7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

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Aurora HDR is one of the best and easiest photo editing programs available for quickly creating HDR images. With that said, it has a wide range of tools and filters to help you achieve your HDR goals. To help you sort through them all, this article will highlight seven tips for creating natural-looking HDR landscapes in Aurora HDR 2018.

1. Keep HDR editing of sunsets and sunrises to a minimum

Everyone knows that sunrise and sunset provide optimal landscape photography opportunities. Golden hour bathes everything in a beautiful, often colorful natural light. As a result, it’s best to take a more subdued editing approach to keep the scene as natural looking as possible, especially when dealing with HDR. Otherwise, you risk over-processing your image.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Original starting image (the middle exposure of a 5-image bracketed set). Image courtesy dPS Managing Editor, Darlene Hildebrandt.

NOTE: On that note, many of the tips below will include editing tools and sliders that have been pushed to their extremes. This is meant as a demonstration to show what you could do by using these tools at their maximum, but it’s not suggesting you should do this.

2. Intelligently bump contrast and color with HDR Enhance

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

One of the first tools you should utilize is called HDR Enhance. Found in the HDR Basic panel, it’s a newer feature available in Aurora HDR 2018 and it serves as a replacement for the clarity slider. When activated, HDR Enhance brings out the details and textures in your image while minimizing any residual artifacts such as image noise that might be introduced in the process.

In the example below, the HDR Enhance slider has been pulled to the extreme for demonstration purposes. Notice how the contrast in the foreground and the distant rocks have increased significantly, and the color in the sky really pops.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

HDR Enhance at 100.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

But adding too much HDR Enhance is like adding too much clarity. The rocks and sand in the foreground have so much contrast and clarity that they look unreal, and the rocks and hills in the background now have a halo effect (generally considered undesirable).

To reduce these effects and thus make your landscape appear more realistic, tone down HDR Enhance significantly (or use the masking brush to apply or erase the effect wherever you choose). By having the slider at 36 as opposed to 100, there’s still a nice pop of details and color.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

HDR Enhance scaled back to 36.

3. Bump up the contrast

To make your image appear less flat, bump up the contrast. Going to extremes results in lots of shadows, reducing details in any dark areas. It also saturates color in the sky and in the reflection on the water.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Contrast at 100.

By lessening contrast to about 20, shadows are still enhanced, but the details are better preserved. Note that the trees on the hill are still visible.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Contrast scaled back to 20.

4. Use Smart Tone to brighten up an image

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Since increasing the contrast introduced more shadows to the image, brighten it up again by using the Smart Tone filter. Dragging the slider to the right brings more light to areas of the image that are dark, without dramatically affecting parts of your image that are already bright.

Below, you can see an extreme version of the Smart Tone slider in action. Notice how the shadowed areas are brightened, revealing lots of detail, particularly in the hill on the right. This is what you can do with Smart Tone, but it’s not necessarily what you should do since the image now appears very flat without any shadows or contrast, and the dreaded halo has appeared again.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Smart Tone at 100.

To appear more realistic, pull back Smart Tone to about 22. This gives a hint of detail to the trees in the right, similar to what a reflection on the water might cause. It also brightens that patch of sand to the right.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Smart Tone dialed back to 22.

5. Enhance Saturation, Vibrance, and Color Contrast

At this point, let’s turn our attention to the colors. Play with the Temperature slider in the HDR Basics panel to add some warmth to images like this sunset. Then scroll down to the Color panel and tweak the Saturation and the Vibrance sliders.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Depending on your image, you may need to bump these either up or down. Just avoid taking them to their extremes; generally, somewhere between 5-20 will be a good range. You can also bump up the Color Contrast slider, which controls the contrast between primary and secondary colors.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Saturation, Vibrance and Color Contrast boosted.

6. Use Image Radiance for an ethereal effect

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Now we’re looking at a few finishing touches that you can add to your HDR landscape shots, and one option is Image Radiance. This adds a soft, dreamy glow to your photo, and it is best used on sunset or sunrise images. In this particular scenario, Image Radiance seems particularly important since it can contribute a soft, hazy effect typical of ocean shots.

Increase the Image Radiance slider to about 37. Doing this will introduce some shadows to your image, but that can easily be fixed with the Brightness and Shadows slider in the same panel. You can also adjust Vividness and Warmth here too if you see fit.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

7. Add a subtle Vignette

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

The final edit that you might do to an HDR landscape image is to add a vignette. In the case of a sunrise or sunset, a vignette can be particularly helpful to add a subtle frame around the subject, drawing more attention to the focal part of the scene, the setting sun.

Within Aurora HDR, the Vignette panel is at the very bottom. You can control not only the size, amount, roundness, and feathering of the vignette, but also the inner brightness. As well you can adjust the placement of the vignette, meaning you can easily create a vignette that is not centered on the image – very handy if your subject is following the rule of thirds and is off-center.

When adding a vignette, note that the amount is a negative number for a dark (black) vignette and a positive number for a bright (white) one.

7 Tips for Creating Natural-Looking HDR Landscapes Using Aurora HDR

Final image with the vignette added.

Bonus tips

In addition, Aurora HDR also has tools for correcting Chromatic Aberration and Lens Distortion. It also comes loaded with several “Realistic HDR” presets that you can use to get started, and then just tweak the settings to your liking.

Over to you

There you have it, seven tips for processing landscape HDR photos in Skylum’s Aurora HDR. If you were inspired to create your own HDR landscapes, please share them in the comments below along with your post-processing tips and tricks.

Disclaimer: Skylum (formerly Macphun) is a dPS advertising partner.

Read more from our Post Production category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • drdroad

    I couldn’t find a single option here that isn’t available in Bridge or Photoshop. And seems to me the Halo effect is in every version of this photo??

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