Aurora HDR 2018 is tremendously easy, fun software by Macphun, designed for processing HDR (High Dynamic Range) images. If you’ve been following popular contemporary photography for a while, you’ll know that dramatic HDR is no longer in style. It fell out of photography fashion as quickly as wine-lovers stopped drinking merlot. Knowing how to create natural-looking HDR images is a very practical tool to have in your wheelhouse though, so let’s take a look at how to do that with Aurora.
When do you need HDR?
If you’re shooting a location where there are very bright tones, along with very dark shadows, your camera probably won’t be capable of capturing exactly what your eye sees. If you bracket your images as you shoot, you can capture the entire dynamic range of the scene – every tone from very bright to very dark.
What is bracketing?
Bracketing means you shoot multiple images of the same thing, changing the exposure of each individual image. Most photographers choose to shoot between three and five images, though as few as two will work. Sometimes a situation requires seven or more. By bracketing your exposures this way, you generate the raw materials you need to use in Aurora HDR to create a final image that records all of the bright and dark tones your eyes saw.
Setting your camera up to bracket
First, attach your camera to your tripod, compose your scene and fine-tune your focus. Now, configure your bracketing. You can set the auto-bracketing feature (AEB) on your camera to shoot multiple images, approximately one to two stops of light apart, depending on the situation. The first image will be very light, or overexposed. The second image will be correctly exposed – or what your camera interprets as correct. The third image will be very dark or underexposed. Many photographers find three images to be effective, especially when they’re striving for a natural-looking HDR look but you can shoot as many as you think you’ll need.
NOTE: If you don’t have a camera with an auto-bracketing feature, don’t worry, you can bracket manually too. Create multiple exposures for each scene using your exposure compensation dial to increase and then decrease your exposure (make sure to use Aperture Priority and only change the shutter speed as altering the aperture will result in images that do not blend properly). It takes a little more time and patience while you are shooting but it’s worth trying if your camera doesn’t have an auto-bracketing feature.
How do you process the brackets?
After your shoot, upload your images to your computer just like you normally would. Aurora HDR runs as stand-alone software but if you’re a Lightroom user, it can be installed as a plug-in too.
Starting in Aurora HDR 2018
Double click the Aurora icon to open the software. Click the Open Image button.
Choose the folder where your images live and select them. Click Open.
The Aurora dialog box appears with your selected images. Click the Create HDR button.
Note: Tick off the “Alignment” checkbox if you think there was any movement of the camera between shots. The program will scan the images and attempt to align them. You can also click the little gear icon for additional settings like removing ghosting (subjects that moved from image to image).
Starting in Lightroom
Go to the folder containing the images you want to process in HDR. Click to select them. Right-click to bring up the menu. Select Export > Aurora HDR 2018 > Open Original Images. The Aurora dialog box appears with your selected images. Click the Create HDR button.
Note: If you made adjustments to your images in Lightroom, such as lens corrections, cropping, straightening, spot removal or noise reduction, instead of selecting Open Original Images, choose Use .TIFF with Lightroom Adjusters.
Aurora HDR’s Realistic Presets
Part of why I opened this article with the statement that Aurora HDR 2018 is both easy and fun is because of its presets. Along the lower part of the screen, just above the filmstrip, you’ll see a menu called Categories. Click on it to bring up the preset menu, then click on Realistic HDR.
My four favorite natural-looking Aurora presets live in this folder:
- Realistic & Detailed
- Realistic & Balanced
- Realistic Bright
- Realistic Neutral
These presets make my images look and feel the way the ice cave looked and felt when I was there. To me, recreating an image faithful to that memory is what natural-looking realistic HDR is all about.
Choose your favorite
The best way to choose your favorite Realistic HDR preset is to scroll all the way to the left on the filmstrip and then work your way right, clicking each one. As you select each preset, the larger image above the filmstrip will show you a more detailed preview of how each preset affects the look of your image. Once you find your favorite, it might look so perfect that all you might need to do is save it. Or, you might want to personalize the preset before you save. Here are a few tips on how to do that.
Modifying the Opacity
Let’s say that you love the Realistic & Detailed preset but it’s just a touch too much. The first – and easiest – way to modify its effect is to reduce the overall opacity of the preset. To do that, click on that preset in the filmstrip. Slowly shift the slider to the left, reducing the opacity, and lowering the effect (I often find that between 75-80 is the perfect amount). Save the image at this point if you are happy with it.
Another method of reducing opacity is layer-based. Look to the upper right corner of the Aurora HDR develop panel, just below the histogram. See where it says Layers? The Opacity adjustment slider for that layer is just below that. You can increase it or decrease it (each layer) there as well.
Fine-tuning the preset
If you’d like to use your chosen preset as a starting point, you can easily modify it. On the right-hand panel of the screen, in the editing panel, just below the Layers section, you’ll see a section called Filters. The first one is called HDR Basic which adds clarity, contrast, vibrance, and a bit of saturation. I’m calling this adjustment out specifically because it does so much to your image.
Just for kicks, push the HDR Enhance slider all the way to the right, so that it’s at 100. Your image is now the opposite of what most people consider natural-looking HDR. Next, adjust the slider to zero to get a feel for what this slider does to your image.
Most of the Realistic presets are set below 50 for HDR Enhance. If you want to stay in a natural-looking range but your image needs a touch more pizazz, slowly move the HDR Enhance slider to the right until you reach the level that feels right to you.
Additional fine-tuning options
As you work your way through Aurora’s Filters, you’ll see additional options like Color, HDR Structure and Glow. The preset you’ve chosen dictates the setting of each Filter. But again, you can shift each slider individually to give your image more, or less, pop.
To learn the effects of each tool, I suggest moving the sliders all the way to the right, so that the effect is at 100 and then doing the opposite, so the effect is at zero. Nine times out of ten I think the Aurora HDR design gurus have chosen the right level, and I leave the preset at its original amount. If you do choose to make a change just remember that if your goal is natural-looking HDR, a little Structure or Saturation can make a big shift in the appearance of your image.
Glow is an interesting option, giving images an almost Orton-like effect. While it’s a popular style option for many photographers right now, it’s not what I usually call natural-looking. In all four of my favorites, Realistic HDR presets, the Glow setting is set to 0. For ice cave images, 0 is the perfect amount but for some subjects, like this barn, a touch of Glow softened the natural look of this HDR image and made it feel more inviting.
While I probably sound like a broken record at this point, remember to move the slider just a touch to the right if you want your HDR image to have that natural, I-just-stumbled-on-this-gorgeous-vista-and-took-this-amazing-picture sort of look to it.
Top and Bottom Adjustment
The Top and Bottom Adjustment Filter is a “selective adjustment” meaning that, unlike global adjustments, it only affects parts of your image. If you have an image where the sky reads overexposed and is much brighter than the foreground, or conversely, where the foreground is dark and underexposed, adjust the image using this tool.
For this final version of the barn, after applying the Realistic & Balanced preset, at 80% opacity, I ultimately decided that the sky was a bit too light and the barn was a little too dark. I added a Top Adjustment of -5 Exposure, +5 Contrast, and +15 Vibrance. I also added a Bottom Adjustment of +10 Exposure and +5 Warmth. These adjustments help to enhance the sky and even out the overall exposure of the image.
Of the three, this version is my favorite. Which is yours?
Saving your image
Once you’ve completed all of your adjustments, it’s time to save your image. If you started in Aurora and want to create a JPEG or TIFF, select File > Export and then select the correct folder and rename the file as appropriate for your workflow.
If you want to create a native Aurora .mpaur2 HDR file, select File > Save and then select the correct folder and rename the file. This format saves the history (and any layers) as well and allows you to continue to go back in and make changes to your image.
Saving your image to your Lightroom Catalog
If you started in Lightroom, it’s a snap to save your image. After you finish processing your image in Aurora HDR, click the Apply button in the upper right corner of the interface. This saves and also catalogs your image in Lightroom. The new file name will end in AuroraHDR2018-edit.tiff.
Hopefully, you’ve been following along and processed a few images in Aurora as you were reading this article. Now take a minute to upload your best natural-looking HDR version. Share with the dPS community about how you created it using Aurora as well as any other tips or tricks you’ve discovered.
Disclaimer: Macphun is a dPS advertising partner.