Auto-alignment for handheld HDR shots not perfect;
- Active noise reduction controls not present.
Summary: Oloneo's PhotoEngine may be the most expensive, but it is easily the best HDR software available in the market currently. Its ease of use with beautiful and natural results makes it hard to beat. It also has an additional neat trick in the form of HDR ReLight. There are a few minor issues, but for a 1.0 product, they do not overshadow the positives as a whole.
[Editor's Note: Today we bring a special review, written by a top professional photographer with well over a decade of experience. Jed Wee will be reviewing Oloneo's PhotoEngine, which made a splash when the beta was first released back in 2010. Now that the product is shipping, how well does it live up to the early promise? Join Jed as he puts the software through its paces!]
Introduction: HDR and Tone Mapping
Photography has always presented a unique number of challenges to its enthusiasts, such as the difficulty in rendering a three dimensional scene in just two dimensions. Despite the transition from film to digital and the unceasing advance of technology, capturing the full dynamic range that the human eye is capable of still eludes photographers today. This difference in the luminance between the darkest areas of a scene and the brightest can sometimes be as much as 100,000:1, and is something beyond the capabilities of current digital sensors and computer monitors. This results for example in blue skies that are never as deep or vivid as you remember them, or foregrounds that are too dark and underexposed.
Figure 1: The sun is actually just out of the frame to the right. Prior to PhotoEngine, every software used produced images that looked unnatural. Stitched shot from 5 frame brackets, converted to monochrome.
High dynamic range (HDR) imaging allows the photographer to utilise multiple exposures to capture more of this dynamic range that would otherwise go missing. By bracketing a sequence of images, the underexposed image(s) can provide the detail for the brightest parts of the scene while the overexposed images provide the detail for the darkest. Once captured, this then needs to be translated into an image that monitors and printers can deal with, in a process known as tone mapping. It is this step that frequently gives HDR a bad press - images can look totally unnatural with outlandish colours and garish halos, even though these seem to have gained a following in some circles!
Figure 2: This tawny owl was sitting in shaded woodland with sunlight coming through gaps in the trees. The dynamic range exceeded what current cameras are capable of, so HDR was used with a 5 frame bracket.
The process of tone mapping is usually accomplished with the help of software. One of earliest and most popular is HDRsoft's Photomatix Pro software, but there have been an increasing number of alternatives including native Photoshop support. Oloneo's PhotoEngine (US$149) is one of the newest to hit the market, and the subject of today's review.
Figures 3, 4 and 5: Examples of the same bracketed sequence processed through PhotoEngine, Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix respectively. The Photomatix shot has had local contrast further boosted through default Tonal Contrast adjustment within Nik Color Efex Pro 4.
PhotoEngine is developed by French company Oloneo, with work on the project first beginning in 2006. The software was available first as a successful beta before hitting the market in 2011. It currently retails for €125/US$149 for the full version of PhotoEngine, with a 30 day trial version available.
PhotoEngine actually comes with three components - HDR DeNoise, HDR ReLight and HDR ToneMap. The HDR prefix to every component is actually a bit of a misnomer as DeNoise for example has no HDR component at all.
HDR DeNoise allows you to stack multiple shots of the same scene to obtain a high quality result relatively free from noise that would otherwise be present. This is not a new concept as other software such as PhotoAcute has offered similar features, while it is also possible to manually "average" images to obtain decent results. It probably has limited application as the subject has to be stationary to allow the images to stack properly, which means that in most instances a long exposure on a tripod would work better with less post processing involved.
HDR ReLight on the other hand has a unique selling point. It allows the photographer to independently control light sources within a scene in post processing by merging separate exposures of each different light source. You can then adjust the lighting intensity as well as the white balance of each light within the image.
Figures 6, 7 and 8: This set of three images was made from the same original set of six exposures. I "switched" all the lights on in HDR ReLight for the first, turned everything but the table lamps off and added a cool blue atmosphere to the second, before switching them on and turning the lights in the toilet on and adding the warm cast.
This has the potential to be very useful particularly in the field of interior architecture photography, where photographers often have to work with difficult lighting indoors. Building lights can frequently be a mix of intensity and temperature, along with daylight from windows, and the flexibility to balance everything after the fact is useful to have. While innovative and useful in niche areas, it has more limited utility in general photography.
HDR ToneMap is the component of PhotoEngine that is likely to appeal to the widest group of photographers, and allows the user to merge and tone map exposures. It can tone map single images as pseudo-HDR, as well as serve as a standard Raw converter.
Figures 9 and 10: On the top is a single Raw file processed in Adobe Camera Raw with generous levels of highlight and shadow recovery (+34 on both settings). On the bottom is the a single image from the same sequence tone mapped in PhotoEngine.
Installation and Interface
PhotoEngine comes as a small download, packaged under 20MB, and installation is a breeze and straightforward. Mac users should note that there is currently no version native to the Apple platform, but it will apparently run with "good performance" on a virtual PC application on newer Macs. The user interface comes in professional shades of grey popular with image editing software. It is easy and straightforward to navigate, albeit as with most things it can feel slightly cramped if working on lower resolution screens such as those found on laptops.
Figure 11: A simple and elegant interface offers plenty of room on large desktop monitors - and less so on smaller laptop screens.
In Use - The Positives
PhotoEngine is straightforward to use and possible to get to grips with in minutes. The software loads with a directory listing in thumbnail form, whereupon the user selects the image(s) to work with and adds them to the selection box. One drawback of the software at the moment is that it doesn't cache thumbnails, and thus has to generate them each time you navigate to a new folder, or even one previously visited within the same session.
It will then be possible to work with them in any of the appropriate sections of PhotoEngine. Note that HDR DeNoise and HDR ReLight both require exposure values to be constant, and this can be limiting with the latter as different light sources might require different exposures to capture properly due to greatly different intensities.
It takes about 5 seconds on the test system to open a single 12 megapixel image, about 10 seconds to open a five image set, and about 15 seconds to open a nine image set. These are pretty good timings, and one of the best features of PhotoEngine is that this is generally the longest waiting you will have (aforementioned thumbnail generation aside). The software is marketed as being "fully real-time" and it is very impressive in operation. Any adjustments made reflect immediately on the image preview, and this makes using PhotoEngine a delightfully visual experience, and one that fully lends itself to exploring the software rather than a thick manual. It is even more impressive when you are done making your adjustments - there is no lengthy delay to process the file because of the real time nature of the software, and all it takes is the two to three seconds to write the file to disk. It ends up feeling a lot more rapid and intuitive to use than some of the other software on the market.
Of course the bottom line for HDR software is image quality, and here PhotoEngine certainly doesn't disappoint. There are 40 available presets in HDR ToneMap, with the ability to save your own. In line with the real time nature of the program, viewing the effect of a particular preset merely requires the user to mouse over that preset and the effect is displayed instantly. Currently the presets only have text titles and no visual cue, but given the speed at which you can preview the results in high resolution, it presents little real problem. The presets cover a range of tastes from neutral to different black and white settings, and there is even place for a little tongue-in-cheek humour in a nod to HDR trends; with "Grunge" followed by "Grungier!", followed again by "Over the top!" and finally "I love halos!".
Figure 12: An example of the "Over the top!" preset at work - oh dear. This kind of thing is very much in vogue in some photographic circles though!
Once you get to a certain level of familiarity then you'll probably want to use your own settings. PhotoEngine allows a great deal of adjustability, and one great asset is the ability to set tone map and detail strength completely independently. This makes it possible to tone map with stronger settings, without similarly over-strengthening the detail to unnatural levels. There are also settings to control white balance, exposure and contrast, brightness and saturation. These are available in more general, global sliders, but can also be more carefully fine tuned in the form of tone and saturation curves, and hue and saturation controls for individual colour ranges. This means that unlike many other HDR software alternatives, the results from PhotoEngine generally require little to no further processing. Done properly, you can eliminate problems of "flat" contrast that sometimes plagues HDR images for example.
Figures 13 and 14: On the top a bracketed sequence processed conservatively with Photomatix to avoid halos and colour shifts. On the bottom is the same sequence processed within PhotoEngine with no further post processing.
In fact, PhotoEngine is a pretty good Raw converter on its own, with straight Raw processing showing good detail levels and tone rendition. The scale of adjustments possible is almost on a par with dedicated Raw processing software, and it supports unlimited undo and redo functions with a versioned history list.
Another eye catching feature of PhotoEngine is the presence of a Natural HDR Mode check box. This technology is built in to PhotoEngine and even when not checked as "Enabled", is still partially running in the conversion engine. One of the big problems with some tone mapping results is that they sometimes carry too much saturation, particularly in the primary colours. Green grass for example can sometimes look almost radioactive. While PhotoEngine generally keeps results looking natural by default, in certain instances you might wish to further rein in the saturation, and the Natural HDR Mode employs a mix of "sophisticated algorithms and empirical corrections" to yield an even more natural result. Unlike a saturation slider, which the software also offers, the Natural HDR mode is not a global adjustment and will not affect sections of the image it deems to be "natural". It works well, but care should be exercised if you have areas of correctly high saturation in the frame - neon lights for example, as these can become unusually flat.
Figures 15 and 16: On the top is the middle image from a 5 exposure bracket, processed in Adobe Camera Raw with auto Camera Vivid settings. The image below is the result following tone mapping of the sequence in PhotoEngine. The inset shows the detail retention provided in the highlight areas provided by the use of HDR, which PhotoEngine has retained. Any excessive saturation is down to user preference or error, depending on your viewpoint!
Halo control is also excellent with generally little propensity to develop halos as long as you maintain the relative luminance of the image. In other words, you can generally greatly equalise a scene of high dynamic range without developing halos, as long as you don't try to make a darker part of the scene brighter than a naturally lighter part of the scene. You have further control of detail haloing by activating the Advanced Local Tone Mapping mode, which gives you access to the Detail Size and Detail Threshold settings. These equate very roughly with the radius and threshold settings that you may already be familiar with within Photoshop Unsharp Mask settings for example, and are extremely useful to have.
Of course, should your goal be images with over the top saturation and halos, then PhotoEngine is perfectly able to provide that as well!
In Use - The Negatives
The software is still in its relative infancy so there are at present some minor issues that will hopefully get resolved as the software matures.
Some of these are interface related, so for example the lack of thumbnail caching, as alluded to above, is a feature that could be added that the software would benefit from. Another is that the software currently doesn't remember window size or position from a previous session. Not deal breakers on their own but not up to the very high standards set in the image processing side of the software.
The odd bug exists but in general the software in stable and reliable. For example occasionally the white balance dropper activates when viewing the image at full screen, which is awkward because clicking to navigate around your image suddenly sets the white balance as well.
In terms of image quality issues, there are a couple to mention. While it will process fantastic images from shots taken on a tripod of a stationary subject, the software does have occasional problems with its auto alignment feature for handheld sequences. Its ghost reduction component (for objects that move from one frame to the next) is also not as strong as some others. For example some users with ghosting or alignment issues have taken to producing 32 bit HDR files with Photomatix, which currently does a better job at both, and then tone mapping those files with PhotoEngine.
Figures 17 and 18: A hand held bracket sequence processed through Photomatix (top) and PhotoEngine (bottom). Although the PhotoEngine result is more pleasing, it exhibits clear misalignment issues that Photomatix was able to deal with.
The ghost reduction settings within PhotoEngine could also do with a bit more transparency; the options currently are No Ghost Reduction, as well as Method 1 and Method 2. The names certainly don't shed any light on which is the better to use in which instance, and consulting the online documentation reveals that "in most cases, Method 2 is superior to Method 1" and to use Method 2 by default. Given that most users would probably try them in ascending order, the current enumeration makes things worse.
In fairness to Oloneo, they have acknowledged these weak areas and have called for users to submit images with ghosting and alignment problems, and are working on improving the engine.
Figures 19 and 20: It must be emphasised that this was a stress test, and this isn't a problem that you should encounter often if at all at low ISOs, although it can be a problem at higher ISOs. The top photo is a crop from the shadow area of the brightest portion of a 3 frame bracket shot at the APS-C camera's base ISO, processed with Adobe Camera Raw with moderate noise reduction. Below is the tone mapped section from PhotoEngine, exhibiting noticeably greater chroma noise.
The software also currently lacks any form of active noise reduction controls, whether as a Raw processor or when tone mapping. Because of the strength of its Raw conversion, it is preferable to use the Raw files when working with PhotoEngine, but this becomes difficult with images shot at high ISOs or with underexposed sequences. Results can exhibit chroma noise that is rarely a problem with reasonable noise reduction processing. This is not an uncommon problem with HDR software, with many failing to offer noise reduction options. It was, for example, only introduced in the latest version of Photomatix, with little customisability.
And finally, this isn't a negative as much as a suggestion, but the software could really benefit from a "last image settings" preset!
At US$149, PhotoEngine is not the cheapest HDR software available, with many competitors coming in at as little as a third of the price. Indeed there are even free options available. Arguably the most popular software for HDR editing today is Photomatix, and that retails at US$99. So is PhotoEngine worth the price premium?
Absolutely. As part of the process of the review, old HDR projects were reworked within PhotoEngine, and the difference was impressive. It was easy to obtain absolutely natural images, while also possible to provide more punch and drama. Getting to those results was intuitive and rapid and very hands on. PhotoEngine even proved very useful for light tone mapping of single images as an advanced Raw converter.
Figures 21 and 22: Revisiting old HDR projects was a joy. On the top is the best version previously saved (note the haloing), on the bottom is the version produced by PhotoEngine.
Many photographers avoid HDR because of notions that it is difficult if not impossible to obtain natural looking results free from garish effects. If you are one of these then PhotoEngine might well be your solution. If you like your halos and over the top colours, then PhotoEngine also has much to offer you by way of its speed and visual presentation.
There are undeniably minor teething issues, but for a software still in version 1.0.x of its release, there is hope that these will be dealt with and that software will continue to evolve. These fail to take the overall gloss of what is, in this reviewer's opinion, comfortably the best HDR software currently available on the market.
Jed Wee is Singapore's top sports photojournalist, and has been photographing professionally for over a decade. During this time, he has captured images of the world's top athletes at the highest level of competition across various sports. He is also a versatile artist, having photographed a variety of genres, including wildlife, landscape, architectural and portraiture. His latest endeavour sees him recording the memories of the biggest day in most people's lives, and can be seen at http://www.essenceofthemoment.co.uk/. Jed currently lives in Durham, United Kingdom, with a very cute but grouchy cat.
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Baka. Soku. Zan. - The justice behind the dysORDer.