Fall color in West Fork of Oak Creek in Northern Arizona near Sedona
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Second look: Aurora HDR 2019 for landscapes

In my last post, I shared my early reactions to the software processing program from Skylum, Aurora HDR 2019.  In a word: WOW!

In recent years, I’ve been shooting many bracketed landscape images to combine into HDR (high dynamic range) images. Using Lightroom, I haven’t always been happy with the results. Based on the past month of experimenting with Aurora HDR 2019, I’m so impressed with the results obtained by processing single exposures that I may change my practice and only shoot brackets when the lighting conditions are extreme.

I recently found myself shooting in a favorite canyon near Sedona, AZ, the famed West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Canyons are tricky to shoot well. The usual maxim for landscape photography is to shoot early or late, during the golden hour, when the sun is at a lower angle. But in a canyon, shooting during these times often means the canyon walls will be in shadow and many stops different in exposure than the much lighter sky or sun-lit upper reaches of a canyon.

The advice I’ve often heard is to shoot canyons only when they are completely lit (mid-day, with the sun overhead) or completely in shadow. An overcast or cloudy day lessens the extremes of exposure, making the task a little easier.

In West Fork, I frequently exclude the sky, as it tends to blow out.

On a recent hike during an especially colorful autumn color change, I took multiple series of HDR brackets (three images acquired using the auto-bracket function of my Fujifilm X-T2, keeping the ISO and aperture constant and varying the shutter speed + and –2 stops), both with and the without the sky, to fully test the ability of Aurora HDR 2019 to overcome extremes of exposure.

I took two versions of the same scene, each a series of three brackets (the best single exposure, +2 stops and -2 stops), including sky in one and excluding it from the other.

Here’s what I started with:

On the left is the best single exposure, with the middle frame +2 stops for shadow detail and the right frame –2 stops to capture the comparatively light sky’s features.

I combined the three exposures with a few clicks in Aurora HDR 2019, with this result:

This HDR image, created with Aurora HDR 2019 using the 3 exposures above, is straight out of Aurora HDR 2019, without making any further adjustments.

For a point of reference, here’s the result of combining those same three exposures using Lightroom’s HDR function:

Lightroom does a pretty good job, but the initial result looks blah and lifeless by comparison with Aurora HDR 2019. It will take a considerable further adjustment to duplicate what Aurora HDR 2019 did in a single step.

Here’s the other version, excluding the sky:

The resulting image can be further tweaked with a series of sliders in the editing interface. Alternatively, a whole menu of different looks, across the bottom, can be applied to the resulting processed image. The feature image is an example of an HDR series processed in Glowing, which imparts a painterly look to the scene. I found some of the Looks too extreme, but all can be dialed down from 100% with a slider.

A very skillful digital processor, with a lot of time, could probably achieve much of the same effects using Lightroom.  But for the time-pressed, like me, Aurora HDR 2019 makes quick work of processing, with generally better results than I can readily achieve. This program has rapidly and painlessly become an essential part of my workflow.

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