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Bringing depth to a long exposure with Aurora HDR 2019

Back in August, I went out to the lakeshore — Grand Haven, MI to be exact — with hopes to photograph the waves and sunset coming in. It was at the tail end of a wind storm that lasted a few days, and this was my second trip out to the lakeshore to capture it.

But that night, the waves were a bit more subdued. And, just my luck, it started to get really hazy. My goal of photographing the Grand Haven lighthouse with the sunset in the background wasn’t meant to be. So I decided to change my approach.

I was out photographing with Olympus Visionary Jamie MacDonald, and a few other photographers. We explored the beach and came across a rather large log. It made for a perfect foreground element, so I decided to focus on that, and just capture it and the water, making for quite the calming scene. As the waves were no longer massive, I decided to shoot a long exposure with a 3-stop ND filter. I ended up liking this photograph the most, but of course, there was quite a bit wrong with it. For one, it was way too dark. The shadows on the log made any detail non-existent. And the color in the sky was rather “blah.”

Before any adjustments were made. 60-second exposure, f/8 aperture and ISO 200. Shot with a 3-stop ND filter.

So I decided to bring it into Aurora HDR 2019, knowing I could boost the details in the log and bring some life into the sky.

Results with the Quantum HDR Engine

Using the plugin for Lightroom Classic, I was easily able to bring the image into Aurora and start making adjustments. And out of the box, without any work done on my end, I was rather pleased with the results that Aurora’s Quantum HDR Engine made to my image. I could now see some of the detail in the log, and the overall scene was brightened up.

Comparing the before and after photos, you can really see what a difference that the Quantum HDR Engine made, even though it was dealing with a single image. While not perfect, it really boosted the photo and was a great starting point.

Getting the overall look and feel narrowed down

When I edit my photos, I like to go in a certain order. For me, this means starting with the basics. Adjusting exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks and clarity. I also usually bump up the saturation and vibrance just a tad — enough to make a punch but still look realistic.

It’s why the HDR Basic filter is so powerful. It gives me all the same sliders as a RAW editor like Lightroom and Luminar, with instant results.

I also increased the Smart Tone slider, which helped to bring out additional colors in the image.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there were some problems with this scene. Even after my adjustments, the sky looks pretty flat, and is too bright. And while I like the brightness of the log, I don’t like the brightness in the sand, and some of the spots in the sand that were brought out.

One of my favorite tools to use in Aurora is the Adjustable Gradient filter. Using this, I’m able to bring down the exposure of the sky and add some more color to it.

But I wanted a little more. I created a new adjustment layer and decided to use the Warm Desert look, included in the Inspiration by Photofocus Looks Collection (which you can get by purchasing Aurora HDR through our site). Doing so added a bit more pink and blue to the sky, and helped it take that next step. I didn’t go all the way here — this is just at 33% opacity. But I really like the results that the look added.

Using this look helped to create a smoother adjustment in the sky, and added some warmer tones to it to create a more realistic scene.

Cleaning up the details

Despite all this work, the log was still pretty dark. But that’s an easy fix in Aurora — just create a new adjustment layer, and start painting over the log.

To see where you’re painting, click the / key on your keyboard. This will present a red mask anywhere you paint.

If you need to undo some of the painting you’ve brushed in, click the Erase button at the top.

You’ll notice I didn’t paint the entire log, only the darkest parts. This was because I actually liked the exposure of the rest of the log, so my goal was to elevate the darker parts to more closely match.

Once you have your layer painted, you can click the / key again to hide the mask, and then start adjusting. I increased the values of the exposure, shadows and blacks slider, in order to make the dark parts of the log more detailed and visible. I was careful to not adjust too much — doing so made the log unrealistic.

And there you have it! Going from the original, drab image to a much stronger and colorful HDR-centric image is easy to do with Aurora HDR 2019. Whether you’re a fan of the “HDR look” or not, Aurora can make it so you can create realistic and powerful-looking HDRs in a breeze.

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