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Review – Aurora HDR

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Review – Aurora HDR

Software from Macphun to create High Dynamic range (HDR) images


Aurora HDR from Macphun lets you combine different exposure photos of the same view into one single image that captures the full dynamic range of the original scene from light to dark, which can easily exceed the capability of a single photograph to capture.

Keith has been looking at this new software (version 1.0) to see how it offers a range of styles to suit different applications and tastes.

Aurora – latest version 2017

Aurora HDR software review

The software is currently Apple Mac only.

We've reviews of many MacPhun/Skylum apps. See the Macphun or Skylum Category in the dropdown menu at the top of the right column.

  • December 2015  V1.1 released 
  • January 2016 V1.2 released
  • Update features are listed in the summary below

Using HDR – don’t let the glare put you off

The ‘style’ of photography that divides opinions…

Personally I’ve seen some great shots utterly ruined through it’s thoughtless application, yet I’ll happily choose to use aspects of it for my architectural photography, where I might want to show detail in bright and shadowed areas of a room or building without one part being over exposed or lost in shadow noise.

The software is being widely promoted as being developed in conjunction with Trey Ratcliff – that is a double edged sword, if like me you have a mighty abhorrence of some of the ghastly lurid ‘HDR Style’ images that get shared around on the web.

Fortunately, in talking with the people at Macphun, I hear that a lot of effort was put into the more ‘realistic’ applications of HDR techniques, where it’s ‘just’ used to expand the dynamic range captured in a photo.

My initial experiments confirm that it does a great job with the dials turned to 2 or 3, whilst it will happily go up to 12 if you really want to.

Aurora HDR – What do you get?

Buying Software from Macphun/Skylum

Macphun Luminar  ... [review] 

Aurora HDR - (review) | Tonality Pro (review)
Intensify Pro (review) | Noiseless Pro (review)
Snapheal CK (review)
Tonality Pro 'City Light' - article and free presets made by Keith for Architectural B&W

We have a code northlightimages10 - that will usually get you a 10% discount on current MacPhun/Skylum offers.

Looking for a non-lightroom solution? Macphun have outlined their plans

If you buy the software via a link on our site, then we receive a small commission, which helps in the running of the site. We have no commercial connection with Macphun, and believe strongly that readers should be aware how we run the site.

I’m looking at the Pro version of the software, which works as a standalone App and as a plugin for other software. The software will install as a trial version. This needs activating once you have purchased a copy.

The software installs as a stand-alone application. To use it as a plugin for other image editing programs, you’ll need to install the plugin options. The software finds any relevant software and will install as needed.

The features list (based on one from from Macphun) is pretty extensive.

  • New tone-mapping technology (less noise, realistic results).
  • JPEG, PNG, TIFF support . Adobe RGB and ProPhoto colour profile support.
  • Built-in sample photos.
  • Native RAW files support (Aurora HDR Pro)
  • Real-time image processing.
  • 38 HDR presets in 5 categories. Inc. signature presets by Trey Ratcliff (Aurora HDR Pro)
  • Custom presets import and export.

Layers

  • Layers & Masking.
  • Support of different Blend modes for Layers.
  • Custom texture overlays
  • Luminosity masking.
  • Custom brush for selective editing.
  • Gradient masking tool.
  • Layer source changing.
  • Masking with brackets.
  • Colour clipping preview.
  • Duplicate layer.

Tone mapping and adjustment

  • Advanced Tone Mapping controls.
  • Smart Tone technology
  • Highlights / Midtones / Shadows adjusters.
  • Whites & Blacks.
  • Advanced Structure & Clarity technology.
  • HDR denoise.
  • Image Radiance effect.
  • Colour contrast tool.
  • Image Details enhancer tool.
  • Glow effect.
  • Graduated ND filter emulation (“Top & Bottom Lighting”).
  • Tone curve tool.
  • Colour filter tool – Selective colouring.
  • Colour toning.
  • Vignette.

Image editing/export

  • Automatic Alignment, Deghosting, Chromatic aberration reduction.
  • Histogram.
  • Crop tool and Align image.
  • Quick compare – Side by side comparison – Image navigator window.
  • Full Screen preview mode.
  • Facebook / Flickr / SmugMug sharing.
  • Export to email, iMessage, Photos for Mac, Creative Kit apps.
  • Photoshop/Lightroom/Aperture plug-in (Aurora HDR Pro)

There is a free demo available, and quite a range of training materials to get up to speed with the software.

I’ll pull out a few of the list above that caught my eye.

  • Masking: not all of your image requires the same settings. The masking controls and layer support allow for much more advanced processing, especially if used with software that doesn’t support layers (Lightroom for example)
  • Gradients in masks allow for easy blending of effects across an image (add or remove an adjustment to the sky for example)
  • File support: covers a wide range of input formats and had no problem in handling the 50MP RAW files from my Canon 5Ds
  • Tone mapping controls: there are a lot of them, but they fit together nicely

Using Aurora HDR

The software is installed as an application, which you then run to install plugin functionality.

setting up as a plugin

The software finds Photoshop (CS6) on my test machine and lets me install the plugin for it. Given the application works directly with my RAW camera files, this is one package I’m less likely to call directly from Photoshop.

You can select RAW (or TIFF or even JPEG) files in Adobe Bridge and open them in Aurora

installing software

When you’ve run the software, there are plenty of export options for your results.

Aurora HDR export options

Three RAW files

As an initial test, I’ll use three RAW files, taken with my 21MP Canon 1Ds3 a while ago, when I was photographing a hotel and conference venue. I’ve used these same files for looking at numerous HDR packages and it encompasses many of the issues I’ll find on real paying jobs.

I could just process the first and last images and blend them together (with masking), but whilst it works for some shots, I’d like a process that gives a good image without lots of (potentially unpaid) Photoshop work.

sample RAW files for test

The basic version of Aurora supports up to 7 images in an HDR bracket, whilst the Pro version supports up to 14 images. Both versions can open just a single image.

You can select files or just drop them onto the application (which is installed with some demo sample files)

load files to process

After selecting them, Aurora shows me the three images that will be combined.

selected files for processing

I’ve selected none of the three RAW processing extras.

These three images are already aligned (I use a tripod for paying work) and there is no movement between frames to give any ghosting. The lens is a 24mm shift lens, shifted upwards a few mm, which usually defeats many Chromatic Aberration fixes.

The image takes some 20-30 seconds to be processed on my 2010 MacPro and opens up with a default view (it remembers some of your previous display settings)

initial hdr combination of images

There is some information about the images being used at the top

(the EV indicator was unchanged for any image I tested – this seems a bit odd)

image details

There is a split view and side by side option available for before/after comparisons.

split view for comparing images

The histogram confirms that the lowest exposed shot is still a bit bright in the highlights, although that’s not really part of the image I’m too concerned about. The histogram has a clipping point indicator, which showed a few specular highlights as clipping.

As you can see, there are a lot of different adjustment tools.

image adjustment tools

The main editing tools are:

  • RAW Tone Mapping – General settings related to the tone mapping and compression of the HDR image.
  • Tone – Adjusts the tone of the image as well as its contrast.
  • Structure – Strengthens the structure, details and micro-contrast of the image, leading to a more ‘crisp’ looking image.
  • HDR Denoise – Reduces noise and artifacts in the image created by the HDR image merge process, as well as making the overall image smoother.
  • Image Radiance – Provides for an overall soft look to the image by softening image luminescence, and increasing contrast / saturation.
  • Colour – Colour settings (saturation, temperature and tint)
  • Details – Increases image clarity (compare with structure)
  • Glow – Adjusts glow effect to the image (mainly visible in highlight areas)
  • Top & Bottom Lighting – Exposure adjustments in the upper and lower areas of the image (dividing line can be moved rotated or softened)
  • Tone Curve – Represents the tonal range of the image. Curve can be modified
  • Colour Filter – Adjusts the saturation and brightness of a particular colour channel.
  • Colour Toning – Shadows and highlights colour tinting for stylised visual effects.
  • Vignette – Provides a vignette effect for images.

Fortunately there is a good range of presets to explore.

This is the set in the pre-release version of the software, so there will be more…

range of preset conversion options

Example conversions

I’ll start with a split view between the default (left) and ‘Architecture balanced’ preset (right)

It’s a little bright, but the detail is good, and it shows no halo effects.

two conversions compared

‘Architecture dramatic’ style desaturates and pushes up the detail/texture too far.

architecture dramatic style

By the time I get to ‘Strong HDR’, I’m in familiar (and slightly unpleasant) territory

strong HDR look

‘Dramatic B&W’

black and white processing option

As I show later, choice of RAW files and how you handle them can make a difference, but this initial check with some known images looks to offer some useful features.

Adjustments

With each preset, you can look at all the adjustment settings that make it up.

The sliders move as you switch presets, which give something of a feel for how they work, but ideally you just need to move them around and see what changes. You can deselect the whole tool if need be to see what changes.

Make big changes to get a feel for which settings change things for your image. Just remember that not all settings make big changes for all images.

Here’s an example of -100, 0 (default) and +100 for the RAW Tone Spectrum slider. The default values are aimed at a more naturalistic look. This from Macphun.

  • Spectrum. 
    • Image lighting effect setting. This is not just exposure, but includes a special ability to configure balanced image brightness without getting completely white or completely black areas. The overall brightness of the image increases when you move the slider to the right, while moving the slider to the left lets you decrease the overall brightness of the image.
  • Spot Lighting.
    • Range of illumination setting. When you move the slider to the right there is the effect of increasing the detail of the image by a smaller backlight of details. At the same time, more expressed effects of small contour glow (halo) appear and the image can become less realistic. If you move the slider to the left, the image is little more flat and realistic, but halo almost completely disappears.
  • Final Touches.
    • Spot Lighting effect adjustment slider. You can change image lighting options with this slider. When you move the slider to the right, you’ll get a more realistic result. When you move the slider to the left, the image is more detailed.

At -100

raw tone mapping adjustment -100

At zero

raw tone mapping adjustment at zero

at +100

raw tone mapping adjustment at plus 100

It’s difficult to show here (remember these are web images, and I’m using a wide gamut monitor to work with) but you should see some difference – look at the floor just inside the room for example.

If you find it difficult to see any difference then take it as a strong hint that you are going to need to read the manual with some care and spend time exploring what the software can do. Seeing stuff like this is often about experience, that and having an idea about what you want to achieve ;-)

Filters adding extra localised contrast seemed well implemented and if not pushed too far, relatively free of artefacts such as obvious halo effects round objects.

The graduated filter is flexible and easy to use – sometimes it looks better to just reduce the brightness of part of the image, such as the roof area in this view.

graduated filter

Note the rather stronger colours in the top corner. When dealing with HDR you have to remember that you are dealing with images which actually contain far more information (colours and tone) than it is possible to display on any monitor.

Layers and Masks

The availability of multiple conversion layers allows you to apply different HDR styles to different parts of your image and to selectively blend and mask effects.

There are a lot of varied masking effects

layers options

I’ll take a simple example, where I want to apply different settings to inside the room above.

I’ve created a new layer (think of creating a whole new version of the image from scratch)

If I crank up structure and other contrast related effects, the outside view is obviously pushed too far (for me to ever consider supplying such an image to anyone).

second layer with strong processing

However using the masking, I can paint in this effect to just the area of the view through the door.

Look carefully at the layer mask, just below the histogram, and you can see the white area indicating where the mask is ‘painted in’.

adding just part of second layer to image

The brush is easy to control, and you can always turn down the opacity of the new masked layer if needed.

layer image sourceAfter many years of using masked layers in Photoshop, I generally prefer to slightly overdo the effect of the layer, and then back off its overall opacity to what I think works. I find that this gives more sublety in effects.

Masking is a powerful feature, but once again works best if you step back and think about what you want to achieve.

The example above is a fairly basic one – the implementation of layers in Aurora has many more tricks up its sleeve, such as importing textures or even using one of the HDR source images as a base layer.

Masks can also be created from image content – a Luminosity Mask.

The current layer gets a mask based on the brightness of parts of the image. The transparency of the mask is directly related to individual pixel brightnesses.

Those pesky halos

One of my pet hates with much HDR work, and where local contrast enhancement techniques have been overused on single images, is the appearance of halos around objects sticking up into the sky.

Fortunately the original camera images don’t have this…

A simple example uses three shots of the Guildhall in Leicester. You can see the cathedral behind it, where King Richard III (the ‘King in the car park’) was recently re-interred.

I’ve already used three very similar shots to make a B&W print that is very popular.

The three shots were taken with my Canon 1Ds mk3 a few years ago (21MP images).

The problem is that making adjustments to get the building to look right, produces nasty halo effects in the sky area.

I’m desaturating the image in Aurora here to get a B&W version.

First up, the version that looks OK apart from the sky.

HDR conversion

Next I load one of the source images into a layer, and set the blend mode to luminosity.

Note how the loaded image is in B&W – that’s because I’m only using its luminosity (brightness).

layer mask - luminosity blend

By painting in to the mask where I want the bottom (HDR) image to come through, I get a composite version.

Looking at the image at this size, there is still a bit too much halo near the top left. However – look at this image at the size it would be for a print and it’s much more difficult to see.

This reminds me about an important thing to note when editing images for large prints – our visual system detects contrast differently at different angular sizes, so what’s obvious here might not be at a much larger size. This will obviously be different for a 10×8 print, compared to a 30″x24″. When I produce images for my prints, final print sharpening is carried out for the specific size of print – one size does not fit all.

Leicestr Guildhall

layer information displayThe layer mask can be made visible if need be, and can also be seen in the layer controls.

You can see that the layer opacity is only 95%.

Adjusting this value gives finer control over the blending and lets a little of the halo come through – at the right level this can help accentuate features, but as the example above shows, needs to be approached with care.

Minor issues – Whilst creating this example I found that the brush can be a little hard edged, even when used at softer settings.
I’d prefer to see it (optionally) fade to zero at extremes since the mask doesn’t always need harder edges.
Being able to blur it would be useful and help prevent mask effects showing in final images.
It would also be good to show actual file names in the dialogue for loading a file since ‘HDR Frame 2’ means nothing to me.

New photos

In this example, I’ve several sequences of shots taken on a bright winter day at Ipswich Docks with a 50MP Canon 5Ds (hand held). This was near where I grew up, however it was a working docks then – not full of yachts and bars and restaurants)

I can open RAW files directly from Adobe Bridge if I want.

opening RAW files from adobe bridge

The groups of three are +3,0,-3 stop exposures (shutter speed changed, not aperture or ISO).

When I first tried this, there were some distinctly odd colours in parts of the bright cloud. I opened the 5Ds RAW files in ACR and looked at the settings. It seems that whilst I’d been careful to only change shutter speeds, I’d forgotten to set the white balance (left on auto), so it varied between shots. This wasn’t an issue with the older Canon 1Ds3 interior shots I used with earlier in this article.

One solution which worked, was to open images in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), set the same colour temperature to each and save (from ACR) as 16bit TIFF files, to open in Aurora. I also found that with the sun in the shot, even the lowest exposure shot still overexposed a bit of sky, so some very slight highlight recovery applied worked really well. I suppose if I really wanted to make an HDR based image of this scene, I’d use 5 bracketed shots to avoid such issues (then of course, I’d probably have had a tripod with me).

Note, subsequently testing with a newer version of the software, I’ve discovered that the odd sky colours come from the fact that it was windy enough that in the few seconds between the shots, the clouds moved enough at the corners (17mm shift lens, shifted upwards a bit) to show differences between the WB settings. So, I’d suggest it’s still important to set a uniform white balance when working with multiple images.

The images are hand held, so I want the software to align the images.

selecting images to use for HDR processing

However it was a windy day and the nearest boat was moving about.

The ghosting on this exaple was caused by not selecting the ghosts reduction tick-box.

image ghosting from movement

After a bit of tweaking of the architectural ‘balanced look’, I’ve an image that looks quite reasonable.

view of harbour after adjsutment

Of course it’s not really the lighting angle I’d prefer, with the sun slap bang in the middle of the frame, but I wanted to see what Aurora could do with the shots.

As a simple check, this is a single RAW file processed in Adobe Camera Raw – with the shadows and clarity pushed up. At 100 ISO, my Canon 5Ds is managing to keep noise in those pushed shadows at reasonable levels (certainly better than my 1Ds mk3). This is the sort of image I’d also look at using DxO Optics Pro to handle the RAW processing.

single shot processed to bring up shadows

It shows how the usable dynamic range of cameras has improved over the years and reminds me that a not insignificant chunk of the HDR styled photos you see on the web maybe only required better basic technique rather than software.

The straightforward ‘ Architectural Balanced’ preset is not a bad place to start adjustments.

aurora processed image of boats

Note that I’m testing a pre-release version of the software here, which still had some known minor glitches in the shadows (bottom RH corner), when using alignment and ghost removal.

It’s easy to push the settings upwards.

overly strong HDR look to image

Once I’ve found a version I’m happy with, I can export the image for further processing, or directly to the world.

The image here was exported to Photoshop, where it appears as an image in the MelissaRGB space – effectively the same as ProPhoto, but with a gamma of 2.2 (ProPhoto is 1.8).

You might want to convert this to a smaller colour space if further editing and printing, since the large space could well contain more extreme colours that no monitor will display accurately.

exporting processed imge to photoshop

Alignment and ghost removal do noticeably increase the time to import files and export an image, but with three 50MP images that’s not a surprise.

Conclusions

The software is easy to use and effective, although to get optimal results you will definitely need to experiment.

Buying Software from Macphun/Skylum

Macphun Luminar  ... [review] 

Aurora HDR - (review) | Tonality Pro (review)
Intensify Pro (review) | Noiseless Pro (review)
Snapheal CK (review)
Tonality Pro 'City Light' - article and free presets made by Keith for Architectural B&W

We have a code northlightimages10 - that will usually get you a 10% discount on current MacPhun/Skylum offers.

Looking for a non-lightroom solution? Macphun have outlined their plans

If you buy the software via a link on our site, then we receive a small commission, which helps in the running of the site. We have no commercial connection with Macphun, and believe strongly that readers should be aware how we run the site.

On my 2010 Mac Pro it’s perfectly usable with multiple 50MP Canon 5Ds images loaded and at no time did I find myself wondering what was happening or waiting too long.

The various adjustments can be quite subtle, and may not have much obvious effect on any particular image. I found myself moving sliders to extremes to see what was changing, and whilst you can save your own presets, there is no snapshot or history feature if you find yourself up a blind alley and want to go back to what you had 10 minutes earlier.

There is a good range of built-in presets that should cover many user’s needs.

If I had a more direct criticism, it would be the ‘just select the files’ approach to handling RAW files. There are things that I use specific RAW converters for, because they either have specific features (noise reduction, CA, geometrical correction and lens softness) that may be best applied to RAW data or I like the way the colour from a particular camera is handled. There is no fine tuning or options. You get them for a myriad of features and adjustments -after- the images are combined, but not for the raw materials.

The availability of layers with their blending and masking of effects is superb. It lets me apply completely different settings to parts of the image, that would look plain wrong in other parts.

Layers are something that keeps Photoshop as my No.1 choice for image editing, and packages like Lightroom in my ‘installed but never really used’ folder on my Mac (I was involved with testing for LR6, and still dislike it).

What do you want to show?

There are a lot of very useful starting points in the available presets and I’d just note that my test version of the software did not have the Trey Ratcliff presets available that you get in the full version of the released software. I cannot deny the popularity of the more lurid styles, but I remind myself that ‘One Direction’ are also popular… ;-)

The software is good, but it won’t make up for a lack of thought about what you want to do or show with the image in the first place. In many ways, my complaints about ‘overuse’ of HDR techniques are that they are used far too often to try and turn a so-so composition/image into something ‘worthwhile’. I love experimenting and producing odd looking images, but very rarely do they make it to the point of me actually wanting to show them to people. They help me explore my photography and tools like Aurora that become part of my image processing arsenal.

I’m afraid that just as buying a better camera will rarely improve your photography in of itself, nor will applying loads of processing tricks help much. Better photography (a contentious notion in itself) comes from hard work and thinking about what you are doing and why…. but then I suppose buying new cameras/software is just so much easier)

There are lots of additional resources on the Macphun web site. (more details are here: http://macphun.com/blog)

Summary

Standalone program and plugin for creating High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos

We've reviews of many MacPhun/Skylum apps. See the Macphun or Skylum Category in the dropdown menu at the top of the right column.

V1.2 updates

NEW

      • Realistic HDR preset category for more natural one-click results.
      • Ability to add Custom Preset Packs
      • Compare your HDR image to the middle image of a bracketed set of exposures.
      • Adjust opacity for the original source layer.
      • Option to use the Original Image as the source for a new layer.
      • “Super Smooth” control added to HDR Denoise panel to provide extreme noise reduction and smoothing of any artifacts.
      • Shortcut: Option+Click on the Details Mask slider to see mask.
      • Shortcut: When brushing selective enhancements into a layer, press and hold the “M” key to view the effects with a 100% fill mask.
      • Sharing option for the popular 500px website.

IMPROVED

      • Deghosting now produces better results automatically OR you can select one of your exposures as a “reference image” for ghost reduction.
      • Lightroom support adds the ability to export RAW files to Aurora that include their Lightroom adjustments.
      • Aperture support for merging multiple images.
      • Support for new RAW file formats from additional cameras.
      • Better Image Zoom supports zooming where you double-click and not only at the image center.
      • A variety of bug fixes, including better performance for image loading and interface response, color profile improvements and more.

V1.1.0 updates

1. New presets category “Realistic HDR”.
2. New option: Compare processed image to the middle image in the bracket set.
3. Improved Deghosting.
4. Improved Lightroom support. Easy way to use RAW files with Lightroom adjustments.
5. Improved Aperture plugin – added ability to open multiply images.
6. New option: Use original image as source for layer.
7. New option: Customize the amount (opacity) of the effect for the first layer.
8. New control: Super Smooth slider for HDR Denoise.
9. New option: Add new preset packs.
10. Added and improved support for new RAW files (from different cameras).
11. Improved Image Zoom (zoom in where you click, not only at the image center)
12. More options for Deghosting (select reference image).
13. Sharing to 500px.
14. New shortcut: Option+Click on the details mask slider to see this mask.
15. New shortcut – hold ‘M’ to show layer effect with 100% fill mask.
16. Variety of bug fixes.

System (Mac) requirements

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