Using Aurora HDR with night photography

At first blush, I am an unusual photographer to write about HDR software. After all, I do night photography, where it typically isn’t used as much. And we night photographers tend to handle a wide dynamic range largely by the way we illuminate our subjects.

Nonetheless, I thought I would try Aurora HDR to see if I could incorporate it into my workflow, using it to see what it could do with two single-exposure night photos.

Photo one: Using Aurora HDR to process a night image of an abandoned bus

The first of two photos I thought I would experiment with was a dark photo of an abandoned bus at an abandoned Nike missile base in the mountains. I worked with this as an unprocessed TIFF file, working in Photoshop and using Aurora HDR as a plug-in. Could I bring out some detail with this very dark single exposure?

Launching Aurora HDR from Photoshop

I began in Photoshop by copying a new layer so that I wouldn’t process the original background layer. I then launched Aurora HDR as a plug-in, producing this dialog window.

Using presets in Aurora HDR

From here, Aurora HDR presents an HDR image, after which you can select some presets to hopefully get you closer to what you want. After this, you would adjust the various parameters to suit your needs and tastes. What I decided to do is go through the presets and select some as my favorites — ones that weren’t too over-processed and seem to handle the dark quality of this photo.

I toggled back and forth between presets in my Favorites section. I decided I would select “Modesto.” This is what it initially appeared.

As you can see above, without much effort, the photo was brightened, with increased saturation and increased detail, even in the shadow areas. It also increased detail in the sky, making a couple of sensor spots more obvious. Oh well. After adjusting a few parameters, I hit Apply.

Returning to Photoshop

I do the bulk of my work in Photoshop because of the amount of control it has. The above image is how it appeared once I hit Apply and returned to Photoshop.

The new layer, Layer 1, is the layer that contains the processing from Aurora HDR. What I like about this working this way is that I can change the opacity after the fact, dialing down the HDR throughout the entire image. Or if I prefer, I can use Layer Masks to adjust the effects of the HDR in specific areas of the image. All of this is non-destructive. If I don’t like it, I can go back and change it later!

A work in progress

This is the photo, further along in the processing, brightened up a little. I cloned out the sensor spots that were showing in the sky, and toned down the light on the left with Adobe Camera RAW, also used here as a plug-in on a separate layer. I like layers.

This photo, by the way, is not finished. I am giving you a sort of sneak peek behind my process of post-processing. I will likely sit on this for a while and revisit it later. There are already some things that bother me that might benefit from some slight dodging and burning.

This was a particularly difficult image to “light paint” because I had great difficulty keeping the light painting device from shining into the lens while being able to get the precise angles I wanted to bring out the depth in the interior of the abandoned bus. Consequently, there are more things that bother me about the periphery and illumination of the photo than is usually the case. This is part of the reason I felt that experimenting with this using Aurora HDR might be interesting.

Photo two: Using Aurora HDR to process a night image of star trails over an arch

The second photo is a photo that I am working on of colorful star trails over a rocky arch formation in the Mojave Desert. I was interested to see if it could bring out additional detail in the rocks. I also thought it looked slightly dull.

Processing using Aurora HDR as a plug-in

From Photoshop, I created a new layer and then launched Aurora HDR.

Again, as shown above, I worked from some of my favorites that I had selected, just to speed up the process.

As with the first photo, most of the presets, and even the default HDR, made the photo not only more detailed but also more saturated. This time, I used “Anti Vegan Tiger” (I love the name!), adjusted some parameters to taste and hit Apply.

Returning to Photoshop again

As with the first photo, I used a new layer for Aurora HDR to process. I again had the choice of using Layer Masks to change the opacity to some or all of the new processed layers. I could go back and change it later if I wanted since it is non-destructive. As you can see here, I’ve pulled back some of the effect, including the saturation.

Another work in progress

As with the first photo, this one is also a work in progress. Some of the photos, such as this one, I prefer to sit on for a while. I’ll open them up periodically, looking at them with fresh eyes and see if there is anything that I want to change.

With the above photo, I feel I am not done yet, but I do feel that Aurora HDR has given me more detail. With this, I have the opacity for the “Aurora HDR” layer set to 86%. In other words, you don’t see 100% of the HDR image.

I like to slide the opacity back and forth to see what I like and don’t like about the image. I might work on this more, as I find that the yellow light horizon is not as smooth as I would prefer. But it is good to have some sort of workflow that incorporates the ability to dial back effects by working non-destructively. And it is important not to always feel like you are in a rush to release your photos to the world before you are completely happy with them.

I like the power and simplicity of Aurora HDR as applied to dark night photos. In both instances, I was able to easily produce detail in the darker areas of the image without much effort. Aurora HDR gives you plenty of parameters to tweak, but does so in an easy, intuitive manner, offering various presets as “jumping off” points. I tend to prefer more natural-looking images in general, and Aurora HDR gives you the ability to do that by dialing back some of the effects, and then if you wish, storing those as user presets. I will continue to incorporate this into my Photoshop workflow.