HDR Tutorial for Mac

Step 1: Get your box of 64 Crayons ready!

First of all, let me congratulate you on having a Mac. You are truly enlightened, unlike those Windows freaks over there. Ever notice how grumpy they get? I think it’s because they don’t use Macs. ANYWAY, welcome to the new HDR Tutorial for Macs!

You’ll need Aurora HDR Pro or 2017

Aurora HDR 2017 software was developed by Macphun in a partnership with me. Basically, I helped them design and build this over the last several years and now it’s in its latest and most awesome iteration! It’s absolutely unbelievable and really fun. I have a little video below that shows it in action. This program is all you need, and there is no need for Lightroom or Photoshop or anything.

Order Aurora HDR 2017 Now!

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You might like my Aurora HDR 2017 Video Tutorial (Optional)

This text tutorial is totally free, but if you’d like a whole series of lessons about all kinds of HDR and other tricks, I have a massive video tutorial covering Aurora HDR 2017. It’s really good because across 11 lessons you can watch me use Aurora HDR 2017 in many different ways. Actually, it’s one of the best video tutorials I’ve ever made… you’ll have a great time in there!

It’s also part of the Stuck in Customs Passport where for less than a couple of cups of coffee you can get all my tutorials and help a great charity.


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What Photo Are We Working On Today?

Let’s work on this photo that I nabbed in Venice. It’s a good example because these were three handheld shots and the gondola guy was moving around quite a bit as those Italians want to do.

Before Shot, right out of the camera

Here’s the before shot… or, well, since it was three photos, this is the middle exposure.

After Shot

This literally took me less than three minutes to make. The first time for you, it might take around 10 minutes or so before you get familiar with the tools. Then, in no time, you’ll be editing photos in less than five minutes and be amazed at the results!

And here’s the after shot. This is probably the biggest screenshot I’ve ever done to try to get all those controls in! Don’t worry… you don’t have to know them all. This tutorial will give you the most important ones to play with!

Step 2: Buy a camera, but be sneaky, so your spouse does not know

Or you can just tell your spouse about it. You never know how these things will go — it’s a wildcard.

The vast majority of cameras sold today can make these kinds of photos. To make an HDR image, get a camera that fits any of the following:

  • Take multiple photos in something called “Auto-bracketing mode” or “Auto-exposure mode” or “Exposure Bracketing” — they are all the same thing.
  • Allows you to shoot in Aperture and adjust the exposure to +1 or +2 for example. If this is confusing to you, no worries, we will get to this.
  • Shoot a single RAW photo. Yes, you can make a beautiful HDR image out of a single RAW! Even a single JPG using Aurora HDR 2017!

See my camera recommendations page for more info. I rank them as Good, Better, Best, so you’ll be able to find something that fits your budget!

Even though you can make a good HDR photo from a single RAW, I often prefer to use Autobracketing. Autobracketing allows your camera to take multiple photos (say three) in rapid sequence. Each one of those photos will be at a different shutter speed. If you are poking around your camera now, just look for the letters “BKT” for Bracket (which, confusingly, may not be there on your model… don’t panic), and then maybe you can see how you can set it for three exposures at -2, 0, and +2. But more on this soon.

What camera do I use? I started with an entry-level camera, and have progressed over time. It really doesn’t matter because nowadays all new cameras are awesome! Currently, I’m using a Sony A7r Mark 2. You can see my Sony A7r Review here on the site. It’s really overkill, but that’s okay sometimes! Somehow I can justify spending a lot of money for only minor improvements in the shots. Come to think of it, I justify quite a bit of my questionable behavior.

I also use a tripod for low light shots like sunsets and night. Tripods are actually quite fun even though they might look kinda scary if you’re new to them. I don’t use a tripod in the daytime, however. I hate to keep pointing you to the Reviews section, but I don’t want to clutter up this tutorial too much! You can find out more about my tripod there.

Step 3 – See the world in HDR

The more you do this, the more you will begin to appreciate all the light that flies around you.

Experience the scene fully!

The human eye can see about 11 “stops” of light. A stop is a measurable amount of light. The camera can see about three stops, or sometimes a bit more if it is a good sensor that can produce a good RAW file. Anyway, the point is that the camera currently cannot see everything the human retina can experience. So, to get around that, we need to use the camera to sweep through all the available light that the retina can see. Then, we’ll use software to bring it all together. Make sense?

I think the more you do this, the more you’ll be in a situation, and you’ll think – wow – this would make an amazing HDR! This is a great feeling! And even better, you’ll be able to do it.

And maybe you do see the world the way I do. Rich, vibrant, romantic — like a movie! Look, not everyone sees it like we do. I know this for sure. Some people literally see the world differently, but not you and I. We see the world in terms of color, light, and saturation. And our memory may even make some of these more intense and cinematic. That’s why this style of photography really appeals to me.

Here’s a few of my favorite HDR photos I’ve taken from through the years

Poking The Front Of Your Face Through The Veil

The Mist From The Tree Tops Fell On Me From Above And Behind

Trey Ratcliff - London Splash - City HDR (Final)

Moonrise Kingdom

Reflections on the Eiffel Tower Isn't it romantic?  What could be more perfect than a beautiful sunset here in Paris?There was a big storm all day long, but I could see the clouds were beginning to break up a little to the west, and I knew there was a possibility the sun would dip into an opening beneath the heavy clouds.  So, with that intense possibility, I headed over to the Eiffel Tower area hoping the light would turn out right...I also made a behind-the-scenes video.  Since you guys have been so nice over on Google+, I'll share that video exclusively there first, so be sure to stay tuned... I'm still editing the thing together!- Trey RatcliffRead more here at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Road Trip New Zealand!

Inception Reflection New York

from Trey Ratcliff at http://www.StuckInCustoms.com

My Last Night In Venice

walking alone and being somewhat lost on which way

The Secret Workshop Of Jules Verne

Trey Ratcliff - Yachts in Dubai - More Masking

Hobbiton in the Morning

A Neo-Rockwellian Christmas When dad is a photographer, then there is a major degree of pressure to deliver photos on all the requisite holidays and celebrations! So, I decided to try to re-invent the family Christmas photo with HDR. Please note that many of my inventions go down in flames, but, as Winston Churchill said, “success is the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm”.Christmas scenes have a lot of light levels. The lights on the tree, the deep greens withn the branches, a roaring fire, lights in the room, reflections off the ornaments, and the like. It’s wild! I’m pretty sure this is why people like Christmas scenes so much - a wonderful treat for the eyes that is rich in texture and rich in light. Traditionally, it’s been very difficult to capture so much richness in a single photo, saving a lucky and heroic combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and lenses.The tree lights made the faces of my three stunt-children (who are also my real children) glow perfectly. No flash could have achieved this, unless you are the kind of Rambo-flash guy that would go bury one inside the tree to hit their faces from the left. But, let’s face it. That’s hard.This was a 5-exposure HDR. You will notice that I often use 5 exposures, but note I could have done it with 3 exposures at -2, 0, and +2. Some silly Nikon cameras, like the D3X I use, will not let you step by twos, so I had to take 5 at -2, -1, 0, +1, and +2. The middle exposure, from which the kid’s faces were masked in and perfectly lit, was shot at f/4 aperture, shutter speed of 1/250, 100 ISO, and at 28mm.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

the wet red came from beyond the trees

Hong Kong from the Peak on a Summer's Night If you want to see how I made this (and how you can too!), visit my HDR Tutorial. I hope it gives you some new tricks!I had a long day waking up at 5 AM to take a series of subways and trains up to Shenzen for some meetings. I had a Chinese VISA, which you don't need to get into Hong Kong, but I had to use to cross the official Chinese border after getting off the train. I didn't realize that it was a one-time use VISA, and I had to go to Shanghai the next day. This caused a lot of problems with the Chinese officials, a body of government with which I do not enjoy causing problems.Anyway, after I got back to Hong Kong after a day in Shenzen, I was hot and sweaty and in the sort of meeting clothes that aren't great for being hot and sweaty in. But, everything about Hong Kong was still awesome and I had too look hard for things to complain about. The sun was setting, and I made it up to The Peak just in time for a shot.This was a 5-exposure HDR shot at 100 ISO, and, of course, a sturdy tripod to get all the lights as steady as possible.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Lijiang at Night

Step 4 – Take the photos (or use the free included photos)

Put your camera into Aperture Priority mode and turn on Autobracketing. Set up your autobracketing to take three photos at -2, 0, and +2. Some cameras can do more, some less. Do what you can with your camera. For example, a Nikon D800 can take 9 photos, stepping by 1, so I could do -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3, +4. But that is crazy. I so rarely do that. 95% of the time, I take three photos at -2, 0, and +2. I’m just letting you know that most cameras are different and don’t fret if yours does it differently.

Other best practices:

  • Be sure you are shooting in RAW instead of JPG. This will give you more flexibility and range in your shooting.
  • If you happen to be shooting into the sun, you may want to take a “-3” shot as well because it will be so bright.
  • If in low light, use a tripod, so you have a more steady shot. No tripod? Don’t worry. Aurora HDR can auto-align them.
  • If you are on a tripod, set your ISO as low as it will go. This will help you get rid of noise.

Don’t Have Photos ready? Use mine!

Aurora HDR Pro comes with three of my sample images that you can load on the first screen when you open up the program – genius!

Step 5 – Load the Photos into Aurora HDR

This is where it gets fun. We’re gonna get all crunk up in here. Okay, that sounded stupid, and I immediately regret it.

There are many ways to load the images into Aurora HDR 2017. The simplest is just to launch Aurora HDR 2017 and then click the Load Images button then go find em! You can also drag them onto the Aurora HDR icon from Lightroom if you wish.

After that, you have three choices to make.

You don’t have to load in three images; you can load in however many you like – even just one!

What do these options mean?

  • If your shots were not well aligned, go ahead and click this one. You may want to anyway — sometimes I find that my three tripod shots are a little off!
  • If there was movement between the frames, check “Ghosts Reduction.”
  • “Chromatic Aberration Reduction” is one of these classically geeky Photo-nerd words that is referring to the purple and green fringing you sometimes get on the sharp edges. Click it if you wanna… we’ll just play fast and loose with that one.

If you’re using the sample images that are included with Aurora HDR 2017, there’s no need to check any of the boxes.

Click Create HDR and your computer will churn away, doing magical and mysterious things. And then you will see… this!

How beautiful is this software? I love the elegant design…

Let’s go through what you see above. On the right are a bunch of sliders that change the way the photo works. The sliders are grouped into different boxes that relate to a certain area of function. Don’t be intimidated by all the sliders… it just means you have A LOT OF POWAH! You don’t have to know how to use every slider at all. But, over time, you can start experimenting more and more. For example, you may wish to add some sort of “Fairy Tale Glow” to your image and then begin playing with those sliders!

Be like a child and PLAY! It’s totally fun and you’re not gonna break anything!

Every photo is unique, and you’ll never get the same results between different kinds of photos. Sunsets, middle of the day, interiors, etc. It’s wild! So just because the sliders look great on one photo does not mean they’ll work well for another one.

Step 6 – Start playing with the Presets!

If you look down in the lower right, you’ll see a blue Presets button. This will open and close the presets drawer. Just go ahead and start clicking around on the different thumbnails and see what happens! Just like I mentioned above, some presets may look great on one photo but terrible on another. You neva know. But I find this is always the first thing I do… I click around a bunch of different presets to get ideas. You’ll notice as you click around on different presets that the sliders will move and jump around to different places. This can also be a great way to experiment and get to know the sliders a little better. If you happen to see a version you like, go ahead and save/export the photo! Click that little “Share” icon up on top to share your new creation! 🙂

Step 7 – Start playing with the sliders and tools!

I’ll go through some of my favorite tools and sliders here. Remember if you watch the Complete HDR Video Tutorial, you’ll see me use each and every one of them in a ton of different situations.

The Structure Tool

Yes, this is the third one down, but it’s the most powerful for that HDR Look!

With Great Power Comes Great Sliders.

The Tone Mapping Tool

You may notice this is closed by default. That’s because you don’t really need to open it, but you’re welcome to. I won’t go into all the details other than to say that if you move those sliders around into different spots, it will generally change the way the light splashes around the scene. Probably the most powerful is the Spectrum slider that helps bring more light into the scene, and vice-versa.

Here’s another little tip. If you’re getting the dreaded “Halo” then move that Spot Lighting to the left.

The Tone Tool

There’s a lot of power in here. These contain the sort of slider with which you may know from Lightroom. Actually, it’s all here and that’s why you don’t need Lightroom! These are all pretty self-explanatory except for Smart Tone. Smart Tone helps you to smartly brighten or darken the photo. It’s sort of a combination of all the six sliders beneath it.

Usually the only thing I do here is move up the Smart Tone a little then amp the Contrast.

The HDR Denoise Tool

This tool is EPIC! If you’re used to HDR, then you may know it can cause a bit of extra noise, especially in the sky. This is a great tool for this… be sure to use Amount in combination with Smooth to ease up those spots. Also you MAY just want to do the HDR Denoise tool in the sky area by brushing it into a Layer. More on Layers in a future step!

This just might be my favorite feature. I used to get quite a bit of noise when making HDRs and I’d have to go use another tool to fix that.

The Image Radiance Tool

Time to get on your unicorn glow! You know how many of my images have sort of a fairy-tale glow to them? Well I absolutely HAD to get this tool in here. When you play with it, you’ll immediately see how everything gets a really nice blended overlay glow that makes your photo breathe with life. Use the Amount slider in combination with Smoothness to get this effect.

I tried to talk Macphun into calling this “Fairy Tale Glow” but that was too much fairy for them to swallow.

The Glow Tool

Similar to the Image Radiance tool, this adds another layer of glow to your image. I typically only use this for night time situations when it makes things like street lights and car lights glow like you’re playing Grand Theft Auto!

A fun tool, but only use it at night or in supa-dark sitches.

The Top & Bottom Lighting Tool

This one is radical and a must-have in a professional level editing program. I OFTEN found that with other HDR programs that the top may need more or less “HDRness” than the bottom half. Or sometimes vice-versa. This allows you to adjust the tonality of the top and bottom independently!

This is one of the first things I asked Macphun to add to the software! I love it! 🙂

The Other Tools

You may notice along that long screenshot up above there’s a LOT of other tools I haven’t even mentioned! I’ll go over all of those in the full-on tutorial. Each one of them is kind of a special-case scenario for different kinds of photos.

Step 8 – Use layers and brushes to do different things in different parts of the photo!

This is where we really take a dramatic turn. Editing DRAMA!

Okay get this, here’s the idea. Notice how the sliders above affect the entire image? Well, they don’t have to! If you just want the buildings to be super detailed but not the sky, you can! And this is where layers come in.

Removing the noise from the sky using Layers

Let’s try out one of my most common uses of layers, to get all the noise out of places you don’t want it. Our photo here does not have a sky, but let’s say we want smooth, noiseless water. Sometimes when you start messing around with a lot of controls, the sky can start to rip and look all wonky. Let’s smooth it out.

Step 1: Click on the Blue + up by the Layers dialog.

It’s a good idea to name your layers, lest you get confused if you add a bunch. Not that you have to add a bunch…

Step 2: You may want to zoom into 200% so you can see the noise clearly then get all happy when it goes away! Go down to the HDR Denoise toolbox. Move those sliders over to the right until you see the noise disappear. It’s so smooth isn’t it! Smoother than an Instagram Asian.

Step 3: (Bonus Step!) There’s one more tricky way to really get rid of noise and smooth things out. Under the Structure Toolbox, you’ll see a slider under HDR Look called Amount. It starts out in the middle. Slide it to the left and you’ll really see some smoothin’ goin on!

Step 4: Look up at the top of the screen and you’ll see a paintbrush icon. Click that. You can then adjust the size of the brush with the left and right bracket keys ( [ ] ). That was weird to put brackets inside of parenthesis (but you get the idea].

Masking is confusing to some people I’ve discovered. Heck, it used to confuse me! Be sure to watch some of my videos if you wanna see it in action!

Step 5: Start “Painting” on the parts of the photo you want to smooth out. You’ll notice that all the other smoothing you did will “Magically Disappear” and you’re now Only Painting In Smoothness. Get it? GET IT? Yeah… once you figure that out, you’re good as gold. By the way, each time you paint, you’ll only be painting at 50%. So you can paint over a few times to make it even smoother if you want. There are some brush controls up there on the top of the screen as well. For me though, the default brush is pretty perfect.

And guess what? You can keep adding more and more layers to do different things to different parts of the photo. For example, one thing I often like to do is add some Extreme HDR Detail inside the Structure Toolbox, but then maybe only paint it over a building or some rocks where I want that detail.

Step 9: Realize you just did that!

You rocked it… Sweet! You should export that picture as a JPG and share it with all your friends on the internet to show them what you did! Oh, and use #AuroraHDR when ya do to join in the community. And if you feel extra-nice, send them all over here so they can learn how too. Anyway, I’m SURE you had a good time… just keep it up. This is just the beginning! 🙂

A Little Reminder – see the whole process on video!

And don’t forget to check out the Full HDR Video Tutorial for Aurora in our store!

  • Carl Brauer


    Will there be a Lightroom plug-in? Most of us still use Lightroom as a DAM. And does Aurora HDR Pro have a raw processor?

  • Looks great! I have two questions though,

    1) As Carl asked previously, will there be an export from Lightroom plug-in? Even if its just a way to launch the app and passing the selected photos?

    2) Does the software offer the ability to save and come back later to re-edit? Software with this many sliders and settings it seems like it would be very useful to re-visit and edit and make a few changes in the future.

  • Olympus1974

    Is Aurora HDR based on OS X Core Image?
    Does it use the OS X raw converter?
    What are the export options?

  • Hey @Olympus1974:disqus thx for the questions…

    I don’t know what OS X Core Image means but one of the engineer Dima does! I’ll point him thisaway ! 🙂

    As for export – you can go right to any social network or JPG, PSD, OpenEXR, PNG, JPG-2000, TIFF, PSD, or PDF

  • 1) Yes, you can export from LR fo sho!

    2) Yes, you can save half-way! 🙂

  • Yes! 🙂

  • Toshi Furukawa

    Sometimes I wish to make a HDR image from 1 image. Is that possible? I could not make it using Photoshop Pro.

  • Jake

    Please explain in more detail the workflow when using Lightroom and what files get saved. Specifically, after starting the Aurora HDR Pro plugin from Lightroom/Photoshop, does Aurora same a new file or are the adjustments saved within the RAW/DNG file?

  • Yes you can for sure 🙂

  • It works as an LR Plugin… when you are done, you can take back into LR as well as a new file

  • shawn

    Can you process several photos at one time if you didn’t use a bracketing to take them? I have single shots I want to process in HDR Look 1 (Basic) instead of doing each one individually.

  • No batch processing as of yet.

  • I’d love to see this feature added. I have been using Nik for years but would love to have an app that could batch and cut down my processing time for interiors/real-estate work. There are several options for PC but none for mac, that I have found yet.

  • Glad to hear that it can be saved halfway, I’ll have to dig in and play more to see how it works. So far, I like it, a lot.

  • Jayne

    Can you use this program in the new iPad Pro

  • Oh ! what a nice tutorials nice tutorials . I’m very inspiration to see this.

  • Kate Rose

    Can this be used as a plug in for Photoshop? I’ve been using Adobe Bridge for all my pre-processing before opening in Photoshop for the final tweaks. Have never used Lightroom.

  • Hi Kate,

    Yes, it has Photoshop plugin capability.

  • Gordon Bell

    I assume i can load the software on to more than one computer ( note book and desk top) without purchasing the software twice- Thanks GB

  • You bet, of course! 🙂

  • Hi Gordon,

    You can use the software on up to five of your own machines with a single purchase.

  • Gordon Bell

    Thanks Luke and Tray, will purchase this weekend GB

  • daniel_c05

    Hey @treyratcliff:disqus , what’s the difference between Aurora HDR Pro ( on your store – $99 ) and the Aurora HDR app on the Mac App Store ( $39 )?

  • Bymy Lefteye

    Hi Daniel,
    The main (and possibly only) difference is that you can not open .RAW files with the standard Aurora HDR app from the itunes store.
    There are a few comments on the itunes site from people who did not read this properly.
    Hope this has helped.

  • John Bauder

    I just downloaded the entire Macphun Suite *and* Aurora HDR. I’ve been a longtime Photomatix user; however, Aurora HDR allows for so much more to be done within the app itself. This is amazing and love showing this suite of apps off to whomever wants to see it. Thank you for helping to bring a whole new level of (easier) creativity!

  • George

    Hi Trey I have Aurora 1.0.1. I looked and I cannot find THE TONE MAPPING TOOL. Can you tell me where it is?
    Thanks, George

  • Stu – SIC
  • Rink Reinking

    To be of _ANY_ value at all, comparison shots should be adjancent!

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