Hands-on with Aurora HDR Pro

Aurora HDR is a new HDR tone-mapping program for Mac users.
Aurora HDR is a new HDR tone-mapping program for Mac users from Macphun Software.

Today, Macphun Software released their latest photo editing tool, Aurora HDR. I’ve had the opportunity to test-drive a pre-release version of the software for a little while, and I really like what I can do with it. Here are my first impressions of this powerful HDR software for Mac.

Host Applications

Aurora HDR can run as a stand-alone editor, or you can run it as a plug-in to Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aperture. To merge images, you’ll need to launch the application from Aperture, Lightroom, or as a stand-alone application. You can also launch it from Bridge. In Photoshop, the program works as a way of tone-mapping single images. When you use Aurora as a stand-alone editor, you can save your image in a proprietary format that allows you to revisit and edit your work after saving it. When using the stand-alone editor, most RAW formats are directly supported.

Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago, IL
Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago, IL
Interface and Controls

The Aurora HDR interface will be familiar to anyone who uses other Macphun plug-ins, such as Intensify or Tonality. The adjustment controls are on the right-hand side and they are numerous! You can select from a large library of built-in presets, or create your own looks.

The tonality controls allow you to adjust traditional parameters such as highlights and shadows. A “smart tone” slider provides brightness control while also compressing tones so you’ll avoid clipping.

Aurora HDR has an absolute wealth of features and controls over tone and detail. You can use it for both HDR and to enhance individual images.
Aurora HDR has an absolute wealth of features and controls over tone and detail. You can use it for both HDR and to enhance individual images.

What strikes me as fundamentally awesome is that Aurora HDR has four different ways of controlling details and textures, including:

  • Clarity
  • HDR Look (large textures)
  • HDR Detail (small textures)
  • Detail Controls (sharpens large, medium and small details)
You can really extract detail with Aurora HDR.
You can really extract detail with Aurora HDR.

Intensify users will find some of these controls similar to what’s found in that plug-in, but there is added control over textures with the HDR sliders. Moreover, the two HDR sliders can be further refined with softening controls to create a tremendous variety of tone-mapping looks.

Other useful controls include graduated filters to adjust exposure/tone on your image. I like that the gradient tool is superimposed over your image when you adjust its parameters.

There is also a noise-reduction tool that can help to minimize the appearance of grain and other noise when creating HDR images. That’s a nice touch and it’s something I’ve wanted to see in an HDR program for a long time.

Deep Feature Set

Aurora HDR includes a full suite of tools that are not found in most other HDR tone-mapping applications. These include:

Radiance (creates a softening/ “glamour glow” effect)

  • Glow
  • Split-toning
  • Selective Colorization
  • Tone Curves
  • Vignette
Built-in Layers and Masking

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that selective adjustment is key to digital post-processing. Not every effect looks good when it’s applied to your entire image. Aurora HDR allows you to add layers and masking to control the placement of effects. You can also use layers to amplify effects for even more detail. To me, the power of built-in layers is something that cannot be overstated. By having layers with blending modes built-in, you can avoid the need to use Photoshop and do all your work in one program. Cool feature: You can create luminosity masks directly in Aurora HDR, and you can also add texture overlays from your texture files!

By using Aurora's built-in layers, I was able to enhance the details in the tractor without making the sky look crusty.
By using Aurora’s built-in layers, I was able to enhance the details in the tractor without making the sky look crusty.
You can overlay texture files directly in Aurora HDR Pro. I used a Flypaper Texture on this image.
You can overlay texture files directly in Aurora HDR Pro. I used a Flypaper Texture on this image.
A few rough edges

As of today, there are a few things I’d still like to see improved with Aurora HDR. In my version, enabling ghost reduction sometimes created artifacts in specular highlights; I recommend keeping it turned off when possible. Photoshop Smart Filters aren’t as of yet supported. If you’ve created a HDR DNG file in Lightroom CC, you’ll need to use Aurora HDR  as a Photoshop filter because it won’t read 32-bit DNG files at this time.

Probably the biggest drawback right now is that the software is Mac-only. While that’s great for me, I realize Windows users will want to try this software, too. Hopefully there will be a future release that supports Windows OS.

Conclusions

If you’re a Mac user who enjoys HDR, I really like what I’m getting from Aurora HDR Pro. I can create images that run the spectrum from completely clean to over the top grunge, and I can have tremendous control over just how much detail I want and where to put it. To me, this makes Aurora HDR the absolute choice for creating images with that detailed HDR look that so many people enjoy.

Download A Free Trial of Aurora HDR

7 thoughts on “Hands-on with Aurora HDR Pro”

  1. Hi Jason,
    Just curious what you think of the fact that exporting from LR ignores adjustments made (pre sharpening, noise removal, spot removal, profiles, crop) in RAW. Seems to me it should process with the adjustments during export. Or am I missing something?

    Thanks

  2. Hi Ron-
    I just discovered this myself today as well and I’ve contacted the developers. Apparently, Aurora is processing the original RAW files and not TIFFs exported from Lightroom. One thing I do is merge to HDR in Lightroom CC 2015 and then send that image to Photoshop, where I use Aurora HDR as a filter. It works well that way.

  3. Jason – again, a stellar and thorough review of the cool tools that you use to make your magic! Thanks for the first look! We’ll get to work addressing your concerns. Cheers, Kevin (from Macphun)

  4. So far I’m very impressed. Yesterday’s update fixed several things, including the interaction with Lightroom; I’m having fun going through some of my old files, reprocessing them with Aurora, as it does a bang-up job with single exposures as well as bracketed shots.

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