Let me start out by describing myself. I am a keen amateur photographer and I love to play with technology. I am expert in neither discipline, but I’ve been doing both for quite a lot of years now. As such, software like Aurora HDR 2019 is right up my alley — cool technology applied to photography.
I’ve dabbled in HDR photography in the past and know the basic principles of tone mapping, but I’ve not spent a lot of time making HDR images. I own a license for the original Aurora HDR Pro, now referred to as Aurora HDR 2016, and I’ve used it to create a number of pleasing results such as this vivid shot of one of my favourite buildings, made from 5 bracketed exposures.
So when the opportunity came up to review Skylum’s Aurora HDR 2019, I was keen. I wondered how far the product had come in the intervening three years.
Loading your source images into Aurora HDR 2019 is as simple as you would expect, and you are very quickly presented with thumbnail previews of them prior to choosing the basic merge settings.
The main merge setting is for image alignment which always a good option even if you shot on a tripod. Behind an advanced settings button there are additional settings for ghost reduction, colour denoising, and chromatic aberration reduction. There is a short description of what they are used for right below each option – a nice touch. Once these are set to your requirements, you click the Create HDR button.
At my first attempt it seemed really fast, so I went back to the 2016 version and timed the creation of one image. My source material was comprised of five 24 megapixel DNG RAW files. Aurora HDR 2016 took 31.5 seconds to load the previews and then a shade over three minutes to process the default HDR result with alignment and medium deghosting turned on. Aurora 2019 loaded the previews in a few seconds and took about half the time, a shade over one and a half minutes, to process the default HDR with the same settings. That’s a lot of processing on a lot of pixels in a short enough time that I didn’t feel like I was waiting unnecesarily.
Once the initial generation is done, I find Aurora HDR 2019 to be snappy. Most changes you make take effect within a second, some in a few seconds at most. There’s a “Processing…” message that often pops up for a few more seconds, but this seems to occur after the visible image updates so is of little consequence unless you are clicking through a lot of changes in sequence. Even then, it’s hardly a slouch.
For the easiest time, once the intial processing has completed for your image, you can click through the 49 presets provided under the categories of Essentials, Landscape, Architecture, Dramatic, and Artistic. These offer a wide range of styles from the default ‘Natural’ look to the muted ‘Modesto’ in the Essential collection, to the wild intensity of ‘Cityscape’ in the Architecture collection, and the funky tones of ‘Cool Drama’ in the Artistic collection.
Beyond the ‘standard’ presets, Aurora HDR 2019 ships with 36 presets provided by three renowned practitioners of HDR photography — Trey Ratcliff, Serge Ramelli, and Randy Van Duinen. I’m a wee bit of a fan of Trey, partly because it was his work that got me interested in doing my own HDR, and also… well… he’s practically a Kiwi now, having moved to New Zealand in 2012.
If 85 presets aren’t enough, there is also the (so far, small) AuroraHdr Marketplace, accessible from the Preset collection chooser, where you can get even more free or paid-for presets.
If all Aurora HDR 2019 offered was its presets it would be a fantastic tool, but sticking to presets is operating in “easy” mode. For the more discerning, or adventurous, there are fifteen filters which can each be tweaked to your heart’s desire with over 80 sliders and settings between them.
The complete list of filters are: HDR Basic, Color, HDR Enhance, HDR Denoise, LUT Mapping, Image Radiance, Polarizing Filter, HDR Details Boost, Glow, Adjustable Gradient, Tone Curve, HSL, Colour Toning, Dodge & Burn, and Vignette.
Many of these are the same sorts of controls you would get in any decent photo editor. While some, like HSL and Tone Curve, are exactly as I would expect, others have an added twist.
The HDR Basic filter which is very similar to the most basic filter block you’ll find in any photo editor, offers colour temperature, exposure, contrast, and the usual set of highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks sliders. But it also adds my favourite slider in the whole product — Smart Tone. This setting works like a combo of the last four. Slide it left of centre and it pulls down the highlights while leaving the shadows alone. Slide it right of centre and it boosts the shadows while leaving the highlights alone. I’m sure it’s more than a simple combination of the four, otherwise Skylum would not have provided them as well.
Some of the real power filters are HDR Enhance and HDR Details Boost which can either be applied sparingly for tweaking, or with a heavy hand for some striking effects. People talk about “the HDR look” which is largely controlled by these two filters.
Covering all of the filters here would make this review longer than I would like, so I will briefly mention some. HDR Denoise is very good. Like all good noise filters it can be overdone, but I found it was able to deal well with the typical long exposure or high ISO types of noise without adversely affecting detail. Image Radiance and Glow are both great for creating a more pleasing mood to your photos. Color Toning offers a very flexible way to infuse your image with split tones, such as bluer shadows and yellower highlights.
One filter deserves a special mention: LUT Mapping. LUT stands for “Look Up Table” and is a means of mathematically converting one colour space to another. In practical terms, you apply a LUT to get a particular “look” for the colour of your photo. Such a look may emulate old film stock, or be entirely creative to achieve a specific mood. Eleven LUTs are provided and you can also expand your LUT collection from the AuroraHdr Marketplace.
But wait, there’s more
If presets were “easy mode” and fiddling with filters is “intermediate mode” then the “advanced mode” comes with employing layers. Like other photo editing software, Aurora HDR 2019 offers layers with variable opacity masks and blending modes.
The most obvious use is adjustment layers. By adding an adjustment layer, you can make some adjustments (using the same array of filters) and mask them to particular areas of the image, say, the sky.
But you can also add image layers. These can be used to apply textures using blend modes, add a watermark, or create special effects, such as blending two copies of the original image.
Beyond all the processing of “the rectangle” of your image, as described above, there are also tools for lens correction, cropping, and image transformation to help with your composition. I found these to be very flexible and simple to use.
After a while tweaking sliders, you might forget just how far you’ve come. Aurora HDR 2019 has two means of comparing your current results with your original material (the chosen reference frame, usually the middle exposure). There is a single button that, when held, shows the original, so you can toggle back and forth. More cleverly, another button turns on split view which lets you drag a vertical divider left and right, showing the original to the left and final to the right.
Aurora HDR 2019 also contains a complete history manager which helps you back out of any changes with precision, plus there’s a regular undo button to simply roll back the last change.
I’ve left all these functions to last because most are fairly standard image editing functions, but their inclusion means you don’t need any other software to complete your project.
While most people understand HDR to be about bracketed exposures, Aurora HDR 2019 can operate on just a single image. The same tone mapping principles apply, you just have less data to begin with. I took a single RAW photo of mine which had challenging lighting, and threw it into Aurora HDR 2019 to see what it could do. As you can see below, the default Natural look from the Essentials collection has done a fantastic job — with NO effort from me. The sky shows some drama, the underside of the aircraft is rich in colour and detail, and there’s some great sculpting around the nose where the highlights had originally masked the shape. I also picked two other presets for fun — HDR Look Exterior from the Architecture collection, and Melting Pocketfun from the Trey Ratcliff collection. Notwithstanding the now-obvious dust bunnies, I think these versions are pretty cool, too!
Even so, giving Aurora HDR 2019 a 16 megapixel, 12-bit RAW file still seemed a little… generous. What if I take a “for web” JPEG off a local news site and see if it can make a difference? Given the date I am writing this review, and the nationality of the site on which it will appear, this story seemed appropriate and, well, I was impressed at the result. If I was intending to publish the result in its own right, I would tone down the structure a little as the skin tones look a little too sculpted, but here is Aurora HDR 2019’s default take on the latest Royal wedding. In particular, look at the blues on the groom and pageboy, and the richness of that gold trim around the room.
Aurora HDR 2019 is full featured, powerful, and fast. One of the advertised features of this release is the artificial intelligence HDR engine. It’s hard to say how effective this is without running a series of comparisons with competitors and older versions — something I’ll leave for others to do — but why would I question this when my testing brought nothing but great results? I was able to produce some truly terrible images by maxing out some sliders, but without fail Aurora HDR’s default take on any image I gave it was very good. After that it comes down to image suitability and taste.
At USD$99 it’s not a cheap piece of software — if you just want to experiment with HDR there are cheaper alternatives or you may have another package which includes an HDR function — but it is also not expensive software for what you get — a self contained, world class HDR image generator. If you really want to do HDR then Aurora HDR 2019 is a great choice and you really don’t need anything else. It’ll take RAW images straight off your camera* and output the final JPEG ready for uploading to your social media or photo sharing site.
If HDR appeals to you, give the 14 day trial a go. I think you’ll be impressed.
*The Aurora HDR 2019 manual states that it accepts RAW files from “most popular cameras.” I reached out to Skylum software for a definitive list of supported models and was sent this link. I think I’d be prepared to say the list is exhaustive. Certainly every model of Pentax DSLR — my brand of choice — ever made is represented.