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Aurora HDR Professional Review. Trey and Friends Bring the Fun.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is like Taylor Swifts music; a lot of people claim to hate it, but truth be told everyone likes it. Some people, like Trey Ratcliff, fully embrace the dreamy glow and punched-up shadows of HDR while others openly bash the technique but dabble in it secretly.

Theres no question that the process of creating HDR images has been abused, weve all seen the Velvet Elvis images. Hyper-saturated colors, noisy shadows and smudgy haloes have festooned many shots, but beyond the horrors of over-cooked HDR lie masterful works with rich details and compelling tones. Ratcliff and the engineers at Macphun Software have been working to bring photographers a new HDR processing tool that promises to make high-quality HDR processing easy.

I have worked with Trey for over a year in his online educational effort thearcanum.com, and through my connections with him was given early access to his latest brainchild, Aurora HDR Professional. I’ve been cranking dozens of images through the application for several days and now Aurora HDR and Aurora HDR Professional are available to everyone.

Aurora Card
Macphun worked for over a year with trey Ratcliff to develop Aurora HDR.

Ratcliffs photography DNA is infused throughout the application. As with other HDR processing apps before it like Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro, Aurora can be used as a stand-alone program or in tandem with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as a plug-in. What Ratcliff and Macphun have endeavored to do with Aurora is deliver a one stop shop where we can process individual raw files or merge multiple files into HDR composites and export them directly to social media or wherever our fancy dictates.

This is a popular idea these days as software developers who cut their teeth as add-ons to Lightroom and Photoshop are racing to cash in on the increasingly-fervent crowd of creatives eager to escape the subscription based model of Adobe Creative Cloud. To be clear, Aurora is designed to be BOTH a stand-alone app and a plug-in, which should prove appealing to both sides of the Adobe CC divide.

I am a CC subscriber, and I think Lightroom and Photoshop are the gold standard of photography processing. I see Lightroom as the central hub in my digital workflow. I keep my expansive catalog of images organized there, and Lightroom does 90% of my processing work so its nice to have almost everything I need under one roof. If I decide to crush some pixels and begin combining images into panoramas, composites or HDRs, I like how Lightroom allows an easy back-and-forth workflow. In short, Im not one of the people waving a pitchfork and torch at Adobe. For me, Aurora HDR Pro is best utilized as a Lightroom plug-in. Lets dig in and see how Aurora handles multiple-image and single-image HDR processing.

Stack ‘Em Up

Redwoods Survey
Six bracketed raw files cover the range of light from the foggy sky to the deeply-shadowed Redwood trunks.

With traditional HDR processing a series of bracketed images across a broad range of exposures is captured to cover the full range of light in a scene. When the first HDR processors hit the market, digital cameras were fairly limited in their ability to capture large dynamic range, so scenes with 10 to 20 stops of range were shot at three or more images. With todays cameras resolving dynamic range of up to 15 stops, fewer shots are needed. Even so, landscape photographers routinely find themselves facing massive ranges of light. In the screen shot above there are six images I captured in the redwoods of Northern California. Forests are places where the differences in exposure between shadows and highlights can be extreme. On this foggy day I began my brackets to catch the brightest part of the scene on the very cusp of blowing out. This shot was made on my Canon 5D Mark III with the Canon EF 11-24 f/4L lens at 160 ISO, f/20 and 1/60 of a second. On the other end of the six-shot series I exposed for the deepest shadows at ISO 160, f/20 and .6 seconds. Ill use these six frames to explore Auroras processing prowess and when all is said and done I will compare the outcome to an HDR image created within Lightroom CC.

Stand-Alone or Plug-In?

aurora ak screenAurora HDR will launch as a stand-alone app for those who prefer to work directly with base files. Once fired up, the program will ask for bracketed files, but it will happily open a single image. With files selected, Aurora will display a thumbnail grid of the selected images and offer alignment, ghost removal and chromatic aberration reduction options. When activated within Lightroom as a plug-in, Aurora kicks into gear with the same thumbnail confirmation window as the stand-alone option. From there the workflow is the same as described above.

I prefer the Lightroom plug-in route as I catalog all of my raw files within Lightroom. Its worth mentioning that Aurora HDR supports all of the common raw formats out there today, but when you move to work on those raws via Lightroom, Aurora forces the generation of TIFF files, (just like every other LR plug-in Ive used). At first I was disappointed with this discovery. Like many photographers, I prefer to work on the raw file in hopes of retaining greater breadth of tonality and higher image quality.

As a test, I opened my six redwood brackets as raw files in the stand-along app and was puzzled to see the resulting image render with noticeably more noise and muddy tones compared to the TIFF-based image created from Lightroom. I tried this image quality comparison with Canon CR2 raw files and Sony ARW raws with similar results. Aurora produced superior images from the Lightroom-based TIFF files than the raw files. I suspect Macphuns raw processing engine is to blame. I am working on a pre-release copy of the software so there is the possibility that things will improve with the public release.

Presets Galore

Raw vs. TIFF issues aside, I pressed on with the TIFF-based composite in Aurora and scrolled through the preset thumbnails along the bottom edge of the workspace. The default is simply called Realistic and it is just that. My image looked like a well-balanced exposure with no evidence of HDR tone-mapping. The highlights looked clean and bright but not blow out and the shadows only appeared crushed in the very deepest of crevices in the massive Redwood trees bark. The colors appeared appropriately muted for the scene and there were no obvious haloes, ghosts, or chromatic aberrations.

I could have stopped right there and saved the image back into Lightroom for processing there, but Trey and company didn’t work for over a year so I could play it safe so I scrolled right toward the more artistically-liberal presets. Aurora HDR groups presets into groups which can be displayed in the thumbnail strip or not. I found the groups contained sensible presets with simple names and it made hunting for the best look easier.

Aurora HDR Professional buyers will also receive Treys presets which depart wildly from the conservative processing of the stock presets. Treys naming conventions are also much more colorful with such offerings as When in Venice, Party in My HDR Pants, Black Truffle Salt and First Time I Did Mushrooms. Treys collection contains 11 presets and each brings a decidedly dramatic tone to the processing.

Some will only work for bombastic compositions, but many are great starting places for further tweaking. Across all of the presets in the app, I found several to be very compelling, and Aurora allows users to compile a list of favorite presets. There is also a User category for presets users create themselves. This option makes batch processing of similar images a snap.

Presets WindowStay Buttoned Up or Go Crazy?

With Auroras wide array of presets it is possible to create realistic or surrealistic HDR composites with a single click, and one could be forgiven for leaving it there as the presets are really solid and cover a multitude of styles. I am sure there will be users who assemble their HDR fracked images in Aurora, select a preset and immediately export the composite back to Lightroom, but doing so is to ignore the impressive array of adjustment sliders stacked on the right of the workspace.

Its in the sliders that the precision controls reside that tailor the aesthetic of the final image. Like just about any other HDR processing program available today, Auroras presets are merely the recorded settings of all of the adjustment options in the program. As soon as a preset is selected, the sliders all move to display the recipe of the preset. I find the presets a quick and fun way to explore various looks without having to make dozens of adjustments myself. Once I find a preset that is close to the look I am gunning for, I move to the sliders to tweak and fine tune the image to my hearts content.

For experienced creators who have used Photomatix, Nik, or any of the other HDR software this process of import – preset – adjust – export is nothing new. Where Macphun and Aurora voyage beyond the pale is in the sheer number of adjustment modules and the granular control granted therein. In past HDR processing applications it was usually necessary to do part of the workload in Lightroom or Photoshop before or after the HDR image was generated in the dedicated software. Aurora is the first program I have used where I feel confident to take a set of raw images and fully merge and process them into a finished product. As I mentioned before, I am still a fan of Lightroom, but when I engage Aurora there are few things Lightroom does better when it comes to processing.

Lightroom and Aurora Sitting in a Tree…

After using Aurora HDR Pro for several days I have settled on a workflow that combines the strengths of Lightroom and Aurora. Lightroom is my organizational hub therefore I maintain all of my raw files in my Lightroom catalog.

  1. When it comes to merging HDR brackets, I select the batch of raw images in Lightroom and using the Develop Module I apply lens corrections, set white balance, and apply sharpening to one of the images and then sync those settings across all of the bracketed images.
  2. Once all of the files are synced I select Edit in Aurora HDR Pro and Lightroom generates TIFF files of the raw images.
  3. Aurora HDR starts up and the import dialog window displays the selected files.
  4. If alignment or deghosting is needed, I click those boxes but I refrain from using the chromatic aberration reduction option as that was done in LR.
  5. When Aurora is done chewing on the files the workspace opens with the combined files displayed with the default preset active.
  6. From there I massage the image in Aurora and then save it back into Lightroom using the automated shortcut within Aurora.
  7. The processed file pops into my catalog right alongside the original raw files and the world spins on.

The entire workflow is quite simple and elegant. Only Lightrooms internal HDR engine makes the act of merging HDR brackets simpler. That begs the question, if Lightroom is faster and easier than Aurora, why should you bother?

Lightroom’s HDR Engine vs. Aurora HDR Pro

Editor’s Note: Lightroom creates 16-bit floating point file when merging to HDR while other HDR applications make 32-bit files which have wider dynamic range. A typical raw file is 8, 10, or 12-bits to start.

When Adobe brought the HDR merge function to Lightroom, those of us who blended our HDR images in Photoshop or in another external editor found a reason to celebrate. I recall rushing to the updated Lightroom with a handful of bracketed images which I sent through the new merge engine. The resulting DNG file was indeed a high dynamic range image, but the Lightroom method gave us little more than a clean raw file which needed a lot of wrangling to extract the magic that Photomatix and other dedicated HDR apps seem to be able to wring from the files. I consider the Lightroom HDR option sensible and conservative. If it were a person it would be the serious guy with a knack for doing just enough to get the job done. He wouldn’t be the one to invite to any parties, thats for sure. Aurora HDR will keep things on the straight and narrow if that is what you desire, but when its time to kick up the jams, itll bring the fun.

Brining the Fun

MasonMarsh (1 of 1)
It’s fun to blast away at hyper-saturated and gratuitously-tone mapped landscapes. Here is Oregon’s Smith Rocks processed in Aurora HDR pro.

If you ask Trey Ratcliff why he enjoys creating fanciful HDR images, hell undoubtedly tell you that its fun. I can imagine when he sat down with the crew at Macphun the word fun came up a lot. I don’t usually consider processing photos as fun work, but when I engage in making HDR composites, I find the process entertaining. For me Lightroom is the place where I work to entice the truth in my images. When it comes to rendering skin tones and resolving fine textures I really appreciate Lightrooms dedication to professional workflow. Say what you will about Adobes recent tangents into more newbie-friendly features like that disastrous import snafu, when it comes to getting stuff done, I lean on the Creative Cloud. When I want to let my creative hair down and let my freak flag fly, I look to programs like Aurora HDR.

But HDR isn’t just for smacking down highlights and pulling up shadows. Theres a reason combining bracketed images into high dynamic range compositions has evolved to this point: this stuff makes capturing very challenging lighting manageable. Just about every genre of photography has a need for HDR imaging, so it pays to have tools up to the task. Anyone who has tried to make realistic real estate images or stunning landscapes knows the value of gentle HDR technique, but prior to Aurora HDR and a small handful of other tone mapping programs, merging multiple frames to extend dynamic range was relegated to those who could execute luminosity masks, hand-blend layers and otherwise work magic in Photoshop. While software like Aurora HDR won’t handle every HDR situation with the same dexterity as an skilled and experienced retoucher, it will enable more photographers to create compelling images and as fun as that is, its serious business.

Kick the Tires and Light the Fires

So lets get back to my bracketed set of Redwood images. I prepared the raw Canon files in Lightroom CC by applying chromatic aberration correction, syncing white balance, and sharpening. When I send them on to Aurora, the six TIFF files are generated,(at this point I have three choices as to which types of files I : TIFF, PSD or JPEG. Aurora will accept virtually any common image file type, but I prefer TIFF files in ProPhoto RGB, 16 bits, 300 dpi and no compression). When Aurora gets the six files, this window appears:

Aurora Import Window
Aurora’s import dialog box showing my six bracketed files.

I have already completed the CA reduction, and in this case the six images were shot from a stable tripod with no moving subjects so I can leave all three boxes unchecked and let things churn. When the files have been merged the workspace will open with my composite displayed in all of its HDR glory.

Aurora Default View Window
Aurora’s workspace is neatly arranged in a way that will be familiar to most.

Along the bottom is the preset preview filmstrip. This strip can be tailored to show select types of presets (basic, landscape, interior, architecture, dramatic and Trey’s creations). As mentioned before, users can build their own presets and save them to the strip as well. Presets can be favorited by clicking on a small star in the top right corner of each thumbnail. For users who end up with hundreds of presets, this handy features will keep the thumbnail strip organized. The main workspace window displays the merged HDR image and controls for zooming in and out are top center with more buttons for import and export to the left and before and after comparison to the right. The upper right corner is home to the minimalistic toolbar of Aurora. There you will find buttons to select cropping (scissors), global adjustments (hand), local adjustments (brush), layers and histogram toggles. It’s worth mentioning that Aurora also has drop-down menus at the very top of the screen, but the vast majority of those options have buttons down in the workspace.

Panel TopFor my Redwoods shot I chose to begin with the Creative Drama preset, which ironically brings a fairly conservative look to the image. Because I’m well trained from years of Lightroom use, I will begin my tweaking at the top of the adjustments column on the right side of the screen. Below the detailed histogram is the layers module. I will get to layers later, so ignore that for right now.

The Tools module is where the heavy lifting happens. By default the panels are all expanded with the exception of the first panel, Tone Mapping. In this panel lie three sliders, Spectrum, Spot Lighting, and Final Touches. Each of these sliders controls some of the fundamental functions of the HDR processing engine. Increasing Spectrum will broaden the range of the overall image while pushing on the other two impact how the HDR “look” is applied. In my experiments with these sliders I have found that even the full application (100%) of each seems to effect the image very little. To toggle the panels effect on the image on and off, there is a small orange dot at the top of each panel. Think of it as an on/off LED light. When the cursor passes over the top of each panel a small “recycling” icon appears. When clicked it resets all sliders to the center.

The Tone panel should be familiar for Lightroom users. We get the Highlights, Midtones, Shadows, Whites, Blacks and Contrast sliders we know and love, with one new friend, the mysterious “Smart Tone” slider. I asked Trey about this one and he said it’s similar to the Exposure slider in Lightroom, only it’s impact is seen across a broader range of exposures. It’s also a “smart” slider, so there’s some of that magic MacPhun fairy dust at work in there. In my tests I found the Smart Tone slider is the one to start with. Taking it to +30 to +50 really brings the image to life. As you can see in my Redwoods shot, the preset I chose put the Smart Tone at +38 with -60 going to Highlights and -19 going to Blacks. All other sliders got modest upward bumps. I’m happy with the settings made by the preset here so I’ll move down to the Structure panel.

Structure is where the HDR-ness is managed. Clarity is familiar and works much like the Lightroom version, only stronger. +26 is pretty crunchy. HDR Look is a sub-panel that controls the severity of the tone mapping applied to the composite. Cranking it up intensifies the exaggerated appearance of contrasting tones. Softness smoothes the borders between contrasting tones while boost intensifies the contrast itself. With these panels, it’s best to not overthink things, just push and pull sliders until the desired look is achieved. HDR Detail further refines the HDR look, but at the cost of increased noise. The Softness slider helps mitigate some of the noise, but at higher levels it will still be very noisy.

The HDR Denoise Module contains the smoothing tools that will tame much of the mess the Structure Module makes. Applying HDR Denoise globally will result in a very soft image, so this panel is best saved for local application via Layers and the brush tool.

Image Radiance is difficult to describe. By increasing the amount, the image will appear darker but areas of light will begin to take on a subtle glow. By increasing smoothness the radiance will become more natural-looking. Brightness will recover the shadows darkened in the application of Radiance. I find this panel is wonderful for imparting a warmth to landscapes and architecture shots. By increasing the Smart Colorize slider, the warmth can be tempered or intensified. The Warmth slider, of course, allows control of the radiance temperature. For my Redwood image, I brought Radiance up to +58, Smoothness to +39 and Brightness to +22. Smart Colorize pumped up the saturation by +35 and -9 on Warmth gave the fog in the shot a cool luster.

Panels MiddleThe Color Panel is standard fare. Lightroom users will understand the Saturation, Vibrance, Temperature and Tint sliders. The Color Contrast slider seems to enhance the subtle boundaries between contrasting colors. All of these sliders seem supercharged; small movements make big changes. In my photo I pulled back Saturation and Vibrance to mellow the color intensified in the Radiance panel.

The Details Panel is a new take on sharpening. Instead of the Amount, Radius and Detail sliders of Lightroom we get sliders dedicated to Small, Medium and Large detail enhancements that can be applied globally or just to image highlights and shadows. Masking is given a more general treatment here. I find this approach makes sense in HDR images where shadow detail enhancements may bring too much noise and highlight sharpening may be just the ticket.

Glow is similar to the Radiance panel, but the effect is much more intense and less refined. As with Radiance there are sliders for Amount, Smoothness and Brightness. This panel is best for night cityscapes and shots where a soft ethereal glow is desired. Used elsewhere it’s a big velvet hammer that reminds me of the old Vaseline on the lens soft focus trick.

Top & Bottom Lightning is an innovative approach to the graduated ND filter in Lightroom. In the Tonality sub-panel the brightness of the top and bottom of the frame can be adjusted. The Blend slider controls the spread of the gradient. In the Orientation sub-panel the position (Shift) and angle (Rotation) of the gradient can be changed. As these sliders are moved, the gradient appears on the image to guide placement.

To accomplish multiple gradient filters in Aurora, a layer must be created for each filter. This is pretty cumbersome compared to the elegant approach of Lightroom’s gradient tool. In the layers-based methodology of Aurora’s gradient adjustments, however, users can apply just about any adjustment, mask, blend and texture with the tool. This is a powerful option for those who enjoy using the gradient tool. I’d like to see future releases bring the radial local adjustment tool from Lightroom to the layers game in Aurora. Big fun.

Panel Lower

The Tone Curve panel is another familiar face. For my image I’ve pulled the midtowns down slightly to mellow the bark of the trees. In this panel users can create tone curves for each color channel or stick with a global RGB curve.

The Color Filter panel brings the Hue Saturation and Luminance panel from Lightroom but somewhere along the line Hue fell off. I love using the HST panel in LR, so this is a welcome tool here. For my Redwoods I upped the red, yellow and green saturation slightly while reigning in the blue and cyan cast in the fog.

In the Color Toning panel we find the worlds of split toning and cross-processing colliding. Users can select preset cross-processing combos or manually apply split toning exactly how it’s done in Lightroom. I like using split toning in many of my sunset seascape shots, but for forest scenes I find the look a little harsh, so I’m leaving all of these sliders idle.

The final panel is for Vignette. I’m guilty of tossing vignettes on almost all of my images, and Lightroom’s vignette tool makes it easy to do so. Aurora’s offering provides Amount, Size, Roundness, Feather and Inner Light sliders. That last one is special. In typical vignettes, the entire image takes a brightness hit even though the idea is to only shade the corners. With Inner Light, Aurora allows us to bring the center back up. The center can also be repositioned off-center, which brings a touch of the radial local adjustment tool to the party.

Vignette Panel

For my Redwood image I am foregoing the vignette because the delicious fog at the top corners of the shot will look muddy if I apply a vignette. The bottom of the frame has a nice natural vignette, so I’m good. And with that I have reached the bottom of the adjustments column. At this point, it’s time to create some layers and make localized adjustments with brushes.

Layers are for Players

If Aurora HDR came with only the features I’ve introduced so far, it would be a powerful HDR processor with solid tools and a friendly interface. I dare say it would be worth the money, but bring the ability to generate layers and masks and Boy Howdy things are getting interesting now!

For those who have watched Trey Ratcliff work his HDR magic in his video tutorials, the use of layers in his workflow is the obvious X factor. Before Aurora, Trey would use Photomatix or some other HDR processor to create images that he would bring into Photoshop and hand blend with the original exposures. His workflow was daunting and intimidating, but incredibly effective at allowing him to create breathtaking landscapes and cityscapes where HDR toning was an ingredient, not the entire dish. It makes sense that Trey would push for a layers-capable application in Aurora. With layers, everything changes.

The Layers Module in Aurora looks simple and limited at first glance. There’s just a plus button, a minus button, Opacity menu, Blending mode menu, and the mystery drop-down button where the unicorns dance.

Layers Menu
The Layers Panel in Aurora HDR houses a powerful drop-down menu where users can select a plethora of options.

The plus button creates a nameable menu which can hold a copy of the composite image, a custom texture, or any of the source files used to generate the HDR composite. If a copy of the original image is selected, all of the sliders are reset to null and all of the presets are available for use. At this point the sky is the limit. With my Redwood image, I could create a layer with an entirely new look and feel and then use one of the blending modes to apply it to the underlying layer. Photoshop users should be salivating at this point! As cool as that option is, I think the brush tool takes this layer thing to higher levels of hipness. Users can build a layer with any of the settings in the app and then brush the portions of the image onto the underlaying layer. As soon as the brush is selected and clicked, the masking begins. To enhance the fogginess of the sky in my image, I created a new layer based on the original image and cranked up the HDR Denoise slider, Image Radiance and Glow panels. I then selected the brush tool and went to town painting in my fog. A quick click on the view mask button in the top left corner of the workspace shows me my mask.

Masking
Red sky in the morning, masking isn’t boring! This is the mask view showing the extent of my fog layer.

Return to Sender

Export WindowOther layers could be created using the HDR composite or the source images, but my Redwood shot is right where I want it so it’s time to send it back to Lightroom. If I was ready to share my image on social media, Aurora has provisions for exporting directly to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Smugmug. Notable missing options include Instagram, 500px, Google + and Ello. Perhaps future releases will fill out the roster.

Along with the social networks, export options also include email, messaging, iPhoto, Aperture, Photos, PS Elements, Photoshop and Lightroom. MacPhun isn’t new to the imaging game so it makes sense that they include their Creative Kit apps here. Interestingly enough, clicking on one of the MacPhun app icons will take you to the App Store if you don’t own the software yet. The seamless and simple workflow is refreshing.

My image is headed to Lightroom, so I click the LR icon and in a few moments the Lightroom Import window appears and all I have to do is select the image and click “Import” to send it into the catalog next to the original files.

Aurora HDR Pro vs. Lightroom CC HDR Merge

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t compare the results of my session in Aurora HDR Pro with the HDR merge function in Lightroom CC. To process the images in LRCC, I selected all six raw files(with the same adjustments I made for the Aurora merge), and sent them to the built-in HDR merge engine. Here’s the image fresh from the merge:

LRCC HDR Basic

To finish the processing in Lightroom, I further spread the highlight and shadows sliders, pumped up the saturation for red, orange, yellow and green and hand dodged the large trunk to bring out some of the finer details. I applied some vibrancy and exported the image. Here it is below, along with the final Aurora HDR Pro image.

MasonMarsh (1 of 1)-4
The Lightroom CC (2015.3) HDR image, created entirely within Lightroom.
MasonMarsh (1 of 1)-3
The Aurora HDR Pro image, prepped in Lightroom CC and processed in Aurora.

Conclusions

A strong case could be made that the Lightroom-generated HDR is just fine, because I think it is. I’m actually very happy with it, but the Aurora version has more panache. For photographers looking for clean and clear, realistic-looking HDR images, Lightroom is an excellent option. For people looking for more creative options, Aurora’s excellent presets, powerful adjustment tools, and layers-based workflow will open doors. For $100, I think Aurora is a great deal, (if you use a Mac).

There’s No PC Version? What the What?!?

It’s a common comment and MacPhun, (get the name?) has heard the cries of the Windows crowd. There is a PC version in the works, but for the time being Aurora HDR is Mac only.

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