Verdict: Aurora HDR Pro 1.2 is another great image-editing app from Mac software specialist MacPhun. Its HDR merges are great, its presets are varied and look good and its manual controls, though complex, are also very powerful. 5 stars
HDR stands for high dynamic range. It’s a photographic technique for capturing and scenes with a much higher brightness range than the camera can record with a single exposure. Instead, you shoot a series of exposures so that between them they capture the full brightness range of the scene, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights.
Usually for this you’d put the camera on a tripod so that there’s no movement between the frames and shoot a series of exposures at fixed intervals of 2EV (2 stops) for example.
It’s also possible to shoot HDR series’ ‘on the hoof’ using exposure bracketing and shooting handheld, relying on the HDR software to align the images properly later, which is what I tend to do.
HDR software carries out complicated tone-mapping processes in an expanded 32-bit colour space, adding in a range of other image adjustment tools to produce a variety of image effects, from the deceptively natural-looking to the most outlandishly surreal.
This is the hard part – producing visually satisfying images without over-exaggerated detail, obvious ‘glow’ effects around object outlines or artificially flat-looking tonal compression.
And this depends heavily on the software. I’ve never been able to get on with Photoshop’s in-built HDR tools, I’ve had some success with PHotomatix and my favourite so far is Google’s HDR EFex Pro, which produces results I like with minimal effort.
Well actually it was my favourite, because I think Aurora HDR Pro 1.2 is better. Be aware, though, that this is a Mac-only program (though I hear a Windows version may not be out of the question later in 2016).
Aurora HDR has been developed by MacPhun in conjunction with American HDR guru Trey Ratcliff. It follows the usual MacPhun format, offering a collection of one-click presets backed up by in-depth manual controls for adjusting the effect or creating your own. It’s a really effective approach because you get a ‘finished’ result straight away, and it’s up to you how much time you want to spend making it better still or learning how it’s done.
Once your images are merged you can choose any one of a number of preset HDR effects, and if the result looks a little too strong you can drag back the strength slider on the preset thumbnail.
I really like Aurora HDR’s results because they give natural-looking, colourful, vibrant images without the artificial-looking ‘glow’ artefacts I’m used to seeing from HDR apps. They still appear in some images, but rarely. If I had a criticism it would be that a lot of the Aurora effects are quite similar and there aren’t perhaps the same in-your-face extremes of HDR Efex Pro 2. I’ve noticed this with other MacPhun apps compared to the effects in the Google Nik Collection, my usual go-to effect suite.
My other issue that like just about every other HDR app I’ve used, this one invents new HDR ‘science’ – or new HDR controls, at least – that don’t exist in any other software and don’t have any easily understood technical basis.
Here, in particular, it’s the Radiance panel. I’m sure if I spend long enough moving the sliders to and fro to see what happens, and keep checking back with the documentation in between, I’ll gradually figure out how to make this add something to my pictures in a predictable fashion – I like the ethereal effect it’s created in this interior scene – but I’d kind of prefer to be able to get it straight away.
But it’s not a deal-breaker because the overall results and the ease of use make Aurora HDR my favourite HDR tool to date.
You can use Aurora HDR as a standalone app – just drag photos on to the app window – or as a plug-in. It works fine from within Lightroom and version 1.2 is also supposed to work as an Apple Photos extension, though it doesn’t appear on the list, so that might need a little more investigation.
On the one hand, this is a relatively straightforward program that even a non-expert could use straight away. On the other, it’s a program with considerable technical depth and potential – which does mean that learning it inside out could take some time.
You don’t have to shoot an entire exposure series to use its HDR capabilities, by the way. Aurora HDR can also work with single image files – though it’s best to use RAW files for this rather than JPEGs because they will have a greater inherent dynamic range to start with.
Aurora’s in-depth manual controls are not the end of the story. It also supports layers and masks, so that in this picture I’ve been able to add a curves adjustment to a new layer and then use a gradient mask to restrict the darkening effect the top left corner.
Aurora HDR 1.2 comes in two versions. The standard version costs £29.99 from the Mac App store, which is pretty good value, but doesn’t offer native RAW file support, chromatic aberration reduction, plug-in operation, Trey Ratcliff’s signature presets or the Pro version’s full range of layer and masking tools. Aurora HDR Pro 1.2 costs £79 from the MacPhun website – it’s more than twice the price, but it’s the one I’d go for.