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29 September 2018

Walking from Robin Williams Meadow to the Dahlia Garden in Golden Gate Park, we wandered by a bucolic scene we knew wouldn't photograph well. The range of tones from the deep shadows of the redwood tree to the bright grass beyond the thicket with some reddish flowers shining in the bright sun was just too long to capture in a single shot. And we couldn't bracket exposures without moving the camera.

But that's what High Dynamic Range post processing is for. You take your shot or shots and work the magic in your editor to extend the range of the image. Which is a lot more feasible, we have to quickly add, when you shoot Raw instead of JPEG. There's just more data to work with. More than you can see, in fact.

So we edited this shot in both Aurora HDR 2019 (which will be released Oct. 4) and Photoshop CC 2018. We also rendered a version in Piccure+.


But let's start at the beginning with the Raw file's embedded thumbnail. This is a JPEG, which fairly accurately represents what a digicam would have captured. Your smartphone would probably do better because it enjoys more sophisticated processing before writing the JPEG. But this is the JPEG.

Camera JPEG. The in-camera JPEG rendering of the scene shows why we shot Raw.

You can see the sky is blown out but the shadows have good detail.

We won't quibble over the detail because the full resolution thumbnail is only 1024x680 pixels. The full image size is 4320x2868 pixels so there is a lot more data in the DNG file than in the JPEG. Our 500-pixel thumbnails here don't show the detail in the full resolution images, of course, but they do make it easy to compare the various renderings.

You can't see the red flowers that attracted us but you can make out a couple of figures beyond the picnic table.

Taken as a whole, though, it demonstrates what we said at the beginning. That the range of tones was too long for a JPEG capture.

Manual Edits. Just three.


Aurora HD will convert a single image into an HDR image (as well as combine multiple images). It first optimizes the image and then presents it for you to further refine with an extensive palette of controls.

The Optimized Image

The optimized image brings the sky back and lights up the shadow area noticeably. The figures are clearer and we've begun to notice the red flowers. It's a dramatic improvement.

And we'd almost go so far as to say it's the equivalent of automatic Raw processing on a level your smartphone delivers. It's a polished JPEG.

Manual Edits

Can we improve on that?

Well, we're the ones who took the shot and we're the ones who know why we took it. The red flowers are still too subtle and the shadow area in the foreground too prominent.

An application wouldn't know that. It would "optimize" detail and color in the highlights and shadows. It's for us to adjust them to what we want to show.

So we made several manual edits: HDR Enhance (for Clarity and Smart Structure), HDR Deails Boost (Small and Large) and Tone Curve (to darken the redwood).

This darkened the foreground, sharpened everything and gave the red flowers a tiny boost.

ACR Settings. The Basic adjustments.


Could we, we wondered, approach that using just Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop CC?

We made our usual Clarity adjustment on the DNG Raw file, opened up the Shadows dramatically, closed down the Highlights just as dramatically and adjusted the Exposure down a bit, too.

But since we were working in Photoshop, we also selected the flowers and gave them a tiny boost.

This rendering represents what we'd usually do with an image.


Finally, we thought we'd try running the DNG through Piccure+, which makes a number of critical improvements to the image.

We still had to process the TIFF Piccure+ produces in Photoshop to create the JPEG.


The rollover below shows all four renderings: the default Aurora HDR rendering, the manual Aurora HDR rendering, Adobe Camera Raw and Piccure+.

Of the four we prefer our Aurora HDR manual edit over the Adobe Camera Raw edit. But we'll note the significant difference in how the shadows were rendered. And that's really a matter of taste, rather than the capability of either product.

We'll also note that the optimized image Aurora produced was a surprisingly good Raw conversion. It lacked the sharpness we achieved with our manual edit but made a very good starting point.

The test isn't fair to Piccure+ in that we always process those images further in Adobe Camera Raw. But it's a useful comparison to Aurora as a choice of preprocessor for Raw images, even if it does a good deal more optically.

As for the detail each approach provides, take a look at these 100 percent crops:

There isn't any difference, frankly, in the information but the our manual edit using Aurora HDR was the brightest with the most contrast and appears, consequently, easier to read.


Admittedly, this is only one way to use Aurora HDR. We'll explore combining several exposures in one HDR image, which is the more typical use, next month.

But it's a very useful first pass for Raw images. And as a preprocessor it earns four photo corners from us.

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