First impression using Macphun Aurora HDR Pro Software

Macphun just released their new software for making HDR images. Its called Aurora HDR Pro. In this article I am going to give you my first impressions of the software. Here are some images I created using Aurora HDR Pro.

Hancock Sunrise

Hancock Sunrise, Chicago, IL

First impression using Macphun Aurora HDR Pro Software

Lake Michigan Ice

Lake Michigan Ice, Chicago, IL

Oak Bay Marina

Oak Bay Marina, Victoria, BC

I’ve been creating HDR images and using HDR software for a little over a year now. I am by no means an authority on the techniques but I do have fun messing around. Until now I used Photomatix Pro for creating the HDR images posted on Pixelbip. Now that Macphun has added HDR software to their lineup I have a choice of software to use. I like choices. Currently Aurora HDR Pro is only available for Mac computers though I heard they are planning to release a Windows version at some point.

 

Macphun

With Aurora HDR there is a new HDR kid on the block. Macphun started as a company by making photo editing apps for the iPhone. Since then they moved to making photo editing apps for OSX like their Creative Kit which adds a lot of great functionality to the editing workflow. Now Macphun has taken the next step by adding HDR to their stable of tools. The software was created with the help of  Trey Ratcliff from Stuck in Customs fame. (You know, Trey,  the most followed HDR photographer on social media.)


Today I received my copy of Aurora and I have been playing with it for the last few hours. In this article I am going to talk a little bit about what I like, what I do not like, and any other impressions I have about the software. This is just a quick review of my initial impressions and not a complete review or tutorial. Full disclosure. I am an affiliate for Macphun but they do not pay me to do reviews. I’m going to give you an honest opinion on how Aurora HDR fits in my workflow. This overview will probably be of more help to people who, like myself, are already familiar with Photomatix Pro. At points I will directly compare the Aurora with Photomatix. I’m hoping that this article will help give you an idea if Aurora HDR would work for you.

 

Installation

The difference between Aurora HDR and Aurora HDR Pro is that the pro version can also be used as a plugin with Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, and Photoshop Elements. Either version installs the same with the exception that the Pro version asks if you want to install any of the plugins. I use both Lightroom and Photoshop so I opted to install the plugin for both. I started writing this review using version 1.0, but almost immediately Macphun fixed a bug with Lightroom so I upgraded and finished the review using version 1.0.1.

There are slight differences in functionality when operating in standalone or plugin mode. The first thing I noticed is that the crop tool is only available in standalone mode. Not a big problem because I do my cropping in Lightroom. However I do like how the Aurora HDR crop tool works and I wish it were available in the plugin mode. In Aurora, once the crop tool is selected there is a drop down field to select the crop ratio. The awesome feature I like is a thumbnail representation of the crop ratio is also displayed along with the numerical info. In Lightroom the crop ratio is shown using numbers only. I find the visual reminder very helpful in deciding the ratio I want. So simple yet so smart.

 

Using Aurora

The plugin version of Aurora is opened from Lightroom by selecting the images from the Library module and exporting them to the plugin. (Note: it’s possible to open a single image and still apply an HDR effect using Aurora, you don’t need to have bracketed images.) Aurora launches with a dialog asking me to confirm the selection as well as apply the options of Alignment, Ghost Reduction, or Chromatic Aberration Reduction. Use those options as required for your image.

The stand alone version will start by either launching it from the dock, or by selecting images in finder, and dropping them directly onto the Aurora icon on the dock. Below I show the view when using Lightroom and exporting a series of 5 images into Aurora.

 

Aurora HDR import dialog used as a plugin with LIghtroom

Aurora HDR import dialog used as a plugin with LIghtroom

 

After pressing the Create HDR button the editor opens with my selected images and performs a basic HDR merge of the images. The image below shows the Aurora interface after the images are open. (Note: this image shows the stand alone version of the software. This can be identified by the crop tool being present and the absence of the Apply/Cancel buttons.)

Aurora HDR Standalone screenshot

Standalone version shown

 

For anyone familiar with any of Macphun’s other applications, or even Lightroom, the editor layout will immediately have a familiar feel. Along the top bar of are options for how the image is viewed. Zoom buttons, before/after button, etc. Super useful and allows me to see how my changes affect the entire image all at once. The right hand sidebar is where all the image adjusting sliders are located. Along the bottom is the Preset browser. The top right of the application has a histogram, and layer controls.

 

Image viewing options

The top bar has buttons for zooming in and out, viewing the before and after images, undo and redo buttons. Also the buttons for selecting layers, histogram, move, and brush tool. The stand alone version has a crop tool, and the plugin version has Apply and Cancel buttons.

 

Aurora top bar

Aurora top bar

Adjustment sliders

The adjustment sliders on the right side are used to manipulate the HDR algorithm as well as do basic RAW image alterations. I find the names of the sliders are a bit more clear than the ones used in Photomatix Pro. However, there are some labels that inspire just as much wonder. For example the Final Touches slider; what does Final Touches mean? It seems to have a similar function as the Lighting Adjustment slider in Photomatix Pro. Some of the fun with this kind of software is to just use the sliders and see what happens. Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes not so much. Play around and see what works for you.

 

Example of adjustment sliders

Example of adjustment sliders

 

Layers

The way layers work in Macphun software is the opposite to what I am used to using Photoshop. I only really wrapped my head around using layers in Photoshop in the last few months so I am by no means an expert in layers.

In Photoshop when I paint on a layer it allows the layer underneath to show through. In Aurora I add a layer over top of the the image and the area I paint on is then added of the image. In effect the layer tool in Aurora works the exact opposite to how I am used to using it in Photoshop. The end result is the same, but the visualization is backwards for me. Once I got over that little quirk I found it easy to make the adjustment.

Just like in Photoshop a layer in Aurora can be used to adjust the entire image below or to load an entirely separate image. For instance I can load a texture image and Aurora will automatically adjust the dimensions of the new texture layer to cover the original image. I can also load a separate source image and use the layer masking to create a double exposure effect.

It took me next to no time to learn how to use layers in Aurora. Compared to learning and using layers in Photoshop Aurora has been much easier. One quirk with layers in Aurora is that they can not be flattened or grouped as they can in Photoshop. However I have the feeling that both of these functions may be added in future updates. At least I hope they will…

 

Presets

Photomatix Pro offers a bunch of presets to get help provide a starting point when working on an image. Aurora HDR provides you with even more presets. And Aurora presets are grouped by categories. I have no idea why they are grouped the way they are, they seem pretty random in how they adjust the image. Aurora does allow me to create my own presets and store them under the User tab. The presets are a great place to get the general feel of your final image. After selecting a preset I am able to continue adjusting the image, using the sliders or adding layers to fine-tune the look.

 

Aurora HDR preset gallery

Aurora HDR preset gallery

 

Preset Examples

Preset Examples

 

Speed

The impression I get when using Aurora is that it runs a bit slower than both Photomatix Pro. The files seem to open a bit slower, the sliders seem to lag a wee bit more, and when applying adjustments to an image it seems to take a bit longer for the image to get imported back into Lightroom. So I did a very unscientific speed test using the stopwatch on my iPhone. Both Photomatix Pro and Aurora HDR Pro open a dialog box asking for more information before the application loads the files. I measured the amount of time for the dialog to open and added the time it took to load the images into the application.

The computer I am using is definitely not a powerhouse machine. I am currently traveling around the world so I chose a small light computer to take with me. I use a 2014 Retina Macbook Pro with 16 gig ram. Aurora does not do so good in the speed department on my machine. It took Aurora HDR Pro 41 seconds from when I launched the plugin till when the plugin was able to edit the image. Photomatix Pro did the same job in 35 seconds. Not a huge difference but noticeable. My impression that Aurora runs a bit slower proved true, at least when initially opening the images.

 

Comparison

Here is a comparison of  an I edited using both Aurora HDR and Photomatix Pro along with Lightroom.

 

Blue Chair and Red Photomatix

Blue Chair and Red Photomatix

 

Blue Chair Aurora

Blue Chair Aurora

Whenever I create an HDR image I just go with my feelings at the moment. In the comparison I created the Photomatix version a couple of months ago and the Aurora version just now. I did not refer to the original version when I created the Aurora version. This is a subjective comparison.

When using Aurora I tried to desaturate the grass. The image above I have desaturated as far as the slider would let me and yet the grass remains very green. It annoys me that I could not desaturate the grass any further, however I do feel that the colour of the grass looks realistic, and not the oversaturated green typical of HDR processing. I plan to pay attention to this as I process more images.

 

All in one?

Macphun says that Aurora will replace Lightroom and Photoshop in the HDR workflow. I use Lightroom as my catalog so I’m not looking to replace that piece of software. There are many other cataloging applications available but Aurora works as a plugin for Lightroom so that keeps me happy. I can’t say how the workflow will work for anyone using Bridge, Photos, or other cataloging software. While I can see that some may be able to create a workflow that uses only Aurora at this point I feel it’s a claim that I would be hard pressed justify.

For me the cool thing about Aurora HDR is it accomplishes the HDR merge and allows me to adjust the image as though I were using Macphun’s Intensity CK software all within the same plugin. It does have layers which allows me to mix effects as I would in Photoshop.  This simplifies my workflow. I’ll continue to use Lightroom as a catalog and to do simple raw file manipulations without having to launch a plugin.

Occasionally I also take an image that has been converted to HDR and layer it back into one of the original bracketed images in Photoshop. This technique allows me to blend the HDR effect into certain areas only. Theoretically I should be able to do this using the layers in Aurora, though I have not tried it yet.

 

Overview

Things I like.

  • Allows me to get the work of two plugins done with only using one plugin.
  • In the top left corner the exposures and bracketing information is shown. I am so excited about this little thing!
  • The application will go full screen, with a sidebar on only one side. This makes a larger image to work on = Awesome. Photomatix Pro feels a bit cluttered in comparison.
  • The layout feels similar to Lightroom and other Macphun products. this is great because everything feels so familiar.
  • Glow feature – I used to do this in Photoshop. And it can be applied in Aurora with varied amounts using layer masking. Cool!
  • When Aurora saves a version of an edit it appends the word Aurora into the file name. I really like this! When I use multiple different plugins it’s nice to see which photos were edited by which software.
  • Layers are even easier to use than in Photoshop

Things that I want to complain about.

  • Crop tool is only available in standalone mode, not in plugin mode. Annoying but not a game stopper. After all when using the software as a plugin the host software will already have a crop function of its own.
  • Slider feel. Maybe its that I am used to the ‘feel’ of the sliders in Lightroom. With Aurora I find that the slider has to be moved quite far before the image shows any change. For instance the vignette tool must be moved quite far before I notice any vignetting happening. I guess this provides more resolution to the slider, but it still feels odd.
  • Slider range. This is something I notice when I was trying to desaturate the green channel and I could not desaturate it enough. The result is the greens are still bright. In Lightroom I can desaturate each colour channel to effectively end up as grey. Note: Maybe it was something with the image I was working on. I have been able to adjust the red and yellow colour channels with no issues in other images.
  • I was originally going to complain that when using the brush tool on a layer mask I could not adjust the opacity of the brush stroke, only the entire layer. But then I found the Opacity slider located in the Brush drop down tool. I would like to see my brush options on the right sidebar the way I do in Photoshop.

Features I want.

  • Clone brush! and Spot healing tool. This would take Aurora to the next level
  • Ability to crop when used as a plugin
  • Layer crop, re-size, relocate, transform.
  • A tooltip that tells me what to expect from each slider. Seriously, what does Final Touches even mean?
  • Merge layers.

 

Summary

Aurora HDR Pro seems to provide a softer look of HDR in its default settings than Photomatix Pro does. There are many who feel that HDR photography is an abomination and produces obnoxious, overly saturated, high contrast, distracting images. The softer look of Aurora may be Macphun intentionally softening the look of HDR to make it more acceptable to a wider audience. It is still able to produce jarring HDR effects, but the default settings are very gentle.

Aurora packs in all the most useful raw file adjustments along with the most used HDR parameters into one awesome plugin. The interface is super easy to understand and allowed me to get working on images fast with almost no stumbles. Anyone familiar with Lightroom, Photomatix Pro, or Macphun’s own Creative Kit Apps will pick up on this software very easily.

There have been a few slight frustrations when starting with Aurora. For instance, at first, I was unaware of the ability to adjust the Opacity of the brush strokes when working with layer masks. Also the first time I opened the plugin version and I could not find the crop tool I was a bit confused. Both of these issues were figured out fairly quickly. The last thing that I still find a bit hard to adjust to is the feel of how the sliders work, requiring more movement to get the effect I expect.

Even with those minor issues this is a piece of software that I will be using more and more. I am looking forward to spending time playing with Aurora and learning how it compares to creating HDR images using Photomatix pro and Intensity CK as separate plugins.

Here is a link to download a free copy of the software to use for evaluating how it fits into your workflow.

Are you already using Aurora HDR Pro? Have any questions you want me to answer? Leave me a comments or ask questions in the comment field below!


Growing up one of my biggest dreams was to explore the world. Honestly I never thought this would become reality. But at the end of 2014 I quit my job as a project manager to do just that. I sold most everything I own, packed up the remaining boxes in storage, and set out to see the world. My goals while traveling are to meet people everywhere I go, work on becoming a better photographer, and attempt to stay where the weather is not freezing. Along the way I am posting photos at Pixelbip.com and writing about my experiences at EarthToKeir.com