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What do Route 66 and Aurora 2019 have in common? Both provide countless opportunities for enthusiastic photographers to explore the realms of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. Why? Because high contrast subjects, such as vintage buildings shot under a mid-day sun, night scenes with neon signs, and magical landscapes photographed during the golden hour are the heart and soul of Route 66 and of Aurora 2019, the software I currently use to process my HDR imagery.

Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari, New Mexico — impossible image but for HDR


At the moment I am thinking about Route 66 and Aurora 2019, by Skylum, because I am processing images from my recent road trip. My friends and I drove Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. (In case you haven’t kept up with my trip, you can learn more by reading my three previous articles on planning the trip, the trip itself, and photographing Route 66.)

I took tons of HDR photographs, more than I usually take. That’s because I encountered lots of scenes where the difference between the highlights and the shadows of the subject was so extreme that the camera would not be able to record the extreme range of light in one image.

By shooting a series of brackets of the same scene, but exposing each one separately for highlights, midtones, and shadows, I knew I could later merge the bracketed images in Aurora HDR 2019 and create one photograph displaying the full dynamic range of the subject.

HDR photography is an important technique to understand when you are traveling and making photographs. To reach the result you previsualize in your mind’s eye before you click your camera’s shutter, you may very well need to record a broad range of exposures.

South Rim Grand Canyon, Arizona — five images to get river, shadows, and highlights

My search

In the past, I have used a number of third-party applications for HDR processing, as well as Photoshop and Lightroom. More recently I had returned to my roots, merging images as layers in Photoshop. I had become less excited by HDR software and preferred a more realistic result without a lot of fuss.

I found, however, that processing layers in Photoshop took a lot of time per image, which I just didn’t have. Sometimes I needed the spark of the presets or filters found in third-party HDR applications to get my creative juices flowing. I seemed to keep searching for the right solution for my HDR imagery.

Sugar Creek Covered Bridge, Glenarm, Illinois — glow possible through enhancement filters

Why Aurora HDR 2019?

Knowing I would be coming home from my Route 66 trip with lots of HDR images I decided to dabble in Aurora HDR 2018 before I left town. Disappointed by earlier versions of Aurora, I thought it was time to give it another chance.

I processed a number of images and was extremely pleased with my results. My workflow was simple and efficient, keeping my images as realistic or creative as I wanted them to be. The merged image had smoother tones throughout and noise was less of a problem. Aurora has been greatly improved.

I particularly like Aurora HDR 2019 because it provides the ability to work in layers. Effects can be painted in or erased and the opacity of a layer can be adjusted.

Aurora 2019 is to be released to the public very soon, but you can pre-order it. I have been using a beta version and am enjoying the updates. The software is pretty quick merging my files.  I am having fun trying out effects with the new LUT mapping integration feature. LUTs give you the ability to stylize your images through color grading.

1929 Phillips 66 gas station, McClean Texas — applying a LUT filter

Practice, practice, practice

I practiced using most of the Aurora filters and looks before my Route 66 trip. I wanted to be able to process images immediately, whether I was using my laptop on the road or at home on my desktop computer, without wasting time trying to figure things out. (Aurora can be used on more than one device at no extra cost.)

Aurora offers so many choices in what are now called “Looks” in Aurora 2019 and filters, I felt it important to understand the effect of the different settings on different types of images. I left for my trip very excited by the possibilities.

If you are new to HDR photography, I also suggest practicing taking HDR photographs before you leave on your trip. Learn to manually set your range of bracketing exposures, so that you have more control over the final image.

El Rancho Hotel, Gallup, New Mexico — the lobby was suddenly empty; didn’t have a tripod in hand so I hand-held the camera

HDR/Aurora 2019 tips

  • Use a tripod when possible.
  • If you don’t have a tripod with you, use your camera’s auto-bracket setting and a very fast shutter speed. Review proper techniques for hand-holding your camera before leaving town. (Check out Scott Bourne’s Photofocus article.)
  • Keep your aperture and ISO constant for each bracketed series of images.
  • Check the histograms for each photograph in a series to be sure you have photographed the entire dynamic range. For your darkest image make sure the histogram is mostly to the left. For your lightest image make sure it is mostly to the right. The other histograms should cover values in-between.
  • Before merging your images in Aurora, process each separately to remove clipping of highlights and shadows on each side of the histogram and to reduce noise. If you make adjustments for calibration or white balance make them to one image and then sync that image to the other images in a series.
  • If you did not bracket an image, try processing it in Aurora as a single image. You still may achieve the creative results you are striving for.
Baghdad Cafe, Newberry Springs, California — single image HDR

Give it a try

No matter where your travels may take you, or what you are photographing, you will encounter high contrast subjects for your photography. Give HDR photography and Aurora HDR 2019 a try. You may find that your artistic vision rises to another level and that you are having much more fun making pictures.

Texola, Oklahoma — black and white images are great HDR subjects