Hydra Pro 3.1 Review

Hydra Pro is an HDR processing software available for download from the App Store for Mac. HDR is fast becoming a very popular way of processing photos so it is understandable that software companies would want to jump onto this growing market.

There are a quite a few HDR software applications competing in this market, does Hydra Pro stand out from the crowd?

HDR one magazine was invited by Creaceed to try their new Hydra Pro 3.1 and I was given the task of testing it out, I will give you my unbiased thoughts on the good, and the bad of their HDR app. I have used several HDR software programs and I’m yet to find one that I was 100% happy with and unfortunately, Hydra Pro is no exception to this… read on to find out why.

When first opening Hydra Pro I was excited, it has a nice party bouncy castle clean UI (user interface) and is very ‘Mac’ in its appearance. I was greeted by a welcome screen that I promptly turned off in the preferences (I am not a fan of welcome screens)… In preferences you also have the option to enable automatically align imported images, full resolution previewing and interactive alignment point previewing (more on this later) and finally, your preferred external editing program.

Hydra Pro have made it easy for you to load your exposures. When first opening the software, a window opens encouraging you to drag your exposures into it, something every computer user is comfortable with, and I found I could drag photos from any program. I tested Bridge, iPhoto, Aperture and Finder all without issue. I could also drag Nikon RAW files (.NEF) and it opened them, however, it didn’t like my Fuji Raw files (.RAF), the program crashed when I tried loading them.

Once you have loaded your exposures into Hydra Pro it opens up into a very clean and easy to use interface that prompts you to work on your HDR in two phases. Phase one is the ‘PREPARE’ phase. In this phase you can adjust EV, Temperature, align images, crop, perform ghost removal and apply RAW sharpening if using RAW files.

 

Once you are done with phase one, you then move onto phase two, the ‘DEVELOP’ phase. Hydra Pro creates your HDR image for you and now you have the chance to make any final changes. There are 11 presets (not 12, as one of the presets is ‘no effect’) you can choose from really soft to overly grungy, and in my opinion, are all a bit lame but may appeal to you… The good news is they have given you complete control over the final look by allowing you to adjust a number of settings.

You can manually adjust exposure, shadows, highlights, details, brightness, contrast, hue, saturation and you can choose what tones/colors this effects by changing what they have called the ‘Scope’. For example, it allows you to just change a certain aspect of your image based on your ‘Scope’ selection. So if your ‘Scope’ selection was ‘Bright Tones’ then increasing detail would only increase details in the brighter tones of your image etc.

It also enables you to create 3 ‘Probes’ and whilst this seems to give you a lot of control it just gets too confusing! You also have the option to add a glow, vignetting or a frame to your image, so even if you use a preset you can tweak it to change the final look and feel of your image.

Image Alignment

Hydra Pro marketing boasts that you don’t need a tripod to make HDR with their software. The reality is, every HDR software I have used will align your images for you, and if it can’t there are other programs you can use to align and crop so all your images are all the same so I wouldn’t consider this a selling point. Plus, anyone who is serious about taking great HDR shots will use a tripod… it just works better!

I decided to load 5 frames of a Temple in China that I took Hand Held to see how the Align functions worked. Firstly I decided to try it with the ‘Automatically Align Imported Images’ selected in preferences. The auto Align struggled, it randomly selected 4 reference points in the image and attempts to align them. In this case it picked a person’s head that obviously wasn’t going to line up in all 5 frames. The good news is that you can delete, move and create your own ‘alignment points’ so if it does pick something weird like a person’s head, you can change it. They have this very cool ‘X-ray’ feature allowing you to align your images with pixel accuracy… but this is where my problems started.

Auto Align Failed in Hydra

Photomatix Aligned Without Issue

Firstly, it is very slow and laggy, my iMac has 20gb RAM so I would hate to see how slow it would go with less grunt! this lag meant moving the image around to line up the reference points was hopeless. Every time I made an adjustment I would get the colorful rainbow wheel and would have to wait for the screen to refresh. I turned off full resolution previewing to see if this would speed things up but it just made my preview a blurred mess of pixels when I zoomed in to check alignment so this wasn’t going to work either.

I decided that in order to be fair I should load the same 5 frames into another HDR program to see what happens. Without fail and very quickly Photomatix aligned all 5 images and had it ready for me to work on. Hydra Pro need to work on improving this as there is no way I can process my hand-held HDR image of the Temple in China with their software!

Ghost Removal

The next on my list of things to check out was Hydra Pro’s ability to remove ghosting. One of the biggest issues for HDR photographers is the ghosting that happens when something is moving during the time the multiple exposures are being taken. For example, when people are walking through your shot.

Hydra Pro has a couple of ways of dealing with ghosting, Auto Fix and Zones . Using Zones is brilliant, when you use ‘Zones’ Hydra Pro lets you select areas of ghosting with your mouse and then you get to pick what Image you want to use for that area of the image, essentially doing some clever masking for you. For each zone you get to select which exposure(s) you want to use in your final image and Hydra Pro does a great job of seamlessly fixing it for you. I found it was extremely user-friendly and worked exceptionally well. I would say this is the best/easiest I have ever seen any software handle this. However, the Auto Fix function just does not seem to work (Hydra Pro is not alone here)

The Final Verdict

The developers of Hydra Pro have definitely created one of the best user interface HDR software programs available. But UI is not the only thing that is important, in fact, I would rather it was less sexy but worked better and was a bit easier to use. The develop stage gives you a lot of control over the final output but it is confusing to use the Scope function and I found it was more of a guessing game than an exact science as to what to change to make my image look better. Relying on presets without manually adjusting aspects of the image the final HDR image lacks depth and colors were washed out.

There are also issues processing larger files, and given the fact that EVERY camera manufacturer is in the megapixel race Hydra Pro need to make sure their software can handle these larger files. During my testing of the de-ghosting function I loaded 5 .NEF RAW files from my D800 into Hydra Pro and tried to use the Zone tool to remove ghosting. I think due to the file size of the D800 Hydra Pro just could note cope. I kept getting the rainbow wheel and the program just took forever to complete a basic task. In the end I had to force quit the application as it just seemed to be non responsive and wasn’t happy! It seems to work fine with smaller JPEG images but certainly does not like my D800 RAW files.

I decided to process the same images in Photomatix to give a direct comparison between it and Hydra Pro. I found Hydra Pro much more time-consuming and difficult to get the same result that I can get quickly with Photomatix.

The Bullet Points

User Interface - Very Nice. User friendly and clean

Value for money – There are better solutions for less $$ available

Ease of use – easy if you just want a basic HDR image and you’re happy with using presets. To get the results I am after I found it time consuming and slightly confusing to use.

Auto De-ghosting – forget it!

Manual De-ghosting – fantastic! One of the best…

Auto Image Alignment – sometimes it worked, other times it failed. It depended on the complexity of the shot, other software does it better.

Manual Image Alignment – Lets be honest… we want auto. The manual function is only there because the auto alignment feature is hit and miss! If you do need to manually align, the X-ray function is very cool!

Presets – 11 of them, all overdone or washed out… I wouldn’t use any of them

Operating System – Mac only

Ben Fewtrell is based in Sydney, Australia and has been a keen photographer since the 1990’s. He fell in love with HDR in early 2012 and now processes 95% of his images this way. His main interest is landscape photography and most mornings you will find Ben with his Nikon D800 on the coast of Sydney waiting for the sun to rise… you can find him at www.facebook.com/on3legs or follow his blog www.on3legs.com

Ben also has a free HDR ebook available: http://onthreelegs.com/learn/free-ebooks/

  • sthill

    So really if photomatix could steal its interface it would be a win win!

    • Ben Fewtrell

      yes… and no, Photomatix isn’t perfect either. Although it is a little easier to use. I think there are so many variables that it is hard for them to come up with a ‘one fits all’. We can be hopeful!

      • sthill

        I love photomatix but my main gripe is that I seem to lose the sharpness that I get in the preview even afterwards when I max it out to save

        • Ben Fewtrell

          Have you upgraded to the latest version? I now has a finishing touches option right before processing and sharpening is one of these new options. I am still testing results but it seems to work quite well