Aurora HDR is a well-developed program for professional photographers who regularly shoot in HDR, this product has clearly been made to excel in one thing: editing photos from an HDR bracket. It has dozens upon dozens of features while maintaining a clean interface, and is priced very fairly for its caliber. If you’re an amateur photographer or are still learning about editing photos, this program is probably not for you: It’s got a steep learning curve. On the other hand, regular editors will thoroughly enjoy its HDR-specific editing features, luminosity, masking, and other advanced features. This isn’t your average photo editor.
- Clean, simple interface and layouts
- Very easy and intuitive to use
- Dozens of tools for every kind of adjustment
- Can be used as an application or plugin
- Getting started materials and resources
- Lengthy toolbar scrolls endlessly unless you manually collapse everything
- Can only open one unique photo at a time without using batch
Why Should You Trust Me?
Hi, I’m Nicole Pav. I’ve been learning how to use new software since I was a kid, and I’m still passionate about it. Throughout my experience with technology, I’ve hunted down free and paid resources and attempted to determine which ones were worth downloading. Like you, my funds are limited and I have a hard time gathering information from flashy web pages. That’s why my reviews will always be completely based on personal experience and expertise.
While I’m not an expert photographer, I have done my fair share of attempting to take artsy pictures both with my smartphone and a DSLR camera. From fireworks to sunsets, I know what it’s like to think you’ve got a great picture only to discover that the final image doesn’t look much like what you wanted. That’s what editing software like Aurora HDR is for.
Disclaimer: We were offered an NFR code to test drive the program. However, the content in this review is based on nothing more than my experience, free of any influence from Macphun.
What is Aurora HDR?
Aurora HDR is a program from Macphun, a company that develops photo-related applications for Mac computers. It uses the three exposures taken during an HDR shot to allow for more comprehensive and detailed edits of your photos. The program has the range of editing tools you would expect to see in a basic photo program, as well as dozens of HDR-specific features. You can try it for free here.
Is Aurora HDR Safe?
Yes, Aurora is completely safe to use and download on your computer. It has well over a million downloads from users around the world. Macphun is a well-reputed company, and their products are vetted by Apply before they can be sold on the App Store.
The program only interacts with files you import or export into it. While it can link with several other programs, this is done completely at your discretion. Additionally, the Norton SafeWeb tool shows a valid certificate for the Aurora HDR website. This means that any e-commerce, such as using your credit card or Paypal to make purchases, will be secure.
Can I Get Aurora HDR for Windows?
Currently, Macphun has not released a Windows version of Aurora HDR. However, it has been implied that the software will be available on PC soon, according to this official 2018 pre-sale page.
This means it will be available to everyone except Linux users in the coming days. It’s a great step for a company focused on making quality Mac products.
How Can I Get a Discount on Aurora HDR?
If you purchase Aurora HDR from the site or from the App Store, you’ll pay $99 for the professional version. While you can try the software for an unlimited amount of time, the exporting and sharing features are disabled to prevent you from actually using any edited photos you create.
Instead, you should make use of our exclusive code: SOFTWAREHOW. This will deduct $10 from your purchase, meaning you only have to pay $89 if you want to get Aurora HDR.
Here’s how to claim this 10% off offer:
Step 1: Visit the official Aurora HDR Store here.
Step 2: Scroll down to the bottom until you see the “Coupon Code” section. Type “SOFTWAREHOW” and hit “Apply”.
Step 3: You’ll see the price decrease from $99 to $89 instantly.
Getting Started with Aurora HDR
The app has a wealth of features: polarizing filter, luminosity masks, feather & density brush parameters for layer masks, radial masking tool, batch processing, top & bottom adjustment controls, and much more. Due to the program’s immense amount of features, it would be impossible to test every one. Try this user manual for more specific information.
Beyond the fact that it would take forever to learn how to effectively use each tool, there simply isn’t enough space to write about each one. Instead, I’ll focus on a few overarching aspects of the program and highlight some of the larger features along the way.
When you first download Aurora HDR, you’ll need to log in with your activation key and the email you used to sign up. After you do this, the splash screen will convert to an upload section for your latest images.
You can either import single photos or HDR brackets. A single photo appears only one way, while an HDR photo bracket is a set of three images in different exposures. If you take an HDR photo with your smartphone, the bracket will be condensed into a single photo even if you use the HDR setting. I sent Macphun a support ticket asking about using a single HDR photo from a smartphone and possibly retrieving the original brackets. They sent the following reply within 24 hours:
Their email support was simple and helpful, and I received a response in 24 hours like they advertise on their contact us page. Regardless, Macphun advertises that you don’t need to shoot brackets to effectively use Aurora HDR. You’re fine if you have only a single shot.
However, I did have a few HDR exposures on hand and imported the one below:
Please note that in my example, the shots aren’t very different because of the lack of multiple light sources. Once your photo is imported, it will open in the main editor. This editor has several panels that might be useful while editing.
The bar along the top has several general options such as opening a single photo, batch import, zoom and view options, and undo/redo. The bottom panel contains an array of presets. The right side of the screen displays all of your tools and editing features.
A few notable buttons include the following:
View & Compare:
If you’d like to see what your photo looked like before you made all your changes, use the small eye icon in the middle of the header. Holding this button will show your image the way you imported it. Releasing will revert to your current edits.
If you would rather see your images side by side, choose the rectangle icon next to the eye icon. You can either see your original and current images next to each other, or you can use the unique sliding feature to divide your picture in the middle. One half shows the original picture, while the other shows the edited version.
If you need to crop your image, choose the small scissors icon. You can crop while maintaining the same aspect ratio, or freeform using the edges. While this isn’t ideal for a detailed or extremely specific crop, it will get the job done without exporting to another program.
Hand & Brush
These two buttons can be used to switch between the standard editing sliders and the masking brush. This is useful for utilizing the luminosity and other masking features in conjunction with layers.
Panel View Buttons
Furthest to the right, these three buttons will let you hide or show parts of the interface. When darkened with bright orange, the panel is active. You can toggle by simply clicking on these buttons in order to hide/show the preset panel, layers, or graph.
Aurora HDR comes with several dozen presets which appear when you import images. By default, the viewing panel will display 11 options from the “realistic” package, but you can change this by clicking on the icon on the right edge.
As you can see in the above image, there are several packages to choose from. Whether or not you use these is entirely based on your style as a photographer, but I would say that they are of decent quality.
You can buy or download presets from Macphun and third party vendors if you aren’t happy with the defaults. Alternatively, you can create your own presets. For example, if you consistently shoot big cities at night, you can find a certain combination of settings that work for you and save it to use on your next set of cityscape photos.
To create your own preset, simply edit a photo with the settings you like. Then choose FILE > CREATE PRESET.
This will generate a pop-up asking you to name your preset. Once you do this and click save, the preset will be added to the “custom” folder. You can use it with any other batch or image you import into Aurora. Presets will likely be most useful for batch edits rather than fine tuned standalone pieces.
It would be impossible to list every tool that Macphun has packed into their product. If you’re looking for a list, try this general what’s new list from the FAQ that includes notes from the latest update. Or try this version comparison that lists everything that’s been added or upgraded recently.
For this review, I’ll highlight the main features of the tool panel. You can see in the image below the name of each collapsed section from the toolbar:
Some of these, such as color, vignette, and structure, would be expected in any photo editor. However, many are HDR-specific. Additionally, anytime you change something, the circular arrows will allow you to revert back to the original values from import. Any category you make use of will change from white to orange.
Each section contains the traditional editing sliders, and you’ll need to either collapse each section or scroll to the one you need.
What each of these means to you will vary depending on your photo editing experience. While I’m a fairly novice-level photo editor, I can direct you to resources such as Lynda, which offer tutorials on complex creative subjects. You can’t learn how to use these features without first understanding the tone control that they create, and even a tutorial that says “curves in Photoshop” will help you understand the same mechanics used in Macphun products.
Aurora HDR has a small but effective section on curves and levels. You can make your edits overall or by color channel, adding and removing points as needed.
Although I could not find a way to expand this from the tool panel on the right side, I was still able to manipulate it with a good degree of accuracy.
The brush tool is another featured Macphun tool. They offer a great video tutorial on using it effectively:
It can be customized several different ways, from size to opacity.
This is useful for creating layer masks so that your edits only affect certain sections of your photo rather than the entire image.
Export, Share, or Integrate
There are several ways you can move an image out of the app.
- Save the image to the original file.
- Save as a reusable Aurora file and edit it again later.
- Export to an image format such as JPEG, PNG, or HDR.
- Open the image in another photo program.
- Share the image to another platform.
Let’s examine each of these. The first is the most simple. If you click save, you’ll be asked if you want to save on top of the original file. This will replace the original image on your computer with the edited version, so don’t choose this unless you have another copy of the original or don’t need anything beyond the final version. Luckily, you can’t do this by accident unless you neglect to read the pop-up.
If you need to save your image edits but don’t want to overwrite your original file, or you aren’t finished editing, use “Save As”. This will prompt you to create a new name for the file, and will add the file extension “.mpaur” which is specific to Aurora.
You can reopen this later to continue editing, or to export in a different format such JPEG or PSD.
Alternatively, you can export to a more conventional format if you’ve completed all your edits. Aurora supports JPEG, PNG, GIF, TIFF, PSD, and PDF formats for exports, which gives you a wide range to work with. To use any of these formats, you’ll need to choose “Export To…” in the file menu. HDR file types have their own export window under FILE > EXPORT TO HDR FORMAT.
To send a photo directly to another program, use the “Open In” option instead. If you have other photo editing programs installed on your computer such as Photoshop or Lightroom, you’ll see those options here. All users will see “Photos”, the default Mac photo application in this list. Macphun also lists all of their other editing tools as well.
Lastly, you can share your edited photo to a platform where others will see it, such as Mail, Messages, SmugMug, and 500px. This is mostly useful for sharing directly with another person. You’ll probably want to export your image in a reusable format as well.
Aurora can be installed it as a plugin with your pre-existing photo programs. When you first open the program, you’ll be prompted to do this, but you can also do it at any other time.
As you can see, I don’t have any of the compatible programs installed on my computer as they are either Macphun products or from the Adobe Creative Suite. However, this feature does let you get more for your money and ends the need to switch back and forth between two high-quality but specific programs.
Reasons Behind My Reviews and Ratings
Macphun picked one thing for this program to do, and made sure it did that thing well. Aurora HDR is a competitive program and offers every expected feature for a program of its type. You’ll have no problem doing complex edits and altering your photos to bring out the best in them.
For a professional photo editing program, paying less than $100 is great! Not only is a one-time purchase price, but it’s a great value. Don’t forget to take advantage of the exclusive offer (10% off) leveraging this SOFTWAREHOW coupon. You don’t need to pay monthly or worry about a subscription. The software is definitely specific though, so don’t buy it planning to do image manipulations or cutouts. Aurora HDR is great at what it’s meant for. If you’re a hobbyist and don’t have HDR-specific needs, consider a program with a wider scope of features instead.
Ease of Use: 4/5
The software is beautifully designed. The layout is intuitive and makes editing a breeze. Everything is clearly marked and easy to find. My only complaint is that the scrolling edit section on the right side has to be manually collapsed, panel by panel, if you want to avoid endlessly turning the mouse wheel to get to the bottom. If you’re new to photo editing, there will a steep learning curve, but old hands will find everything at their fingertips.
Macphun offers three options for support: FAQ, email, and social media. This first is fairly simple and redirects to a page of common questions about the software. I tested the second by sending an email with a question, and received a response within 24 hours. The third option is a bit less conventional but can be compared to a support forum. You’ll be sent to either a Facebook group or Twitter page where you can ask your questions. You should receive a community or professional answer in about the same amount of time as an email.
Alternatives to Aurora HDR
Adobe Lightroom CC (MacOS & Windows, Web)
Adobe is a standard for the creative industry, so it makes sense to mention Lightroom. It’s available for about $9.99/mo, or as part of a larger Adobe Creative Cloud package. Read our Lightroom review here.
Affinity Photo (MacOS & Windows)
For something with a greater range of features and without the HDR focus, Affinity Photo might be a good option. With a one-time cost of $49 and various awards attached to the name, it’s a great alternative for someone who needs more versatility. Read our full Affinity Photo review here.
Photomatix (MacOS, Windows, & Linux)
Photomatix is an older but long-lasting program built specifically for HDR photos. It advertises many of the same features and may be a good option for those on a smaller budget. Read our full Photomatix review here.
You can also read this HDR software review for more options.
If you’re a professional photographer who regularly shoots in HDR, Aurora HDR is a fantastic tool for you. It offers everything from basic cropping features to advanced luminosity, layers, masking, and more. If you’re unfamiliar with all of these terms, the program is definitely going to have a steep learning curve. Rest assured, however, that the program does its utmost to be painless to use. With a Windows version just around the corner, PC users won’t be let down either. I would highly recommend this tool for editing your HDR photos.