The 2018 Best HDR Image Processing Software for Mac and Windows
Utilities • June 18 2018
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 — High Dynamic Range photography
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)
When it comes to Smartphone cameras, many apps have an in-built HDR mode. The camera app does every task to bring this ‘high’ dynamic range to your photograph. On the other hand, you often need the old-school method if you want to bring HDR effect to your DSLR-photographs.
To get you the basic idea here, HDR Photography wants you to take three photographs of the same event — one at normal exposure and the other two at lower and higher exposures. However, there are tools that let you create HDR images from a single RAW file as well.
We hope you have a clear idea now. Now, shall we check out the best HDR Processing Software.
How we choose 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:
- Ease of Use: The reason why we use a dedicated HDR processing tool instead of Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom is the craving for simplicity. Therefore, the best HDR processing need to offer an easy-to-use User Interface
- Performance: Of course, you don’t want to wait in front of this tool while it processes the photos, do you? We made sure that our selected HDR processing tool is super-fast no matter what image you’d use.
- Tone-Mapping Effectiveness: While speed and ease of use are immensely important, we will not be able to compromise HDR processing effectiveness, especially in tone-mapping. This comes in handy if you haven’t been using a tripod for capturing the photographs.
- Compatibility: Last but not least, we also made sure that the winner software would offer a standard compatibility. Get the basics right, the HDR software should be available for both PC and Mac, so that you can use the same process in both devices.
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?
It would not be wrong to say that Aurora HDR is the HDR processing software for everyone! It boasts a lot of features that both professionals and newbies would find useful. The real awesomeness is when it tries to combine ease of use and advanced features inside a singular UI. And Apple names Aurora HDR is the 2017 Best App for Mac.
First, what is Aurora HDR 2018?
Aurora HDR 2018 is the latest update to the popular photo editing software that specializes in high dynamic range photography, but can be used as a general purpose editor as well.
Clearly, the developer Skylum/Macphun is setting Aurora up to be a major competitor in the HDR photo editing space with this update.
From the Aurora press release:
Aurora HDR proves that HDR photography is about unleashing all the details the human eye can see, or even more, with every photo. The goal is to recreate and reflect the best aspects of the original scene. HDR photos can be anything from stunningly accurate reproductions of what our eyes see, to mind-blowing, surreal works of art that transform reality into fantasy.
Aurora HDR brings countless options to create perfect HDR images that are as natural as possible, or unleash a true creative image by going deeper with intelligent filters. Aurora HDR is a powerful all-in-one HDR editor that appeals to demanding professionals and aspiring hobbyists alike.
The 2018 version of Aurora HDR introduces next-generation tone mapping for richer details and a new RAW handling engine which results in improved color accuracy. The latest version of Aurora HDR 2018 comes with Loupedesk support and creates very realistic HDR images from the start and makes it easier to achieve great results with further editing in less time. Aurora HDR 2018 is designed to be quick, efficient and flexible to allow photographers spend less time on editing workflow and more time behind the camera.
Aurora HDR 2018 review
Aurora HDR 2018 is the first release of the HDR photo editing software that is compatible with both Mac and Windows.This Aurora HDR 2018 review focuses on the Mac Version.
Compared to many of the contenders, Aurora HDR 2018 has a larger footprint. However, it takes just more than a few hundred MBs, which is nothing compared to the footprint of Photoshop or Lightroom. Once the installation is done, you can start the fully-fledged interface of Aurora HDR 2018. Compared to the previous version, Aurora 2018 has become quicker, in terms of installation as well as getting started.
You can have the essential information from the first page itself. Aurora HDR 2018 lets you explore open its User Guide or check out some Tutorial Video. In case you are new to HDR photography apps, these will come in handy. You can start your adventure by opening the images. You can either open individual files or go for Batch Processing. Aurora HDR 2018 offers support for normal images as well as RAW files.
As we said earlier, Aurora HDR 2018 has kept an intuitive User Interface, which is not too minimal or not too complicated. It basically depends on the customizations you need. Suppose you need quick HDR processing with some basic presents. You can simply load the images on Aurora HDR 2018 and select a suitable preset to get started.
On the other hand, if you are looking for some serious editing, take a glance at the right sidebar. It gives you a variety of editing options, spread out in categories like HDR Basic, Color, HDR Structure, Color Toning, HSL, Details Boost etc. By the way, if you find it as a distraction, Aurora HDR 2018 lets you hide that section also. The same can be done for the Presets tray as well.
Altogether, we believe the User Interface is excellent, per se. It’s professional and intuitive at the same.
The performance aspect
This is where Aurora HDR 2018 becomes incredibly exceptional, you know. As we said, Aurora HDR 2018 can work with minimal resources. Even then, it takes lesser amount time for loading, processing and bringing a lot of HDR pre-set effects. In one of the instances, we had used a single RAW file for HDR processing, and its performance was impressive enough.
It offers the same level of performance and sharpness when it comes to presets. You can easily shift between them to find the best effect. We can say without a doubt that Aurora HDR 2018 is one of the fastest options when you need quick HDR processing and customization.
When it comes to advanced features, Aurora HDR 2018 just rocks the stage. There is a lot you can explore, especially when compared to the previous version. Even if you are not a hardcore professional, you will find these features helpful, in one way or another. It needs to be noted that, apart from the changes on screen, Aurora HDR 2018 also includes a revamped algorithm for effective tone-mapping.
The best advanced feature in Aurora HDR 2018 is Editing itself. You have almost complete control over the final output. If you are an intermediate photographer, we think Aurora HDR 2018 would be an alternative to Photoshop as well. Once you are done with HDR processing and pre-sets, you can explore the settings on the right side. Thanks to the section-wise arrangement, they are easy-access too.
Among these tools, we really loved HDR Enhancer, which offers better control over the HDR processing itself. There are a few aspects you can change to achieve the best HDR results at the end of the day. It lets you do a customized HDR effect for the photo, if you don’t think the presets aren’t enough.
Yet another thing that makes Aurora HDR 2018 our best pick is its wonderful collection of presets. By default, there are 9 categories of HDR presets, each of them consisting of 10+ presets. We also loved how selective the categories are. And, guess what? You can go ahead and download more presets and bundles from the community if you want.
Developers of Aurora HDR 2018 understand that it’s made for professionals, who use multiple tools. That‘s probably why they have included dedicated plugins for Adobe products as well as other Skylum products. It is easy to install all these plugins. If you have the programs installed, a single click would do the integration part for you.
Some of our favorite features include the Quick Look options, Action History support and the ability to view Image metadata while you are editing. It needs to be noted that the features are made for a purpose and not for adding some bells and whistles. Every single one of them will be helpful for professionals — be it starters or veterans.
Availability and pricing
Aurora HDR 2018 is available for both Microsoft Windows and macOS. The best part is that the software is available as a bundle, enabling mixed-computer households to share the same product key. That having said, if you are looking for some educational content, you should select the desired OS while checking out. The previous version was available for Mac only.
As far as the pricing is concerned, Aurora HDR 2018 bundle is available for $99. By the way, if you have been using Aurora 2017 previously, you can get a special discount as well. You have to go to the official site and provide details such as the product serial number for that. However, we really wish if it had a subscription service with regular updates.
Photomatix Pro 6 is another great HDR processing tool you can try. Although not as good as Aurora HDR, it’s suitable for casual photographers. Of course, there are a few features you would miss. For instance, do not expect to do hardcore editing with this tool. At the same time, Photomatix Pro 6 would let you make an HDR image without much hassle.
One thing we loved is that Photomatix Pro 6 is quite quick. Even if you are using RAW input, it would show you the best results in no time. Once the HDR Rendering is done, you can access the variety of presets and basic editing options on either side. It does not take much time to show the effects either. Just like we saw in Aurora HDR 2018, Photomatix Pro 6 has different viewing options too.
The UI of Photomatix Pro 6 is made for casual users and there was no high expectation. While it would not disappoint you, we would not call it professional. There are glitches when it comes to managing different set of presets and editing options. We really think the developers should improve the UI, at least by a bit. Keep that apart, Photomatix Pro 6 is wonderful to use.
Photomatix Pro 6 too is priced at $99. This never-expiring license also gives you access to some plug-ins. It’s available for Windows and Mac. Altogether, you should give it a try if you are a casual photographer who is interested in HDR processing software.
Contender #1 — EasyHDR
EasyHDR is another HDR processing software that is used by many people out there. After using it for quite some time, we found the judgement to be complicated. There are areas that EasyHDR excels, but speed or performance isn’t one of them. You will have to literally wait for seconds to simply load or do the processing, which is not the case with abovementioned ones.
Of course, the UI looks professional, but kind of old professional. It sure doesn’t look modern, thanks to the old icons and the overall arrangement. That having said, you can count on the better integrations though. In addition to that, EasyHDR offers more than a standard set of editing options. You will be able to make some worthwhile changes to the output file at the end of the day.
Although EasyHDR comes with superb customization options and RAW support, we would not vouch for its speed or usability. We really wish if it had a better user interface, especially when considering the rich set of features inside. If you think you can handle compromise and speed for some extra editing features, you must check out EasyHDR.
EasyHDR is priced at $39 and $65 for the Home and Commercial versions. Both versions are available for PC and Mac.
Contender #2 — HDR Darkroom
HDR Darkroom is another effective choice if you are a casual photography professional. Let’s start from the User Interface: it’s not really great, but it gets the job done. Set up within a small screen, HDR Darkroom lets you make certain edits and compare them with ease. Thanks to the intuitive sidebar, you have quick access to the presets as well.
When you select an HDR style from the sidebar, you also get an option to customize it. Well, editing is also a strong hand of HDR Darkroom. You can change the basic stuff like exposure and do color correction, but advanced options aren’t available. That having said, it would have been great if HDR Darkroom had a better collection of presets and styles.
While the performance isn’t best, HDR Darkroom won’t let you down. Thankfully, it has a minimal footprint as well. Even with that, HDR Darkroom can manage RAW files and do conversion. These things are the same when you are using bracketed images for HDR processing. You should check this out if you are okay with a lower number of presets and control.
HDR Darkroom is priced at $89 for both Windows and Mac versions. However, it does not offer a bundle — which would have been awesome.
Contender #3 — HDR Expose 3
Do you know why HDR Expose 3 at the top position? It’s so old-school. Pinnacle Imaging Systems has done a good job in implementing a professional structure. For instance, you can create a library folder, which can make imports easier. But the rudimentary UI makes everything so boring. And, we thought the Presets will be something complementary, and we were wrong.
There are only a very few presets available in HDR Expose 3 by default. However, you can always go ahead and create one on your own. Compared to many of the contenders, however, HDR Expose 3 offers a better set of editing options. You can make a lot of changes to the final image, even after the HDR processing has been done.
Performance of HDR Expose 3 is quite satisfactory, if not the fastest. You should check out HDR Expose 3 if you are looking for better control and additional options in editing. That having said, we do not recommend it for quick actions or the usability factor. By the way, it should be noted that HDR Expose 3 one of the best tone-mapping algorithms we’ve seen.
HDR Expose 3 is available for Mac and it costs a whopping $119.
Contender #4 — Luminance HDR
If you are looking for an open-source HDR processing software, Luminance HDR is the best deal out there. It is completely free to use. However, we would not recommend this one for professionals — for many reasons. First of all, Luminance HDR is quite sluggish and you will have to wait a lot of time, especially if you are using RAW files.
There are only 10+ presets available in Luminance HDR, which is a downside. Even when it comes to manual editing, the options are quite limited. In fact, the UI seems to not allow anything other than the current set of options. The best you can do is to import an image — or a set of images — and bring the basic processing into them.
Luminance HDR would have been an awesome choice if it was offering better presets or an option for manual editing. Still, if you are not looking for advanced edits but just the HDR effect for the sake of it, Luminance HDR may make sense. Also, you should consider the fact that you are not paying anything here. All thanks to the open-source people.
Luminance HDR is completely free and is available for Windows, macOS and Linux.
The Bottom Line
After spending hours in testing all these programs, we’d like to reassure our judgement. Aurora HDR 2018 is indeed the best HDR processing software, for both Mac and Windows. It does a great job in blending a cool User Interface and tons of awesome features. And, compared to the features you get, the price is incredibly reasonable too.
Aurora HDR 2018 DISCOUNT CODE: Get a discount if you decide that Aurora HDR is the best HDR editing software for you. Use the code: THESWEETBITS and receive $10 off your purchase!