It’s crazy to me how software for editing photos has evolved over the years. When I first started to learn landscape photography, maybe in 2010, the secrets to processing photos where hidden behind lock and key.
Processing photos was hard. You had to have all these actions and know all these tricks to get things looking the way you wanted quickly. Making something ‘glow’ in Photoshop wasn’t a one click solution, then there was the ‘Orton’ effect, at least five different ways just to sharpen your images and of course three different ways to use luminosity mask that I know of. Needless to say, it was a pain.
Today we have something that I think is revolutionary. Aurora HDR!
No more do we have to learn time-consuming tricks. Honestly, you just get Aurora and move around sliders until it looks cool. It’s unbelievably simple, and all those old tricks I spent years master can now be deleted from my brain.
If only I had this back in 2010 when I was learning. It’s actually kind of not fair!
Download – Aurora HDR
Use the promo code GRIFFIN and get $10 off.
Aurora HDR 2017 Review
Macphun reached out to me asking me to take a look at their software. It was one of those situations where I didn’t find Aurora, it found me. Up until a week before that, I had never even heard of it until stumbling upon it while bored at work, literally a week before.
I have to say with all honesty, its revolutionary.
Aurora HDR surprised me. It’s different, it’s simple and very powerful.
In this review I want to break down this software and show you why I think it’s the best software for landscape and travel photography out there and why you’ll find yourself using Lightroom and Photoshop a lot less.
More Than Just HDR Software
Although it’s important for Macphun to target the niche HDR crowd from a marketing standpoint, it’s not fair for the software to be labeled as such, because you can use it for any type of photography. I could see wedding photographers loving this simply for the glow and radiance filters and I find myself using it all the time on even my non-HDR photos.
How Aurora HDR Works
It works by combining a sequence of images taken at different exposures and blends those exposures together to get a single 32 bit high dynamic range image. But you can still use all the HDR tools on a single image.
You can use it as a stand alone software or it can be used as an external editor / plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop or even Macphuns other editor like Luminar.
Aurora isn’t necessarily a replacement for Lightroom and Photoshop, but a shortcut.
I personally still use Lightroom to catalogue, store and organize all my images. I’ll also sometimes use some of the VSCO or RNI film presets in Lightroom before sending them to external editors like Aurora, and I’ll still use Lightroom or Photoshop for spot removal or other tedious cleanup jobs.
What I Love About Aurora HDR
There are the six key points that I think really make Aurora stand out against other HDR software. These are the Layers, Import Options, The HDR Tools, Radiance, Glow and the Save Features.
Yes, you can do all this easily in Photoshop if you know how, however, I always hated not being able to have realtime feedback when using a lot of the editing tricks in Photoshop.
For instance, you want to add the Orton effect, you have to do all these blur adjustments and overlays. You can make an action to speed things up, set your numbers then apply and wait to see the results. In Aurora it’s just a slider with realtime feedback.
The lame example is Clarity, you can add clarity in Photoshop with the Unsharp mask filter, but it’s the same thing, set all your numbers, hit ok and hope it looks good, if not, start over guessing at your numbers.
Here, everything is just a slider which makes tuning your images so much faster.
Layers give you all the power you could want when editing your images. This is done by giving you the ability load back in any of your bracketed shots, or you can create adjustment layers to add more effects, you can even use luminosity masks and layer masks. It’s not quite as powerful as your control in Photoshop, but honestly, it doesn’t need to be.
Why Are Layers So Powerful?
Layers are amazing for a lot of reason, for example, you can blend effects into only some areas of your photo, like radiance or glow, apply them with a luminosity mask to only affect the highlights or shadows, or you can use gradients or brushes to add some effects into specific areas of your photos.
You can even add in some Custom Textures, likely an influence of Trey Ratcliff.
My favorite use of these layers when processing HDR photos is with blending back in some of the sky from one of the original bracketed shots without having to go back into Photoshop. Since HDR tonemapping always creates funky looking skies, this feature is a huge time saver.
How you choose to blend in your skies is up to you, you can brush them in, use gradients, or use luminosity masks.
Intuitive Import Options
From Lightroom to Aurora it’s simple, once you have everything all installed and setup, you just select the photo or photos you want to process, right-click, then export to Aurora. You have the option to send TIFF files which will bake any settings you made in Lightroom into the photos, or you can send the RAW files to Aurora.
I usually do a little work on the photos before sending them over, since I shoot a lot with Fujifilm, I like to use their color profiles like Velvia or Provia. Or when I’m shooting on my Sony, I’ll sometimes use some VSCO or RNI looks, like Forta, Velvia or Provia.
Your export options look like this.
- Ghost Reduction works automatically. You can set which image you want to use as your reference and you can set your Amount. It actually works very well to the point where I don’t usually need to mask anything out.
- Color Denoise is a setting I don’t really use much. I usually shoot ISO 100 or 200, and haven’t really had issues with noise with HDR photography since I upgraded from my Canon 5D mkII. But if you’re still getting too much noise in your shadows from your dark exposure being really dark, this option is useful.
- Chromatic Aberrations Removal will remove any chromatic aberrations it finds along the highlighted edges. This again is a setting I don’t use much unless I’m using 3rd party lenses. Fujifilm lenses as well as Sony lenses usually bake in any lens corrections into the RAW file, so Vignetting and Chromatic Aberrations aren’t usually an issue unless you’re using third-party lenses.
- Alignment is a little check box hidden down there at the bottom. This will align the images if you shot some HDR handheld, or if your shooting on a tripod and it’s really windy, or if your shooting on a tripod and you left the image stabilizer on your camera or lens turned on (a rookie mistake I still make sometimes).
The HDR Tools
Once in Aurora, you get a lot of amazing options with a very modern and easy to understand user interface.
Most tools are pretty self-explanatory but I’ll go over a few that I think are worth noting.
The first option found in the Tools tab give us some basic HDR tone mapping and a Smart Tone option that allows you to tune your base HDR look.
Tools | HDR Looks
For those familiar with Photomatix, the “HDR Look” slider would be similar to the “Lighting Adjustment” tool they have in their software.
It’s hard to explain exactly what this does, it basically adjusts where or how the tonemapping occurs. When adjusting the slider it will choose between different tones of the image to neutralize, or to reduce the dynamic range.
Turned all the way to the left usually gives you a more natural look, moving the slider to the right usually gives a more surreal look. I prefer keeping it almost all the way to the left for a more natural looking image.
Tools | Exposure, Contrast, Smart Tone Etc.
These settings all work the way you would expect except for Smart Tone.
Smart Tone works very similar to HDR Look, move it to the right and it tends to brighten things up while compressing the image. Move it towards the left and it darkens the image without compressing the dynamic range.
Tools | Structure
This is where the fun begins. With structure you get to very easily control the ‘HDR look.’ This is different from the HDR Look option above that controls lighting. This controls the HDR structure and this is mostly done with the Softness slider. If you turn Softness all the way to the left, you get a sort of Exposure Fusion effect with lots of micro details. Turn it all the way to the right and you get that crunchy tonemapped look.
Boost and Amount will enhance the structure and the HDR Detail will enhance the micro contrast depending on how you adjust it. Clarity is of course clarity.
This is essentially what photographers refer to as the “Orton Effect.” However, it’s different.
If you’ve seen an Orton effect tutorial on Youtube, you’ve probably noticed there are several different techniques people do it and they all give very different results.
With the Radiance tool, it all comes down to how you adjust the smoothness. Moving the Smoothness all the way to the right gives a very soft, almost glowing image. Similar to moving Clarity to the left in Lightroom but different since it still seems to keep a lot of the structure.
Moving the Radiance smoothness all the way to the left creates a more chunky glow while holding onto the contrast a little more aggressively.
Brightness, Smart Colorize and Warmth all tune the effect and are pretty powerful tools to give you more control over the effect.
If you’ve see this look in other photographers photos and are wondering how they created it, this is one way of doing it quick and easy.
Glow is pretty self-explanatory – it adds glow. You can change the color and softness. I use it on almost all my HDR photos.
This is one tool where I wish we had more color options for those sunsets or night shots that have wild lighting, but it’s pretty useful as is.
Aurora does have a save feature which is super cool. This allows you to save your work and come back to it later.
But there is a catch.
When working from a saved file, it will not auto-import back into Lightroom, and you’ll have to import it manually.
Also, if you forget to save and hit the Apply button, the image is created and imported back into Lightroom and your work is permanently lost unless you saved a preset. If you come from Photomatix this is something you have to get use to. It won’t reload your last setting like Photomatix. So if you’re not sure about the look of your image before going back into Lightroom, Save it, or create a preset. I usually just make presets, but presets won’t save your layers.
Often photo editing software is a mess. Performance issues, crashes, compatibility issues etc. Adobe is notorious with problems across the board, so clearly programing this kind of thing is hard.
I’ve been using Aurora HDR for a few months now and I’ve yet to have any deal breaking issues.
Speed | Some Issues But To Be Expected
Speed seems to be Aurora’s weakest link, but if you consider how much work the software is doing when creating these huge 32-bit HDR files, it’s really not that bad.
I’ve been editing over a network so my speeds are limited to Cat-6 network speeds. When editing local on my macbook pro, it’s a bit quicker.
Regardless, creating HDR files takes some time, and once you export those files it also takes a long time. But when I say a long time, it’s a minute or two at the most on my network.
Now the good news.
The actual editing part goes pretty smooth. There is a little lag when letting the image load to full quality between tweaks, but it’s totally workable and what I consider normal. Nothing like the lag you get from other software I’ve used (i.e. Iridient Developer).
Image Quality | Very High Quality
The quality of the images is great. If you combine three images as a HDR file you’ll end up editing in 32-bit. When the image loads you get a full resolution image unlike some other HDR software I’ve used.
I also haven’t really seen any issues with banding or artifacts in my image previews. So what you see seems to be what you get.
Reliability | Bug Free For Me
So far I’ve had no crashes. I’ve had several instances of the application loaded at one time and still have yet to have any issues.
I’ve used it with several different cameras, Sony A7rII, Sony A7r, Fujifilm X100F, X100T, XT2, XT1, X-Pro 2, Canon 5DSR and everything performed flawlessly.
What Could Be Better
There isn’t a lot I don’t like about this software since it’s pretty straight forward. But here are a few areas that could be improved.
Those areas are the Save Features, HDR Bracketed Shots when layered, and Layer Masks. It also only works on Mac.
Save Features | Needs More Features
While I listed this under a feature I love, it does have that “forgetting to save problem,” where if you just hit apply you lose your changes. This could be improved for me at least. Maybe it’s not a problem for anyone else.
It could be like Iridient Developer, where anytime you make a change it automatically creates a save file next to the original file, that way you always at least have that to go back to. Or maybe this is an option since save files can be rather large.
Or they could at least put a save button next to the Apply button so you would be less likely to forget
HDR Bracketing + Ghosts Reduction | Some Issues
There are some problems with Ghosts Reduction when loading in your original Bracketed Shots with Layers. It seems when you turn on Ghosts Reduction it affects the original bracketed shots within the software.
So in the Layers, if you try to load back in an original Bracketed Shot to clean up ghosting a little more, you’ll get some interpolated version of your original shot if you used Ghosts Reduction.
I feel like you should get to load the original untouched bracketed shots regardless of if you turned on Ghosts Reduction or not. Or maybe let us have an option.
Layer & Masks | A Little Primitive
Layers & Masks are awesome features and I love using them, but the controls are still a little primitive. Or I shouldn’t say primitive, they just take a little while to get use to. Part of that is maybe because I’m hardwired to use Photoshop where you have all the brush options and controls that you can quickly switch between, or put layers in folders and apply layer masks to the folders. I also miss the ability to create solid colored layers, or radial gradients with solid colors to accent sunsets.
In Aurora you have Gradient, a brush where you can adjust the feather and opacity, and luminosity masks and a radial mask. So it’s still very powerful.
I imagine this all will continue to be improved over the years, but as it stands, it’s a little rough using and editing the layer masks with the different brushes and gradient tools. Especially since the tools are buried in a menu, or else you’re forced to learn the hotkeys. Which is super straight forward.
One thing I recently discovered that I thought was super cool was that the layers masks have a “density” and “feather” option hidden up near the “clear” button when in the Brush mode. This makes Luminosity masks very nice.
Mac Only | Windows Version Coming Autumn
Right now the software is only available on Mac. This sucks for Windows only users. I myself use both systems still which is why I love the Adobe Creative Cloud.
Windows users will just have to wait until Autumn of this year. In the mean time, you can sign up for notifications – AuroraWindows
Aurora HDR Review | Bottom Line
Aurora has brought a new life to my HDR Photo processing and I feel like it’s a software I can no longer live without. Post processing is now less of a chore and I feel like going back to doing everything manually in with my old Photomatix and Photoshop combo would just suck – and I’m not just saying that.
Aurora has speed up my workflow and saved me a ton of time.
Is this software for you?
If you’re a street photographer, maybe not. If you’re a wedding, travel, architect, portrait or landscape photographer then it may be worth trying, if anything just because the structure, radiance and glow tools are so fun to use.
Download – Aurora HDR
Use the promo code GRIFFIN and get $10 off.
There is also a free trial, if you want to try it out.
Aurora HDR Sample Images
Leave any questions or thoughts in the comment. I’ve already recommended it to a few people and they love it.