Review: Aurora HDR Pro for Beautiful Pictures

The Captain’s Review of Aurora HDR Pro from MacPhun Software

This review of Aurora HDR Pro includes my experiences from both creative and technical points of view.

For many HDR photographers, this is a game changer! For others, with more resistance to change or who run Windows, your time will come. It’s quite like the mirrorless cameras thing. One day you will make the switch and fall in love all over again!

So, here’s my new love story.

“I don’t always shoot HDR, but when I do, I use Aurora HDR Pro.”

~The most interesting photographer in the world

5 Minutes to Fame

Aurora HDR Pro is a brand new piece of software that does it all* for HDR fans! Feed Aurora your bracketed exposures or single RAW files and, in less than 5 minutes, out come beautiful HDR pictures! It’s actually quite magical to experience.

Leave it to forward thinking Trey Ratcliff, of, to invent this!  For about a year he’s been secretly working on some next-generation tone-mapping algorithms with MacPhun Software. Let me show & tell you about my experience with this newest HDR product and how it’s making my post processing life easier.

Don’t Fear Change

Aurora HDR Pro went onto my Mac the day it was released.  Since then, the only place I take my HDR work is straight into Aurora. There is no more need for Photomatix Pro in the HDR workflow. Aurora HDR Pro is now all that’s needed! Right now, I’m calling it the replacement for Photomatix Pro!

Let that soak in. Relax. It’s okay to let go. By the way, we don’t need Photoshop anymore either. Photoshop wasn’t made for photographers anyway. True.

Aurora does layers with blend modes and that’s pretty much what the only thing we actually needed with Photoshop anyway.

Lightroom’s role continues as my Master catalog and comfort blanket. I find it most convenient to use Aurora in its’ plug-in mode in Lightroom. Then, when I want to do an HDR photo, it’s a snap to find them in Lightroom and send the brackets over to Aurora HDR Pro.

Will Aurora HDR Pro Make You a Better Artist?

So, things are quite different on my desktop now, to say the least.  Shocking! Yet so much simpler.  And the art being produced using Aurora by other photographers that I’m seeing out in the wild recently , as well as my own, is definitely trending up!

Boost Your Creative

One factor why HDR art is getting better is also the best part for me about this new HDR software. I feel that I have more space to create.

There are two parts to the new spaciousness I’m feeling when using Aurora HDR Pro. One of those parts is the super-size image you get to work with in the interface. Especially on my 27* iMac, it’s so easy to see fine details without interface toolbars or menus getting in the way.

The second part or kind of space is more zen.  It’s how Aurora HDR Pro just gets out of my way when I’m post processing! What I mean is, now that I’m not distracted fighting my software anymore I feel a new freedom allowing more creativity. It’s like letting go of something that’s been holding me back. There’s more capacity now to focus and cultivate my creative, leading me to produce more inspired art.

It seems that it should work the same for most everybody else too. Right? So, then the answer is, “Yes, Aurora HDR can indeed make you a better artist”

What’s The Magic Inside Aurora HDR Pro?

The three biggest things that make Aurora HDR Pro so compelling to switch over to using it as my primary processing software.

  • 32 Bit Files

If you’ve followed me for long, you know I’m a huge fan of 32 bit HDR processing for the spectacular natural looking HDR photos I can make. Although, my other Captain Photo has a wilder side and randomly flirts beyond the bounds of good HDR taste. Don’t be like him.

Anyway, that freshly merged 32 bit file is the core of the Perfect HDR Workflow I’ve been using ever since Lightroom 4 made it possible to edit 32 bit filesThose fat and juicy 32 bit HDR files we get after merging our exposure brackets are overstuffed with an abundance of light information for our post processing joy and delight!

Well, the great news is, when a bracketed series of RAW or JPG exposures is fed into Aurora HDR Pro for merging, the first thing it does is create that luscious 32 bit file! Yay! From there, you may have your way with it, like never before, completely inside of Aurora. You’ll find it’s possible and super fun to quickly shape the light in your HDR photography! It’s all done completely without Photoshop, without Photomatix Pro or any other photo editing software, because now you can do all your HDR processing immersed in Aurora HDR Pro!

Single files work in Aurora too, by the way. So you can take any of your old jpg vacation pictures, for example, and sweeten them up to a beautiful new look!

  • The Tools

Check out the new set of  creative tools we’ve been given; Glow, Radiance, and Top and Bottom Lighting, HDR look, etc! Together with the normal tools we expect to have, they pack a lot of power to take your images into new territory.

We’ll learn more about the tools in the Toolbox shortly.

  • Layered Workflow

This is key to success with Aurora and it’s also what makes it so fun! In the first layer you set your foundation look. Sometimes that’s all you need. Usually, though, I end up adding  several layers to make additional changes to targeted parts of the image. If using layers sounds scary to you, don’t let it.  The way Aurora is designed makes it so easy for you to make beautiful pictures!

It’s crazy easy to add a layer and then mask in little parts to really make your HDR photos unique.  Make a luminosity mask in one click too. I’m telling ya, this software is sick!

Which leads us to…

Aurora HDR is for Beginner to Pro HDR Photographers

Aurora HDR-Used as a standalone only

What makes Aurora HDR ideal for beginning photographers is that you don’t need Photoshop or Lightroom or any other software to make beautiful pictures! All you need is Aurora HDR on your Mac, nothing else! For you, the less expensive non-pro version, which doesn’t support plugin integration with Lightroom and Photoshop, is all you need. That’s a blessing for casual photographers reading this. Nothing else to buy or to learn. The non-pro version is, of course, missing a few of those new whiz-bang features; luminosity masking, gradient masking, and native RAW support. Each of those is a biggie for me so I’m using the Pro version.

Aurora HDR Pro-Use as standalone and as a plugin

For advanced amateurs and pros who want quality HDR quickly and directly from Lightroom and Photoshop, Aurora HDR Pro is the version to get. Use Aurora as a plug-in and now you’ve also got the capabilities of all those apps too. I find that I still need, for example, spot removal in Lightroom because Aurora doesn’t have that tool. Maybe it’s coming? Or, maybe they figured that anybody serious enough to care about spots is already working with Lightroom or Photoshop anyway?

The New Workflow

Like most photographers, my entire photo library is cataloged in Lightroom. The new workflow is simple, no significant change really.

  • Browsing my photos happens, as usual, in Lightroom.
  • Then a right-click on any image(s) I want to process as HDR
  • It Zaps right into Aurora for it’s HDR fun & magic!
  • When the Aurora HDR Pro party is over, it automatically imports itself back into my Lightroom catalog right next to the original photo(s)!

Slick and easy. That’s how I like it.

Demo  of Aurora HDR Pro using 3 bracketed exposures

Before diving deeper, here’s the before/after screen shot I grabbed while making the photo of Scotty’s Castle, in the gallery at the top of the page. In the information bar above the two photos you can see that it’s a three exposure HDR (-2, 0, +2) along with other Exif info. On the right side of the info bar it shows that I’m working with a 32 bit file.

The layout of the user interface is clean and arranged in a familiar way to Lightroom and other photo processing wares with the new cool tools in a panel on the right side. Preset options displayed along the bottom.

Before/After Screenshot of Aurora HDR

Before/After Screenshot of Aurora HDR-Click to enlarge


Another before/after screenshot.

This finished photo of the Emporia shopping mall in Malmo, Sweden, is also posted in the Aurora HDR gallery above, along with a few other photos I’ve made with this new advanced HDR software:


Before/After using Aurora HDR Pro

Before/After using Aurora HDR Pro

Included Presets

One way to begin using Aurora is simply by starting with one of the included presets. They give you a few dozen HDR looks covering a diverse spectrum from natural to extreme! A couple are so extreme, however, I can’t imagine ever using them in my work. The Aurora presets are organized in groups by intended use… Landscape, Portrait, Architecture, etc. Also, feel free to make your own custom presets, if you want. One way to do that is just save the final settings as a new preset each time you process a new photo. By the way, the Pro version of Aurora HDR comes with a nice bonus set of presets handmade by Trey.

The Toolbox

There’s a myriad of useful new tools along the right side of the interface. You’ll find tools with names we’ve never had available to work with before but always wished for; check out Radiance, or the ever popular, Glow! Now I finally have the tool to give me that dreamy glow with just a nudge of a slider!

Some tools have entirely new names we’ve maybe never even thought of… for example, Top & Bottom Lighting! What’s that! Turns out to be a quick light balancing tool. Think of it as two graduated neutral density filters edge to edge and infinitely adjustable! Super useful!

Screenshot of Aurora HDR Toolbox

Screenshot of Aurora HDR Toolbox

There’s more new stuff too and I’ll leave it for you to surprise and delight yourself when you try the free fully functioning demo of Aurora HDR Pro. With the demo version you can merrily process your HDR photos and use all tools in Aurora HDR Pro. You just can’t print or share your finished art with the free demo.

Video Tutorials

This is a great time to tell you about the series of free Aurora HDR Pro video tutorials on the Macphun YouTube channel. The video I’m sharing below is all about the Toolbox. It quickly goes through every tool in detail to give you a good idea of what to do when you download your free demo to play with. I’m not going to re-invent the wheel and make my own Aurora HDR video tutorial on these things that are already covered very well by the factory. When I make a video it will be to show you a fun or non intuitive way to do something special with your photography using Aurora HDR PRo.

The video below covers the basics of the software. Other videos you’ll find on the Macphun channel cover more advanced things you can do with Aurora HDR. They’ll show you about how layers work, luminosity masks, workflow, presets, and more.

I think you’ll find this new software quite easy to understand and soon be skillfully making epic photos with this advanced software.

Find out about the cool tools in TheToolbox

Custom Texture Overlays

Using layers and blend modes, it’s easy to add textures to your HDR photos. Some of us like to do that on occasion. No longer am I left with Photoshop as my only option Upload all your own custom texture files into Aurora and they’ll be ready to blend into your art on command. There’s a video on the Macphun channel showing more about that. Aurora HDR Textures and Luminosity Mask Tutorial

Luminosity Masks

This is a killer feature! Tantamount to having wi-fi in your minivan! Luminosity masks can make your HDR photography look like butter!  What they do is blend your masks on a sub-pixel level, unlike regular masking, and can render gorgeous images. The feathering you get on your luminosity masks greatly helps the elimination of those dreaded halos so prevalent in HDR photography.  I’m still working with luminosity masks in Aurora and might have more to say about that later.

My wish is that I could find a tutorial somewhere that shows the Macphun way of making luminosity masks work better than I’ve been able to so far.

In Photoshop it’s very complicated to do luminosity masking.  Maybe I’m making up a story, but I think quite a lot of photographers have shied away from doing it altogether because of the effort required.

With a click in Aurora HDR Pro, it generates a luminosity mask! Anybody can click a mouse. So now anybody can use them!  Wait for it.

Luminosity Mask Caveat

If you are a photographer familiar with luminosity masking, you should know not to expect the capabilities of the full-on Tony Kuyper Action Panel. Not yet, anyway. Or maybe it’s me.  Possibly I’m missing some yet undisclosed luminosity masking tutorial for Aurora HDR Pro, but here’s how it looks to me.

In a nutshell, it seems that the luminosity mask from Aurora is equivalent to a “Lights” channel. You can’t get a Light-Lights or any of the other more targeted light masks. Same for the Darks.

To make a Darks channel mask, all you do is generate the luminosity mask like above, then invert it. So far, I haven’t found a way to get to Dark-Darks and beyond either.

There are no mid-tone masks of any kind.

That being said, I still feel the luminosity masking feature is huge. Right now it just feels a little too rudimentary. Trey and the Macphunnies surely must plan to build this out a bit.

Photomatix Users

Up to now, HDR processing meant using Photomatix Pro or one of the equivalent products we’ve been using for years. After trying Aurora, you may just find yourself not going back there again! Seriously.

It’s already mentioned that change is hard. I know; the struggle is real. The thing is, Aurora produces finished HDR photos all by itself with ease. Using Photomatix Pro requires a lot more work and skill to pull off HDR awesomeness we’re wanting for our art.

Aurora HDR helps the Creative Process

Technology marches on and we’re the lucky recipients as life continues getting easier. Now, with Aurora HDR Pro, the process of making art is much less inhibited because we are not having to focus so much brainpower on Photomatix and Photoshop.

Instead, Aurora HDR Pro seems to be engineered to help the artist with a minimal, yet thorough set of tools specific to HDR photography. I used to find that the sheer complexity involved in processing a HDR photo was a significant distraction from the creative process. Aurora HDR Pro gives the artist more freedom working within the creative space.

HDR from a Single RAW File

Dying alpaca yarn in Peru

Dying alpaca yarn in Peru-made in Aurora HDR Pro from a single RAW file.

Basically, Aurora HDR Pro is simply a RAW editor, just like Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom.  However, Aurora also has those new advanced algorithms I mentioned earlier. Processing your single RAW files to get HDR is what they claim, and it’s true, as long as the single RAW exposure captures the full dynamic range of the scene.  If that’s the case, go ahead and process with confidence just as if you were processing a conventional merged HDR.

Avoid trying to process a JPG as a single file. It’s only an 8 bit file and there’s just hardly any wiggle room for bending it’s pixels. However, it’s perfectly fine to feed bracketed JPG’s into Aurora for merging into HDR because you’ll still get a 32 bit image to play with!

It surprised me to see a single JPG being used in one of the Aurora HDR demo videos. It didn’t turn out nearly as nice as the HDR version of that same shot. If they had used the single RAW file instead of the JPG, I’m pretty sure the result would be much better.


*Things that Aurora HDR Pro Doesn’t Do Yet

  • Spot removal
  • Auto mask for the brush
  • Windows

So if you have a Mac, hit the banner below to try the FREE demo of Aurora HDR right now. It’s the most advanced HDR software on the planet and simple enough for everybody to use!
Showing 7 comments
  • Alina Macphun

    Thank you for such a great review! :) This photo is really amazing!
    I hope this article will be useful for your readers.

    Alina from Macphun

    • Captain Photo

      Thanks Alina and I hope so too. I’m leading them to the water… some will drink

  • Durban photographer

    Thanks captain! I’ve been following your photography blog for a while now. I’ve learned so much!

    I remember the early days of my photography journey experimenting with HDR. It was all the buzz back then. I did’t have a DSLR that could automatically bracket so I had to use a program to create pseudo-HDR pics.

    This post brings back good ol’ memories


    terimakasih, informasinya sangat bagus dan menarik

  • Larry

    Looks great! Can’t wait for the release of the Windows version.

  • Dale Watkins

    I look forward to Spot Removal, for those times our sensors have a dust spot.

pingbacks / trackbacks
  • […] luminosity masking is so greatly improved! That’s the one area that I was critical about in my review of the initial release last year. Now, it’s about 1,000% better!  Now I have precise control over which tones in my images […]

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contact Captain Photo

Want to get in touch? I love hearing from my readers.. Cheers!

Sightseeing Prague at Night