HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography is a technique that has been around for decades but really started making waves in the modern digital imaging scene around 2005. It involves combining multiple exposures of a picture, usually taken with a technique known as bracketing, to create one final single image with bright parts that are not overexposed and dark parts that are not underexposed.
In recent years the software required to do this has gotten more powerful, less expensive, and so much easier to use. With just a few clicks anyone can make beautiful HDR images. Aurora HDR 2018 is the latest arrival in this category, created by Skylum, a developer rooted in photography and digital image manipulation. It’s a program that caters to casual users who want a fun creative outlet while also meeting the demands of professionals who make their living from designing beautiful works of photographic art.
If you want a single program that can handle all your HDR needs no matter your skill level, Aurora HDR 2018 may be just the tool for you.
What is HDR photography?
HDR photography is all about getting the best of both worlds when taking photos, particularly of static subjects like landscapes or architecture. If you’re taking a picture with extraordinary bright spots like a sunrise or sunset, you can expose for the highlights (i.e. the bright spots) which mean the dark parts get really dark and underexposed.
Alternatively, you can expose for the shadows (i.e. the dark spots) which leave the bright parts extra bright and overexposed. HDR photos are created when a photographer takes multiple shots, usually three or more, of the same scene: one underexposed, one properly exposed, and one overexposed. Then software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix, and others can be used to combine all the images into a single picture that has detail in both the highlights and the shadows.
Before and after image showing what is possible with HDR.
How Aurora HDR is different
Compared to other offerings on the market, Aurora HDR’s brilliance lies in its simplicity. It’s far easier to use and just as capable as other HDR applications, and also very competitive in terms of its pricing. (Unlike some other apps, it’s available as a one-time purchase instead of with a monthly subscription.) When you open the program you are greeted with one large button that lets you load a single image or multiple exposures of the same image, which is all you need to do to get started. If you dig just a bit deeper you will notice two additional options: Batch Processing and Load Sample Images.
The former is useful if you want to quickly apply specific HDR processes and presets to many images at one time. While this can be useful if you have several images to go through I don’t recommend it for beginning users.
Aurora HDR 2018’s bread and butter is the incredible degree of control it gives you over the entire process of creating a High Dynamic Range image. This is where most people will get the maximum value out of the software.
What’s New in Aurora HDR 2018
Whether you are new to the world of creating HDR images with Aurora or are a longtime user of this software, many of the changes in the 2018 version will bring significant improvements to your workflow. The program has been rewritten from the ground up to focus on things like speed improvements, better RAW image handling, and a more user-friendly interface.
There is now a History panel which lets you see all the edits you have made to an image, and functions very much like the same option in programs such as Lightroom, which many photographers already use. The 2018 version also adds a Lens Corrections Tool and a host of other minor but noticeable tweaks while keeping the bedrock foundation of powerful yet easy-to-use HDR tools for professionals and beginners alike.
The lens correction tool is a welcome addition to the 2018 version.
These types of improvements mean a lot to me as a longtime Aurora HDR user since it sends the message that Skylum is committed to developing its apps. I’ve been burned before by companies that stop iterating on software I have come to rely on, such as Apple’s Aperture editing program, but it’s clear that Skylum is not going to leave photographers high and dry.
They have been making software for over a decade and are now even releasing some of their more popular programs for Windows users as well, including Aurora HDR 2018. It’s nice to see this commitment to continual improvement from developers, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy using Skylum software so much.
Aurora HDR 2018 is open for pre-ordering now and will be available for purchase September 28th.
Other new features in Aurora HDR 2018 include:
- A Transform Tool
- Dodge & Burn Filter
- Image flip and rotate
- HDR Details Boost Tool
- Rewritten tone-map engine to deliver more natural initial results
- HDR Enhancer
- Improved HDR Structure
- Additional Blend modes
Getting started with Aurora HDR
If you are new to HDR processing and don’t know where to begin, click on Load Sample Images and you’re off to the races. The program will show you thumbnail previews of three separate pictures: one underexposed by two stops, one properly exposed, and one overexposed by two stops. When the program combines all three it will essentially give you a stunning HDR photo that you can then tweak and edit to your liking using a myriad of controls, filters, and effects.
Using your own JPEGs instead of the sample images results in a similar process, with Aurora HDR 2018 loading thumbnails of your images before you confirm that you want to proceed with combining them.
While using a tripod is ideal for creating perfect bracketed photos, sometimes horizon lines and other elements within the picture may be slightly misaligned. Click the Alignment button to have the program automatically correct for that. Additional Settings gives you options such as removing chromatic aberration and moving objects that might have changed position between each shot.
Keen dPS readers might be wondering whether Aurora works with RAW files, and thankfully they are fully supported by the program as well. You can work with one properly-exposed RAW file or use multiple bracketed RAW files to get even more room to experiment when creating your HDR images. The 2018 version includes a complete retooling of the RAW handling engine which results in improved color rendition and accuracy, which is a welcome change from previous iterations of the software.
Tools and first impressions
Once you have your pictures loaded into the main interface, creating a stunning HDR image can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. This is another aspect of Aurora HDR that I really enjoy. I have used other programs and workflows to do the same basic task of combining multiple exposures into a single image, none are as simple and yet as powerful as this program.
The interface might seem overwhelming at first but after a few minutes, I felt right at home. The non-destructive nature of the editing meant that I soon felt free to experiment with all sorts of different presets, sliders, and options without ruining anything.
From a workflow standpoint, Aurora HDR 2018 is designed to be quick, efficient, flexible, and familiar to those who have used other image editors.
When I edit photos in Lightroom I usually head straight for the sliders on the right-hand side to tweak parameters like white balance, exposure, clarity, and sharpness. Aurora HDR 2018 gives you many of those same options. However, I have found that it is more efficient to start with a preset and then edit from there, much in the same way that Lightroom allows you to click a preset such as Aged Photo, Bleach Bypass, or Antique Black and White.
Using these presets in Lightroom just applies pre-determined values to various sliders like saturation, grain, clarity, and color which you are then free to change as much as you want. Aurora HDR 2018 works in exactly the same way. Choosing a preset like Foggy Morning, Realistic Dreamy, or Sleepy Forest results in nothing more than changing the values of Tools sliders on the right-hand side of the screen which you are then free to alter as desired.
Aurora plays nicely with most other image editors on the market including Lightroom and Photoshop. You can easily use it as a plug-in which means you can do all your normal work in Lightroom, then quickly send an image over to Aurora HDR for additional editing, and save it right back to Lightroom when you’re done.
Aurora HDR presets
If you have ever used Instagram’s photo filters you will feel right at home in Aurora HDR. In a way, you can think of the program like an extraordinarily powerful version of that rather basic social sharing app.
Once your photos are loaded you can click on a preset (each of which shows a small preview of how your final image will look) and then save your photo with no additional work or hassle required. The presets are even subdivided into categories like Basic, Dramatic, Landscape, and a few that were designed with input from professional photographers like Trey Ratcliff, Captain Kimo, and Serge Ramelli.
I must admit I don’t actually use Instagram filters because I find them to be distracting and unhelpful for my own style of photography, but I rather liked using Aurora HDR’s presets even though some were a bit too over-the-top for my taste.
You can take things one step further if you like, and create your own custom presets which can also be applied to any HDR image. This has come in handy for me on several occasions when I wanted to combine options from a few existing presets, tweak the values of a preset, or just create my own from scratch.
On the right side of the interface is a list of all the various tools used by Aurora HDR to control the parameters of your image. Some of them like Color, Tone Curve, and HSL will feel right at home if you have used Lightroom, Photoshop, or other image editors as these contain the same basic sliders you would expect.
When you click on a preset at the bottom of the screen the name of the tools used by that preset are highlighted in orange, which I found to be highly useful during the editing process. Since I knew immediately which values were being changed I could then use that as a starting point for my own experimentation which often led me down a rabbit hole of creativity that I didn’t expect but always enjoyed.
The only issue I had when experimenting with presets and sliders is that the program does tend to slow down when processing your changes, though this is much less noticeable in the 2018 version. While you still get a preview of what your edits will look like I did encounter several times when the “Image Processing…” alert would show up in the lower-left corner a bit more often than I would have liked.
Before and after mode
As you make changes, whether through presets or changing the values in individual Tools sliders, you can easily see how your work is progressing by using the Before/After view which I found to be handy. Clicking on this option gives you a vertical bar that you can slide back and forth to reveal the original image on one side and your changes on the other. You can also hold the \ key to quickly see the complete original and then release it to return to the current version with your edits.
Before and After slider in action showing how your edits are affecting the image.
It’s this sort of editor-centric workflow design that I really appreciated about Aurora HDR 2018. It makes the whole process of creating and editing an HDR image as straightforward as possible and easy to understand. I have used some programs where I felt hopelessly lost as if I had to change my own mindset and wrap my head around how the program wanted me to function.
With Aurora HDR it feels like the program was designed to meet my needs and my style. I never had one of those all-too-common moments of panic when I couldn’t remember where a critical button or tool was located or figure out how to replicate something I did a week ago.
Professional features and masking
Once you dig deeper into Aurora HDR 2018 you will find tools that appeal to even highly demanding artists who want precision control over their creations. A collection of edits such as applying a preset and then tweaking additional Tools sliders can be saved as a Layer, and then additional Layers can be added on top of it similar to Photoshop.
Masks can also be used on layers. You can even apply them with a brush tool which I found extraordinarily useful if there was a preset or set of edits that I just wanted to apply to a single portion of an image. If you want to get really specific with your editing you can even apply masks based on ten discrete levels of luminosity (luminosity mask), which means your adjustments will be implemented only on the brightest or darkest portions of the image instead.
Layer masks can also be applied as radial or linear gradients which can be very useful depending on the type of HDR image you are creating. And just like Photoshop and other image editors, your changes are non-destructive so you can revert back to any editing state any time you choose. You can also return to your edits if you save your file in the native Aurora HDR format before exporting to JPG, TIFF, or another file type.
New in Aurora HDR 2018 you can also change the layer blend mode. Here it is applied to a layer that is applying selective darkening and lightening to specific areas of the image using the new Dodging and Burning Tool.
The Dodge and Burn Tool has been used to lighten the little cottage and bridge and part of the hill, and to darken the sky and parts of the reflection in the water.
Use the little Eye Icon to turn the effect on and off to see a Before and After.
New in Aurora HDR 2018 – Blend Modes! The default is Normal. Notice with this image the colors have become more saturated after dodging and burning.
By switching to Luminosity Blend Mode the colors are preserved and appear more natural.
One final arrow in Aurora HDR’s rather considerable quiver, which I briefly mentioned earlier, is the ability to quickly apply presets and other defined values to a batch of images. This saves you an enormous amount of time if you have dozens or even hundreds of photos that you want to edit at the same time, using the program’s built-in presets or your own custom ones.
I do wish the Batch Processing option allowed users to specify parameters on a tool-by-tool basis to combine presets with other options like Structure and HDR Denoise, but the workaround is to create your own custom preset and just apply that in Batch mode. Of course, this method doesn’t give you the sort of fine-grain control you would get from editing each HDR image individually, but the trade-off can be worth it in terms of overall time saved if you have a large number of images.
Conclusion and rating
During my time using Aurora HDR I was impressed with the simplicity of its interface as well as the sheer depth of HDR tools at my disposal. Skylum has clearly invested a great deal of time creating and refining Aurora HDR to appeal to demanding professionals and curious hobbyists alike. Having used previous versions of this program I found this iteration to be a welcome refinement in many areas.
In terms of value, it’s a phenomenal piece of software that doesn’t require a subscription and will serve HDR photographers very well. The one quibble I still have with Aurora HDR 2018 is that it’s a bit on the slow side when implementing some presets and manipulating certain sliders. But that was a minor issue with an otherwise stellar program.
Aurora HDR 2018 isn’t for everyone, and unless you specifically work with HDR images you might be frustrated that it doesn’t have features like Dehaze and Red-Eye Removal that you may be accustomed to using in other image editors. But then, it doesn’t claim to be an all-in-one editing program and instead abides by the age-old mantra of, “Do one thing, and do it well.” If HDR photography is what you’re into, then Aurora HDR will serve you very well indeed.