I’m having so much fun playing with HDR again!
I feel like a whole world has re-opened. I used to enjoy HDR many years ago, but I have always wanted my final images to have a natural look. Achieving that look was challenging with the software that was available to combine exposures and time consuming to do it by hand in Photoshop.
So when camera sensors started getting better and able to handle a higher dynamic range of light, I found that I was able to achieve the look I wanted using a single exposure along with the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom.
And when the scene had such a huge dynamic range (meaning that the sky was super bright and the foreground was in deep shadow) that even the new sensors couldn’t handle it in one exposure, making HDR a necessity, I found the results weren’t very natural using the software I was using (which was Photomatix). So I pretty much stopped doing it.
The reason why it’s come back to life for me is Aurora HDR. The adjustment sliders in Aurora are much more useful and realistic than any other software I’ve used.
But that’s only part of the story.
It’s the combination of the adjustment sliders with layers and layer masks that makes Aurora so powerful. Not only do I get the natural look that I want, but I can apply the adjustments selectively to different parts of the image. All within Aurora! I don’t have to go back and forth between Aurora and Photoshop to make it happen.
But first, for those of you who are not that familiar with layers and layer masks, let’s review how they work. (If you’re already an expert at layers and masks, feel free to scroll down to the part where I’m talking about Aurora again.)
What are layers?
Layers are like sheets of paper stacked on top of each other. The bottom layer has your original image. You can make a copy of that layer, stack it on top, and then apply a filter to it. This way, your editing is non-destructive because you have your original layer underneath. So if you decide you don’t like the adjustment you made, you haven’t ruined the original. You can just delete the top layer and start over.
There are lots of different ways to use layers. You can use an empty layer to apply healing and cloning adjustments, you can use adjustment layers to add adjustments like contrast to the layer below, and you can make a copy of your image to put on a new layer for adding effects. You can also use layers to combine two totally different images together.
What are layer masks?
Think of the Phantom of the Opera. He has a white mask that covers half his face. Imagine the mask sitting on a black cloth like this:
So where you see white is where the mask shows. Where you see black is where you could see through to the face below, right?
Layer masks work just like that. When you add a layer mask to a layer, you can paint white and black on the mask to define where you want the effects on that layer to show. Where it is white, you see the current layer. Where it is black, you see through to the layer below.
Let’s say you made a copy of your image on a new layer and applied a painterly effect to it. That effect is on the whole frame. If you add a layer mask, you could make it so that the effect is only on part of the image. You do this by painting black where you don’t want the effect (and you would see through the image below).
This can be a difficult concept to understand, so if you’re a little confused you’re not alone! I think if you watch me doing it in the video below it will all become clear.
How is it different in Aurora HDR?
Prior to Aurora, if you wanted to use layers to apply adjustments selectively to an HDR image, you had to use Photoshop.
So say I wanted to use some adjustments in Photomatix, but I wanted to apply one to the sky and a different one to the foreground. Well, I would have to make the HDR, then in Photomatix apply the filter I want for the sky to the whole image. Then take it into Photoshop and use a layer mask to mask it out on the foreground. Then I would have to make the HDR again, repeating the first step (which takes the longest time so you sit there tapping your fingers while you wait for this to happen again) and then apply the filter for the foreground to the entire image in Photomatix, export it and take that one into Photoshop to use the layer mask again. You can see how this would be annoying and time consuming hopping between the two programs.
Now, in Aurora HDR, this process is totally streamlined so you can do it all using only Aurora. It’s quick and easy AND you get to use adjustment filters that look great.
If you haven’t tried this technique out yet, I highly recommend that you pick up a trial version of Aurora HDR and see how easy and fun it is.
Watch how I use layers and layer masks in Aurora HDR to apply different adjustments to different parts of my image. If the screen below isn’t large enough, click here to view it larger on YouTube.
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Here’s how the final image turned out:
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