Creating your base HDR photo + Using Brushes + Intro to Presets 

Evening at The Sorbonne - Paris, France

This is where we start getting into the really good stuff people!

I know we are on page 5, but I felt like all that previous stuff had to be covered before we could start actually creating photos - otherwise, someone new to this would be lost.  So, thanks for sticking it out so far!  :-)

Build your base HDR

Once you have your files selected and ready to process, you will need to get them out of Lightroom (or whichever host program you use, assuming you use one) and into Aurora HDR.  Of course you can also use Aurora as a standalone editor, thus negating the need for a host program.  I actually use it both ways.  

There are times that I have my library connected (which resides on an external hard drive) and that's when I am using Lightroom, and thus the plug-in version of Aurora HDR.  Other times, I have previously exported the TIFF files of various shots to a folder on my desktop, and I don't need Lightroom.  So those are the times that I use it standalone.  There are a couple of subtle differences, namely that the crop tool does not exist in the standalone version, because Aurora will default to letting you perform that in your host editor.

There are a few ways to get your images from Lightroom to Aurora:

  • File > Export with Preset > Open original images
  • File > Export with Preset > Use .TIFF with Lightroom adjusters
  • File > Plug-in Extras > Transfer to Aurora HDR Pro

Generally, the second option is the most popular, because in choosing that one, any edits you have made across the set of brackets will travel with the photos to Aurora HDR Pro.  Perhaps you removed dust spots across the series, or straightened them all, or something like that.  Those edits will travel with the photos to Aurora.  If you choose one of the other methods, they will not.

Let's make an HDR photo!

When you make the transfer, you will be presented with a screen like the one below.  You have a couple of choices here about what to do with the bracket set.   You can choose Alignment, Ghost Reduction, and Chromatic Aberration Reduction.  Here is what those each do for you:

  • Alignment will automatically align your images before merging them into a single HDR.  This is particularly helpful if you shot these brackets handheld, and thus possibly have some slight movement between the photos.
  • Ghost Reduction will identify and help clean up any moving objects that might be in your brackets.  This could be tree branches moving in the wind or anything like that. 
  • Chromatic Aberration Reduction will minimize red glows or fringing that can often appear in high-contrast areas. 

Choose the options you need and let the software build the base HDR photo for you, which begins as soon as you click “Create HDR”.  Aurora HDR defaults to provide a result that is a natural and realistic starting point (see photo below). From there, you can maintain that realism or stylize the image to your tastes.  It’s really up to you, and that is half of the fun anyways.  I love to experiment with various effects in my photos and see where my muse leads me!

Generally your base HDR photo will be somewhat “flat”.  In other words, it will lack detail and won’t exactly pop off the page.  It certainly looks better than any of the single exposures, but it's a long way from finished.  That is ok though, because that is where Aurora HDR really excels, and we are starting on that next.

A quick tour of the Aurora HDR interface

Before we go any further, I thought it would be helpful to give you a visual aid for the Aurora HDR interface.  While there is a LOT of stuff in Aurora HDR, in my opinion the interface is very clean and easy to understand.  I created the below picture to help explain what all the little sections of the screen will do for you.  Hopefully this helps, but of course feel free to ask questions!  

Note that the below screenshot is from the standalone version, not the plug-in.  The crop tool does not exist in the plug-in.

I always feel like the best way to get to know a product is to use it, and I am sure you are the same way.  You can click on the banner at the bottom of any of these pages to go to the Aurora site and get a free trial download of the product.  Then you can start experimenting.  Another idea is to watch my YouTube videos and you can see the product in action.

Aurora Keyboard Shortcuts!

Hey guess what?  There are a BUNCH of keyboard shortcuts in Aurora HDR.  When I came across this, I was surprised, because it's much longer than I thought.  So if you are interested in learning them, you can find a complete list here:

Here is a video I did a while back that gives a quick tour of the various parts of Aurora - maybe it will help.

I give a quick overview of Aurora HDR Pro software for processing your images. It's an amazing product!

The right hand menu panel

One of the first things you will notice once you land in Aurora HDR with your newly merged HDR image is the extensive list of items in the right hand panel.  Don’t be intimidated!  These are the adjustment sliders and you will soon be using them ALL THE TIME.  It’s how things get done in Aurora, and they are all pretty straightforward.

If you click on any of them, it will open a drop-down menu which contains various sliders.  You simply move things left or right to adjust your image.

Quick tip: I prefer to only have one menu item open at a time, because otherwise if all the menus are open it is too visibly distracting for me.  If you click on View in the top Aurora menu, and then Single View Mode, this will allow only one to be open at a time.  As soon as you click on a second menu item, the previous one will close.

Also note that they are all white.  However, they will change to orange as soon as you move any of the sliders in the adjustment menu.  This is a quick visual aid to let you know that an adjustment has occurred in a particular menu item.

A few of the key ones that I find myself using a LOT:

  • Structure - allows you to adjust the clarity and detail in the shot
  • HDR DeNoise - easily remove digital noise from your image
  • Color - saturation, vibrance, temperature and tint adjustments
  • Top & Bottom Lighting - quickly brighten or darken the top or bottom of the image
  • Color Filter - adjust saturation and luminance of the major colors
  • Color Toning - a split-toning panel that allows you to adjust the tint and saturation of the highlights and shadows separately

Obviously, ALL of these sliders play a role in some way or another, but not on every photo.  The ones above are the ones that I find myself using the most, in order to make fine-tuned, specific adjustments to a shot.  The best thing you can do though is spend some time clicking on each of these and moving sliders around, just to see what it does to your image.

That will get you more familiar with them all and you will quickly determine which ones you like best as well.  In no time you will get a feel for them and start to quickly determine how best to approach your image in Aurora HDR in order to achieve your vision for the shot.  

Here is an example of the same photo with some minor adjustments.  I lifted the Clarity a bit (in the Structure menu - notice it is orange now, not white) and I also made some adjustments in the Color menu (it too is orange now).  This was about 15 seconds of work, just moving sliders.  Even minor adjustments can have a big impact on your photo.

I made some adjustments to the Structure and Color sliders in the right-hand menu panel for this photo.

However, notice in the photo above that my slider adjustments affect the ENTIRE IMAGE.  There is no customization to how and where the effect is applied - it just goes across the whole thing.  Sometimes that works great, but there are definitely times when you just want something applied to a specific portion of the image.  That's where the brush really comes in handy.

How and why to use a brush

Using a brush to make an adjustment is very simple and straightforward, like everything else in Aurora HDR.  In the upper right corner of the Aurora HDR screen, you will see a little paintbrush icon.  That is the brush, and it will very soon become a great friend of yours!

You will use a brush to make a specific adjustment in your photo.  Let's say you want to enhance details somewhere in the photo.  If you increase some sliders in the Structure menu, it will affect the entire photo.  That is because the sliders are global in nature - they affect the whole image.  That's where the brush comes in.  The brush allows you to just "paint" that adjustment onto the specific part of the image where you want it applied.

To use the brush, you just click on it.  Once you do that, you will notice that just above the top right corner of your photo there is a brush icon and a drop-down menu next to it.  You can then adjust the size of the brush and the opacity of the brush by clicking on the brush icon.  You can also adjust the size of the brush using the left and right bracket keys.

Selecting the brush to apply adjustments based on the sliders in the right-hand Structure menu

Here’s the trick with making brush adjustments: I move the sliders on the right-hand menu first, and then I paint them onto the photo using the brush.  As you move the sliders it will affect the entire photo, but once you use the brush it only appears where you have left brushstrokes.  To see where your brush strokes are landing on your image, you can click on the eyeball icon next to the word Mask in the upper left corner of your photo. 

Anything with a layer of red paint over it is where you have brushed.  Because I used an Opacity setting of 100% for this brush example, the red paint covers where I painted completely.  If I reduce the opacity setting, then you would be able to see through the paint layer more the further the opacity is reduced - and thus the lighter the effect on your photo. 

The affect you have applied via the sliders is painted under the red paint, onto your image.  Just click Mask again and the red paint will disappear, and your changes will display on your image. (Note that this "paint job" was quick and rough around the edges - when processing my images I take my time and ensure it is more accurate at the edges.)

Example of a mask painted over this image

There is also an Eraser icon right next to the brush icon.  As you probably guessed, it allows you to erase any brushstrokes you have made, so if you accidentally paint over something, you can just erase that area with the eraser.  It works great.  Just click on the Eraser, and just like the Paintbrush you can adjust the size and opacity setting for the brush.  Then you just go erase brushstrokes as needed.

Here is the image with the mask hidden, so you can see that the increase in details due to the slider adjustments under "Structure" are only painted on the image where the red paint exists.  In other words, not in the sky.

Although you can technically make any and all adjustments you want to your photo with the brush, there is an easier way to get started, and one that I much prefer - using Presets.

The gradient tool

Also note that when you are in brush mode, there is a gradient tool available to you.  This is a very handy tool!  

To access the Gradient Filter, first you must be in Brush Mode (click on the brush icon which is located above the histogram).  While in brush mode, you can locate the Gradient Filter just to the right of where you select either the Brush or the Eraser - it’s the little rectangle icon.  Click that and the gradient filter will appear on your image.

Once the gradient filter is on top of your image, you can move it around to accomplish all sorts of edits.  Note that it will appear in the middle of your image with 3 lines, or bands, across it and a number in the middle.

If you click on the number and hold it, you can move the filter up and down your image.  If you hover over that center line, a rounded arrow will appear.  This allows you to adjust the angle of the filter itself.  Note that the number in the center of the filter will move accordingly, because this number represents the measure of the angle.  The default setting is 180, which is straight.

You can also grab either the top or bottom line and move them up and down.  This impacts the amount of the image that your desired edits will impact.  

When you are at 180 (a straight line), the edits you make to the photo will appear on the image in this manner:

  • Above the top line: edits will be most visible here
  • Between top line and center line: edits begin to reduce in intensity
  • Between center line and bottom line: edits are greatly reduced
  • Below bottom line:  edits are not visible here

You can also invert the line, causing the edits to appear starting from the bottom, and a 0 will display as the number in that case.  Here are two screenshots, a before and after using the gradient tool.  I inverted the tool to make the adjustments below it, so as to lighten up the foreground area.

Single exposure, as shot - before using the gradient tool.

You can see the tool in the photo, and the orange-colored menu items on the right panel indicate which adjustments I made to the photo.

Once you are satisfied, just click Apply and the changes will be saved to that layer.

This is a very powerful tool, especially in landscape photos.  You can quickly adjust light levels, details, colors and more across wide sections of a photo with a gradient filter.

Cropping - available in the standalone version only

Did you know you can straighten, crop and resize in Aurora too? 

To get into the Crop Tool just click on the little icon of a pair of scissors, which is located above the histogram on the upper right side of your screen.  Note that this feature is only available in the standalone version.  If you use a host program such as Lightroom, Aurora will default to letting you perform these actions in that program.

You can crop based on some pre-defined ratios (square, 3:2, 4:3, freeform, etc) with a single click.  You can resize based on pixel dimensions.  You can also just drag a slider to straighten the photo if needed.


On the Histogram display you can enable light and dark clipping.  This will display areas of the photo in which there is no detail available.  Blown out highlights will appear red and extremely dark areas will appear blue.  This is a great visual guide to let you know which areas have lost detail and may be unusable, and it’s also very handy in letting you know if you have pushed your edits too far in certain areas . 

To activate this, just click on the tiny triangles in the upper left and right corners of the histogram.  

Using Presets to add effects to your photo

If you aren’t yet familiar with Presets, they are basically a group of adjustments all rolled together in a bundle, so all you have to do is click once, and it updates your photo with all those adjustments.  They are very powerful and very simple to use.  Think of it as a recipe - a one-click recipe for success.

Basically, they do the work for you.  Sure, you could go move a bunch of sliders to get to the same result, but I personally prefer to just test out various Presets on my base HDR image to see what I like, and possibly see what inspires me.  It's how I start every image.

So how do you add a Preset?  Well, it’s quite easy.  You just click on the word Presets in the bottom right corner of the Aurora screen (you can’t miss it - aqua blue with a star by the word Presets) and it will open up the Preset categories for you.  Here are the standard Preset categories, each containing several "recipes".

There are several categories of Presets to choose from (and each category has some number of Presets in it).  My favorite and most used category is Realistic HDR, but I highly recommend that you click into each one in the beginning to get a feel for the various settings.  Once you click on that category, the film strip at the bottom of the screen will display your image with each Preset in that category shown.  

Here is a view of some Presets in the Realistic HDR category.  This is just a few of them.  You can scroll right and left to see them all when you are in Aurora.

Here are some from the Dramatic preset category:

This is a great visual aid in selecting the direction you want to take your image.  Simply click on any of them and your image will update to reflect the selected Preset.  Once you finalize your decision, simply click on the word Presets again and the film strip will drop out of sight.  You will then have your image full size with the Preset applied across your entire image.

Also note that when you have selected a Preset and then hover your mouse over a Preset in this preview mode, you will see a little slider within the preset image preview. This is an Opacity slider and allows you to reduce the Opacity of this preset on your photo.  For example, you may really like the Preset, but at 100% it's way too intense.  Just drag the opacity slider to the left to reduce the intensity.  You can also do this after you have returned to full screen mode by clicking on the Opacity slider in the upper right of your screen, just under the word "Layers".

Here's an example.  I selected the Realistic Dreamy preset and then reduced the opacity of this preset because at 100% it was way too intense for my taste.  Here it is applied at 48% on this photo.  Notice both the opacity slider in the upper right is set to 48% and the slider in the preview window at the bottom is about halfway.

Once you apply a preset, note all the menu items in the right hand panel.  In the beginning, they were all white.  When they are white, that means no changes have been made using that menu item.  But now some of them are orange, which means those items have been adjusted via the use of the Preset.

Here is that image in full screen mode so you can see all the menu items that have changed, based on a single click application of a single preset.  See how this saves you a lot of time?  You could replicate this look by going into each menu item individually and moving sliders around, but I find that it is much quicker and easier to just experiment with a few presets, decide which one you like on your photo, and apply it.  Bam!  Your photo already looks better.

There are a couple of things to be aware of when applying a preset to your photo.

  1. You can go adjust any of those sliders at any time.  Just because the Preset did it a certain way, that does not prohibit you from adjusting it further.  So click on an orange menu item and adjust it, if you see fit.  Or click on a white (unused) menu item and see what it does to your photo.  The only limit here is your imagination.
  2. You can adjust the opacity of the Preset at any time as well.  In the upper right, just above the layer for “Original Image”, there is an Opacity gauge, and it defaults to 100%.  You can click on that and move the slider to reduce the opacity.  Perhaps you like the Preset but it’s a little too much.  Just slide the slider to the left to reduce it, and the percentage gauge will adjust accordingly - as will your image.  This is a brilliant addition to Aurora HDR and one that I use all the time.

Presets are a quick and powerful way to edit your photo and achieve your vision for the shot.  I use them on every image and they save me a significant amount of time and effort.  But, this is Aurora HDR, so of course there is even more you can do!

Next up we will cover Layers and Masking - the BEST FEATURES of Aurora HDR.

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