I recently tripped over a newish tool called “enfuse”, which is used to directly transform a bracketed series of exposures into an 8- or 16-bit image file, suitable for immediate display. No intermediate HDR file, no tone mapping, just sweet, sweet wide apparent dynamic range.
It is in beta right now, and the above link will get you to a downloadable win32 binary, and probably to source code for other OSes. It is a command line utility, which makes for a sleek workflow, but you don’t get visual feedback until it is done. Enfuse tends to result in realistic images, which may or may not be desirable (i.e., certain tonemap operators can really enhance the “drama” of a scene).
Some examples (clickable):
That is the exposure that my camera chose as “best”. It seems a little under exposed to me, but there it is.
I took 4 exposures on the underexposed side of the above and 3 on the overexposed side (why the asymmetry? A mistake). I combined them using both Photoshop and enfuse.
This one was assembled in Photoshop to an HDR, which was then tonemapped (via Photoshop) into a TIFF, and then saved in JPG.
Due to an already-reported bug in enfuse, I used seven exposures, -3 ev to +3 ev (in 1 ev increments). Soon, one should be able to use as many exposures as desired.
The differences between the tonemapped and “fused” images are subjective and I think I slightly prefer the tonemapped one, but it is nice to have another bolt in the quarrel.
I like the first picture, the non-HDR straight out-of-camera exposure the best. I think it represents best what it would look like to your eye, and the HDR versions don’t preserve local contrast (which is where the “punch” of an image lies) well enough. If anything there could be a bit more detail in the highlights (the bridge supports), but that’s it. There’s not really enough dynamic range in the scene to warrant HDR treatment IMHO.