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The best HDR software in 2021: produce super-realistic high dynamic range images

Best HDR software: Photoshop CC HDR
(Image credit: James Paterson)

The best HDR software can tackle one of the biggest problems in digital photography – the dynamic range of an image sensor can’t yet match that of the human eye (or rather, the brain’s processing of light). While we can look at a scene and see detail in both deepest shadows and brightest highlights, the camera restricts this somewhat and the result is overexposed whites and underexposed blacks.

That’s where High Dynamic Range, (HDR) photography comes in. The technique involves keeping the camera steady while taking two or more photographs at differing exposure values in a bid to make up for this loss of dynamic range on the sensor; this step is known as bracketing.

The next stage is to bring these bracketed images into editing software for processing. The software will typically align, blend, and add other imaging effects to provide the user with the best HDR option with the information it has. The best HDR software will also give the user control to make adjustments so that the HDR effect can be as subtle or drastic as one likes.

Typically, they come in two flavours: standalone and as a plugin. Standalone HDR editors run irrespective of other image editing software installed on the device and often their only task is to process HDR images. As such, they commonly comprise multiple presets and plenty of settings to customise. Those that work as plugins work by running through an existing software, such as Photoshop. While plugins can contain the same complexity as standalone when it comes to control over settings, some are a little lacking. But this simplicity is also a blessing in disguise for those less concerned with twiddling sliders. The added benefit of using a plugin is that your workflow isn’t interrupted or changed and the organisation of libraries are faithfully maintained.

There is a third option. Some photo-editing programs like Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity Photo come with HDR merge tools built in. So how do these stack up against separate HDR programs and plug-ins?

However you want to use HDR editing software, there are a range of price points to choose from, some with one-off payments and others with subscriptions, so take a look below at some of the best HDR image editing software available right now.

The best HDR software in 2021

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Excellent HDR capability within standalone editing software

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: iPad version
Free Trial: 10 days
Compatibility: Standalone
Purchase style: One-time
Platforms: Windows/macOS/iPad
Reasons to buy
+Helpful presets with thumbnail previews+Creative control over tone mapping+Multiple before/after view configurations
Reasons to avoid
-Easy to overdo HDR look

As well as being a fully fledged image editing software capable of handling many different tasks, Affinity Photo has a strong High Dynamic Range editing tool. Fully editable in the Tone Mapping Persona it has almost every kind of slider available to tweak a range of settings including: Tone Compression; Local Contrast; Exposure; Saturation; White Balance; Detail Refinement; and more.

There are useful presets on the left side of the Tone Mapping Persona window with handy thumbnail previews showing exactly how each preset will affect the photo. It is possibly one of the most flexible HDR tools that comes as part of an established image editing software, instead of being a standalone HDR-specialist.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

A fast HDR merging process with clean, realistic results

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: Android/iOS
Free Trial: 7 days
Compatibility: Standalone
Purchase style: Monthly or annual subscription
Platforms: Windows/macOS/iPad
Reasons to buy
+Fast and easy to do in Lightroom+Results are great for most images
Reasons to avoid
-No detailed HDR control-Not as accurate as specialised software

Lightroom Classic and CC both process HDR images well for most users. They approach HDR processing in a similar way, providing a simple ‘HDR Merge’ function with preselected images and then sets to work. While the results are usually pleasing and realistic, hardcore HDR editors will be disappointed with the lack of control over the images with limited, automatic processing at best.

The only controls are for different deghosting amount levels (low, medium, and high) with other automatic settings such as alignment, and deghosting overlay. Lightroom Classic offers the ability to store images in a stack which consolidates the multiple images so that they appear as just one in the filmstrip/library views within the software. HDR can also be done in Lightroom Mobile but only in HDR Capture Mode with select mobile handsets.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

It works well, but lacks fine-tuned HDR control

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: iPad version
Free Trial: 7 days
Compatibility: Standalone
Purchase style: Monthly or annual subscription
Platforms: Windows/macOS/iPad
Reasons to buy
+Built into the industry-standard software+Decent automatic HDR processing
Reasons to avoid
-Not many HDR controls-Poor alignment at times

Photoshop’s HDR feature is just one part of a giant army in its arsenal, and it does process High Dynamic Range images quite well. There are a few controls with which to tweak the HDR such as Edge Glow, Tone and Detail sliders, and Advanced and Curve options to further control output. 

Unfortunately, due to Photoshop trying to do good at many things, there are one or two things it falls down on when compared to standalone software, and creating HDRs is one of those. It’s tricky to get HDR images to look realistic, even when fiddling with the settings as it doesn’t feel like there’s quite enough control over the tone mapping across the image. Though, it could be argued that keeping things a little simpler is better for newcomers and beginners.

4. Photomatix Pro

Long-standing HDR heritage gives Photomatix Pro the edge

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: No
Free Trial: Yes (unlimited with watermark)
Compatibility: Standalone
Purchase style: One-time
Platforms: Windows/macOS
Reasons to buy
+Excellent set of HDR settings controls+Comprehensive library of presets
Reasons to avoid
-Standalone HDR editor is one-trick pony-Expensive for a single-purpose software

HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro feels like the granddaddy of HDR processing software and that’s probably because it started way back in 2003. It’s a standalone program that specialises in creating HDR images, and comes in three varieties: Photomatix Essentials, Photomatix Pro, and Photomatix Pro Bundle, each with increasing tool sets respectively. The HDR Batch plugin (available in the Pro Bundle, or to purchase separately) is compatible with Lightroom and Capture One and there’s also a Tone Mapping version for Photoshop should you require it.

It does everything you’d want and more, with loads of HDR settings to control strength, tone compression, and lighting adjustments, plus colour settings and blending modes to refine the look. A cabinet full of presets (up to 40) makes quick work of different styles, but some are a little inelegant for professional use.

(Image credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes)

Well laid-out and powerful in approach makes this a great HDR option

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: No
Free Trial: 30 days
Compatibility: Standalone and as plugin for Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, and DxO PhotoLab
Purchase style: One-time
Platforms: Windows/macOS
Reasons to buy
+Works within established editing software+Good processing means accurate results+Easy-to-navigate user interface
Reasons to avoid
-Must purchase as a bundle

One of the more expensive options in this roundup (you have to get the whole Nik Collection), Nik HDR Efex comes in a bundle with 7 other software programs. Now owned by DxO, Nik HDR Efex works seamlessly within image editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom and can be launched directly from DxO PhotoLab too. It also works as a standalone program.

With one of our favourite layouts visually, Nik HDR Efex is familiar and intuitive. Presets are categorised on the left, with tone compression, tonality, colour and other settings controls on the right, leaving a large central image to take visual priority. It also has a helpful history tab so that you can pinpoint the moment you perfected your HDR.

(Image credit: Skylum)

A standalone and plugin option partially powered by AI

Specifications
Raw file handling: Yes
Mobile version: No
Free Trial: No
Compatibility: Standalone and as plugin for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Extension for Apple Photos
Purchase style: One-time
Platforms: Windows/macOS
Reasons to buy
+Expansive control over HDR processing+Unique polarizing filter slider+AI-powered for cleaner automatic results
Reasons to avoid
-No “try before you buy” free trial

One issue that is brought about by the use of HDR processing is excessive noise in shadows or midtones. Fortunately, Aurora HDR addresses this through the use of HDR Denoise. HDR Denoise will automatically recognise noise in a photograph and eliminate it without impacting the essential facets of the main subject. 

HDR Smart Structure works similarly and is powered by Artificial Intelligence. It enhances the texture within an image without introducing noise or halos to the image. HDR Clarity works by adding localised midtone contrast to the specific areas in a shot, leaving other sections alone that don’t require a boost in clarity.

Other settings to tweak are: a creative LUT mapping option; polarizing filter slider; color toning; dodge & burn; and details enhancer. The presets are pretty dramatic and spectacular, but can look over-processed. At time of writing there’s no free trial, only a 30 day money back guarantee, which makes Aurora HDR harder to recommend.

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Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer,  writer, and former Technique Editor of N-Photo magazine. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.