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How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

When creating an HDR or High Dynamic Range photo, you typically need three or more images taken at different exposures (bracketed) to create one stunning image. But given the high dynamic range of today’s digital cameras, do you still need to shoot bracketed images to achieve the HDR look? In this article, I’ll show you how you can achieve HDR effects from a single image using Aurora HDR 2018.

Results will also be compared with an image made the “real” HDR way. Which is best? You be the judge.

What is HDR?

First off, let’s break down what HDR is exactly. As mentioned earlier, HDR combines a series of images, each taken with a different exposure. The result is a dramatic photo with brightened shadows and darkened highlights. Thus, shadows and highlights are the two main features that will play the biggest role in creating an HDR photo from a single image.

Using this insight, you could take a single shot and apply HDR effects by playing with just a few features that affect the overall dynamic range of your image. To start, here’s a single image of a landscape scene, shot in RAW.

Note: the images used in this article are courtesy of dPS editor Darlene Hildebrandt. 

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

1. Shoot in RAW

The very first thing you want to do with your single-image HDR image is to make sure it was taken in RAW format, not JPG. RAW files are larger in size than JPGs because they store much more image information.

This means that you can push lots of post-processing effects and even salvage parts of an image that would otherwise be unrecoverable. You could feasibly apply HDR effects to a JPG image, but the results won’t be as dramatic as they will be with a RAW file.

2. Adjust the Highlights and Shadows sliders

Since highlights and shadows tend to affect the overall brightness of an image, you’ll want to play with these sliders first. Pulling down the highlights can restore bright areas that appear washed out in an image while pulling up the shadows brighten up dark spots.

For example, the sample image above was opened in Aurora HDR 2018 and the highlights and shadows were pulled to their extremes, just for demonstration purposes. Check out the dramatic change that happens just by altering the highlights and shadows.

The sky now looks overly dramatic, and the foreground is really bright and practically free of shadows. Since HDR is largely done to taste, some might like this style as-is, while others might deem it too extreme. If you want a slightly less dramatic and more realistic photo, move the highlights and shadows sliders around to taste.

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

3. Adjust the Blacks and Whites sliders

To sharpen up your image and make it less flat, play around with the image blacks and whites. In general, adjusting whites is preferable to bumping up the exposure since the latter will affect highlights more than shadows and mid-tones.

If needed, you can even brighten your shadows more by using the Dodge tool and darken highlights with the Burn tool (built-into Aurora HDR). While dialing in the blacks of the image, be sure not to clip (lose detail) your shadows too much by going too far with the Black slider.

HINT: you want them to clip a little, otherwise there will be no black in the image and it will be flat.

4. Finish off with HDR Enhance and Smart Tone

Finally, top it off by adjusting two of Aurora HDR’s most unique and impactful features: HDR Enhance and Smart Tone.

The first feature, HDR Enhance, adds details, clarity, and color adjustment to an image without creating typical HDR problems such as a halo effect. Meanwhile, Smart Tone is a mapping algorithm that automatically brightens your image while also reducing noise.

These two features can be tweaked individually to achieve your HDR style of choice.

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

The Result

At this point, it’s worth noting that although Aurora HDR 2018 has many filters that you can apply to images, I didn’t use them all for demonstration purposes. Instead, I stuck to the main editing window on the right-hand panel (HDR Basic).

After tinkering around in Aurora HDR, these are my two resulting images. The first is a single shot with balanced exposure and HDR editing effects applied. Next is a regular 3-bracket HDR image. Which image do you prefer?

Aurora HDR single Image

Here is the original unedited RAW file for comparison.

single image Darlene

Single-Image HDR Effects

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

Full HDR from 3 bracketed exposures. Notice how much more tonal range is in this image than the one above.

Single Image HDR Photo – Example #2

This second example shows the single image HDR effect in an urban environment. Below is the starting RAW image before any post-processing was applied.

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

Original raw image.

The above image was opened in Aurora HDR and the Highlight and Shadow sliders were pulled to their extremes. Again, you don’t (and shouldn’t) keep the highlights and shadows sliders at their extremes, but this is just a visual demonstration of how dramatic of an effect they can have. It’s also a good idea to see how far you can go, then scale it back a bit in each direction.

Notice how the image has brightened up considerably and you can now see lots of detail in the buildings, especially the “Meet the Producer” sign.

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

Notice in the image above that there is a halo effect around much of the building. To fix that, simply adjust those highlight and shadow sliders to your liking. Also play around with the HDR Enhance slider, which will preserve image contrast and clarity without exacerbating the halo effect.

Next, the Whites and Smart Tone sliders were adjusted brighten the image further.

How to do Single Image HDR Effects with Aurora HDR 2018

Below is the resulting single image with light Aurora HDR effects applied. For comparison, a 4-image bracketed HDR is also included below.

Aurora HDR single Image

Original again for comparison.

Aurora HDR single Image

HDR from a single image.

Image: HDR from 4 bracketed images. The biggest difference here is a more seamless continuation of t...

HDR from 4 bracketed images. The biggest difference here is a more seamless continuation of tones. You will get less haloing and less noise from this method than using a single image.

In Conclusion

There you have it – a quick tutorial on how you can create an HDR effect from a single image in Aurora HDR.

Have you experimented with making a single image look like an HDR shot? Please share your techniques and sample images in the comments below.

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Suzi Pratt
Suzi Pratt

is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she’s not taking photos, she’s making travel photography and camera gear videos for her YouTube channel.