Aurora HDR 2018 – the honest review

Hallstatt in the morning

Hallstatt in Austria. Edited in Aurora HDR 2018. 0% Photoshop used and 1% Lightroom used.

Initially, when Aurora HDR came out two years ago, I was very intrigued with the software. No doubt the makers of Aurora MacPhun, have put themselves in a good position, by allying themselves with one of the HDR giants, Trey Ratcliff. But, after the first initial rush of interest, I was deeply disappointed.

I did go into the software with a very open mind. I am a software addict and I love to use new software, however, I instantly ran into trouble. It was Mac only, I had Windows. I did have a 4-year-old MacBook Air. The biggest 2011 model, 4 Gb ram and i7 CPU. Powerful enough to run Photoshop, Photomatix, and Lightroom. Not the fastest car on the highway, but certainly working.

But, starting the first version of Aurora HDR with a 36-megapixel image was impossible. I downscaled the images to about 12 megapixels and I was able to start the application, but I ended up waiting until I got a MacBook Pro.

But even on my fully loaded, top of the line, all on max MacBook Pro, Aurora HDR was slow. Whenever I did anything it took seconds and some operations up to a minute. I timed it.

I did make a couple of OK-ish images and I did a review while still biased by the hype. But as soon as the smoke did clear, I was not overly happy to work with the tool, because it was so slow.

Aurora 2017 arrived

What? I have to buy a new version, not just an update? All of my other tools for Photoshop come with free updates. That didn’t feel right. Particularly, because the first version was more of a Beta than an actual working tool. And looking at all of the praise on the internet and feeling the hype, I thought “This is the Emperors New Clothes”. They were selling a turd as if it was the greatest pumpkin pie ever made.

Anyway, I bought 2017 reluctantly. The speed issues were mostly gone, which was good. A new luminosity feature had arrived, not very fast though, but most things were snappy enough.

I now tried out the quality of the tool, but I was deeply disappointed by the tool itself. It generated halos no matter what I did, and I could not really get rid of them. The brush left strong edges between the layers, making it even harder to work with.

Once in a while, I have tried to process a photo, but I never liked what came out of it and I simply stopped using it.

The hype was still going on and to me, Aurora HDR 2017 true was just as much The Emporers New Clothes as the first version had been.

Aurora 2018 – I have to pay – again?

I almost didn’t buy it.

Come on, make a subscription out of it! It is ridiculous to buy a new version every year.

Being so disappointed with the two initial versions, I had almost given up on it. But being the software addict, that I am, I bought it and in short, I was deeply impressed.

Let’s begin with a screenshot:

This is 5 exposure bracketed images and I have just merged the 5 images and nothing else. I have touched no sliders. This is the clean HDR merge that Aurora HDR does. Notice the very strong dark halos on the left, which is the 2017 version. That type of halos is present in Aurora 2017, almost no matter what you do. You have to make counteractions to get rid of them or try to hide them as well as you can, but it shouldn’t be that way. Almost all tools can generate halos if you go over the top, but not out of the box. This is what Aurora HDR is put in the world to do. Merge exposure bracketed photos to something decent.

Almost all tools can generate halos if you go over the top, but not out of the box. This is what Aurora HDR is put in the world to do. Merge exposure bracketed photos to something decent.

On the right there is you can see the new Aurora HDR 2018 merge and not only, does it not have halos, it also does a very clean and nice merge. That has changed my mind entirely on Aurora HDR. At least the software now does, what it is supposed to do.

A few other very nice new details that I like:

  • The speed has improved even more. I would go so far, as to call it very snappy and responsive in most respects, even on my 42-megapixel images. They have certainly worked on optimizing the speed. It will get slower, as you add more layers, just as well as Photoshop does. But suddenly you trigger something, that requires heavy calculating. But, mostly snappy.
  • There are the necessary tools to finalize a photo in Aurora HDR 2018. You have:
    • Transform features to correct perspectives. However, this feature is only available at certain times, which makes it very confusing to figure out. A good beginning, but room for improvement.
    • Crop tool.
    • The Heal tool is an external tool that requires an additional license, but it is accessible from Aurora. You can also just remove the spots in Lightroom.

Other improvements that I like

  • The brush is soft enough to make nice blends between layers. In 2017 clear edges appeared around the brush, which was another reason not to use Aurora 2017.
  • Original images are not apart of the new file format, which I guess is fine if you don’t need them. You can load them if you need them.

What I don’t like

  • The merge is very clean, but it does tend to make the photos a bit flat. That is normal behavior for HDR software, and you will have to process the image more, to add depth back into the image.
  • Minor things that I find annoying, like:
    • There is no “Save as…” feature – but why not?
    • Some features are located strangely, like the Transform.
    • No preview from Finder or Bridge. A small thing, but it just does make it easier to handle Aurora HDR files in a workflow.
  • Call it software subscription, instead of a new paid version every year. I don’t mind paying for a subscription, at least I know it’s a subscription.

Who is Aurora HDR 2018 the right tool for?

When you begin to use a tool, that does a lot automatically, like Aurora HDR 2018 does, you also have to accept that it has a distinct and recognizable style. Aurora HDR has a distinct style and you have to do some work, to get rid of it, just like you would with any other tool. That doesn’t make it a bad tool if you like what you get out of it.

Aurora HDR is capable of producing high-quality HDR photos, without the nasty halos the first two versions created. It is packed with a lot various effect tools, like Radiance, Glow, HSL panel, Split toning panel, various HDR structure sliders, vignette tool as well as old plain contrast, highlights shadows and white and black sliders. You also have the Luminosity masks available. In short, it is a pretty full package.

So, who is this tool for? Anyone how likes to shoot HDR photos and who might feel that dancing with Photoshop is too difficult, but Lightroom is not enough.

Aurora HDR 2018 is finally ready for real use and it is a full package, that can produce final images, maybe with the exception of removing dust spots.

Will this be my tool of choice? For some things, absolutely, but not solely. Why? Because I love to work in Photoshop and some of the highly advanced things I like to do in Photoshop, are not available in Aurora HDR. I love to post-process the images. I don’t necessarily want the fastest route through the forest. But that is just how I am. You may feel different.





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