Today we are going to take a look at a new HDR software called Aurora HDR. This is our first software review and what we are going to do is take a look at the interface, how it functions and demonstrate what this software does using a couple of images.
Before we go deeply into the software itself, let’s start with a quick background about the company behind Aurora HDR.
Macphun, the company that makes the Aurora HDR and dozens of other photography related applications and software, was founded by two college students almost 10 years ago and for years it was mostly known for creating all sorts of award-winning Mac and iOS apps and software.
Aurora HDR is part of a big move by the company to create a larger user base with PC software as well which made the company change its name and it will now be called SKYLUM.
The new Aurora HDR 2018 version is the first MAC and PC iteration of the software and it brings quite a few updates and improvements as well.
Let’s start by taking a look at the interface of the Aurora HDR software. This isn’t going to be a full tutorial or anything of that sort – Macphun (or actually SKYLUM now) has many great educational videos on their site which you might want to check out if this is what you are looking for.
Instead, this will be our subjective look at what this piece of software can do, what it does well and where it might still need to improve.
After installing the software (we already had one major update by the way which is nice), you can either drag images onto the software or open it and choose images to open and create an HDR. Do note that you don’t have two use two or more images – you can just as easily work on a single image using the software although you won’t be getting any dynamic range boost this way.
Powerful yet simple to learn and use – Aurora HDR 2018
Do note that creating an HDR from several images does take a bit of time. We did a test with 5 RAW images and it took just over 1 min (7 images which is what we used into the video above took a bit more) to merge all of them together – this might actually be a slight improvement over what the software did when it was first released and we hope to see even better performance in the future.
Looking at the interface when you just open the software you are greeted with a pretty clean arrangement – you have all the basic menus on the top including file, edit, layers, filters, tools etc. on the top.
Just below you have another row with a few options, including opening a new image, from what we understand (and we might be missing something here), this software can only work on a single HDR image at any given time (there is also no option to close the image and open a new one although you can open a new image and it will make the existing one disappear which is kind of strange), but you can open several instances of the software to work on a number of images simultaneously. We actually prefer Adobe’s method as it is implemented in Photoshop for example where you have different tabs inside the software for different images and maybe this is something worth changing in a future update of the software.
On the same row, you also have an option to zoom in which also work with the mouse scroll as you would expect and two tools for comparing your edit to the original – the eye and the before/after tool which we actually prefer. It would be nice if there was a tool for comparing before and after just for the last change you made.
Next, you have the undo and history. The history option is a bit strange and needs some more developing in our view – the best way to implement this option will be to allow you to control each change – keep/remove it or go back any number of steps in one go – this doesn’t seem possible at this point.
Before and after – a large difference
Next, you have an interesting crop tool with all sorts of custom aspect ratio options – one thing which we found a bit odd is that you can only rotate the image 45 degrees to each side – this should probably be fixed to allow for full rotation.
On the right you have the preset overlay toggle and the layers and filters menu – we shall talk about them and what they include in a second but the last option on this bar is the upload which allows you to export or share your images quickly – more share options beyond Facebook and Twitter would probably be appreciated.
So let’s do a quick test run of the software. We shall start with an image we took in Berlin – we did 7 different exposures of this image going from -3EV up to +3EV. Opening this up takes just over one and a half minutes with our 6 core CPU, 32GB of RAM and fast SSD drive machine.
Even without doing anything this image looks pretty decent, especially the sky, but we wanted to see what we can do to make it look even more interesting.
We started by looking at some of the pre-existing presets – you can choose between different categories or download more. Staring with architecture and right off the bet you see that some of these look very cool while others might be a bit too much – at least for our taste – but you can very easily control the amount of the effect the preset will have on your image so if something is too strong just go down until it looks fine.
There are really dozens of presets and finding the ones you like can take time – luckily you can mark your favorite ones and the next time you edit an image you can go back to those directly – really cool.
One thing that could use improvement in the presets interface is the slider below – it is way too thin and a bit hard to drag – it should be made thicker and put above the presets and we would also add arrows on the sides to help you navigate more quickly.
Starting with an existing preset that you like and than applying filters to tweak it to your liking can be a great way to start – surly for beginners but even for more advanced users who want to move more quickly, this can be a good method especially since you can save your own preset filter – although at the moment we didn’t find any way of deleting them.
The HDR look – don’t over do it…
However for the moment and for demonstration purposes, let’s close the preset panel, make our image larger and focus our attention on the filters panel on the right. You have almost 15 submenus with dozens of options – we won’t go over all of them but we can play with a few to see what they can do.
The HDR basic menu will give you the normal temperature/tint exposure and contrast options that you have on almost any image editing software but it also has the HDR enhance option which makes your image look much more alive and at least on the image we worked on even at 100% it still looked relatively natural.
The smart tone seems to brighten or darken the image and with our image, we just played with the shadows just a tiny bit.
Next, it could be a good idea to add just a bit of vibrance to our image and color contrast which actually worked very nice – our advice though – never overdo colors unless this is your original intention.
Now we are getting into the really interesting stuff. Under the HDR structure we can add or subtract from the HDR look of the image – adding too much looks very artificial, subtracting will make the image look much softer and smoother. You can also add softness manually or boost the whole HDR for a super artificial look.
Playing with the HDR-microstructure actually proves useful and maybe more subtle – you can see the effect if you zoom in a bit. Next, we have the denoise but for our particular image, it did more harm than good.
Image radiance also doesn’t seem to play very nice with our image making everything washed out but you can add vividness and it might look a bit better.
The polarizing filter effect is really cool and we are not sure something similar exist in Adobe software at the moment – do note that on some images – like the one we used, it will make chromatic aberrations much more noticeable and we didn’t find any specific build in tool to address that – something that you can find on both Lightroom and Photoshop (we asked Macphun about that).
Next, you have a lot of control over how many HDR details you can add to the image – in this case, some small details enhancement seemed to work well (just zoom in to see the effect).
You can add a glow to your image – in our test image, it looks very much like the image radiance so we just left this option off.
For images where you want to apply some changes only to one of the sides, you have specific tuning options – this is nice for landscape images with skies and/or water but it isn’t really relevant for this image in particular.
Next, you have your tone curve with options to play with specific colors – we just added an ever so small s-curve here. It would have been nice if there was an option to control the percentage by which the filter is applied and on the more complex filters turn on or off each particular option to see how it affects the image.
Next, we have two sets of advanced color filters with lots of options to play with specific colors and tones – I am going to leave these as they are for this image.
The two last filters are the dodge and burn and vignette. The burn or lighten tool can be used to make some of the darker patches in this image a bit brighter – we did notice that some of the shortcut buttons that we are used to from Adobe software such as the increase and decrease brush size (the , the hand tool when using other tools to move when zoomed in and the redo shortcuts) do not work – it would be nice if this will be fixed in the future.
Now we can finally see our image before and after – we see quite a huge difference – do note that the before image seems to be one of the original images before the software combined the different shots which by itself had a bit impact – it would be nice if you can also go back to the first combined HDR easily and compare with your edit.
There are of course more features and functions that you can work with such as lens correction as well as working with masks and layers but for a good basic demonstration, this should be enough to give you an understanding of what this software can and can’t do.
We have to admit that we are really pleasantly surprised by this software. We normally do all of our work in Photoshop and although you can do HDR in Photoshop and have all of the powerful Adobe tools at your disposal, if you are serious about shooting images with higher dynamic range – architecture, landscape etc. and want to streamline your work we would highly recommend that you consider Aurora HDR 2018.
It is not as if making HDR images in Photoshop is that difficult, but it tends to be something that we postpone because it can be a lot of work and a bit tedious at times. We shot the image that we just processed for this video in 2015 along with many other bracketed shots in Berlin but we never found the time or energy to process them in Photoshop. With Aurora, the whole process is a lot easier and even a bit fun – which makes the chances of us processing all these HDR shots much more likely – and after all isn’t that what it is all about?
As for pricing, when Aurora HDR 2018 was first announced this September there was a pre-order price of $89 but it ended and the official price now is $99. Luckily Macphun was kind enough to give LensVid viewers the same pre-order discount (just use this link and before you pay, use this promo code LENSVID).
So what do we think after using this software for well over a month? our answer is this – if you just happen to shoot a bracketed shot here and there and have a different editing solution this might be more than you need, but if you are even a little bit serious about those landscape or architectural shots – Aurora HDR 2018 is really going to save you time and open new creative possibilities for you, and hey – we no longer have any excuses not to process all those HDR shots we took in Berlin.
Quick update: After we finished this review we had a talk with Macphun and asked them about some of our findings – apparently they are fully aware of almost all of them and most of the smaller things already exist in the Mac version (full image rotation, shortcut keys, ability to close an image as well as more share options on social networks). The Windows version which is what we have been using for this review will receive all of these updates and more – hopefully in the near future (as we have noted Macphun already released one major update since we installed the software). One final note – apparently there is a Chromatic Aberration removal tool (we were not aware of this), you can find it in the lens correction options.
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