Aurora HDR 2018 In-Depth Preview
As announced a month ago Macphun is set to release Aurora HDR 2018, their second paid upgrade to their excellent Aurora HDR software. The program, which debuted in November of 2015, received a paid upgrade a year ago for Aurora HDR 2017 and Aurora HDR 2018 is now available for pre-order with a release date of September 28, 2017.
Find out what is new and what has changed in Aurora HDR 2018 and most importantly, find out if this new upgrade is worth the price here in my preview.
Note that this preview was completed using a beta copy of Aurora HDR 2018. As the official release date is still a couple weeks away there could still be some updates & enhancements to the program. I will wait until the official release to do an in-depth review.
3-exposure photo processed in Aurora HDR 2018
First, What is Aurora HDR?
In just a couple of years, Aurora HDR has become “the world’s ultimate HDR photo solution” and has been my personal go-to program for HDR photography. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is used by photographers to record all of the available light in a scene from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows by using exposure bracketing. Aurora HDR takes these exposure brackets and blends them into one image giving the photographer the ultimate control to further enhance the image with layers, masks, specialized filters, and more.
Since it’s release in 2015 I have found Aurora HDR to be so much better than Photomatix Pro, which was the default HDR industry standard for many photographers. I will have more to say about just how much better Aurora HDR is compared to Photomatix soon, so keep an eye out for that! Nik’s HDR Efex Pro was my go-to HDR software long ago until Google decided to abandon it. And for those of you using Photoshop or Lightroom to create HDR photos, boy you are in for a treat with Aurora HDR! It isn’t even fair to compare the two.
Aurora HDR works on RAW & DNG files as well as other common file types like tif and jpg. It’s specialty is blending multiple exposures, but it works great on single exposures too. It features batch processing, exporting to popular file formats, easy sharing to popular social media sites, and exporting to other Macphun programs like Luminar. It runs as a standalone program and also as a plugin to Photoshop & Lightroom and also as an extension to Photos and Aperture on the Mac.
And it is now finally available to Windows users!
Pre-Order Pricing & Special Offers
Before I get into the preview, let’s go over the pricing and bonuses first.
- Current users of Aurora HDR may upgrade at a special pre-order price of $49 ($59 MSRP)
- New users can purchase Aurora HDR 2018 at a special pre-order price of $89 ($99 MSRP)
- A collection of bonuses will also be included with every purchase.
- Trey Ratcliff Deep Dive video
- Travel Photography Tutorial by Matt Granger
- Source Brackets
- 3-month Zenfolio Pro website, including a complementary design consultation. $60 value.
Aurora HDR 2018 is now available for both Mac and Windows computers.
System Requirements for Mac:
- Processor Core 2 Duo from late 2009 or newer
- Minimum 4 GB RAM
- OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks or newer
- 2 GB free space, SSD for best performance
- Display resolution 1280×800 or higher
- Retina displays supported
System requirements for Windows (recommended):
- Windows-based hardware
- PC with mouse or similar input device
- Direct X 10 compatible Graphics Cards or better
- Intel Core i3 or better
- RAM: 4 GB or more
- Windows 7, Windows 8.1, Windows 10
- 2 GB free space, SSD for best performance
- Display 128-x768 size or higher
There are a number of new features and enhancements in Aurora HDR 2018 and I will go through each one.
Rewritten completely from Scratch
I am told that Aurora HDR 2018 has been completely rewritten from scratch. By doing this, they were able to improve image quality and speed while bringing in new features that we will now explore in this preview.
Next-generation Tone Mapping
A new smart Tone Mapping algorithm automatically reduces noise, and produces more realistic and natural initial results. And let me tell you, this alone is worth the price of the upgrade for those of you craving more natural results with your HDR photos!
3-exposure HDR processed in Aurora HDR 2018
I have been using Aurora HDR 2018 for about a week now and I am so impressed with the natural look to most of my images now right out of the gate with no adjustments. And by starting with a more natural looking image you are able to enhance it further while keeping that natural look. I went back and processed some photos I had recently done in v2017. When I originally processed those photos, I needed to bring back in one of the original exposures to paint in the sky to keep things “looking real”. When I processed those same brackets in v2018 I didn’t need to bring back the sky in any of them. Impressive! I have also noticed a dramatic decrease in problematic halos along with better color.
Dodge & Burn Filter
If you were not yet completely convinced that Aurora HDR 2018 is worth the upgrade price, then this filter should convince you. Personally if this was the only major feature of v2018 I would definitely buy the upgrade just so I could use this one filter.
Dodging and burning has always been a huge part of my photo enhancement – ever since I started printing my own photos in a black & white chemical darkroom. When I transitioned to a digital darkroom many years ago, dodging and burning continued to be a super important part of my workflow, and I developed a great technique for doing it in Photoshop.
Now here in Aurora HDR 2018 we have a filter dedicated to dodging and burning, and it is awesome!!
Dodging and burning allows you to lighten and/or darken specific areas in your photo with the use of an adjustable brush. With that you draw attention to or downplay certain areas in your photo by lightening or darkening them. Effective use of this tool can allow you to control where the eye travels when viewing your photo and can give your photos more of a 3-dimensional look. It is one of my favorite things I do to my photos and I am very excited to see it here in Aurora HDR 2018.
Lens Correction Tool*
The new Lens Correction filter easily fixes all kinds of lens distortion, from barrel and pincushion to chromatic aberration and vignetting. There are no lens profiles in Aurora HDR 2018. Rather, when you are using the Lens Correction Tool you are making manual adjustments.
Easily scale, rotate and shift your image to better fit your vision. With this tool you can correct perspective issues common when shooting with very wide angle lenses. Architecture photographers in particular will certainly enjoy this.
Adds details and clarity to an image, adjusting colors, details and contrast without creating artificial halos or other problems. This replaces the HDR Look slider in Aurora HDR 2017 and does a much better job enhancing the HDR look of your photo.
A new, modern and responsive user interface brings a powerful, yet joyful experience to HDR photo editing. Aurora HDR 2018 now looks more like Luminar and is quite polished from v2017. For some photographers the UI isn’t too important. For me it is. I don’t want to spend lots of time in an ugly looking program, and the new UI of v2018 is a pleasure for the eyes. In regards to workflow it is a little more streamlined. I just wish I could change the order of the filters like in Luminar.
A beautiful new user interface for Aurora HDR 2018.
The Presets also received an enhanced look as seen in the screenshot below.
An easy-to-reference list of edits made to your image, the History panel allows you to click on any editing step to revert the photo to an earlier stage of editing.
Touch Bar support for Mac
Aurora HDR 2018 adds Touch Bar support to give new MacBook Pro users fast access to key editing features and speed up their workflow.
Image Flip and Rotate*
Perfect for correcting photos with incorrect horizons or making creative compositions or other stylistic changes to an image.
IMPROVED: New Structure Algorithm
The re-developed Structure tool allows you to adjust detail and clarity of an image to get a classic HDR effect with great detail or a smoother effect with less details.
IMPROVED: RAW handling
An improved RAW conversion brings out more details in shadows/highlights, displays colors more accurately and reduces noise in RAW files.
IMPROVED: Crop tool update
Now specify custom crop sizes for even more versatility.
Faster merging and masking performance, improvement in RAW image processing. I have noticed up to a 25% increase in speed when loading a 3-photo bracket.
IMPROVED: Some of the Filters
The look of some of the filters has changed ever so slightly and some, like HSL, have become more powerful. HSL in Aurora HDR 2018 now provides you with 2 more color controls: Orange and Magenta.
New Option when saving .mpaur2 files
When saving your work in the proprietary .mpaur2 file, you can now choose to just save the history to dramatically shrink the file sizes of the .mpaur2 files. You will still need to hold onto your original bracketed photos however to continue editing where you left off. Saving in this file format saves all of your masks, layers, filter settings, and everything you have done to the file so you can get back to work on your file at a later date just the way you left it.
* Lens Correction and Transform tools, as well as image flip and rotate will be available in the Mac version at launch, and arrive in the PC version with the first free update in the beginning of October. Other tools and features that are currently available for Mac only would be added to PC version by the end of the year. Read more about this later in my preview.
3-exposure HDR processed in Aurora HDR 2018
Luminosity Masking is the most obvious, as Macphun has removed the Zone system of luminosity masking that is in v2017 and replaced it with their standard masking that is in Luminar. I don’t know for sure yet as to the reasoning.
I have noticed a couple other minor things missing from v2018 but I will wait until the final shipping version is available to see if in fact they remain gone. These are not deal-breakers by any means so there is nothing to worry about.
What Might Upset You
I know these next three topics are probably going to upset some photographers and I am going to do my best to explain why this is happening.
Here are the first two issues:
You can’t open .mpaur files from Aurora HDR 2017 or the original version of Aurora in Aurora HDR 2018.
You can’t use presets from Aurora HDR 2017 or the original version of Aurora in Aurora HDR 2018.
The reasons why you can not do either are pretty much the same. Aurora HDR 2018 is a brand new program, rewritten from scratch. The new version features a completely revamped tone-mapping engine that includes completely different slider controls. In v2018 the main HDR slider is the HDR Enhance and it goes from a value of 0 to 100. In v2017 we had a HDR Look slider that went from a value of -100 to +100. These different sliders have completely different algorithms, let alone value scales. And speaking of algorithms, many of those have been enhanced in the rest of the filters. Not only that, but there are some sliders missing in v2018 that were there in v2017, and there are some new sliders in other areas.
What this all means is that it is near impossible for them to have backward compatibility. If somehow they were able to engineer it and you could use old .mpaur files or old presets, your files would look completely different in v2018 than they would in v2017 because of the difference in sliders and algorithms.
How can you adapt?
Keep your Aurora HDR 2017 installed. You can open up both v2017 and v2018 at the same time. Do that and manually re-create your old presets in the new v2018. Remember that not all sliders will be the same so you should expect different results, but you will probably end up creating even better presets based off of your old ones due to the enhancements in v2018.
As for the .mpaur files from v2017, open those up and finish your editing in them and export the file as a tif or psd file that can then be brought into v2018 or Luminar for any final editing.
3-exposure HDR processed in Aurora HDR 2018 and finished with slight enhancements in Luminar.
Why do I have to pay for another upgrade?
First off, you don’t.
If you don’t upgrade, your v2017 will still work and Macphun will update it with any necessary fixes due to operating system upgrades that might cause issues. But you won’t get any new features.
Secondly, get used to yearly paid upgrades for new features.
In the last few years Macphun has gone with a yearly paid upgrade for Aurora and will likely do the same for Luminar. Each year they offer the upgrade at a special reduced price and include a bunch of cool bonuses that end up paying for the upgrade and then some. Continually improving and supporting a program costs money, and to be honest the price they charge for upgrading is tiny when you consider how much you pay to upgrade your camera, your lenses, your camera bag, most camera accessories, filters, and on and on.
Best bet – download the free trial when it is available and find out if the new features are worth the upgrade price. If not, wait until v2019. If they are, order it right away to maximize your investment.
3-exposure HDR processed in Aurora HDR 2018
Hey Windows Users!
You are now finally getting your hands on the best HDR program out there – congrats!
Because this is the first Windows release there are going to be a few missing features at launch that will get addressed soon in free updates.
Here is as complete of a list as I can gather up on what you will likely be missing at launch but will be receiving in free updates – some soon and others most likely by the end of the year: Lens Correction and Transform tools, image flip and rotate, color clipping preview, full screen preview mode, luminosity masking, rotate image, batch processing (or possibly only Batch presets), Flickr and SmugMug sharing, export to PSD, support for Adobe RGB 1998 and ProPhoto RGB, and lastly export to HDR file formats .EXR, >HDR, and fp-TIFF (hey – even us Mac peeps don’t have that last one just yet).
Conclusion and Recommendation
The best has gotten better and Macphun’s Aurora HDR 2018 further separates itself from any competition – if it’s even fair to call it that at this point.
The new Aurora HDR 2018 is packed with a number of new features and enhancements that will provide you with a dramatic improvement in your HDR photographs and you really shouldn’t have to think twice about upgrading. In fact the new tone-mapping and Dodge & Burn filters alone are worth the small upgrade price.
And if you have been using another program for HDR or are just starting out in HDR photography, there is currently no program on the market that offers as many features, is as easy to use, or produces the image quality that Aurora HDR 2018 provides you.
I will have a final review once the full version is released on September 28th but in the meantime be sure to take advantage of the special savings and pre-order bonuses by pre-ordering your copy today!
I will soon be opening up pre-ordering for my upcoming Mastering Aurora HDR 2018 Online Course – the most complete training on Aurora HDR 2018. Add your name to my list in the box below if you want to take advantage of my pre-ordering offers for the course!
Join me for a free webinar with Macphun this Friday, September 15 at 7pm Mountain Time where I will be showing off some of the new features in this release.
And also join me on October 4 for a Facebook Live presentation I will be doing with Macphun on their Facebook Page.
I will post links to these events as soon as I have them!
Feel free to add them in the comments below or continue the discussion in my Online Forums Here.