Aurora HDR Pro Review

This is one incredible piece of software!

If you are looking for my FULL HDR TUTORIAL using Aurora HDR, where I share all my tips and tricks, then you can find that here.

Here are some recent favorites that I edited with Aurora HDR Pro - and read on for the details on how to create them!  Dive in, learn something, and have fun!

I have recently started using Aurora HDR Pro to edit my photos, and I love it. It’s an incredible piece of software and is extremely capable yet easy to use.  I’m now using it to edit almost everything - whether it’s combining brackets for HDR or just working on a single exposure.  It’s a little addicting. The only problem is that now I want to go back and edit photos that I have previously edited in other programs.  :-)

You see, I have been processing photos in HDR for many years now, and when this came out I decided to skip it.  I didn’t really think I needed ANOTHER bit of software, since I already own all the major product suites (though I don’t consistently use them all).  How much stuff can you REALLY use, after all?

I was actually planning to pare down my list of software this year and really focus in on just a couple of products that I knew I would really use.  So when I saw the announcements for Aurora HDR Pro, I passed.  Who needs another photo editor, especially one just for HDR?

Well, it turns out that I do - and I was completely wrong about the product.  It's way more than just another HDR software package.

It’s really a combination of everything you need to edit photos in one package - it’s amazing, actually.  I’m blown away.  You can combine brackets to create HDR photos but you can also easily take a single exposure and do fabulous things with it.  It’s a true all-in-one photo editor, HDR or not!  Don't let the name fool you.  

Even if you never process brackets into HDR photos, and have no interest in it, you can benefit from the workflow streamlining and powerful capabilities of this product.

For me, the name is a little deceptive (obviously not intentionally - it just led me to think only of HDR, which is not accurate).  I see the name and immediately think of it as a competitor/replacement to Photomatix Pro, which is what I have processed my HDR photos in forever.  I like Photomatix and had no need to change.  It has served me well, and it’s a good product.

But what happens after Photomatix, for me, is that I employ various other tools to get the look that I really want.  In other words, I take the photo from Photomatix and run it through whatever else I feel inspired to use, and end up with the final result.  So that means I export from Lightroom, merge my brackets in Photomatix, then re-import back to Lightroom.  Then, I run the photo to another product (or two) to make further edits, creative changes, noise reduction, etc.  It ends up being several roundtrips with each photo.  I don't mind doing it, but it's several steps, all together.

Well, that’s the beauty and originality of Aurora HDR Pro.  You can combine your brackets in Aurora to get the base HDR photo, but then you can stay in Aurora to do all the other editing you would have done elsewhere.  Simple!  

It’s all there - and believe me, I mean ALL.


If you decide you are interested in this product, click here to download a free trial copy, and if you buy it, use the discount code JIMNIX to save 10% off your order!

You can make all sorts of edits to your photo, there are a host of really good one-click presets, and you can even use layers to make selective changes to parts of the photo.  You can quickly and easily add textures too, if you are so inclined (thanks to the layers I just mentioned - and more on that below).

It has seriously caused me to rethink my workflow, because now I use Aurora HDR Pro and then - maybe - a little bit of final touchup in Lightroom, and that's not even required (I use Aurora as a plugin to LR, although it also works as a standalone product too, thus negating the need for LR).

So after quite a bit of time spent in Aurora, I thought it would be helpful to demonstrate the use of the product here, too.  I enjoy writing these things up, though they do take a while.  But I often get questions from people about the tools I use, and I find this sort of stuff helpful when I am researching something.  So, here you go!

If you prefer to watch a video, you can find a couple of videos that I have already posted on YouTube, outlining Aurora HDR Pro. I will continue to add more over time, so check back often!  :-)

Here is the full review and tutorial on YouTube, where I walk you through my entire workflow for this photo:

And here are a couple of other videos I have shared on YouTube that show you how to use Aurora HDR Pro:

Aurora HDR Pro Quick Review/Tutorial  (click to view on YouTube)

Adding custom textures in Aurora HDR Pro (click to view on YouTube)

In this tutorial I will show you the steps I go through to build an HDR photo from a set of brackets, using Aurora HDR Pro.  Here is one of the images from the bracket set (which was 3 images total).  It's from Norway, looking over Pulpit Rock and Lysefjord.  The place is just incredibly gorgeous.  Personally, I find the scene to be beautiful, but of course a single frame never really captures it all, especially when you have a pretty bright sky and a fairly dark foreground.  That's a perfect time to fire brackets and merge into an HDR.  So, let's get started!

Ok, the first step is to get the photos into Aurora from Lightroom.  Highlight the photos you want to merge into HDR (or if it is a single photo - which works great - then just click on that photo) and then in the upper left Lightroom menu, click on:

File > Export with Preset > Use .TIFF with Lightroom adjusters

This will take your photos (3 in this case) and send them over to Aurora, and merge them into an HDR in the process.  Here is the merge window, which is the first thing you will see from Aurora HDR Pro:

You do have a couple of options that you can click if needed.  

  • Alignment - in case you shot the brackets handheld
  • Ghost reduction - are there moving objects?
  • Chromatic Aberration reduction

Here is the photo once it merges and lands in Aurora HDR Pro.  All settings are zeroed out and this is the base merged HDR photo.  This is the canvas we will build upon.  You can see how the light has been leveled out and is much more evenly distributed now.  I always like my HDRs to start this way.  I want them to be somewhat "flat" like this photo so that any adjustments to the photo are done based on my choices and decisions about how I want it to look.  So, this is a perfect start in my book.  

But, we are just getting started.  Lots of fun ahead! 

Once the photo is merged, you are ready to go.  Now, you can make all adjustments manually if you want to (by using the various tools in the right hand menu), and it works great.  Alternatively, you can click on Presets at the bottom right and it will bring up the various Preset categories to choose from, each of which contains several preset options.

Starting with Presets

If you aren’t familiar with presets, it’s basically a one-click approach that applies a bunch of built-in changes to the photo.  Each preset has a different look, so it’s fun to experiment and find something you like.

I mostly find myself in the Realistic HDR preset category.  I generally process my HDR photos to be mostly realistic, sometimes with a little extra punch and a bit more vibrance, color-wise, but still erring on the side of reality.

The preset menu - many choices within each category

The preset menu - many choices within each category

Two of my faves in this category are Balanced & Realistic and Vivid Memories.  They most often appeal to me, aesthetically.  I do recommend that you click around though and try out different presets, because it really does depend on the photo.  You can go from having a realistic look to the extreme HDR look very easily if you are interested (and a million other options in between)

The presets, in my opinion, are quite good.  I am not typically a “preset guy”.  I prefer to make all my adjustments manually.  But with Aurora, I find that I am starting with a preset every time and then making some adjustments from there.  They can be a great starting point for an image (and in many cases, a finishing point too if you like what they give you).

To select a preset (or just get a preview), just click on it.  You photo will change based on the preset and you can get started.  There is also an opacity slider that is visible if you hover your mouse over the preset.  You can slide that to the left to reduce the effect of the preset, if you want to (though you can also do that from the menus on the right hand side of the screen, near the top under Layers).  If you want to preview a different preset, just click on it.  Your photo will adjust to that new preset selection.

In the screenshot below, I have chosen the Balanced & Realistic preset under the Realistic HDR category.  I think the photo already looks much better, and more closely represents what I saw there.  But, I still have more that I want to do.

When you have decided on a preset and are ready to move on, just click on the word Preset again and the preset menu will drop out of sight, giving you a full screen view of your photo.  That way you have more screen real estate to view the image, which helps.

Now it’s time to fine tune the image.

You will see a large menu of options on the right side of the screen.  Each of these, once clicked, will open up some sliders that give you full control over the image.  I generally start at the top and work my way down (Tone, then Structure, etc), making adjustments as I see fit - although I save HDR DeNoise for later (outlined below).

It’s really different for each image, and of course if you like the preset already, you can skip doing all this fine-tuning - just save your photo and you are done.  Also you do not have to open each section and make adjustments - it’s just there if you want to.  It really depends on what look I am trying to achieve with a photo as to whether or not I make a lot of fine-tuned adjustments (but generally, I do).

I spend the majority of time making adjustments in Tone, Structure, Color, Top & Bottom Lighting, and Color Filter.  Sometimes I will use Color Toning, which is just like split toning in Lightroom (you can read an article about that here on the blog) in case that helps.  It’s fun and powerful and can significantly change the look of your photo, though I feel it requires a bit of experimentation each time.

Below are some screenshots from each of the menu items, showing you the sliders and giving you a feel for the menu.  It’s all very easy to use and very powerful too.  Note these are just samples and the settings displayed on the sliders are not representative of the final image that I am showing in the tutorial.

For me, each of these is mostly a trial and error sort of thing on each image.  Obviously over time you will get very familiar with the effect each slider has on your photo, but early on I think it’s best to experiment so that you get an idea about the result.  I still move some sliders around on each image sometimes, just to see what happens.  You can’t always predict how each change will affect the image, so experiment a bit - it’s fun!

After I make all of those adjustments, and get the photo looking the way I want it to look,  I then have a decision to make, based on a couple of questions I ask myself.

Here are the questions: 

  1. Is there any noise in the image that I need to remove?   
  2. Are there any areas that I want to apply specific, targeted adjustments to (add details, change lighting, etc)?
  3. Do I want to apply a texture to the image?

For me, that is the next set of decisions to make, and which will lead me onto my next set of actions.  If the answer to any of those is “no” then you are all done.  Just save the photo, post it online, and bask in all the attention from your friends!  :-)

If the answer is yes to at least one of them, read on.

Reducing Noise in the Image

If you are fine with the image but want to reduce noise, then you open up a new layer (upper right under Layers - just click the + sign), call it Sky DeNoise or something that makes sense to you, and then open up the adjustment brush.   

This is the adjustment brush panel which allows you to specify how you want the brush to look.

This is the adjustment brush panel which allows you to specify how you want the brush to look.

 

Use the brush to paint over the sky (and I did the water too, in this case), which creates a mask selection for the sky, This is highlighted in red in the screenshot above.

Then, open up the HDR DeNoise menu panel and move the sliders to get the look you want (See my adjustments for HDR DeNoise in the screenshot below).

Your changes then take place just in the sky and water, and not anywhere else.  The rest of the image remains the same as it was earlier.  No need to use a noise reduction tool - you can just do that here.  Easy!  See?  You just saved a step!

And yes, I also applied this mask to the water.  I wanted to smooth it out as well.  It wasn't noisy, but since the HDR DeNoise basically removes details and makes things smoother, I wanted to apply that to the water to make it even smoother.  It worked great!  Here is a screenshot after making those adjustments:

You can compare this to the first screenshot way up above and see a noticeable difference between the sky and water now, and what it looked like before these HDR DeNoise adjustments were selectively applied to the sky and water.

Applying Specific, Targeted Adjustments

This is actually the exact same set of steps as you just went through for reducing noise.  You create a new layer (call it something you will remember, such as Detail Pop if you are adding some details), mask/brush them in with the adjustment brush, and then make the adjustments via the right hand menu panel.  Generally, I am doing this for some detail work, or perhaps to adjust the lighting/exposure in one portion of the photo.  

For example, I might have taken noise out of the sky in the last step, and now the sky is all soft and dreamy.  But perhaps I want some details in the landscape to pop a little more than they did based on the preset that I chose.  You can quickly and easily mask that in as I just mentioned above.  Create your new layer, brush in the mask, and  make the adjustments.  Very simple and incredibly versatile.  There's really no adjustment that you can't make!  I'm not sure if this sounds easy, but trust me, it takes just a minute or two, depending on how much you are doing and how detail-oriented you are with the brush.

But here's a trick/shortcut.  Since this new mask for details is just the exact opposite of the Sky DeNoise mask that I previously created, you can just copy and paste the first mask into this layer, and then invert it.  It automatically creates the exact opposite mask.  Just create your new layer (hit the + sign and call it Detail Pop in this example), then go back to the Sky DeNoise layer by clicking on it, and in the drop down menu, choose Copy Mask.  Then click back on this layer (Detail Pop) and click Paste Mask.  Then click Invert Mask and you are all done!

Here is a screenshot after copying and pasting and inverting the mask for my new layer (Detail Pop).  I also went in and made some adjustments on that layer in order to make the details really pop.  I did all of that in the Structure menu as you can see below.  I bumped up the Clarity as well as the HDR Look and the HDR Detail.  I really wanted the details in the rock to jump out a bit more.  But thanks to the mask, all of that was only applied to the mask I created - which is all the rock in the foreground and middle of the frame.  The sky and water were left untouched in this step, due to the mask, so they maintain their dreamy softness while all the rock gets a little punch.  See how easy that was?

At this point, I am basically done with this image.  I could make any number of further adjustments, but I like it this way.  The sky and water are smooth and the details in all the rock really pop.  I just click on Apply (green button, upper left) and it saves the image in final form (though in the video tutorial, I actually add one more step which is to slightly darken the sky).

Here is the final image, after applying a preset and adding two layers (one for sky and water smoothing, and one for detail enhancement in the rocks):

All together, that was just a few minutes work to build the base HDR and then create two additional layers with specific, targeted adjustments on each layer.  Very quick and very easy!  And no more roundtrips with the image to make any further adjustments - it's all here in Aurora HDR Pro.

Applying a Texture to the Image

Assuming you want to apply a texture, I feel like there is no reason to reduce noise, unless it is really horrible.  The texture layers in some “noise” basically anyways (since you are using the texture from another photo, such as a crumpled piece of paper, or a stone wall, or whatever - it’s something that isn’t smooth, basically).  If a texture is what you want, you just add a new layer and apply the texture.

To do that, just click the + sign to add a new layer, call it Texture, then you use the drop-down menu on the right and mouse over “Source Image” and then “Custom Texture”.  This will open up a window, allowing you to choose the file you want for your texture.  Then just hit apply and it drops it onto the image as a new layer.

 

From there, you choose the overlay method, such as “Soft Light”.  You can also change the opacity with the slider to alter the amount of the texture that is visible in the photo.  I recommend just experimenting with the textures, the opacity and the overlay method until it looks right to you.  There's really no "right" way to do this, since it's an artistic creation.  Enjoy the options and find what is pleasing to your eye.  

It’s all very powerful yet simple.  It can be done in less than a minute, actually.  Very easy!

Probably the best way to see this in action is to actually see it in action.  So, below is a YouTube video I did about how to add a custom texture to a photo in Aurora.  It's a totally different photo than the one I used in this tutorial, but I liked this Norway photo so much that I didn't want to texture it.  So check out the video to see how easily you can add a texture in Aurora HDR Pro, and let me know if you have any questions!

 

Summary

I am now running virtually every photo through Aurora HDR Pro, whether it's a set of brackets that I am actually merging into an HDR, or a single exposure that I just want to enhance.  I have enjoyed the presets a lot more than I expected and find them to be a great starting point for me 99% of the time.  I do make some additional edits after applying a preset, generally for noise reduction, detail addition, or textures (all of which I outlined above), or just changing some of the settings/sliders in the preset to slightly alter the look to my tastes.

As you can see from this tutorial, the options are really limitless with Aurora HDR Pro.  It's an incredible program and I love it.  The software is very easy to use but incredibly powerful.  Let your imagination take hold, and experiment with a lot of different processing styles, presets, textures and more.  It’s quick and easy to do, and a heck of a lot of fun as well.  You might just find yourself rebuilding your workflow, which is exactly what happened to me.  I have basically stopped using other programs because Aurora HDR Pro gives me everything I need in one package.  No more multiple round trips to other programs for noise reduction, or detail enhancement, or anything like that.  It's all here - simple!

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and feel free to ask me any questions - I'm happy to help!  Have fun with Aurora HDR Pro!

If you are interested, you can click the banner below to go to the Aurora website and check it out!  You can use the code JIMNIX to save 10% if you decide to buy it.