Capture One 22 brings an HDR merge feature that quickly combines several exposures into a single fully editable DNG file with extended dynamic range. But how well does it work?
Once upon a time you needed specialist HDR applications and plug-ins to align and merge multiple exposures of the same scene to produce an HDR composite. These programs still exist, including Photomatix, one of the oldest and best known, Aurora HDR from Skylum Software and the HDR Efex Pro plug-in from the DxO Nik Collection.
Increasingly, though, HDR merge tools are being built into mainstream programs. Photoshop has HDR merge capability (of a sort), Affinity Photo has an excellent tone mapping (HDR) workspace and Lightroom can merge HDR images, and ON1 Photo RAW has HDR merge too.
Now Capture One 22 joins the HDR club, adding an HDR merge very much like Lightroom’s, which takes a series of exposures, aligns and merges them to produce a single high dynamic range DNG file.
What’s different about the Lightroom and Capture One approaches is that they’re not trying to create a dramatic and obvious HDR effect. Instead, they produce a very natural looking image with extended dynamic range – which is often what most photographers want.
So how does Capture One 22’s HDR merge feature work and are the results any good? Let’s take a look.
How to use HDR merge in Capture One
It’s a simple three-step process that produces a fully-editable DNG file.
1. Select your images
The key thing to note here is that Capture One will ONLY work with RAW files. Unless this changes in a future update, JPEGs won’t work. You also have to make sure (obviously) that the images you select are part of the same exposure series and will align.
2. Use the Merge command
With the images selected, right-click and use the Merge to HDR… menu option. There are no complicated previews, key frame selections, ghosting, or chromatic aberration options here, just two checkboxes: Auto Adjust (it doesn’t matter, you can do it later) and Auto Align (definitely check this if you shot your bracketed set handheld).
3. Edit the merged image
Capture One will now merge those images into a single extended dynamic range DNG file. If you checked auto adjustments in the merge dialog, these will have been applied; if not, you can do it now. Alternatively, you can edit your merged image manually. You’ll find that all the editing tools work exactly as expected, including lens corrections and chromatic aberration correction – but that you how have greatly extended shadow and highlight recovery. You can use this alongside Capture One’s masking tools to create powerful and natural-looking HDR images.
Is Capture One HDR merge any good?
Actually, it is. Occasionally you may get some slight misalignment or ghosting if you were shooting handheld or if there was some subject movement between frames, but you’ll get that with any tool.
You don’t get any ghosting or chromatic aberration controls, or a layered image for detailed adjustments, but most of the time you don’t need these.
In Capture One you can apply chromatic aberration removal after merging and it seems just as effective as applying it before. Also, applying auto adjustments after merging is no different to selecting the Auto Adjust box in the merge dialog.
In effect, what you get is an extended dynamic range DNG RAW file which you can edit in exactly the same way as you would a regular RAW file.
In my tests, Capture One’s HDR merge looks a little better than Lightroom’s, with all the advantages of Capture One’s RAW processing – less noise, better detail, more advanced editing tools.
If you want a more obvious HDR effect you can still merge HDRs with Aurora HDR or HDR Efex Pro, but you can instead merge in Capture One, do all your editing optimisations there and then send the image to an external editor for any fancy additional effects.
Best HDR software
- Affinity Photo: The Tone Mapping Persona is excellent both for natural-looking HDR expansion and more dramatic and obvious HDR effects
- Aurora HDR: A better choice you want spectacular in-your-face HDR effects, but not so good at natural-looking exposure blends
- HDR Efex Pro (Nik Collection): Not quite as sophisticated as Aurora HDR, but much cheaper (as part of the Nik Collection) and comes with some great HDR presets
- Capture One 22: Produces really natural-looking exposure blends with extended highlight and shadow detail when you need it
- Lightroom and Lightroom Classic: Like Capture One, Lightroom produces very natural-looking editable DNG files with extended dynamic range, though alignment and noise control aren’t quite as good