The Best HDR Image Processing Software for Mac and Windows
Multimedia • Updated on Feb.27, 2019
There are a few things that only professional photographers hear about. HDR isn’t one of them.
In the past couple of years, many camera apps have brought HDR support to smartphone apps. You will not need a fully-fledged software if you have a mid-range smartphone with better camera.
But, that’s not how things work when you capture photos using a DSLR. You need a dedicated HDR processing software if you need better control over your professional photographs.
Well, before we actually start talking about HDR Processing tools and the best ones, we think we should get a quick look at what is HDR, what it means to you and why would you need a HDR Processing.
The world of HDR
In case you did not get that yet: HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. So, you should first understand what is dynamic range. Dynamic Range is the ratio of light to dark. Digital cameras and smartphone cameras have a limit when it comes to capturing this dynamic range.
The actual imaging technique may miss something — which is actually visible for the naked eye. This is where HDR Photography comes in. HDR Processing makes sure that the image can reproduce a higher dynamic range, as to make it look better.
Before (SDR) and After (HDR)
While HDR can bring out every color in a sunset, over-processing the images can also take away from the detail you captured. HDR photography uses digital imaging and the sensors in cameras to differently map what the cameras capture in order to create a more dynamic contrast.
The sensors in cameras are far less dynamic than the human eye, but HDR processing software will differently map shadow and highlights by overlapping several different exposures of the same image. The software takes each level of exposure and combines the data, distributing the light captured by the sensors across the image more accurately.
There are a few more things an HDR software can do — in order to make the photograph more awesome.
- Tone Mapping is one of the great things you can expect from an HDR software. You may get a flatter image when you subject it to HDR effect. Through tone mapping, you can adjust this and get a better photograph.
- Some photographers use HDR Software for noise removal as well. Noise may be present when you combine two images to form an HDR image. Thanks to the plenty of editing tools inside, you can use it for optimizing the details.
- Being relatively easier than the likes of Photoshop, you can use HDR Software for editing photos also.
- If not HDR, you can use the HDR software for bulk optimization as well. Personally, I use my favorite HDR software for editing photographs in bulk.
So, an HDR software does more than applying the HDR effect.
Now that you have an idea, let’s start finding the best HDR software out there.
How we chose the best HDR software
Well, there are more than a few HDR processing software in the market. And, don’t you dare expect random selection to give you an effective HDR processing software. So, when it came to choosing the best tools, we had some criteria in our mind. Some of the core aspects were:
- We wanted the HDR software to be quite simple to use and gain expertise in. To say the least, HDR is not something like rocket science, you know.
- The tool should be performance-friendly when it comes to rendering and development. This would save a lot of time in the long run
- We also recommend a tool that is multi-platform — Windows and Mac, to start with. This can offer a seamless HDR processing experience almost everywhere.
- Of course, the tool must not compromise features like Tone Mapping and Optimization. These can effectively convert the HDR processing software to a not-so-bad photo editor.
In addition to these, our selection also looked at aspects like additional features. It’s nice to have some extra editing features. If you want an HDR image and make some quick edits to the image, these features come in handy. However, the four points mentioned above were given the utmost importance in selection. Shall we now get into the tools?
The best pick – Aurora HDR
Aurora HDR is a reputed tool for HDR processing photographs. Both professionals and beginners have been using this awesome tool for years. Developed by Skylum/Macphun, Aurora HDR is noted for the brand-new features it packs.
It does not matter whether you want natural HDR or creative HDR effects. Aurora HDR can offer you a superb experience. We really loved using this latest version and we believe it deserves the top position here. Before we go further, let’s see what’s new in Aurora HDR.
What is new in Aurora HDR?
Compared to the previous version, almost everything in Aurora HDR has been improved. However, we believe the following additions are great for every photographer out there.
- Quantum HDR engine
Quantum HDR Engine from Skylum is the best addition to Aurora HDR. It is powered by AI and can offer a better tone-mapping process now. The best part is that the new engine has been proven effective for both bracketed and single photographs.
- More Aurora HDR looks
Aurora HDR Looks are presets that can come in quite handy. In the latest version, Skylum has included some more looks from reputed photographers. You can count them in when you are not so sure about individual HDR looks.
- HDR smart structure
HDR Smart Structure now takes care of details and more in your photograph. It makes sure that your photo looks fantabulous even after you’ve done the HDR part. Here too, we have to thank the Artificial Intelligence at work.
Furthermore, Aurora HDR now offers enhanced support for other apps like Photoshop, Apple Photos, Luminar, Lightroom etc.
Now, to the full review. Ready, folks?
Aurora HDR review
Nothing much has changed here to say. Once installed, you can start Aurora HDR quite immediately. If you don’t have prior experience, you can use the Tour feature as well. It does not matter even if you do not have bracketed images. Aurora HDR can help you create an HDR image from a single image or a single RAW file.
Therefore, you can simply open the file/files and start seeing the magic of Aurora HDR. If you’re already familiar with the tool, you can check out features like Batch Processing as well. From downloading the install package to creating the first HDR image using the program, Aurora HDR takes just only a few minutes, which is great.
The user interface
An intuitive User Interface is one of the best features we found in Aurora HDR. Nothing much has changed from the previous version. Once you have loaded the HDR image, you can choose the convenient viewing options as well. On the right side, the Optimization, Editing and HDR Control panels are available for easy access.
If you ask me what I love about the UI of Aurora HDR, my answer would be customizability. There are times when I just need to add a simple preset. And, there are times when I need a fully-fledged control panel for editing. Aurora HDR UI can be optimized for both these needs. You can simply hide/toggle toolbars and sidebars for the maximum productivity.
The HDR experience
Thanks to the awesome UI, it feels really easy to create an HDR image using Aurora HDR. As we said, it lets you create HDR from single images, bracketed images and RAW files. In all these cases, the tool gets the job done in a few seconds. We had tested Aurora HDR on a MacBook Air, one of the low-end Macs now in market.
So, if you are planning to run Aurora HDR on a mid-end or low-end device, it would be great. If you’ve a high-end device, though, the performance would be unbelievable. We really loved how Aurora HDR managed to focus on useful features and performance than making a messy interface. Altogether, the whole experience of making HDR images from Aurora HDR is pretty great.
Noteworthy features in Aurora HDR
As it happens, Aurora HDR does a few more things other than adding HDR effect.
It’s a full editing suite
Aurora HDR is by far one of the best minimal editing suites I’ve seen. Of course, there is no comparison with tools like Adobe Photoshop. But, take this scenario: you have made an excellent HDR image but it won’t look good without a few corrections. It has sections like Colour Toning, Glow, Image Radiance, LUT Mapping and HDR Basic edits and Colour Correction.
Aurora HDR looks collections
There are some amazing in-built presets in Aurora HDR. These are expected to make your job easier in the long run. If you are a beginner, you may not know which settings are suitable for which scenario. Using the HDR Looks panel, you can choose the best option. The collections include Architecture, Landscape and Artistic. You can also get pre-built looks from some of the reputed photographers who use Aurora.
To say that the workflow of Aurora HDR is productive is an understatement. It feels really easy to get started with the tool and finish everything off. For instance, as we said, you can optimize the Viewing panes as per your needs. On a personal note, I find Aurora HDR as the better option than using two tools for HDR processing and image editing.
By the way, did we tell you that Aurora HDR is designed for professionals? So, it offers plug-ins for other software like Photoshop and Lightroom. Skylum developers don’t want you to stick onto their own software, it seems. The point is, at the end of the day, you can have the best HDR and image manipulation options.
Availability and pricing
Aurora HDR is available for both Windows and macOS as of now. It doesn’t matter whether you have a MacBook Pro or Surface Tablet, it delivers the best experience. The devices should have minimum 8GB of RAM to smoothly run Aurora HDR, though. Coming to the price, you can grab the bundle license by paying just $99.
Skylum is offering some promotional discounts if you have been using Aurora HDR old version. You can log in find out more. Anyway, there is no doubt that the latest version of Aurora HDR is worthier than the $99 you have to pay. And, it has managed the top-pick position of the best HDR processing software for the second time too.
Also great — Photomatix Pro 6
Photomatix Pro 6 is another great tool when you are looking for HDR processing tools. It’s available for both Windows and Mac but isn’t that feature-rich. On the other hand, you can use Photomatix Pro 6 as an easy way to do HDR stuff. Unlike Aurora HDR, Photomatix Pro 6 does not offer many editing features either.
Looking at the User Interface, there isn’t much newer. You have the traditional interface with the photograph on the center, controls on both sides. Although not as rich as Aurora, Photomatix Pro 6 offers a collection of pre-sets as well.
Getting started with Photomatix Pro 6 and using the program would be an easy task. From adding the photo to HDR and exporting the final file, everything happens so cool. However, we think it could have improved the User Interface designs.
Last but not the least, Photomatix Pro 6 is available for macOS and Windows. Resembling the case of Aurora, it wants you to pay $99 for lifetime license. Some other features of Photomatix Pro 6 include plugin support and Quick Export options.
Aurora HDR and Photomatix Pro 6 were not the only considerations we had. Out of the 20+ choices we had, here are some of the worthy contenders.
HDR Projects 4
HDR Projects 4 is yet another popular HDR Processing software we’d considered. It’s different from Aurora in many ways. For instance, it does not allow much customization. You have to select the HDR style first and then import the photograph. HDR Projects 4 offers a better collection of pre-sets though.
There are more than 150 HDR pre-sets that you can apply. Rendering is quick and HDR Projects 4 does not consume much resources either. In many ways, HDR Projects 4 User Interface resembles that of Aurora HDR, but that is actually good. We hadn’t much trouble in getting used to it.
It should be noted that HDR Projects 4 is a better choice for hardcore professionals. It’s offering a number of advanced features that we hadn’t seen in others. The problem is that the features aren’t that organized per se.
Despite all these, if you have $99 to shell out, HDR Projects 4 is a great choice for sure.
easyHDR is a multiplatform HDR software that you can count on. It’s available for Windows, macOS and Linux distros. Compared to the tools we have listed, easyHDR is more minimal. Still, it allows you to process HDR photos in the shortest time possible.
Coming to the User Interface, easyHDR has kept simplicity intact. You don’t have to worry about the complex toolbars or designs. On the left side, it shows the available presets and, on the right, you can use the tools to bring major edits to the photograph.
Performance is an area where easyHDR becomes a pain in the ass. You may have to wait for some time for rendering the HDR exports. Similarly, you don’t have the best collection of presets. Even then, we’d suggest easyHDR for those who need a customized way to handle their HDR projects.
The Home and Commercial versions of easyHDR are available for $39 and $65 respectively.
Yet another awesome tool in the market, HDR Darkroom is one of my personal favorites. It has been designed with simplicity in mind. From choosing the right style to mapping the correct tone, everything can be done so effectively.
You can simply drag-and-drop the photo and applying the HDR presets. The performance part is so quick and impressive for most people. We also loved the simple interface with two sidebars. Coming to advanced set of features, HDR Darkroom offers Batch Editing as well.
If you ask us why we recommend HDR Darkroom, the reason is the User Interface itself. Within a simple set of options, HDR Darkroom has managed to offer comprehensive control. Indeed, you cannot compare these features with those of Aurora or Photomatix.
HDR Darkroom costs $89 per license. You can run it on either Mac or PC.
As you have seen, all the programs we’ve covered above are paid. Luminance HDR is an exception here. You can use this software without any limitation to build HDR images. It’s not the fastest HDR processing tool in the market though.
Compared to the other contenders and top picks, Luminance HDR is pretty slow. If you are getting the HDR images from a RAW file, you will have to wait even further. But, the point is that you can get the final HDR image without watermarks or other limitations.
Due to the same reason, we would not recommend Luminance HDR for hardcore professional. On the other hand, if you just want to understand the whole HDR Processing thing, Luminance HDR is the best place to start. It is available for Windows, macOS and Linux.
The bottom line
So far, we have seen how all the top six HDR Processor software performed. We tested all these software in a bunch of ways, finally comparing the HDR output image.
Considering all these point, we believe Aurora HDR deserves to be at the top position. It brings the best of all words, be it an impressive UI, best-in-class performance or best compatibility.
So, if you are looking for some real magic in your photographs, make sure you go for Aurora HDR.