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 by 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 then 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.

On my fully loaded, top of the line, all maxed out MacBook Pro I still found Aurora HDR was extremely slow. Whenever I did anything it took seconds and some operations took up to a minute. I timed it and filmed 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. It was far too slow and the results were not always satisfying.

Aurora 2017 arrived

What? Do 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 tested 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 in Aurora 2017 just to be sure, but I never liked what came out of it and I simply stopped using it.

The hype was still going on. To me, Aurora HDR 2017 seemed just as much The Emporers New Clothes as the first version.

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 a 5 exposure bracketed image series and I have 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. It is that type of halos that torments almost any image in Aurora 2017, almost no matter what you do.

I have tried to make counteractions to get rid of the halos or try to hide them, 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 the nasty 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.

Edit: To be very strict the merge in Aurora HDR 2018 is not 100% perfect. Halos are just so soft and big, that you have to look for them and it is very easy to work with. I don’t believe in “press a button processing”. I believe what comes out of any HDR tool has to be blended with the original photos to achieve a perfect HDR photo. There is no silver bullet.

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 does get slower as you add more layers, but then again so does Photoshop. I have triggered something that requires heavy calculating, but mostly it is 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 there is 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 when you bring the photo back to 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. Edit: This has been fixed in a later update.

What I don’t like

  • The merge is very clean and the halos are super soft, if there at all. The images do tend to be 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. The best way to achieve this is by blending in the original images.
  • Minor things that I find annoying, like:
    • There is no “Save as…” feature – but why not?
    • Some features are located in strange places, like for instance the Transform.
    • No preview from Finder or Bridge. A small thing, but it just would make it easier to handle Aurora HDR files in a workflow.
  • Call it a 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. That is just how I am. You may feel different.





6 thoughts on “Aurora HDR 2018 – the honest review

  1. Hi, thanks for the review, it has some useful information for me (50+ years of photography including fine art, using Photomatix HDR). While your content is quite good, I would strongly recommend you to have your articles proofread by a 3rd party. Especially your punctuation is so chaotic to make for painful reading.

    • Hi Moreno,

      Thanks for your feedback. I am glad that you found some useful information. I do use the best available proofreading software available. However, punctuation in English and my primary language Danish is based on very different rules, which makes it hard to get right. I do the best I can. 3rd party is an extra cost, which is not an option currently. But, I will run through it again 🙂


  2. Thanks for the review.
    There still seems to be halos in the 2018 dome photo, but fainter and bigger. ?
    Also all along the top edge.
    Maybe it’s just the png compression?

    • Hi GBanon,
      No, it is slightly uneven in the sky, but I would never expect it to be completely even, no matter what HDR program I use. You have to blend in the original images to make a perfect HDR photo.

      What comes out of Aurora 2018 is good enough to work with. The output from 2017 was impossible to work with, because the halos were so nasty, you couldn’t hide nor get rid of them.


  3. Hi Jacob

    A great, honest review. Thank you. Perhaps a few too many ‘commas’?

    I tired Aurora 2017 and found it painfully slow. I was creating HDRs from 3 images out of my 5DIII. The tools were each taking 10 to 20 seconds at times to finish updating the image. Ridiculous for something touted as the best by one of the best HDR guys out there, Trey Ratcliff.

    I emailed Macphun and asked what could I do to speed up the processing times, relaying my experiences on my “fast iMac”. They were “surprised”. They asked me to send sample images and so on. I told them the same thing happened on a single, hi res image downloaded from one of those “free hi res images” sites. They told me the “same thing doesn’t happen when they use it”; which left me to believe I had a problem with my setup.

    They then started telling me my Mac probably wasn’t up to it but soon dropped that suggestion when I told them it was a 14 month old iMac late 2015 27 inch, top of the line, maxxed out with 32Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD. I mean, Lightroom didn’t miss a beat on this thing. At the time, that was incredible.

    I asked that they send some of their test images and they went cold and I didn’t hear anything thereafter. Very disappointing.

    Like you, I’m an app addict. I’m optimistically tempted by your positive reviews of the 2018 version but my fond memories of Macphun’s less than honest repsonses are still keeping me at bay.


    • Hi Scott,

      I had a similar experience, about my Aurora 2017 and my contact with Macphun.

      I have very strong reservations about Macphun or whatever they are called now. I do not approve of their way of marketing the product and the rebate structure, however, they are investing heavily. And the product has grown incredibly and the major issues I had with 2017 are gone.

      I still don’t use it a lot. Why? Well, it has a look and I just prefer something else. I do a lot more hand controlled stuff in Photoshop.

      About Trey Ratcliff. He is in it for the money. He is a businessman as a photographer and he is a celebrity that can pull a piece of software onto the stage. And thanks to him, Macphun has been able to invest heavily in development, because they have sold many many licenses.

      Thanks for the input!


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