jfrancho had started a thread on HDR comparisons. This got me more intrigued (I was already interested) and I finally went out and found a decent scene.
As best as I can tell this is the The Mother Church of the Church of Christ, Scientist. (Pardon if I've messed up this title. I've have no knowledge of the Church - I just love this grand architecture.) I do know it's in Boston.
I shot this about 5:15 this morning. Actually I shot 5 frames at 2/3 stops apart. The images were shot with the 17-40 L @ 17mm, so there's come perspective issues. I'd like to run the final through PTLens to clean this up. I then processed one in RAW, and merged all 5 using Photoshop CS2's HDR Merge, Photomatix Pro 2.1, and HDRShop 1.0. No post-processing was done beyond resize & sharpen - except for the HDRShop version which simply required PP.
This is the best RAW shot that I had - also the brightest. Note that I did nothing to this image except process it as-shot, resize, and sharpen. It's quite likely that I could have gotten a slightly better version if I had gone through a full post-processing exercise, but that wouldn't have been a fair comparison. I know a lot more about PS processing than I do about it's HDR Merge function, let alone Photomatix Pro's HDR.
This is the version from Photomatix 2.1 Standalone. They also have a Tone-Mapping Plugin for PS but the standalone is supposed to allow more control so I used that. This program allows the most control of everything I played with, but I'd say that it comes with a fairly steep learning curve. I think it would take me a while to really understand this program, but I think it would yield much better images than the others. The standalone is $99, the tone-mapping plugin is $69, or both for $109. http://www.hdrsoft.com
Note that I have no idea why the sky came out so banded. I absolutely think that more knowledge of the program would eliminate this. Please try to ignore the crazy banding.
This version is from Photoshop CS2's HDR Merge function. By far this gave me the least control, by orders of magnitude. But it was the easiest to use, there's no doubt about that. (I guess these things go hand-in-hand.)
Note that I cleaned up all the star trails in this image. I didn't do so for the others.
This is the version from HDRShop 1.0. The initial, no-reading-of-docs version that I did was useless. This required me to read a few quick tutorials, and this was very necessary. After reading the docs and playing a bit I got an image I could use. But it required some post-processing, since HDRShop "squeezed" the image to a 3-stop range. I had to use some Levels & Curves to get to this version. I'm very curious as to why HDRShop munged the final version so poorly, but I'm sure that it's due to a lack of knowledge on my part.
HDRShop is available from http://www.hdrshop.com. Version 1.0 is free, the current version 2.0 is quite expensive - $600 for a commercial license, unknown discount for an academic version for students and faculty only.
My conclusion? CS2 does a fine job, but experience and skill will probably want me to get more control. I'm very anxious to see what CS3's HDR will be like, but that's a least a year away knowing PS's release schedule. HDRShop, though free, probably requires a good amount of learning and experience. I'm sure it will require a decent amount of both to get better than CS2, but it *will* get better than CS2 I'm sure. Photomatix definitely requires some learning & experience but will most likely produce the best final image in the long run. I'm not going to jump on paying $109 for Photomatix unless I really get into HDR. But knowing me I will get into HDR and I will eventually purchase it.