Grand teton panorama from Schwabacher's Landing
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First impressions of a landscape photographer: Aurora HDR 2019 and single image adjustment

(Editor’s note: Aurora HDR 2019 is now available. The links in this article offer savings and free training videos, Looks and LUTs as well.)

The release of Aurora HDR 2019, coupled with a backlog of unprocessed landscape images generated in the past year, allowed me to put a pre-release version of the program through its paces in a frenzy of processing.

I should preface my comments by pointing out that I have no prior experience with earlier versions of Aurora.  Even my experience with HDR is limited to Lightroom.

After 3 evenings of using the program, I can say with confidence that this is a powerful and easy to use the tool.  I am thoroughly impressed with how easy it was to get started.  My preparation consisted of watching a few short video segments and that was sufficient to launch me into processing images languishing in Lightroom for over a year.

HDR means high dynamic range and generally refers to images with expanded dynamic range, most often created by combining multiple different exposures of the same scene into a merged HDR photo. In a typical landscape application, 3 exposures of the same scene would be obtained to cover the entire dynamic range of the scene.  One exposure would capture the highlights (often the bright sky), another the midtones (foreground) and the third would be exposed to show detail in the shadows. Our eyes are capable of seeing shadow detail beyond what most cameras can capture and use of HDR techniques is a way of reproducing this information.

Although HDR images can be obtained handheld, using a tripod and auto-bracketing is the most reliable way of consistently obtaining good source images for HDR. The ISO and aperture are held constant, with the shutter speed varied 1-2 stops, depending on the scene.  I usually auto-bracket with 3 exposures, one being the best single exposure, with another 2 stops slower (overexposed to get shadow detail) and another 2 stops faster (underexposed to capture detail in the highlights).  Some cameras can obtain up to 5 or more brackets automatically. Check the manual for your camera for more info.

Aurora HDR 2019 easily integrated into my workflow.  Within minutes, I had it installed as a plug in to Lightroom. I was surprised to learn that in addition to working with combinations of images to create HDR images, the program can also be used to process single images. The resulting image can then be adjusted using a series of sliders on the right.  Alternate looks can be explored with a series of presets at the bottom. Some of these were extreme, but all can be varied in intensity from 100% on down.

Here are some of my early efforts:

Moose Falls, Yellowstone, straight out of the camera without any adjustment. Waterfalls are always tough, especially if it is sunny. The white of the water and the dark of the rocks makes for a tricky exposure. I used a polarizing filter to enhance the green of the foreground leaves by decreasing their shine. This also lengthened the overall exposure, smoothing out the water (shutter speed 1/4 second, ISO 200, f22).
The same image, edited with typical Lightroom adjustments, with highlights (the water) decreased, shadows bumped up (the rock in shadow on the far side of the falls), with some clarity and vibrance added.
The same image, put through Aurora HDR 2019, conveys more of what I remember liking about the scene: the sun just making it through the trees onto the water, a sense of surprise and mystery. The shadow detail of the far rock is visible but de-emphasized. Overall, there is a richer look, with nice texture, vibrant but not unnatural.

 

 

 

 

I had an analogous conundrum with a scene from Grand Teton of a river: whitewater, dark rocks, middle-toned foliage, unadjusted, straight out of the Fuji X-T2: f16, 1/8 second, ISO 200.
My original adjustments in Lightroom: decreased highlights (running water), increased shadows and overall exposure. To my eye, the foliage looks unnatural, too green.
The same image, put through Aurora HDR 2019, achieves a more natural-looking balance between the water, with darker rocks and vivid but more natural green of the foliage.

 

These examples were single images, processed with a few clicks with Aurora HDR 2019, after minimal video instruction.  I’m looking forward to whittling down my “to-be-processed” pile with the aid of this powerful and intuitive, user-friendly program.  In a follow-up post, we’ll take a look at my early results using Aurora HDR 2019 to combine multiple exposures.

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