The Best HDR Image Editor There is, Skylum’s Aurora HDR 2019, is Available for Pre-Order until October 4, with Discounts

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Towards the end of each photography editing software maker Skylum, formerly Macphun, announces then releases the annual major update to its two multiple award-winning flagship products, Aurora HDR and Luminar, and both are made available at pre-order discount for a certain period from announcement to the actual release date. 

Right now it is Aurora HDR’s turn, about to be updated to Aurora HDR 2019, with discounts applying until October 4 2018, and the many new additions and improvements in this version make it an absolute must-have update in my humble opinion. 

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Skylum Aurora HDR 2019, with this version blessed with more smart enhancements than ever before as well as a good list of other new features and improvements.

I have dipped my toes in and out of the high dynamic range aka HDR realm for some years at least since Adobe added HDR capability to Photoshop, trying a range of HDR software whether in the form of plug-ins or standalone applications, but none really caught my attention nor got me excited by the possibilities of this form of image creation and editing until Aurora first made its appearance.

Over the years since then the Skylum team has steadily improved Aurora as well all the rest of its software with concepts and features very different from what those usually found in more conventional image editing software made by more conventional image software companies.

One of those unconventional concepts involves features that appear to derive from a side project, Photolemur, described as “the world’s first fully automated photo enhance that makes all your images great automatically with the help of Artificial Intelligence”.

The products of Photolemur’s AI advances started to find their way into Aurora HDR and Luminar a versions or two ago and, with Aurora HDR 2019’s software engine being radically updated to the brand new Quantum HDR Engine and with a number of AI and Smart features appearing in both flagship applications.

I suspect the AI integration in both will continue and look forward to seeing what will appear in Luminar 2019 in the coming months.

Skylum’s modus operandi has been to create standalone versions of its software that can also operate as plug-ins to popular host applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Elements, and more recently to each other with, for example, Aurora HDR 2019 being able to call on Luminar and Photolemur as well as a long list other popular Photoshop plug-ins.

My personal MO when processing HDR images is to do the fundamental HDR tone mapping and basic editing in Aurora then pass the image on to Luminar directly or oftentimes export as a TIFF file with a detour through DxO ViewPoint for powerful automatic optical corrections based on my raw files’ EXIF data and sometimes though DxO FilmPack or Alien Skin Exposure as well for each application’s excellent simulations for classic and quirky analog films and printing processes.

With the addition of Look Up Tables aka LUT support in Aurora HDR 2019 as previously occurred in Luminar, I suspect I will doing less of this detouring with the benefit of applying items from an extensive LUT collection acquired over many years shooting video.

A number of those LUTs are derived from scans of classic, now often sadly discontinued, colour and monochrome movie film stocks and printing films or are based on feature film colour grading looks based on analog films, with one of the most recent such releases being Digital Film Stock aka DFS by LookLabs.

There is a host of similar LUT collections available on the Web for free or very reasonable prices given their quality and if you are new to the world of LUTs I recommend searching and trying to see what LUTs can do with the benefit of Aurora HDR 2019’s new LUT Mapping tool.

Screenshots, Aurora HDR 2019 user interface

The new and improved features in Aurora HDR 2019

User Interface / Performance

  • Tone-mapping technology for bracketed images with the Quantum HDR Engine.
  • Tone-mapping technology for single images with the Quantum HDR Engine.

Editing

  • HDR Smart Structure for realistic and artifact-free structure.
  • All new Aurora HDR Looks to enhance and stylize images.
  • LUT Mapping filter for creative color and tone adjustments.
  • Eleven integrated LUTs to use with the LUT Mapping filter.
  • HDR Details Boost filter that allows for high-resolution tuning while adjusting – improved.
  • Adjustable Gradient filter with new controls for Shadows and Highlights– improved.

Open / Plugin / Export

  • Photoshop plugins support.
  • Photolemur plugin support.
  • Plugins menu for both Mac® and Windows® users
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A quick tryout, resurrecting ghosts

Unlike most of the photographers who rely on HDR, I use this style of photography not so much for landscapes, cityscapes, architecture or interiors but for portraits, product shots and stills for use in videos often for use with the Ken Burns effect.

For portraits and product shots in particular, most often shot with a mixture of natural and artificial light and increasingly with rather challenging natural light conditions, the HDR plus Aurora HDR combo results in images where textures acquire a hyperrealism that enhances the feeling of actually being in front of that person or those objects.

But I digress.

The 3-bracket HDR image above is one of my less frequently shot scenic photographs and my rather unsophisticated quick and dirty edit in Aurora HDR 2019 in the middle shows just how far Skylum’s software engineers have come with their Quantum HDR Engine and its radically improved processing quality and speed.

Instead of needing a fair bit of work to get a typical HDR image natural looking, Aurora HDR 2019 creates a very realistic tone mapping rendering from the word go, then allows you to choose from a large and growing selection of naturalistic or highly creative presets, or even more image editing controls than in previous versions of Aurora.

From the evidence of the list above of new and improved features in Aurora HDR 2019, and the results of my quick and dirty tryout scene, I will be rethinking my use of HDR imaging and especially how I will be processing future HDR images. 

Reservations that I used to have about HDR due to haloing and processing speed have now gone and I am looking forward to counting on HDR and Aurora HDR 2019 far more than I ever have before.

Portraiture tryout, 7 brackets, straight tone mapping and minimal processing

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Expressing exhaustion and resignation via Aurora HDR 2019 and a film emulation LUT.

A friend I have often used as a test subject dropped by and I decided to try out Aurora HDR 2019 as a portrait processing toolset.

This is the result, above, after minimal processing entirely in Aurora HDR 2019.

During my editorial photography career in the analog era, I specialized in making emotive close-up portraits and information-packed environmental portraits for magazines and newspaper colour supplements, using colour transparency films, Polaroid Type 55 instant positive/negative film and Kodak Tri-X using sheet film and 120 roll film cameras of various types.

That career was interrupted at its height due to succumbing to photochemical allergies followed by conceiving and cofounding “not only Black+White” magazine, a project that helped further my longtime ambitions to help bring about positive change in how photography was understood and used as a means of communication and as an art form in Australia.

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The light in the café where this was shot is amongst the worst that I have shot in over the years and previous attempts using earlier versions of Aurora HDR have been disappointing. This attempt processed with Aurora HDR 2019 is much better. HDR portraiture benefits from expressive lighting, whether natural or artificial, rather than this sort of dull overhead illumination.

My portraiture practice was intimately shaped by the cameras, lenses, films and processing and printing materials and methods of the time.

I carted my 4″x5″ sheet film camera with a medium wide and a medium long lens, sheet film and 120 roll film holders, Broncolor 3-light electronic flash kit, tripod and light stands, with my two Leica M-4P rangefinder cameras and lenses as backups, around the city and suburbs on assignment, photographing creative people, chefs, actors, celebrities and businessmen.

It was fun while it lasted and I used it as an opportunity to introduce my clients to new ways of processing, printing and reproducing my work all the better to communicate the emotions I wanted readers to experience when looking at my photographs in those magazines.

I have long wanted to get back to those forms of photography but this time unencumbered by all that gear, stripping my means of production back to just me, a handheld camera and uncomplicated but expressive processing methods.

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Portrait of a real estate agent on a day of smokey sunlight due to burning off in the local national park nearby.

Will Aurora HDR 2019 allow me to do that?

I hope so, based on the results of this quick and dirty test above.

Time to take a good, hard look at the current state of the magazine editorial photography landscape here in Australia now?

Definitely time to build a new portrait portfolio, and Aurora HDR 2019 may well be an important factor in that.

One of my aims in portraiture was and is to create the impression in the viewer’s mind that they are in the same room as the subject.

High dynamic range photography appears to assist in helping form that impression, though I have much to try and much to learn about how and why, and how to get the best out of it for portraiture.

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