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HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography originally started as an attempt to correct the limited dynamic range for standard camera sensors, compared to what the human eye can see or perceive. This is not a new concept, but in case you’ve never heard of it, allow me to explain.
Back in the day, camera sensors had an average dynamic range of about 5–7 stops, where our eyes can easily adapt and recognize ranges from 11 to 14 stops. Nowadays, sensors of modern cameras are much more capable in terms of dynamic range, but they still, depending on the situation, can’t capture the whole range.
So HDR techniques utilize multiple images, with different exposures, of the same subject, that are then merged together to create an exposure range closer to what we can perceive with our eyes. Of course, this is not a new concept, and there is always a lot of controversy among photographers regarding the subject. Some people like it extreme or artsy, and others like it more natural. Both can be achieved through HDR methods. There are many different techniques and types of software for doing HDR. But, not all of them are easy to use and understand, with resulting images that are not natural, and over-processed.
Recently Macphun, one of the world’s leading developers in consumer and professional photography software for the Mac, has teamed up with Trey Ratcliff, an artist and HDR pioneer who mastered the technique, gaining over nine million fans. According to their statement, “Aurora HDR contains every imaginable tool needed to produce high-quality next generation dramatic images.”
I’ve been a fan of Trey’s wonderful images myself, so when I heard about the software, I wanted to give it a try. I just received a copy and have been playing around for a couple of days.
Some of the key benefits of Macphun Aurora HDR Pro, as described by the developer, are:
As mentioned above, the software can be used as a stand-alone application or as an plugin host operation within Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. Because Lightroom is my base, I have chosen to use it from there.
After the installation, it took me a while to figure out how to make it work with Lightroom. Most plugins automatically install the extensions but with Aurora, you actually need to open the program, open an image, and then go to the Aurora HDR Pro menu and select Install Plug-Ins. In my opinion, I think it would be better in future editions to have the option of installing the plug-ins upon the initial installation, rather than having to go through this process. But after that, it integrated with Lightroom flawlessly.
When launched, the first window that shows up displays the images from which the HDR will be made, as well as options for Alignment, Ghosts and Chromatic Aberration Reduction. So far so good. Pick alignment if the images were shot hand-held, pick Ghosts Reduction if there are moving subjects, and so on.
Once you click Create HDR, the images are combined and the main interface will open up. The interface is well-rounded and easy to navigate. It features a large image view with three main sections: a navigation and tool bar at the top, layer and adjusting tools on the right side, and presets selections at the bottom.
On the top bar you’ll find: the zooming tools, quick preview and compare options (to check against your original and edited images), a move tool (to move around when zoomed in), and a brush and eraser to use in layers (when creating masks) and the layers tool.
The main section of right-side panel contains the following tools:
Lastly, there are the presets, created by Macphun and Trey himself. They provide a good starting point to try out different looks in a single click. Of course, you can also create your own presets and save them for future use.
I created the image below by using three images, shot two stops apart. I started with the Basic Realistic preset as a base and played with the sliders until I got what I wanted. Then, I added a layer to add more light to the palace in the foreground and masked out the rest.
One of the things that I’ve noticed while working, is that the application is fast compared to other software I’ve used in the past, and that is a godsend. Everything loads fast, and the application seems to be very responsive. I’ll definitely continue to use it in the future and test more functions.
Whether you are an HDR fan or have never experimented with the technique, you should give Macphun Aurora HDR Pro a try. This is a well-rounded application that can serve the needs of pros and amateurs alike.
Unfortunately, the software is only available for Mac, but I think overall it is a great alternative. They are currently three options. The Aurora HDR currently retails for $49.99; with this option there is no RAW support, and it can just run as a standalone application. The tested version is the Aurora HDR Pro that retails for $99, and there is also a package that includes the application plus training for $129.