All my attempts at HDR come out looking remarkably fake, how can I reduce the halos effect?
The key to a good hdr photo is to use the correct amount of processing for the feel you want to achieve.
If your goal is to get the "hdr look", then you're probably doing it about right, because there should be a slightly "fake" feel.
If you are only using hdr as a method to improve a photo, then just be careful and try to under-process it. If you can't quite tell what method you used to process the image then you've probably done it right.
This is a lot like sharpening, it's best if you can't tell that you did it.
The simple answer is in order to get non-fake looking HDR, or good looking tasteful HDR you have to put lots of work in.
If you entrust artistic decisions to a computer program the quality is going to suffer. So expect to take a considerable amount of time in your tonemapping software adjusting the settings, and remember that's not the end of the process, you can further apply adjustments to contrast, colour balance and saturation to get the image how you want.
A simple way to stop HDR from looking too fake, is to pick the best single exposure back in afterwards, so you have say 50% of the tonemapped HDR multi-exposure and 50% natural looking single image.
Another way to get a more natural result is to do the exposure blending by hand. That is mask off the correctly exposed part of each image and layer them up. I know I've posted this example many times recently (as there seems to have been a lot of questions on HDR) but here it is again as it's a very good example of what I've described:
Try as I might I just can't get good looking results out of Photomatix, if anyone thinks they can do better I will provide the raw files!
Here's what I produced relatively quickly by blending only two exposures by hand, as follows:
I'd advise anyone to try manually blending images. It works very well when you have a dark subject bright background (or vice-versa). It looks more natural as each part of the image is a standard un-tonemapped photo.
If you use the Photomatix plugin, try to use a higher Light Smoothing value. I usually use the highest setting or one lower. This reduces the halo effect you described.
Always keep in mind that HDR is fake in itself. You are attempting to portray a dynamic range that is not possible, thus almost every picture will have a fakeness factor. You just need to decide how much fake is acceptable.
The best way is using bracketing and then merging everything in post-production. If you use an HDR software don't turn every knob you see :P
HDREfx Pro is a good software, which provides different Settings.
The simple trick in my experimentation is to get different HDR algorithms in work. You should try qtpfsgui. Then use different algorithms for different aspects of the image. For ex: use fattal for saturation, mantuik for texture etc... and then combine them together. Also use enfuse as the base...
I have tried to explain these in the following tutorials: http://dejoe.tumblr.com/post/1637026681/open-source-hdr-processing
Lemme know if this helps
I really like the Nik HDREfx Pro plugin for HDR. Out of the ones I've tried, it gives the most natural result so far (with a "Natural" setting applied, there are a large range of presets to choose from).
Also one thing you can do is to finish and HDR and then overlay it with some opacity over an original middle-exposed version of the image.