First impressions: Aurora HDR Pro

I've just spent the last few days immersed in Macphun's Aurora HDR Pro (co-designed with world-renowned photographer and all-around nice guy Trey Ratcliff) - and I'm incredibly impressed!

Like everyone else, I saw the news of this new software come across my social feeds a while back when it was announced.  It sounded interesting, but honestly, I thought I was going to pass.  The truth is, I have PLENTY of software tools already, and I couldn't imagine that I would need or want to add to my arsenal.  You see, I don't even use everything I have.

If anything, I would rather pare down the amount of software I have.  I already have more stuff than I really need, and certainly more than I use on a frequent basis.  I've actually been giving some serious thought to completely dropping a few things (and I mean a full-on delete from the Mac sort of drop) - I just wasn't sure what it was going to be.  Well, I'm quite a few steps closer to figuring that out now!

After hours spent using Aurora HDR Pro over the last few days and editing a bunch of photos, I actually do think I can pare down the software I have - because Aurora HDR Pro can replace nearly all of it!

You see, I am a simpleton in many ways when it comes to photography and post-processing my images.  That's probably not something most photographers would admit, but it's true in my case.  I like things to be simple.  I want things to be easy and straightforward, and I don't want to read a book or two in order to figure out how to use something.  

Plus, I don't want to spend hours on a single photo - that feels like a total waste of time for me, and when I see photographers brag about doing so, I don't understand it.  It's impressive in a technical sense of course, but I'm not interested in that sort of thing.  I've never used Photoshop in any serious manner, as I always found it clunky and difficult (and truthfully, a little intimidating).  But, I liked the idea of layers and so I always told myself it was something that I needed to get a better understanding of.

Recently, I reconnected with the fine folks at Macphun about their Affiliate Program.  You see, I signed up as an affiliate there a couple of years back, and started using their excellent product Intensify Pro (now known as Intensify CK, part of their Creative Kit - and I need to make some updates to that review, but it's still 99% accurate).  I loved the product (as you can tell by the review) but for some reason I got distracted with other things and sort of fell out of their orbit as they changed their program.  Turns out, I wasn't in their program anymore, and didn't even know it.  Shame on me.

Thankfully, I am back in the program and since this is their fresh, new product, I decided to dive in and see what the fuss is all about.  Well, I am glad that I did.

This product is ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS and I can see that it is going to replace several products that I have used a bunch in the past, but don't get as much use from today.  In my opinion, some of those other products haven't kept up with the advances that are so evident in Aurora HDR Pro (and no, I will not name those products) and thus they seem to keep falling behind.  That has prompted me to try and consolidate my portfolio of products - and now I feel like I can do so.

In case you are a pinner, here's a handy Pinterest graphic for you.

In short, you can do SO MUCH with Aurora HDR Pro that it's impossible to describe it all in this (relatively) short blog post.  While this isn't a tutorial (though I plan to create one), I will show you a few photos that I edited with Aurora HDR Pro and a couple of screenshots too.


But first, here are some key features that I love about this product:

  1. The tone mapping algorithm is excellent - I am loving the results that I get.

  2. The presets are great!  While I tend to prefer to alter any preset, I have found several that I like "as is".

  3. Layers!!  This is probably the most powerful aspect of Aurora HDR Pro.  You can create layers and just mask in edits to portions of a photo.  For example, you can create a mask for the sky and then apply noise reduction and smoothing just to that area - so easy!

  4. The clarity and detail controls are excellent.

  5. This is a great editor for single exposures too!  In other words, you don't even have to care about HDR to get HUGE benefits from using Aurora HDR Pro.  I'm using it on a LOT of single exposures.



So, time to get onto some photos, right?

I was in Scotland late last year, and came home with a bunch of photos that I have been getting to slowly.  So I thought that for this post today, I would jump in and edit a few of them with Aurora HDR Pro.  I was in Aberdeen and took a day to head out to the little coastal town of Stonehaven, primarily because I wanted to visit Dunnottar Castle (which like all castles is awesome).  But before I got to the castle (which I hiked to from the town), I passed by this little harbor area.  I loved the look of it, and stopped to fire off a set of brackets.  This photo below is the middle exposure, straight out of the camera with absolutely no adjustments done to it yet.  It's a little too dark and certainly lacks any pop.  But, I like the scene, so I figured I could get something useful out of it if I spent a little time on it.  And obviously, it didn't look this flat in person. 

Stonehaven, Scotland - straight out of camera, before I make my adjustments

I took that single exposure above and, from Lightroom (which I use as my library manager), went over to Aurora HDR Pro to see about messing around with it.  This was my very first photo that I adjusted in Aurora HDR Pro, even before I had watched any of the excellent videos on the Aurora website.  I was just trying to apply some presets and make a few minor adjustments.  No masking, no brush work, just a single preset with some minor adjustments to that preset.  I liked it so much that I kept it!  Plus, this was about 10 minutes worth of work, in total.  Not a bad first effort in my opinion, considering I was sort of flying blind.  Way more pop in this one, much brighter, better colors and contrast - it's much improved!

A single exposure after applying one preset and making a few minor tweaks to the sliders

Next, I watched some of those videos so I could get a better handle on how to use masking and brushes, etc.  Most of the videos are pretty short, and the tools are VERY EASY to use.  In no time at all, I was stacking layers and brushing in stuff here and there with the use of masks.  Easy and quick!

Next I took the below photo (again, a single exposure straight out of camera with no adjustments applied yet) and went over to Aurora HDR Pro for another test run.  Once again, I used a preset and made a few minor adjustments, and the second photo below was the result.  Simple and a worthy result.  Here's the base photo before any adjustments:

Single exposure with no adjustments yet made to it

And here is the result of about 5-7 minutes in Aurora HDR Pro (which was mostly spent trying different presets and moving a few sliders left and right):

Here I applied a single preset and made a few minor tweaks to the sliders

I like that result, but it was pretty basic, all things considered.  So I decided to try again but with a couple of new tricks I picked up in their videos.

This last photo was created with the use of a couple of layers applied.  I separately warmed up the sky and made some color shifts in the ground, causing the yellow grass to pop a little more.

Down below is a screenshot from the editing of that last photo.  In the upper right you can see the different layers I have created to make the selective edits to this photo (Ground, Sky, Sky DeNoise).  I name them based on the edits I plan for that layer to make it easier to keep them straight (especially helpful after I have moved on to something else on the photo).  Plus, if you want to change something, you just click on that layer and go back and edit it further (and I find myself doing that a lot, because I may want to alter previous changes based on subsequent changes I added to the photo).  

Also, here's a great feature of the masks - you can just copy and paste a mask to a new layer if you want to .  For example, I created a mask for the Sky layer that, as the name implies, covers the whole sky.  While working on that layer, I made some color adjustments to warm it up a bit.  Next, I wanted to take some of the noise out of the sky, so I just copied the mask from the Sky layer and pasted it onto a new layer that I called Sky DeNoise.  So easy, and it keeps you from having to re-mask everything when you decide to make multiple edits to a single area.  I love that!

And one other thing - after you copy a mask like I just mentioned above, you could actually invert it too if you just wanted to mask the rest of the image.  That's another time saver and a great feature.

This next photo was the next scene I encountered after walking past and photographing that monument from the last shot above.  It was the first good view of Dunnottar Castle that I had as I approached it.  I love the dramatic setting there - so awesome!  However, the photos straight out of camera were pretty flat.  This time, I decided to create a full-on HDR by merging all three frames.  So in Lightroom I highlighted the ones I wanted to merge, and headed over to Aurora HDR Pro for some fun.

Here's the screenshot which shows the photo after I have applied some adjustments (a preset with some minor tweaks, and then a layer to DeNoise the sky).  I was able to get the colors and textures to pop quite a bit more, which is the look that I wanted for this photograph.  Quick and easy - done in way less than 10 minutes.

Here's the final photo, after I took it back into Lightroom and straightened that crooked horizon.  :-)

In summary, the power of Aurora HDR Pro is vast and I have to say that I will be using it on just about everything now.  I love it, and this is more than just some "ooh, a new toy" kind of reaction.  It's incredibly powerful and allows me to get rid of many other products that I either don't use, or don't like to depend on (or that have fallen behind).  

It gives me the power to create HDRs and make fine-tuned adjustments in the same product.  It allows me to take a single exposure and edit it with this powerful software, so you don't even have to merge multiple photos (or take them, for that matter, if you are so inclined) if you have a single exposure that's usable.

I can make every adjustment that I can think of in this one product: layers and masks, color adjustments, graduated filters, brushes for fine-tuned adjustments, details, clarity, structure - the list goes on!  You can even do luminosity masking and custom textures.  It's crazy! 

I wouldn't have believed it prior to using it, but Aurora HDR Pro not only crams all this awesomeness in a single product, but it does so in a way that is not intimidating, overwhelming, or even crowded.  It just all fits in there and works great.  I highly recommend this product and as soon as I can find the time, I will be sharing more about how I use it and some tips and tricks I pick up along the way!  And I will be editing a LOT more photos with it too!

Oh yeah, I also have an announcement to make

Here's some news - I started a YouTube channel!  It's something I've been thinking about for a long time, and finally found the time to get the right equipment and teach myself how to do it.  So I figured that starting out with a review of Aurora HDR Pro would be the perfect start - so, here it is!  Enjoy!  I plan to do more videos, and share a lot of workflow stuff, processing tips, and more.  It will be fun!  Click through to subscribe to my channel if you are interested!  You can find me here:


FULL DISCLOSURE:  As an affiliate of Macphun, I received this software for free.  However, all opinions expressed here are my own, and are not dependent upon my relationship with Macphun.  This is not an ad for Macphun and they did not compensate me to publish this mini review.  I wrote this because I like to share my experiences with products, and I simply love the software.  When you consider what all it can do (and what all it can replace), I feel it's a great value for $99.

If you are interested in purchasing Aurora HDR Pro, you can use the discount code JimNix and get 10% off your order.  Just click the banner below to be directed to their website.  If you use that link to purchase the software, I earn a small commission which I reinvest in the growth of this website.  Thank you for your support.

Please let me know if you have any questions and have fun with it!