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.





Hidden Drama in Rome

Colorful Shop

I found this Colorful Shop in Rome.

While we were in Rome we passed this little mini restaurant, street kitchen, kiosk, souvenir shop many times, and at night, it was full of lights.

Just behind this little street shop, there are stairs leading down the Tiber, which is the river winding its way slowly through Rome.

We went down there during the day, to shoot the Castel Sant’Angelo from below. We had the feeling, that it was probably not the safest place in Rome after dark. And yet, we had seen many night shots from down there.

We decided to take the Blue Hour up around the Vatican, and then work our way down here to Castel Sant’Angelo, and take the late blue hour or the first of the night. And then we would make a judgment of the situation. Would it be safe to go down to the Tiber or not.

By the time we got down to this kitchen on wheels, at was a bit darker than we had planned. A few people hung around in the area, and I started the descent of the stairs, looking carefully around.

I didn’t get more than 10 steps down, and the stairs were splashed in what looked exactly like fresh blood, and I turned around. Even if I wanted a photo from down there, I didn’t want it that bad.

Instead, I have been playing around with one of the daytime photos I shot. I don’t like daytime photos that much, and I don’t a lot of them. But what I have come to like, is to put textures on them.

Angels Fortress in Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome is fascinating. I wouldn’t go as far as claiming that the building is beautiful, but spectacular it is.

The textures take the daylight away, in particular in this one, where I have gone berserk. I have begun to use AuroraHDR. Another neat feature in AuroraHDR is, that it support Textures too. However, my poor old MacBook Air from 2011, didn’t like 5 layers of textures on top of a 36 megapixel HDR.

Fair enough, it adds up in the memory, and my Mac only has 4 Gb, which is far too little to be doing heavy image processing. 8 Gb would have been much better.

When you make textured images, it is important to use several layers of different textures. A single layer will be too dominant and too easy to see ‘what is’.

Textures are typically images of a wall, ground, iron, paper, anything flat, and by using several textures, you get a complex mix, not only of structure but also of colors. And if you can find something, that works nicely together

The trick is to find some textures, that work nicely together, both in colors, and structure. And depending on the image you use, the blending changes, and you find that you have to apply textures that work well with your photo.And if you can find something, that works nicely together

I never apply a texture evenly on an image. I always add a mask and paint in and out the bits I like and don’t like. My primary objects, like the Castel Sant’Angelo in this image, I give a less texture, to enhance it.

If you find my articles interesting and consider getting AuroraHDR, please use the link on my web page and support me that way. I only recommend software and tools that I use.

I am not ‘bought’ to say nice things with sugar on top. I say what I think and feel about products. I get nothing for writing these articles, but I do get a kickback if you use my link to buy AuroraHDR, as well as if you use my 15% discount coupon code “caughtinpixels” for buying Buy Photomatix Pro. Thanks.

If you like my work, why not follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. I post photos daily.

–Jacob Surland

The Weekend Post – AuroraHDR test drive

Little Cottage on the Harbor

The ‘Skerpi’ is a house made of sticks, and put on wheels. The gourmet restaurant ‘Koks’ from the Faroe Islands has this as a pop-restaurant in Copenhagen these days.

For the past week, I have been playing around with AuroraHDR by Trey Ratcliff and Macphun. It’s one of the latest products for creating HDR photos, and I have been pretty excited about getting to know it.

This article covers my first initial impression of AuroraHDR. My overall impression is positive. There are lot’s of good stuff, but there are also a couple of bad bits.

Let’s start with one of the bad bits. It’s Mac… Only… However, Macphun is working on a Windows version, but there is no official date for this yet. Maybe they will brand it under ‘Winphun’? Probably not!

Anyway, I am or was a Windows user, but I do have a MacBook Air 13″ from mid-2011, equipped with an i7 1.8 GHz and 4Gb ram. It was the most powerful MacBook air back then. And this Mac has been my test drive computer.

I think that has been a good exercise and I can give a couple of additional input because I used this older computer.

First run of AuroraHDR

I picked a series of bracketed photos from my latest photoshoot. I exported seven exposures from Lightroom as DNG (Adobe’s device independent RAW format) files, as I always do, and dragged them into AuroraHDR.

Continue reading

Understanding HDR part V – Understanding and handling tone mapping

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one the most idyllic German medieval towns I have visited. Fot that reason I have been there three times. This split road is particularly lovely I think. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

In the previous articles we have covered the theory behind HDR, and why it is necessary to take more than one shot. How to improve the image quality, by pushing the histogram to the right and various approaches to post-process HDR photos. This is fundamental knowledge to HDR photography.

If you did not read them, you might want to. You find them here:

The purpose and result of HDR software

Because you shoot several shots of the same scene, you have to use a tool to put them together. You can either do it manually, and blend the images, by stacking the photos in Photoshop or GIMP and then blend them into a final HDR photo using layer masks. Or you can use a tool that will do this automatically.

The automatic HDR software is probably the more common approach.

The problem of doing something, automatically is, that you are less in control, and the engine might not do want you want it do, or it will do more than you want it to do. Like in all other aspects of of life ‘there is no silver bullet’. There is no secret recipe, that will give you fantastic HDR photos, by pressing a button.

But making a fantastic HDR photo, does not have to be difficult, if you just know what to do, and have done a little practicing. I will help you understanding, what it is that you (need to) do.

As covered in part IV, the purpose of the HDR software is a two step process, first to merge the photos together to a 32-bit image file (the real HDR photo), and second to transform it into a 16-bit image, because you can’t see the 32-bit image properly. The 16-bit, is not really an HDR photo, but is usually referred to as the HDR, and this I also do, just bear in mind that the 32-bit image is technically the HDR photo.

A tone mapping algorithm will map the tones from 32-bit to 16-bit and a fusion algorithm will blend the photos.

The fusion algorithm does not have the same flexibility and artistic options as does the tone mapper, and for that reason I personally prefer to use a tone mapper, rather than use a less flexible fusion algorithm. But it is a matter of personal taste.

Tone mappers also come in many flavors, and to me, artistic flexibility is the most important thing.

Single exposure tone mapping

The tone mapper maps tones from one image to another, by passing the image through an algorithm. The merging of three images into the 32-bit HDR, does not have anything to do with the tone mapper itself.

You can take a single (well exposed) image, and put that through the tone mapper, and you will get a similar result, as had you used a 32-bit HDR photo. The viewer will see the photo, and recognize it, as what is commonly referred to as ‘an HDR photo’ (keeping in mind, that the only HDR really is the 32-bit image, that we can’t see properly).

Not all single exposure images gives great results in the tone mapping algorithm. It depends very much on how well exposed the image is.

A couple of examples of single exposures I have tone mapped:

University of Copenhagen

Lighthouse on the edge

To commoners these photos will look like HDR photos, because what is commonly referred to as HDR photos, really are tone mapped images. And the commoners, will not know the difference. I hope I have made it clear enough to you.

Side effects when tone mapping

Tone mapping is not without flaws, in particular if you push the gas pedal towards the floor. To me the tone mapper is a flexible tool, that you can bend, not necessarily to your will, but can bend into many interesting and artistic results, but if you are not careful, you can also get the worst image ever. This opens up for creativity and I do use this to great extend, and with great care.

Let’s walk through some of the common side effects from tone mapping.

Continue reading

First impressions – Review of Photomatix Pro 5 beta 4

The London Tower Bridge is one of the worlds most well known landmarks. Photo by: Jacob Surland,
London Tower Bridge – a 5 shot HDR photo processed with Photomatix Pro 5 beta 4 and then mixed with a long exposure image for the fountain and the clouds. The Long exposure I made using my 10 stop ND filter from B+W. I did use a final filter High Key from Topaz Adjust to get the more pseuchedelic look.

Some of you might have noticed that a new version of Photomatix Pro 5 is on its way. The official beta 4 is now available and I have had a quick glance at it. After having played around with for a awhile I am a bit disappointed, but there are a few goodies too.

The wording – that is the usability – has changed in general to the better. By using the right words you can do a lot for the ease of use of a software program. For instance instead of calling a feature ‘Align source image – by correcting vertical and horizontal shifts’ it gets a lot easier to understand from the new wording: ‘Align source images – Taken on tripod’. I’m a great fan of usability and this is great usability in it’s essence. Straight talk for normal human beings to understand, not engineer talk that only a small group of people can understand.

There are a couple of others of these wordings that has changed for the better. The Button “Process” has been changed to “Apply and Finish”.

The algorithm for aligning images should be improved, but that is fairly hard to test. I have never really had any problem with the one from Photomatix 4 – but improvements of course is good.

The deghosting as been changed too and is better. However I never use the deghosting tool. I might give it a try or two, but basically I think you get a better result using by blending one of the source image in using layered masks in Photoshop or GIMP.

A couple of new processing methods has been added. Tone mapping has got a ‘Contrast optimizer’ method in addition to the Details Enhancer and the Tone Compressor:

Step 04 - Tone mapping methods

The ‘Contrast Optimizer’ is great for natural looking images, but is not worth much for more creative processing. I will probably not use it for much. The fusion also got an ‘Fusion/Real estate’ optimized for images to show both interior and the outside for real estate photographers. That’s not really me either. So I’m stuck with the Fusion/Natural and Tone Mapping/Details Enhancer.

The details enhancer has got a single change. Luminosity has changed to Tone Compression, but it does exactly the same. In fact the Details enhancer does exactly the same as before. I had hoped for more fun and creative options, but got disappointed on that. I have tried to process images with both Photomatix Pro 4 and Photomatix Pro 5 beta 4, with the exact same settings and the images are identical. That really disappointed me. The noise levels are the same. One of the weaker points in Photomatix Pro is the noise it produces. Of course there are other ways of handling the noise, would just have been nice if the algorithm had been better at handling noise.

I had also hoped for the loop feature to do a perfect processing, so that you would see the real deal, but that is still very poor.

First impressions - Loop still poor

Conclusion of a preliminary review of Photomatix Pro 5 beta 4

There are number of usability improvements in the software, which really makes it easier to use, and some improvements in some of the more automatic parts of the software, like deghosting and auto aligning.

There are also a couple of new processing algorithms, but they are targeted to a different group than the more creative HDR photographers.

But for the more creative side this version is a more or less 1:1 with the old Photomatix 4.

Good thing that if you bought Photomatix 4.2 or later, you get the Photomatix pro 5 for free.

So I’m a bit disappointed.

Try out the beta of Photomatix Pro 5 here – it will still water mark the images if you haven’t purchased it.

Remember that I have a detailed Free HDR photo tutorial and by by using the coupon code “caughtinpixels” you can get 15% off when you buy Photomatix Pro.


How to get started on HDR?

Amsterdam Maritime Museum and the old 3 mast sail ship seen just in the sunrise. Shot from a low point of view to capture the beauty of the calm water. More photos by Jacob Surland on Here you can find tutorials too.

There are many tools and ways to make High Dynamic Range photos. Some are more advanced than others and some give better results than others. I have tried to line out a place to start and what software to get, to make HDR photos. You can start out for free and use the free versions of the software, to see if you like it. And if you do like it, the essential software is not that expensive, and I can give you a 15% discount, if you use my coupon code.

I have made a list of the essential software you need, and why you need it that you can find here.

About this photo above. It is from Amsterdam Maritime History Museum located on the water front of Amsterdam. If you ever get to Amsterdam it is highly recommended to visit, alone to see the building. Make sure to visit the toilets in the cellar…

This is a 7 shot HDR processed first in Photomatix Pro and then afterwards optimized using Photoshop CS6.

Armageddon Sunset – Yet Another Way to Make HDR

Roskilde fiord revisited for an amageddon sunset to try out my brand new Sigma 12-24mm full frame lens. My first impression is very good. Photo by Jacob Surland - see more photos and tutorials at

Buy a print

There are many ways of making HDR photos and this is yet another way. I have used Merge to 32-bit HDR, a plugin for Lightroom, made by HDR Soft who also makes the state of the art HDR software Photomatix Pro. Merge to 32-bit HDR just does the first step of what Photomatix does. It merges your photos into one 32-bit TIFF photo and reimports it back into Lightroom. It does not do any tone mapping of the photo and the result is quite neutral when it get’s into Lightroom. But the photo is loaded with  information from all of your bracketed photos and you can start playing around with the development module in Lightroom and get the most impressive things out of your photo.

One of the huge advantages doing an HDR in this way, is that you don’t get the noise that tone mapping sometimes gives. And it really is very easy in many ways, especially if you start to build or gather a collection of Lightroom presets. Over the last few months I have been creating presets in Lightroom, which really makes sense, because I save a lot of time when I post process my photos. Not only do presets work as … well presets … a lot of preset post-processing configurations, but it has another advantage, they inspire me. Presets give me ideas and inspiration as I try out some of the presets. I might not use a preset as the single click post-processing, but it does give me a good (and fast) start.

I quite fond of my presets and I’m working on making my Lightroom presets available from this website in the near future. I will make them available along with a guide to explain the concepts and ideas to what I do and how the presets work and can be used, with some examples.

I already showed, that you make HDR photos, even though you are using Lightroom post-processing. I showed how to use Lightroom and GIMP to make an HDR (you can find the tutorial here). And now I will show how to do it with Merge to 32-bit HDR and Lightroom to make an HDR photo.

Merge to 32-bit HDR from HDR Soft

You need both Lightroom and Merge 32 from HDR Soft. If you use the Discount code “caughtinpixels” on HDR soft you will get a 15% discount when you buy anything from HDR Soft. You can also buy it bundled with Photomatix Pro

‘Merge to 32-bit HDR’ plugs it self into Lightroom. First you select your bracketed photos, like I just selected my 5 bracketed photos below. Then you start the export into Merge to 32-bit HDR this way:

Armageddon Sunset - Merge 32 export

You then get some options. Normally I really do recommend a different process to remove ghosting in your photos, but on the other hand, if the automatic deghosting does a good job, you are done quickly and if it doesn’t give a good result, you can always turn to my recommend procedure. My recommended process is to mask one of the photos into the HDR photo, where the photo is ghosted. You can do that using either GIMP or Photoshop. With this particular photo, I think deghosting did a good job.

Armageddon Sunset - Merge 32 export step 2

When the photo is reimported into Lightroom it’s a neutral flat and a bit dark photo, which is completely unprocessed:

Armageddon Sunset - Original

I then applied one of my presets called Armageddon Sunset Revisited. It adds an orange hue to a sunset photo giving it this very sunset feeling. I did do one more thing. I want the boat in front to pop a little more. By using the brush feature in Lightroom, I painted on the boats and the small path, and increased the exposure and contrast a bit.

Armageddon sunset - Local adjustments

When I merge my 5 exposure bracketed photos into one 32-bit tiff file I have got a lot more information, than I just had in 1 RAW file. TIFF files comes in 8-bit, 16-bit (the normal) and 32-bit – the more bits, the more information. When you do HDR’s and tone mapped images, the 32-bit image is an intermediate product, that you normally don’t use or see, but this tool just exports it. The more information there is in one image, the more details I can extract from the shadows and the highlights, and a 32-bit file can contain A LOT more information than any RAW file can contain. But it also takes up a lot of hard drive. My Nikon D800 produces 400+ Mb 32-bit TIFF files, when made from 5 HDR shots. So the 32-bit TIFF files, are not keepers in my world- they are intermediate products I delete, when I have made my final image. I then export my final image as a 16-bit TIFF file and reimport and delete the 32-bit TIFF file to save disk space.

If you have Lightroom and want to try out this way of making HDR photos, you can buy Merge to 32-bit HDR from HDR Soft with a 15% discount by using my discount code “caughtinpixels”.

And soon you will be able to get my Lightroom presets from this website.


How to restore photos of poor quality

Recently I have been looking through some of my older photos. The last 7 years I have been travelling more than I ever have been doing, and during all of that time I have had a growing interest in photography, without ever really getting to the point, where I thought of myself as an amateur photographer. But during this time I have shot some photos, that I have found to be better than “just snapshots”, but unfortunately not shot with the kind of cameras I carry around these days.

My post-processing skills have improved enormously and I amaze even myself what it is possible to do with an image. Recently I decided, it would be fun to see, what I could recover or restore from before I got great cameras.

I have found that I can restore some of my old photos. The main overall problem is that I have shot most in JPEG (do not shoot in JPEG!! Shoot in RAW) and therefore have too little information in my images. But the problems I can in general summarize to this:

  1. Too little information because I shot in JPEG.
  2. Too much digital noise in the photos. This has to be removed, without removing too many details. This requires some decent Noise Reduction software. I mainly use Noiseware.
  3. The mood has to be improved in the photo to create that ‘this is a great photo’ feeling.

The Basilica Cistern of Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern of Istanbul is an amazing place. More than 1500 years ago, while Istanbul was a part of the Roman Empire, a giant cistern was build. A cistern to contain water for drinking. The construction is enormous 138m by 64m and the ceiling is carried by pillars, some reused from even older buildings.

Basilica Cistern, IstanbulThe Basilica Cistern is a 1500 year huge underground water container, used to store water that was transported to Istanbul by large roman aqua ducts. The cistern is 138m by 64m room - that is larger than a soccer field. An amazing fact is, that it was lost for 500 years. It was then rediscovered, because some people took water

 Canon 400D, Sigma 30m f/1.4 at ISO 200, 30mm, f/2.5 and 1 sec.

I didn’t have a tripod so I had to use the rail on the pathways running in and out of the between the pillars. This is the only one I managed to get fairly sharp, but if you look at the original in a 100% crop, you can see that it is far from tack sharp. Taking sharp photos in light conditions in poor light conditions is difficult, because the camera can focus.

Basilica Cistern - before - 100% crop

100% crop of original JPEG shot.

And this is a 100% crop of the final image.

Basilica Cistern - 100% crop

While the photo will never be comparable to one shot with a really expensive high end camera, it has improved impressively and has become a great photo worth publishing. This is original JPEG photo:

Cistern Basilica Original Photo

So what did I do to this image? I have done several things.

  1. First I created the overall mood and feeling. I did that in Adobe Lightroom. This is a JPEG and I only shot the one shot. There is no way I can make an HDR out of this image. This means that, what ever is shadows will remain shadows. There is virtually no information in the shadows.
  2. I cropped the image to Portrait format instead of Landscape format. This works better as a composition, but also leaves me with a much smaller photo of 5.1 megapixels.
  3. I did noise reduction, first a little in Lightroom, but when the noise is complicated and fairly strong I have to use another tool. Otherwise I can’t get rid of the noise without losing too many details. I have various dedicated noise reduction software, but I mostly use Noiseware from Imagenomic, which does a great job of reducing noise without losing too many details. And what I especially like about it, is that there is a built-in sharpener too, that works quite efficiently. That I used on this image too, because it lacked the sharpness.

These are my settings in Lightroom to create the overall look and feel:

Basilica Cistern Lightroom settings

Let’s do a walk through of the settings:

Exposure +0.48: The original shot is a bit too dark. I increased the exposure 0.48 exposure step. That makes noise evident in everywhere in the photo.

Contrast +26: Almost every photo I make I increase the photo. It makes them pop a bit more.

Highlights +24:  Usually I let the highlights go in minus, but in this case I wanted more power in the light areas and this explains the stronger light on the pilars on the left side.

Shadows +100: Make the dark areas more bright. Remember this is a JPEG and there is very very little information in the dark areas. So noise reduction is mandatory afterwards.

Whites +29: This increases the point of how bright the image is by stretching the brightness. If you press ALT while you move the slider to the right, you can see when you start to get blown out white areas.

Blacks -10: It is good to have some black in your photo to make it work. If everything is gray’ish, the photo will be dull and flat. This also goes for HDR photos – there has to black to create depth in the photo. I have increased the dark areas, compensating for having set the ‘Shadows’ to +100.

Clarity +45: Clarity is potent slider. What it exactly does I can’t explain, but it adds some kind of contrast and it does at it says, it makes things more clear. In this case the photo is a bit unsharp and soft and by using the Clarity slider quite a bit I can ‘un-soften’ the photo, which is needed. Careful with the Clarity, it can very easily be overdone.

Vibrance +100: Wow – I think that is the only time I have ever used +100. Vibrance works a bit like Saturation, except that it only works on some colors. Skin colors (red and pinks colors) are less affected. This photo almost only has red colors and therefore Vibrance only has a little effect in the orange on the pillars.

Saturation 0: The photo has plenty of colors, no need to add them.

HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminosity)

It is a complete section of it’s own. The more I use Lightroom the more I use these sliders to finetune the colors of an image. In this case I found the the Red was too intense, and I lowered the saturation of the red.

Red -42: I reduced the reds quite a bit.

Magenta -38: It has got absolutely no effect on this image. There is no magenta in it, I just dropped it somewhere. I always check magenta, because chromatic aberrations often come in magenta colors. This is one way to remove purple chromatic aberrations.


The photo is a bit unsharp and does require sharpness. I add some sharpness here, but I also add some in Noiseware later.

Noise reduction

I add some noise reduction. If you are not sure, what noise is, it’s grain in your photo that is generated digitally by you sensor in you camera. The more expensive your camera is, the better it handles noise. This is shot with an entry level DSLR – an old one too, which makes it very prone to adding noise to the images. This is the noise in my image (click it up to see the full size):

Basilica Cistern - noise

Crop the Image

Some go against cropping and argue, that it is better to get the photo right in the camera. I disagree. If a photo gets better by cropping, do so. The only problem I see in cropping is that you get a smaller image, and if you want to print it, that might be a problem. This photo is shot as a 10 mega pixels, but I’m left with only 5.1 mega pixels. This is better than an unusable photo, right?

Reducing the noise in a photo in a third party tool

When you shoot photos in poor light conditions your camera will most probably generate digital noise. There are many tools that you can use to remove digital noise. I have used several. There are Noise reduction in Lightroom, but it is not the most optimized tool that I know. It takes away too many details, but I find that Noiseware from Imagenomi really does a great job of reducing noise and keeping the details. But it also does a quite efficient sharpening. A side-effect in reducing the noise, is that you get a softer photo and therefore need to add sharpening – and having it built into one application I find very convenient.

Lightroom 5 beta is available – and Jack the Ripper

I just had a quick look at the upcoming Lightroom 5 and some of the new features listed and I’m already very excited! I work a lot with Lightroom 4 and I’m amazed at what I can achieve with it, but there are some tasks, that always requires that I start up Photoshop. One thing I do not like about starting Photoshop up, is that Lightroom then generates a TIFF file, and TIFF files take up space on my hard drive. And even though hard drives are fairly cheap, it is becoming a problem to make back ups, carrying them around etc.

One thing I really love about Lightroom is, that everything I do to a photo in Lightroom is applied on top of my RAW file. If I make multiple virtual copies, to which I can make other adjustments, so that I have got several different photos, based on the same RAW file, but most important I still only have one photo on my hard drive. A great bonus from this feature is, that I can always dial back and press Reset.

But there are some features missing in Lightroom, which really pushes me into Photoshop. I use a wide angled lens a lot. 80% of my photos are shot at a wide angle lens, and quite often I have to shift the camera upwards or downwards, and when I do that, perspective gets distorted. That is a side effect from using a wide angled lens and some times it can be used as a feature, at other times it ruins the photo, if not straighten up. In Photoshop I use the “Perspective crop” tool to solve these problems. It does a decent job, but sometimes it squashes the the photo too much, like making the Empire State Building look like a small fat 20 story skyscraper.

In Lightroom 5 there is going to be a new Upright feature, aimed specifically at this task. This I’m really looking forward to. It can both save me from having a TIFF file around, and maybe even doing a better job than Perspective crop in Photoshop?

Another thing that pushes me into Photoshop, is when I want to do content aware removal of things. I can only remove round things in Lightroom 4, with the clone stamp, which is fine for removing sensor dust spots, but not satisfactory, when I clean up my photos by removing lamp posts and other stuff from my photos, to make a more clean photo. But in Lightroom 5, there will be an advanced Healing Brush.

Then there are some new features:

  • The Radial ND filter, can be a cool thing too. The Gradual Neutral Density filter I already use a a lot to make adjustments to a sky, by lowering the exposure on a very bright sky, increasing the contrast etc. to get the details and texture more clear. This gives a more balanced photo. The new Radial ND filter I guess can be used for some fun stuff on round objects, like the sun, faces etc. You can probably achieve similar things with the existing brush tool.
  • Smart reviews. I don’t think this feature will be usable for me, with my current workflow. The idea is if you are using your laptop is your primary machine to handle your photos, then you got a problem, when you are on the road. You can’t bring all of your photos along, because they take up way too many gigabytes to fit on your small laptop hard drive. What this new feature allows you to do, is to work “off-line” of your primary storage (like a NAS), on low resolution versions of your photos. You can do meta tagging and adjustments. I figure adjustments are post-processing. Though this is quite cool for some, I do have a much more powerful desktop computer, to do my primary post-processing on. For some this might be cool.
  • Photo book creation – I think not. I stick to to make my family albums. They offer excellent quality and excellent flexibility. But of cause I will look at it, when Lightroom 5 is a available.

Adobe Lightroom 5 will also include a number of minor features and enhancements. More information is available here.

To create todays photo I have used the clone healing brush and the perspective crop in Photoshop.  It is a 7 shot HDR photo, and I used Photomatix pro, to create both a single tone mapped image and a double tone mapped image, which I mixed with the original ones.

The original photo is not a bad one, but neither perfect.

Jack the ripper is around - before v2

#1: I removed the branches. When I straighten the church, some disappeared, but I ended up removing them completely. When I took the shot, made sure, that they were included and did not cover the church. I used the brush healing tool in Photoshop.

#2 The sky I worked with, to emphasize the light in the mist. That is an important part of the mood. I increased the contrast and saturation a bit.

#3 The church I straighten to a certain level. I can’t straighten it completely, because it makes a small fat church, which is not the reality. The compromise is somewhere in between completely straightened and this. Ideally I would have gone further away, but that was not possible.

#4 The acid color of the light from these lamp posts I didn’t like, so I worked with the colors, and mixed that into my final photo. I did that, by making a new layer in Photoshop, opened the Hue/Saturation dialog (CTRL+U) and dialed back some of the yellow and green. I then mixed the lamps into my image.

#5 These lamps are blown out, but because I shot it in HDR I can achieve the moody great look from the lamps, in stead of just a white blob. There is not a lot of dynamic light in this photo otherwise, but the lamps I save.

#6 I then used more healing brush to remove the snow. I used a clone stamp after wards to get a better result on the cobble stones.

#7 The cobble stones is the double tone mapped image. What I get from the double tone mapped image, is the lovely reflections from the lamps and the many details and textures in the cobble stones.

This is one of the photos, where you might ask “Why HDR it?” – well I got more details within the windows of the church and on the lamps. I also got more shots, so that I could remove people and the car coming around the corner. And then it added some of the magic, mysterious Jack the Ripper mood.