Aurora HDR 2018 Review – First Impressions

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Aurora HDR 2018 Review – First Impressions

My Path to HDR 

I started with HDR about five years ago and, since then, it has become an important tool in my editing workflow.

Like so many, my HDR journey started with Photomatix.

It was exciting that Photomatix opened new and creative opportunities for me in regard to image processing, but I soon realized the tool’s shortcomings and limitations. My biggest dissatisfaction with it was that it deteriorated images to the extreme by altering nearly every single pixel in the edited image even when only the most modest effects were applied.

Aurora HDR - My Path to HDR

First steps with HDR

This was when I opted for Photoshop HDR Pro, a dedicated high dynamic range module in Photoshop. Compared to Photomatix, Photoshop HDR Pro has an entirely opposite approach to HDR processing. It does not alter any pixel in the edited image and presents the original data at 100%. It selects the appropriate pixels from the bracketed photos and assembles a new HDR image with unaltered pixels.

This approach gives unprecedented latitude for image manipulation in Lightroom and Photoshop. The downside is that it produces an enormous 32-bit TIFF image, which is over 10 times larger than the original bracketed shots combined.

In 2015, Adobe surprised the photography community by introducing an HDR Merge module in Lightroom. What is unique about Lightroom HDR is that it produces an HDR image in RAW format at a size comparable to the single original image.

The biggest advantage of this new approach is the ability to extend a nondestructive RAW editing workflow even after the HDR merge process.

The negative of Lightroom HDR Merge is that it is too bare-bones and lacks many advanced features and functionalities. Although Lightroom satisfies my HDR needs for uncomplicated and straightforward shots, I always felt the need for a more sophisticated, HDR-dedicated tool.

Finally, this tool has arrived.

Arrival of Aurora HDR

As a PC user, I had only a brief encounter with the Skylum (formerly MacPhun) brand. Years ago, when I was still using my iPhone and before Google released Snapseed,  FX Photo Studio from MacPhun was, by far, my favorite mobile photo editing app. 

Aurora HDR - iPhone street photography edited with FX Photo Studio

iPhone street photography edited with FX Photo Studio - 2010

Of course, as a designer and photographer, I was aware of MacPhun desktop programs but I never took the company very seriously. I treated them as stubborn machead isolationists.

This changed in 2016 when I saw the announcement of a partnership between Trey Ratcliff and Skylum. Initially, I was not sure what to think of the news but, in the photography community, Trey has a reputation as a talented photographer, a strategic thinker and a brilliant businessman. I knew something big would follow.

When Skylum (MacPhun) later announced the release of the Windows version of Aurora HDR, I knew exactly what was happening.

It was the beginning of Skylum’s assault on Lightroom and Photoshop where Aurora serves as a Trojan horse in a world of Adobe domination.

Even before downloading the Aurora HDR 2018 beta version, I knew it would be a useful tool in my photography workflow.

Aurora HDR Review - First Impressions

User Interface

The design of the user interface combines traditional simplicity with a modern touch.

The learning curve to start editing with Aurora is minimal. Thankfully, MacPhun did not try to reinvent the wheel and opted for a traditional layout that is found in most graphical editors.

Aurora HDR Review - User Interface

The right panel—where you can find all the editing tools—is divided into collapsible Filter Panels. The top right corner is dedicated to the Info Panel with the Histogram as the focal point.

The program is well designed, fast and responsive. There are no lags or freezes. When you move any editing slider, you can see the effect in real time without any delay.

One of my favorite UI features is the ability to zoom in and out by using the mouse scroll wheel.

Another subtle but very useful touch is highlighting the Filter Panel names in yellow where the edits are differentiated  from the default values. This means that, in one glance, you can assess what editing tools and filters were used for any given image.

The Aurora Tools can be categorized into four groups.

Basic Editing Tools

These tools are standard in any photo editing program such as Lightroom, Capture One, Photo RAW, etc.

Here, you can adjust the Exposure and boost the Contrast, Vibrance, and Saturation. This is where you can tone-map your HDR images by recovering the highlights with the Highlights and the Whites sliders. You can also lift the shadows by adjusting the Shadows and the Blacks.

Aurora HDR - Basic Editing Tools

The Color Toning panel is similar to Lightroom’s Split Toning tool.

Aurora HDR - Color Toning

HDR Tools

These tools are specific to HDR processing. The HDR Structure and HDR Detail Boost tools help emphasize the structure in our photos.

The HDR Denoise tool is designed to compensate for the digital noise introduced by boosting the structure and details.

Aurora HDR - HDR Stracture Panel
Aurora HDR - HDR Noise Panel

Tools Unique to Aurora HDR

These tools are unique to Aurora HDR and are evidence of the insight from a professional travel and landscape photographer like Trey Ratcliff.

Top & Bottom Tuning

When editing landscapes, you always deal with differences between the brightness of the sky area and the darkness from the shadows in the foreground area.

In Lightroom, I achieve a balance by using multiple Graduated Filters. In Aurora, there is a dedicated tool for this purpose. I find it very useful and I use it for every landscape photo that I edit.

Aurora HDR - Top & Bottom Tuning

Image Radiance and Glow Filters

Image Radiance and Glow Filters help us to achieve soft glow, dream-like effects much like those that make Trey Ratcliff’s HDR photos so distinctive and unique.

Aurora HDR - Image Radiance and Glow Filters

Polarizing Filter

There is even a dedicated Polarizing Filter panel where you can simulate the polarizing effect by targeting the blue hues in the image.

Aurora HDR - Polarizing Filter

Advanced (Photoshop-like) Tools

This is where Aurora HDR shines and sets itself apart from other dedicated HDR programs.

Let me explain.

The main challenge in HDR editing is to achieve the desired effects in different parts of the image.

For example, let’s say that you edit an image with a rock formation in the foreground, the water surface of a river in the mid-ground, and a mountain range with open sky in the background. The goal here is to keep the sky and water as smooth as possible, and the mountains and rocks sharp and vivid with enhanced texture. This is pretty much an impossible task to achieve in a single editing pass.

What we normally do is create two, three or even four editing versions, export them from the HDR editor, combine them as layers in Photoshop and then blend them together using transparency masks.

This is a tedious multi-step process.


Now, with the introduction of layers with masks in Aurora HDR, you can perform all the tasks in a single document.

All you do is create different editing versions on separate layers and then use the brush masking tools to combine them.

Aurora HDR - Layers

You can also import the second image as a separate layer, which is very helpful for sky replacement.

Dodge & Burn

The Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop are probably the most useful tools for photo editing. But, somehow, they were never imported into Lightroom. Of course, you can achieve the same effect in Lightroom by using the Adjustment Brush tool, but I Like having the Dodge and Burn Filter as a dedicated panel.

Aurora HDR - Dodge & Burn

Rounding Up

When you start using Aurora HDR, you realize that it is not an HDR editor at all. Instead, it is a damn good general photo editing program with HDR processing capabilities.

If I had to define what Aurora HDR really is, I would say that it is a hybrid between Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Plugins. It is positioned to compete against Lightroom and Photoshop by leveraging Trey Ratcliff’s name and his reputation as a pioneer in the HDR field.

There are different ways to incorporate Aurora HDR into your photo editing workflow. It can be used as a dedicated application, as a Lightroom plugin, or as a Photoshop plugin.

In my case, I use it as a Lightroom plugin. I select the bracketed photos in Lightroom, export them to Aurora HDR and, once I am done editing, Aurora creates a new HDR image in a TIFF format and saves it next to the original bracketed photos in my Lightroom catalog.

I recommend downloading a free trial version of Aurora HDR and decide for yourself if it is right tool for your photography and if you like it or not.

Aurora HDR Discount Code

If you are ready to buy Aurora HDR, use a discount code PHOTOTRACES to get 10% off.