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First Impressions of the New Aurora HDR 2018 for Windows

Until recently, I’ve felt a little left out when it comes to the Macphun line of photo editing and effects software. I’m a Windows guy, a sometimes lonely place to be in the oft Apple dominated world of graphic design and photography.

Until this year Macphun software wasn’t available for us PC’s. I figured Macphun’s software would always remain out of reach until Macphun released Luminar for Windows earlier this year. So, I tried it. And liked it. A lot! Getting a chance to take the new Beta version of Aurora HDR for a spin, I was cautiously optimistic that a new contender for High Dynamic Range (HDR) image processing on a PC had arrived.

Technical Moment: High Dynamic Range (HDR) Images

In photography, dynamic range is “the range of luminance values from lightest to darkest”. Think the darkest shadows to the brightest light. In nature this range is huge, our eyes can capture only a small part of this, and our cameras an even smaller range. The HDR technique attempts to increase the range of light to dark in a single image by combining multiple images shot at different exposures. Typically, this is done with 3 images (sometimes more), one each for shadows, highlights, and midtones.

These are “merged” together to form a HDR image using specialized HDR software like Aurora HDR. You’ll have a final image which preserves contrast in your mid-tones while having details in highlights and shadows that may not appear in a single exposure, due to your camera’s dynamic range limitations.

Comparing Programs

The forests, coastlines, and wetlands I often find myself shooting in lend themselves perfectly to HDRs. Since I use this technique often, over the year’s I have tried many programs. The best way I can think of to test the new kid on the scene is with a head-to-head comparison, taking the same image through Aurora HDR side by side with other programs I like, Photomatix Pro 6 and Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. Just for fun, I also threw in the HDR JPEG file saved straight out of the camera. There are things cameras do well, like shooting the HDR series, but processing an HDR series is not one of them!

Disclaimer: I processed each image in both examples below as similarly as I could within each program to try to get the best looking image possible from each.

The “Winner”

Aurora HDR using Lightroom adjusted TIF files. These had the best contrast and color, pulling out details in shadowed areas without making the image seem flat or unreal.

 

The “Winner”

This one is tough, but I gave a slight edge to Aurora HDR using Lightroom adjusted TIF files. The colors are right on the verge of over the top, partly because it was an amazingly colorful sunrise!. Photomatix was a close second, I think this may just come down to personal taste between the two.

Aurora Lessons Learned

RAW, RAW, RAW!

I can’t say this enough times, shoot in RAW! This gives you the most flexibility in your workflow, and when you learn something new you can go back and use it on old images, like I did here.

Use Lightroom TIF Files

The best results I had, by far, were produced by using adjusted TIF files, via the Aurora HDR plugin for Lightroom. When using unadjusted RAW files, I found the HDR image was noisy and often had strange or flat colors. Letting Lightroom run the images through Adobe Camera Raw first avoided these problems, providing both the fastest processing and the best looking images.

Sync Your Series

When using adjusted TIFs, make your adjustments to one image, and then Sync these to the other images you will be using. This ensures you have the same camera/lens profiles, cropping, spot removal, etc., applied to all images. Not doing so can result in heavy ghosting in the image that Aurora HDR cannot adjust for.

Start With a Preset

Before you even start processing an image in the digital darkroom, consider how you want it to look. Are you going for a more natural representation of the scene with expanded dynamic range, or a “Kincaid-esque” fantasy version? Aurora HDR includes presets from one end of the spectrum to the other. Starting with a preset will save you time, getting you closer to your intended outcome with less effort.

Little Adjustments go a Long Way

The number of possible adjustments in Aurora gives you immense control over the final look of your images. But, one of the biggest pitfalls with HDR is “overdoing it”. It’s easy to take adjustment sliders and crank them up to max, taking a perfectly good looking image and turning it into a garish parody of its former self.

Most adjustments are set up as sliders, so you can easily make changes and see the immediate effect on your image. I recommend you go ahead and slide each all the way up at the start to see what it does, but reset it back to the default afterwards. If you choose to make an adjustment, you will find most sliders seem to produce the best result when lightly used. As an example, for those sliders on a scale of 0 to 100, I was often happy with adjustments of 15 or less. In other words, know when to say when…

Change Your Preview Background to a Medium Gray

Editing on a pure black background can alter your perception of an image’s color and contrast. HDR processing by its nature can result in overly saturated or unrealistic colors, using a neutral gray background can help you notice if your colors seem a little off. Also, consider that most social media sites have a light background, processing against a black background may give you an unrealistic idea of what the final image looks like to those audiences.

To change this, right click anywhere on the Aurora desktop, and select the color you want. The “Gray” or “Light Gray” options seem to work best to keep your color perception accurate.

Save Your Settings

If you have come up with a combination of settings you like, save them as your own custom preset. This is a good way to review exactly what you did to an image to achieve your final results, and will save you significant time if you have shot several series of HDRs on a photo outing. The button to do so is a little hidden, look at the bottom right hand side of the screen for a small button that says “Save Filters as Preset”, click this, then name it and save. Next time you want to use these settings they will be stored under the “Custom” category of presets.

Is it Time for a Change?

First, I’m not telling you to run out and grab the latest software to fix your darkroom woes. Look at your digital workflow and ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Are you happy with what you are producing with your camera?
  2. Are you in any way unhappy with your end results as you take these files through your digital darkroom processing?
  3. Are you spending way too much time on your computer processing images you are happy with coming in, but aren’t so happy with coming out?

With the constant updates, upgrades, and new products hitting the market, it can be difficult to keep up with everything. We are all creatures of habit. Once we grasp a concept and start producing good, consistent results, we like to stick with it. While change for the sake of change is rarely good, it is also important not to let yourself fall into a rut. When you have a feeling things could be better with your photos, it’s time to step back, and make an honest assessment of why.

Up until about a year ago, I was still using fundamentally the same workflow I had used for the previous five years. While I liked my results, things had changed a lot in that time, and I wondered how much better or quicker I could make my workflow. While the old ways still worked, there were much better and faster ways of doing the same things.

Processing HDR images, by their nature, is one of the more time consuming and “finicky” tasks in digital photography. There are many approaches to handling them, and many products on the market that provide decent results. But, if you have read my article, “Are Your Images Getting the Blurts?”, we don’t want to settle for decent, we want “wow’s”. A “wow” image starts with the photographer’s creative vision, and is realized through artful use of composition and excellent technical execution. But, the image must be completed in the darkroom! A great image poorly processed will underwhelm your photo’s audience. There are few things sadder than “blurts” that go unblurted.

Conclusion: To Aurora or Not to Aurora…

In just the first half hour of playing with Aurora HDR, I was honestly impressed. Since then, I have been busy going back to some of my older HDR series’ and seeing just what Aurora could do with them. Yes, I think there is room for improvement, as there is in every program. Remember, this is a Beta version, so they are still refining it. But what I have seen so far makes me feel, with a little fine tuning, this could easily become my go to for HDR software.

Note: Aurora 2018 for Windows and Mac is available for pre-order and will ship on September 28, 2017.  Learn more here.

Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques: Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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