First of all, the conclusion. After fairly extensive testing of both Photomatix 4 and HDR Effects Pro, I have come to the conclusion that the best product for serious HDR photographers is Photomatix 4, and the best program for people who are interested in just dabbling in HDR and don't have a lot of experience with digital image editing in Photoshop will prefer HDR Effex Pro.
Photomatix Pro 4 has superior control over the image
The sky is the limit in Photomatix. If you are serious about HDR and want to fine-tune every tiny aspect of image quality, then Photomatix is for you. It has approximately 20 sliders which control every possible quality of the image. While only 5 or 6 of the sliders are actually necessary in most situations, it is handy to have supreme control when necessary.
Because of the amount of controls available in Photomatix, I am able to bring out amazing amounts of texture in an image. When using HDR Effex Pro, I was not able to bring out the texture with as much precision. This is disappointing because texture is is one of my main attractions to shooting HDR photos.
Photomatix has problems, too. HDR Effex Pro delivers cleaner and less noisy photos than Photomatix in my opinion; however, this may be partly because HDR Effex Pro uses more presets and does not provide the ability to tweak the presets as well. This reduces the amount of noise caused by user error in tonemapping mistakes.
Photomatix also wins the prize for price. Photomatix 4 costs $99 for the full stand-alone version, but HDR Effex Pro costs $159.95 for the plugin. Since HDR Effex Pro is not 1.5 times better than Photomatix, the price tag is unwarranted.
HDR Effex Pro makes it easier to achieve good image quality and interesting effects
HDR Effex Pro is the perfect program for people who like the HDR look but don't want to spend the time to learn this form of art. When the plugin is run, it brings up dozens of presets off to the left. The presets are handy and include many “creative” presets. This is handy, but it reminds me more of a camera app for a smartphone than a serious post-processing program. This feeling was reiterated by the lack of sufficient controls to tweak the presets. Also, it seems that there are more “creative” (aka “weird”) effects than there are useful or professional-quality styles.
HDR Effex Pro includes a neat feature called control points. They are basically a copy of the control points available in Lightroom, and they work similarly. When I first heard of this feature in HDR Effex Pro, I had imagined that it would allow the tonemapping settings to be adjusted on a local level. This would allow me to tonemap the building in one way while tonemapping the sky in a different way. This feature would save me the trouble of bringing multiple HDR images into Photoshop to mask them together. Unfortunately, this is not so. It really only adjusts settings like you'd find in Camera Raw: exposure, vibrance, etc.
I am absolutely thrilled to see competition in the HDR post-processing market, and Nik is a good company to be doing the competing; however, I think for most photographers, I believe the best answer is Photomatix. From a cost and control standpoint, HDR Effex Pro is the losing program. I hope that HDR Effex Pro will eventually take the lead when it comes out with version 2. That will put HDR Soft's feet to the fire and force them to continue innovating. For now, though…. Photomatix.
Buy Photomatix 4 on Amazon.com!
Buy Nik HDR Effex Pro on Amazon.com!