Perhaps the earliest method of producing high dynamic range images started in the 1800s, when French photographer Gustave Le Gray shot and combined two negatives in the darkroom to produce a well-exposed print of a high contrast seascape. Not surprisingly, todays HDR processing tools are much more sophisticated and much easier to use thanks to software applications like Macphuns Aurora HDR.
While there are other HDR software applications out there (and most have been around longer than this one), Aurora HDR stands out for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that the application is a collaboration between Macphun and HDR wizard, Trey Ratcliff. Ratcliff has probably done more to promote and popularize HDR than any software manufacturer or photographer ever has. He is incredibly prolific and has always been extremely generous with his HDR knowledge and advice. And Macphun has done an excellent job with this software, as well as other applications such as Tonality Pro (one of my Macphun favorites), so it is a win-win in my book.
HDR has generally been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition among photographers but it does not have to be. You can go to extremes, with eye-popping colors and crunchy details or keep an image looking natural looking, with just enough tweaking to maintain details in both highlights and shadows in high contrast scenarios (HDR is ideal for real estate photography, for example).
Aurora HDR is currently for Mac only (but a Windows application is promised, so hang in there PC users). Available in Standard ($39) and Pro ($99) versions, both operate as a standalone app with multiple licenses for up to 5 Macs. The Pro version also offers plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements and Apple Aperture, includes unlimited numbers of brackets, ghost reduction, native RAW support, PSD file support and some of Trey Ratcliffs signature HDR presets. It’s designed to work with other Macphun software as well, so you can adjust a photo in Aurora HDR and then export it to another Macphun app if you’d like. I tested the Pro version of Aurora HDR in standalone mode on a MacBook Air with 8GB of RAM.
Installation was quick and easy; getting started was equally as easy, thanks to the softwares clean and intuitive interface and plentiful presets. If you’re new to HDR (or even if you have some experience), it’s best to check out some of Macphuns tutorials to dig deeper into the software’s many features.
Pay attention to the opening screen, which allows you to choose a reference image for ghosting reduction to help minimize any movement in the image. While it worked well, I would love to have a manual option within the software to re-apply deghosting if necessary. Deghosting and alignment take a little time so be patient when waiting for the software to do its thing.
But once the images have been combined, it’s time to get to work. Initially, it’s probably best to start off with some of the application’s presets (you can also download additional presets) if you would like. The presets are organized into sets including , which are organized into categories such as Realistic HDR, Dramatic, Landscape, Indoor and Architecture.
Starting with a base image, Aurora HDR provides a huge number of options for tweaking and adjusting images. These include tone mapping, tone curves, saturation, vibration, contrast, temperature and many, many more.
A couple of my favorites include the Top and Bottom Lighting option, which allows you to adjust lighting in different areas of the image. The areas affected can be chosen much like using a gradient tool, with options for increasing/decreasing the coverage, as well as angle rotation.
I also love the glow feature as well, which adds a beautiful glow to the image. Of course, there are options to control the amount, smoothness, brightness and warmth. And, you can easily see the before/after versions.
One you get settled in with the basics, then start playing around with layers and masks —particularly luminosity masks. With the latter you can selectively apply changes to just highlights (or when inverted) shadow areas. You can also layer textures onto the image for some extra creativity.
I have used a lot of different HDR software and, while most of them have been quite good, Aurora HDR has taken its place at the top of my list. I may not work in HDR very often but it’s intuitive user interface, familiar tools and generally excellent end results have made me a big fan. And there are plenty of options to make your images look better, even when you bypass the more extreme HDR looks.