Review ~ Aurora HDR 2017 for Mac

(Click to see this image in full size and detail)
(Click to see this image in full size and detail)

Aurora’s imaging software, which creates High Dynamic Range (HDR) images from standard, has been released in a new ‘2017’ version. Once it’s in HDR, you can tweak a quite staggering array of parameters to really get the image you dreamt about when you first focused a camera on something, adding a wealth of detail and/or striking drama should you wish.
When you open Aurora HDR 2017, as with the earlier Aurora, you get a dialogue prompting you to load an image or images. Drag-and-drop something onto this, and Aurora generates a high dynamic range (HDR) image from it.

What is HDR? Just to reiterate, HDR was something that professionals started doing with digital photographs. Basically, you’d shoot preferably three of the same scene: one perfect (which really means right for all the midtones), one to get more data in the highlights (overexposed) and another (underexposed) to pick up that detail in the shadows. Then, with a bit of technical wizardry not to mention Photoshop skills, you’d sandwich these three together into one image to get perfect exposure across all light ranges and a highly-detailed, ‘super-real’ image.
Your iPhone can do this, on the DHR setting, rapidly taking two (I think) photos and putting them together for you (which is why the shutter fires more slowly and it takes longer to process, plus the file’s bigger) and/or you can then power up your Mac and Aurora so it’s you directing where all this magic happens, and just how much.

loadHDR 2017 — To convert a 2.4MB JPEG into an HDR takes 5 seconds, which definitely seems faster than the previous version, and indeed Macphun claims Aurora HDR 2017 is at least 50% faster. Once you’ve run some effects, it takes about the same amount of time to output a JPEG.
I’ve been using Aurora to add snap to images taken with an iPhone 6 in Europe for a book project. Although the iPhone 6 camera is only 8 megapixels, it was clearly outperforming my 12MP Canon compact so I stopped using that almost immediately; besides, I always had the iPhone on me. With Aurora on board, the images from the iPhone really snap and crackle thanks to Aurora.
An instant difference is a very handy Amount slider on the preset thumbnails along the bottom, meaning you can click the divider comparison tool (a really cool draggable slider that lets you compare before and after directly on the image). Just slide to see how much of the preset works for you.

A new Polarize Tool enhances the sky, making colours more vivid while removing glare. I was a big fan of the polarising filter back in the old analogue slide film days so this is nice. I’m impressed it doesn’t go too crazy at the 100% end, stopping at giving you definite improvement rather than crazy-time.

Other new features — Aurora HDR 2017 now automatically groups batch-processed images, helping you to apply effects and settings. Once you have a good preset for a shoot, this saves considerable time, since a shoot will often be in very similar lighting conditions.
Noise in lower-light images is always a thing with digital shots, and iPhone 7, for example, promises great advances in this area, but where there is dark, there will be noise. Subtle and effective noise reduction is therefore a boon, and it’s better in HDR 2017. New smart technology automatically removes low-light colour noise even while merging batch brackets.
Other changes include a redesigned tool for top and bottom adjustments, Luminosity Masking (for making advanced selections within an HDR photo based on the Zone System – click one or more zones and dramatically enhance the part of your image without brushes or complicated selections).
Highlight the sun, a face or anything else on your photo with the new Radial Masking tool. The mask can be reshaped and adjusted for density, feathering and other settings.

Conclusion — All in all, Aurora HDR 2017 delivers less noise and better details, the interface is clearer, you can paint with layer masks, it has additional presets, ‘washed’ highlight recovery, has extended RAW support plus supports the Digital Negative standard (DNG), you can sharpen and resize on export (very handy for my book pictures) and it improves a lot on what was already a first class product and a big seller for Macphun. Check out the FAQ for more product detail and comparisons to previous versions.

What’s great — Faster; nice new features; well-considered improvements to an already excellent package. Definitely make presets of your own if you’ve modified anything extensively, it’s a real help.
What’s not — It took me three attempts to get the pre-release review copy to work properly. When it was finally good, it did crash once, but I had the notoriously-buggy Blitzkrieg game running in the background, so I’ll put it down to that and assume all’s good in the final market version (Macphun’s support was most helpful). Likes a big screen: this powerful software has a lot going on and requires scrolling-down for more and more sliders, so a big screen is a definite advantage.
Needs — Aurora does a lot Photoshop doesn’t do, at least obviously, leaving out a lot of Photoshop features hardly anyone uses anyway. So this is for anyone who likes powerful photographs who doesn’t need to re-composite and paint on images.

What — Aurora HDR 2017 by Macphun, US$89 (online), free trial available, upgrade from previous version for a discount (US$69 for current owners of Aurora HDR, US$49 for current owners of Aurora HDR Pro).

System — Core 2 Duo from late 2009 or newer; minimum 4GB RAM; OS X 10.10.5 or newer; 2GB free space on hard drive. Display resolution 1280 x 800 or higher (Retina displays supported).

Contact — Macphun’s fully-featured and excellent site.