During my email conversations with Skylum staff over the past couple of months, I was offered the opportunity to review their newest HDR software. Since I’m always looking for ways to improve my images, I was more than happy to!
Truth be told, I’m not one for HDR editing. I’ve played with it in the past, and I’ve found it cumbersome, slow, very difficult to get results that I like, or the images look over done. Thus, it’s been a few years since I’ve done any HDR photography. When I actually took time to shoot and edit HDR content, I used Lightroom/Photoshop, Photomatix, and Nik. In all cases, they did OK, but just OK. Just to be clear, I’m not saying HDR photography is bad. I’m merely saying that I didn’t want to bother with it. Back then, it was best to shoot with a tripod. You had to first process the RAW files – not always, but quite often. There was ghosting and other weird image issues that had to be corrected in Photoshop. It was just a pain to deal with, and therefore not for me.
I’ve been putting off this review for a few weeks, because I just wasn’t sure when I would need HDR and therefore Aurora. After all, the cameras nowadays have much more dynamic range. It’s easier to bring up shadows and reduce the highlights than years ago. Why bother with HDR? Well, for this review of course! This past Sunday, I was wanting to capture some fall colors. It’s a little bit too early to see a lot of autumn hues, but there are some turning leaves out there. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to a wooded area until midday. It was of course the worst time to go out and shoot – harsh shadows, intense brights, and not the best colors due to the lighting. As such, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to go out and shoot HDR to try to negate some of these less than ideal shooting conditions.
We went to Lake Wilderness Arboretum in Maple Valley, WA. It’s a place that we’ve never been to, but Google Maps gave it five stars, so off we went. I brought along my Sony a7R III and 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens. Attached to the lens, was a polarizer, but I’m not sure it really made a difference that day – maybe a little bit with the sky, but not much.
The a7R III has a bracket mode which is very easy to use. Just set it and hold down the shutter button. Set to aperture priority, auto ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/100 of a second, I let the camera do the rest. Most of the time, I shot five exposures (-2 EV, -1 EV, reference image, +1 EV, and +2 EV), but a few times for really harsh conditions, I tried seven exposures. A few times, I try with two stops difference, per shot. In hindsight, I would stick with one stop difference between shots. I did all of this completely handheld – without a tripod. Was this the ideal way to shoot? No. I should have used a tripod, kept the ISO exactly the same, and just changed shutter speeds. That just doesn’t work for me from a convenience standpoint, so I would get what I would get.
As I was taking the photos, I noticed how awful the lighting looked and so did the images on the back of the camera. I just couldn’t capture what I was seeing with my eyes. I really was expecting awful results when I got back home to my computer, but kept shooting anyways just in case I was able to work some post processing magic with these captures.
Before I talk about the Aurora HDR 2019 software, performance, and results, it’s important to explain the hardware I’m running it on for this review. It’s not quite a top of the line PC anymore, but still really impressive:
- Windows 10 – 64 bit Professional with all the latest drivers and patches installed.
- Intel Core i7-8700K Coffee Lake 6-Core 3.7 GHz (4.7 GHz Turbo).
- EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti FTW3.
- ASRock Fatal1ty Z370 Gaming K6 LGA 1151 Motherboard
- G.SKILL Ripjaws V Series 64GB (4 x 16GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 2400 (PC4 19200) RAM
- SAMSUNG 960 PRO M.2 1TB NVMe PCI-Express 3.0 x4 Internal Solid State Drive
- 2x in RAID 0 – Seagate 10TB BarraCuda Pro 7200RPM SATA 6GB/s 256MB Cache 3.5-Inch Internal Hard Drives
Here’s my basic workflow:
- Photo Mechanic for initial culling (if you don’t have this app, just get it).
- Lightroom for grouping photos and then launching Aurora HDR – opening the original RAW images without any Lightroom edits.
- Aurora HDR for mostly everything.
- Then back to Lightroom for some final tweaks on the TIFF file exported by Aurora HDR.
Now let’s delve deeper into Aurora’s workflow. Upon launching the program, it asks you to verify the photos that Lightroom has sent to it, and you have some options to select. It as if you want to adjust for motion in the shots. I set it to the least amount here because the branches and leaves were being blown slightly from the wind. Then it asks about correcting for alignment of the photos, chromatic aberrations, etc. I ticked all the boxes and then let it do it’s thing. During this phase, you have to wait for the computer. Not an eternity, but it’s not fast either. Now, I realize that it’s doing a lot of computations in the background, that the a7R III has a lot of megapixels, there’s at least five RAW files, etc. I get all that, but I just don’t like waiting. Could it be faster? I’m sure it could. Is the software taking full use of graphics acceleration from my Nvidia card? Probably not, but it is what it is. Normally, slow speed is a deal killer for me, but the results were quite good!
Once the HDR preview has been rendered, you can choose from any number of their presets or your own. Some look quite natural, others look awful, but you can customize the image very easily with the sliders and get some nice results. The sliders work well enough, but they aren’t completely responsive. Again, I believe they could be better, but they aren’t terrible. That being said, they are quite intuitive, and they work as you would expect. Without going into too much detail, I was able to get some amazing results and colors with very little effort.
One really neat feature, is that you can use layers, apply multiple HDR effect presets (with tweaks) to different layers, and then lower the opacity to blend – quite useful. Also, it has the ability to add gradient masks – also good for landscapes and especially the photos I took.
As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t too optimistic about the photos I shot that day, and was expecting awful results. However, the final images are quite remarkable. In my opinion, they are the best HDR photos that I’ve ever shot. This software actually brings out the best of what your camera and lens can produce. It’s like having a major camera upgrade!
After using Aurora, I went back to Lightroom for final tweaks. Even though you can adjust curves, whites, blacks, cropping, etc. in Aurora, the more stuff you do, the slower the program renders. It’s easier to do the heavy lifting in Aurora and then bring it back to Lightroom to adjust those settings and even make further hue, saturation, and lightness adjustments as you see fit.
Bottom line? Try this app for yourself. Shoot HDR again, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. In my opinion, it’s definitely worth the price and time it takes to use it.