Aurora HDR verdict
Aurora HDR (Skylum has dropped the ‘2019’ in the name now) can create dense, wild and dramatic HDR effects, natural-looking images, and anything in between, and with out the artificial glow effects and other artefacts that plague other HDR tools. It also goes way further, with local adjustments, even image layers and masks. Brilliant. The only thing is, it was launched way back in 2019. Skylum is still selling it, but will it ever update it again?
What is Aurora HDR?
Aurora HDR is the latest version of an HDR application developed by Skylum software in conjunction with travel photographer and HDR specialist Trey Ratcliff. Skylum is probably best known for its Luminar all-in-one photo browsing, editing and effects program.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, a style of photography that captures scenes with an extremely high brightness range that would normally be outside the range of the camera sensor. This requires a combination of camera technique and special software.
Some HDR programs work as standalone programs or as plug-ins, but Aurora HDR does both. It can be used from with Photoshop and Lightroom, and also as an Extension for Apple Photos on the Mac. It’s available in both Mac and Windows versions.
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How does it work?
Usually HDR images are captured by shooting the same scene at a series of different exposures that between them capture the full brightness range, and then merging them together and using ‘tone mapping’ to bring the extremes of shadow and highlight detail within the visible tonal range.
Sometimes, it’s possible to capture a scene’s full brightness range with a single RAW file, and Aurora HDR can use the extended dynamic (brightness) range within the RAW date to produce an HDR image. Increasingly, HDR merge tools are being built into general purpose photo editing programs. Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC both have an HDR merge option and Affinity Photo has an excellent Tone Mapping Persona, for example, but Aurora HDR is designed just for HDR and offers more filters, more preset Looks and far greater depth of control.
Tools, filters and effects
Tone mapping on its own is not usually enough to product a satisfying HDR image, so Aurora HDR offers a wide range of more than 20 additional tools and filters to add colour, drama, detail and other effects to your HDR images.
You can add these adjustments manually, one by one, but Aurora HDR also comes with more than 80 preset ‘Looks’, or combinations of adjustments, which you can apply with a single click. You can modify the Looks that come with the software, download more from the Skylum website and create and save your own Looks. You’d probably work on your HDR images individually, but Aurora HDR also offers batch processing, and can even recognise bracketed exposure sets automatically.
It’s actually a very powerful program, going far beyond regular HDR adjustment tools to include many of the features you’d expect in a full-blown photo-editing application like Photoshop. You can apply lens and perspective corrections, add local adjustments via adjustment layers and masks, and even create image composites with more than one image layer.
What’s new in Aurora HDR?
The key new feature in Aurora HDR (as of its launch in 2019, anyway) is Skylum’s new Quantum HDR engine, which is ‘powered by AI’ and, Skylum claims, offers spectacular colour enhancements without halos, noisy artefacts and chromatic aberration (colour fringing). These have always been thorny technical issues in HDR photography, so if they’ve been eliminated here that’s a major technical breakthrough.
Other new features in this version include an HDR Smart Structure tool, some all-new Aurora HDR Looks and a LUT Mapping filter that can apply cinematic, analog and other LUTs (lookup tables) for instant colour effects. (See this interesting What is a LUT Q&A with Lutify.me)
Skylum says it’s also improved its HDR Details Boost and Adjustable Gradient filters, adding Shadow and Highlight controls for the latter.
Is it any good?
Although it will work with single RAW files, Aurora HDR delivers its best results with bracketed exposure sets, either JPEGs or RAW files. When you use exposure sets, you get a merge window which shows each exposure in the set and offers an Auto Alignment checkbox which you should always use if the shots were taken handheld. A ‘gear’ icon offers further options for Ghost Reduction (suppresses object movement between frames), Color Denoise and Chromatic Aberration Reduction. If you don’t mind a slightly longer wait while the images are merged, you might as well check all three.
The results will depend on the subject matter and shooting conditions, whether you used a single RAW file or a bracketed exposure set, and how good your camera and lenses are. Any flaws, such as noise and chromatic aberration, quickly become exaggerated during the HDR process, and there were a couple of instances where Aurora HDR failed to correct lens distortion or produced more chromatic aberration than expected – generally with single RAW files and recent lenses like the Sony E 18-135mm.
Control and finesse
Otherwise, the results are good to excellent. Unlike many HDR tools, Aurora HDR can tone map images so subtly you wouldn’t know they’d been given the HDR treatment at all – though Lightroom’s HDR Merge and Affinity Photo’s Tone Mapping Persona are still the best at this ‘natural’ HDR effect. But if you’re looking for dense, dramatic, eye-popping HDR, Aurora HDR has it nailed. This isn’t the same as the thin, over-processed watercolour effect you often see elsewhere, or the kind of supersaturated ‘hyper-reality’ that’s given HDR a bad name. Aurora’s HDR Looks are spectacular, but for the right reasons.
Aurora HDR’s advanced editing controls and filter effects add a new dimension to this, working in conjunction with its system of layers and masks to blend HDR effects with regular image adjustments in a way you don’t normally get with an HDR program, and which lets you create richer and more naturalistic results – as long as you don’t go mad with the sliders, which is always the danger with HDR programs.
It can bog down a bit when merging a large series of high-resolution images with alignment, deghosting and chromatic aberration removal switched on, and it may take a few seconds to render an HDR image at full resolution after you’ve made some adjustments, but HDR imaging is very processor intensive.
If only there was a spot removal tool
There’s just one tiny thing missing. HDR processing can really exaggerate even the faintest sensor spots, so if Aurora HDR had a spot removal tool too, that would save the need to migrate to another program (like Luminar) to fix them.
But that’s a small complaint. Aurora HDR is an extremely powerful program that can produce spectacular, natural, rich or ethereal HDR images, however your mood takes you, and with a degree, power and finesse you won’t find anywhere else.