FREE HDR Tutorial (MAC)

This a free written tutorial, so if you enjoy it then send your friends over to my site so they too can learn HDR. Would be a great way to say thank you. This tutorial is for the Apple fans and MAC users out there. It’s a special feeling to own a MAC and we should celebrate that by making some cool HDR images, right? J


We will be using Aurora HDR Pro, which offers the most advanced HDR software UI combined with the most tools and features built into one piece of software. The beauty of Aurora is that no matter what your skill level you can achieve stunning HDR results to be proud of.


Aurora HDR Pro is currently a MAC only product. All those Windows users must be so jealous that you can use Aurora HDR Pro and they can’t. But! Macphun is busy making the windows version of Aurora HDR Pro, so I suggest you jump on in and experience it before all the Windows users join the party.


What you will learn in this MAC HDR tutorial:


  • What is the best HDR software for Windows MAC
  • See my Aurora HDR Masters Page
  • What cameras can shoot HDR brackets and what camera features are you looking for to shoot HDR
  • How to shoot HDR brackets of images on your camera
  • Download 2 sets of my own personal RAW images to use in Aurora
  • How to load up photos into Aurora HDR
  • Selecting which features to use when creating HDR images in Aurora
  • Learning how to use Aurora HDR Presets
  • Learn about Aurora Filters and how they work
  • Masking, what is it? And how to create masks in Aurora
  • What else can Aurora do?
  • What other software works well with Aurora?


HDR Software to DownloadAurora HDR 2018 

There are plenty of HDR programs on the market but the #1 has to be Aurora for the power, value for money, amazing presets, tools and the fact that it has something in it for beginners all the way up to the Pros.

  • Get a 15% discount on Aurora HDR 2019 with the code “LukeZeme”. Offer valid only to my subscribers and followers.


Aurora HDR 2018 is both a standalone and plugin software which means you can just use it by itself or you can use it within the main photo editing apps like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom if you like to tinker. Adobe Lightroom is also still a great way to scroll through your library of images and select the ones you want to develop into HDR images using Aurora. This year Skylum’s other photography app Luminar will implement their library module and I’d say that will be new way to surf through my images to select to use in Aurora.

You can get a trial!

You don’t have to purchase Aurora straight away, in fact you can try before you buy with a 1-month FREE trial without any restrictions and no strings attached. If you decide you want to purchase the software later remember to use my discount code lukezeme to get 15% off. This is great because it means you can download this professional HDR software and follow along with this tutorial, I also supply full sized photos that you can edit if you don’t have your own. Read on for those links.

Optional Software & AURORA HDR PRESETS, Highly Recommended!

-Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom

These are important parts of the finishing touches and allow you to use tools to help finalize your magical HDR image. The best way to get these 2 programs is to subscribe to the Photography plan on Adobe’s Creative Cloud. The Photography plan only supplies you with the photography apps and leaves out the rest that we don’t need. They also throw in Adobe Lightroom Mobile which allows you to edit photos on your smartphones and tablets.


Once you have a copy of Aurora you can also get these amazing preset packs from Trey Ratcliff. At this stage they only work with the MAC version of Aurora. Trey is easily the most famous HDR photographer in the world and his products are always truly inspiring, which means I have no problems recommending these. The 2 packs offer presets for a variety of situations and styles, so it’s worth getting them both

Trey has also passed on a discount to my subscribers of 10% off all his products if you use the code “LukeZemePhotography”.


Trey has this to say on his presets-


I’ll be honest. Every set of photos is different and some of these presets will make your photo look amazing, and others like complete garbage. There, I said it. But listen, I’m an expert in this stuff, and you just can’t have a preset that works perfectly in Daytime + Night-time + Indoor/Outdoor + cute pet. So, some will look amazing, others not so much. But don’t give up, next time you get the inverted results!”


I Myself Am a Master of Aurora HDR!

It was a very humbling experience when the VP of Macphun Software, Kevin La rue, invited me to be one of their official Aurora HDR Masters. Kevin is such a warm and wonderful person and it was a pleasure to work with the release of Aurora. I spent months getting to know the software and edited a lot of images using the software. I then selected my best Aurora images and was given a page on the Aurora site to display them, along with the other 7 Aurora Masters from around the world.

Here’s my Masters page and some of the amazing images I created with Aurora HDR Pro!


These images are from all over the world! Asia, Europe, Australia and the Persian Gulf. I will show you how to create images like this and in no time you will be sharing this kind of magic with your friends and family.


So you may already own a camera and that’s great! Nearly all the cameras released today have the features needed to create amazing HDR images (see features needed list below). I’ve been creating HDR images for well over 6 years now and I have been using mirrorless cameras since the release of the Sony A7R.


See my camera recommendations at the link below. As you will see I am very much in to mirrorless cameras and I list them in order of price. So if you have a high budget go the number one camera, it’s the best on the market and offers incredible resolution! If you are on a budget, then I have some great recommendations for you too! I’ve made HDR images from all types of cameras and you can too.





The camera features that you’re looking for to create HDR images in order of best to good are:


  • Auto-bracketing” or “Exposure Bracketing” or “Auto-exposure Bracketing”. Auto-bracketing allows you to push your shutter button once and the camera will shoot a series (a bracket!) of images for you, it’s fantastic!


  • A camera that can change the shooting mode to Aperture Priority as well as adjust the Exposure Value (EV) for a shot. An EV range of +2 to -2 is ok. One of +3 to -3 is excellent and a camera with an EV range of -5 to +5EV is amazing!


  • The final camera feature that can be used to make an HDR image is a RAW photo. HDR software and cameras are so advanced these days that it is possible to pull out the data from a single RAW file for a HDR photo. But this is a last resort, it’s better to shoot a bracket of images using the above methods.


So to sum this up! Try to find a camera that can shoot in aperture priority mode or allows you to adjust the EV value manually. If it’s got the ability to shoot in “Auto-bracket” mode, then this is even better!


Check out the cameras I have suggested on my page as I show which ones are the best and why. A camera like the Sony a5100 is great because it’s so light and small and can fit in your handbag/pocket! Then your more pro options like the Sony A7rii are slightly larger and will probably need a dedicated camera bag, but will produce stunning image quality! Personally I have shot with Sony A7r, since its release date. I also use the Sony RX 100 mk 3, (sony RX 100 mk v available now) and Sony a5100. As you can see I love the Sony mirrorless cameras.


*A tripod is a needed accessory when it comes to HDR Photography because when we shoot a bracket of images we need them to all be taken from the exact same position and vantage point.


A tripod is a needed accessory when it comes to HDR Photography because when we shoot a bracket of images we need them to all be taken from the exact same position and vantage point.


I’ve been creating HDR images for about 7 years now and I know from experience that you too can pick up the techniques to create your own HDR images in no time! If you are passionate about HDR and photography than you can do it too!


As you create more and more HDR images in Aurora you will begin to develop a 6th sense for what works and what doesn’t.


A camera is a machine, like a TV or a computer monitor, and if you notice they can never produce the same light quality in a single photo as what we see with our eyes. Take for example the times you’ve taken photographs only to be disappointed with how they turned out. The sky might have turned out completely white or the foreground was totally dark in shadow. Well, we can actually get around the limitations of cameras by combining a bracketed series of photos, that capture ALL of the available light, in HDR software. It’s really cool!


As an art school student of days gone by I spent many hours in the photography dark room labs, painting studios and art galleries. I think that’s why HDR images struck a chord with me so much. I found a way to share the world around me in a way that feels exactly like my memories.


As I mentioned earlier, its best to use a tripod to do this!


Always start by checking your camera is in Aperture Priority mode. This is the mode we use for all HDR images.


For those with Auto-bracketing:


You will want to turn Auto-bracketing on. This is done inside the settings and it differs for each camera. I have a tutorial here on how to setup Auto-bracketing for the Nikon D800. I suggest setting it to -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 and +3. With camera sensors becoming incredibly powerful you can get by in 90% of circumstances by shooting with -2, 0 and +2.  But if you want to cover all your bases shoot -3 to +3 as with the digital age you can easily store the files on a hard drive. It’s better to have them in your Photo vault then to wish you had taken them, trust me! You will also need to put the camera in Aperture Priority (A) mode. Next, see section below What Aperture to choose?



What if you don’t have Auto-bracketing?


If you don’t have Auto-bracketing but your camera allows you to change the EV value with a dial or in the Menu options, like the Sony A7R and a5100, then you can just shoot your bracket of images manually.


Start by putting your camera in Aperture Priority ( A ) mode. Next it’s as simple as turning your EV setting to 0 and taking your first photo. You should be using a shutter release cable so that you aren’t getting any vibration in the image, but if you don’t have one then use a delayed shutter of 2sec or 10sec. After your first shot you then turn it to EV +1 and take another photo. Then just repeat this process for all the values of -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 and +3. Next, see section below What Aperture to choose?


Extra Shooting info-


HDR brackets are shot in Aperture Priority mode and in this mode your camera allows you to adjust your Aperture and ISO. So what ISO and Aperture should you select? Read on for more info…

What Aperture should you choose?


When you are in Aperture priority mode, when you change the Aperture the camera’s super smart insides will automatically adjust the shutter speed for you like magic! If you want a fast shutter speed you should open up your aperture to the smallest numerical value e.g. f/2.8. But if you want a slow shutter speed, e.g. 30 seconds, then you should close up your aperture to its largest numerical value e.g. f/22. Slow shutter speeds are how photographers get all those milky ocean water shots and fast shutter speeds will allow you to freeze movement from say people walking on the street. The other thing to consider with Apertures is that a lens produces its sharpest images corner to corner in the middle of its aperture range, which is around f8 to f11, just something to remember.


What ISO to choose?


In Aperture priority mode you also have the ability to change the ISO and this also can have a BIG impact on the type of image you create. As we have just learnt, if you select an aperture your camera will automatically apply a shutter speed for you. Equally so, if you change your ISO then it will adjust your Shutter Speed to compensate for an even exposure! Cameras are amazing little devices.


You should always try to shoot as close to ISO 100 as possible, as a rule of thumb. But at night, a low light situation, we need to increase our ISO to allow the camera to see better in the dark. So you might increase your ISO up to 3200 or 5000 ISO. As you select different ISO’s watch the way it changes your Shutter speed and try to get it to fall within the type of image you want to achieve, e.g. slow or fast shutter speed.


Extra Extra info to think about:


  • Always shoot in RAW. A RAW file offers so much more depth when you process the images in Aurora, or any photography software in fact. You can use JPEG’s in Aurora but the results won’t be nearly as magical, just so you know.


  • Shooting after the rain in a city at night is one of the coolest times to shoot HDR images as light reflects off everything.


  • The ‘Magic hours’ zones are also amazing! Sunrise sunset and the blue hours all produce the most stunning HDR images when it comes to times of the day.


  • Try to get yourself a tripod, handheld shots can be lined up in Aurora but my rule of thumb is never shoot a handheld image slower than 1/60th of a second. So anything faster than this, e.g. 1/250 second, you can shoot handheld HDR brackets!


  • Always save your files to computer straight after a shoot as to not lose them. Make backups of your backups too! If you can, have a backup stored online. There are many cheap online storage options these days so shop around for prices. Personally I recommend Dropbox for online storage of photos. Check out Dropbox here!

Why use Aurora when Lightroom offers a HDR feature?

Answer: To get the look and style you want + Aurora is amazing!

Lightroom’s HDR Merge is pretty basic and gives you just one style, somewhere in the middle between realistic and artistic. Aurora offers you tonnes of sliders and features that let you get the exact result you desire. With Aurora, you can opt for natural-looking results with one of the many presets. As well as exploring a large range of creative styled presets from subtly enhanced, to painterly, surreal or hyper-realistic.

Download 2 sets of my RAW Photos to use in AURORA!

If you have purchased Aurora and want to have fun along with me editing the photos from this tutorial, then download my files at these links FREE!


Sydney Opera House Sunrise Bracket:


Link- Download My Sydney Opera House Sunrise Bracket here


My Sunrise photos of the Sydney Opera house are -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2EV and as you can see they capture all of the light of this amazing sunrise.

Tokyo Night Street Bracket:


Link- Download My Tokyo Bracket here


Tokyo is a lot of fun to shoot HDR brackets, especially at night! This bracket series is also -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2EV



***I am happy to share my own RAW Files with everyone to use, but I retain the copyright of them still. They’re for your own personal use to learn HDR at home and not for commercial use, thanks.


So you are finally going to make a professional HDR image! Exciting I know and you should be excited, it’s still fun for me years after my first time.


Loading Images Into Aurora:


There are a few ways to open the files in to Aurora HDR Pro. Obviously you will need to have installed the Aurora software, so I’ll assume you’ve done that. MAC apps are so easy to install compared to windows and that’s one of the perks of being a MAC user. Just drag and drop!




Loading Images Manually:


Simply open up the Aurora HDR PRO 2018 app. Then click on the BIG blue Open Image… button in the middle and Navigate to the multiple exposure Bracket you wish to load into Aurora. (see image below)


You can select a single image but your result will be a lot better if you use a bracket of images, which I explained in the previous section. I have supplied 2 sets of 5 image brackets for you to practice with.


Loading Images Through Lightroom:


Personally, I like to open my images into Aurora from Adobe Lightroom because when you finish editing the final result gets imported back into Lightroom and it’s a good way to keep track of your work.


  • Step 1- Import your photos into Lightroom.


  • Step 2- Then highlight the 5 photos in your film strip (See image below), right click > Export > Aurora HDR 2018 > Open Original Images.


*If you made adjustments in Lightroom first then select “Use .TIFF with Lightroom adjustments” and Aurora will keep all these changes, an awesome feature!


After your photos have loaded up you have a few decisions to make on how you want the software to treat your images. Here are the settings I selected! Rather than scare you with all the technical info of it all, for now you can copy mine J

*Reference Image – Select the one which has the composition you want to be in the photo or even exposure throughout image (usually it is EV 0).


I hope you are ready to enter Aurora as the fun and exciting world of HDR Photography is about to begin! Hit the big green Create HDR button down in the bottom right when you’ve contained your excitement.


Welcome to the eye Candy!


Aurora HDR Pro 2018 comes with a bunch of built in presets and you can download more preset packs from the PRO photographers. Selecting individual packs will allow you to scroll through all the presets in that pack or select the ALL button by clicking All Presets, highlighted in the graphic below, and you will be able to view all your presets at once.



This is where I want you guys to start to walk on your own 2 feet a little! Not too much, just a little…


You might like to select the category > All Presets. Start to click on different preset windows down the bottom in the film strip. With all of the preset packs installed that are supplied for free there are a total of 88 presets and these grow as Skylum releases more packs. The preset windows are actually in a long strip that offer up previews of how each one will look and you can slide it left and right to look through them using the scroll bar underneath. Try out different ones by clicking on them, don’t be afraid! They won’t make any permanent changes to your image as it’s non-destructive. You can click on one preset and then just click on another, easy!


Next, pick one you like! I know it’s hard because there are so many cool presets, but at this stage just pick one you like. In a way Aurora is able to ease its new users in as it works similarly to a common app we all know and love, Instagram! But, you’ve got a HDR image created from your DSLR or mirrorless camera which means it will have a lot more detail with stellar results compared to an iPhone/android photo with the Instagram filter “Mayfair” applied to it 😉


For new users if you like the result and are happy with it than that’s it! You can save result as a photo by just clicking the share icon at the top of the image. You can also save it in a common format like JPEG! So you can share the results with friends. The presets are that good that they need little adjustments to create stunning results and I know a lot of people new to HDR will find the results incredible already.


If you launched your images from Lightroom you will see a blue apply button and you just need to click that your result will be automatically saved back to lightroom in the folder you had your original source files in.


As you become more accustomed to Aurora you will want to learn more about it other than using the presets! Aurora HDR Pro 2018 is the most advanced HDR software on the market and we have only begun to scratch the surface of what it’s capable of doing.


Learning about the Tools:


Every preset in Aurora is made up of tools known as filters, which can be found on the right hand side in the Filters Panel. What’s great about the extensive set of presets supplied with your Aurora purchase is that you can learn how each preset is made up. This is actually more powerful than you realize because if you spend the time to study them it will increase your understanding of Aurora HDR exponentially.


Click on any preset so that it’s applied to your image. Now look over on the right hand side and you will see the “Filters” Panel (see image below to know what I am describing). Click on the white arrow next to each filter title (this will show up when you move your mouse over the title) and it will collapse that particular filter into a single neat line. Go down the list clicking all the white arrows and you are left with a complete list of all the filters. The below image just shows some of them as it was going to be too long of an image to put them all in this document.


Notice some title Text is in yellow and some white?


Well the yellow ones are the filters being used in this preset and the white ones are the filters not being used. This is a great way of learning how a preset is made up and once you become familiar with the filters you can add ones you like or feel would enhance the look you are trying to achieve. Say the preset doesn’t have a vignette and you would like to have one, well you can just scroll down the filter list to vignette and add one!


Now, click on an arrow on a yellow filter to open up its details. For example, I clicked on the arrow next to HDR Basic and this would open up all the sliders and settings used in this filter. You can play with all these sliders by the way, they aren’t set in stone! Everything is adjustable, go ahead! Move any of them around and see how each setting in that filter affects the overall image. This is when you start to realize the what’s possible with Aurora.


Next thing I want to teach you is that little eye ball icon next to the text in each Filter, you can see one next to the text HDR Basic in the panel above? Click on that eye ball. On the MAC version you need to hover your mouse over the particular tool bar you want to use and any eye ball icon will appear. Clicking the icon will remove that filter from being applied to the image, a bit like an on/off button. You can click the eye ball again to turn it back on, simple as that.


This is actually another really powerful learning point in your Aurora HDR development! You can now, in real time, see how each filter affects an image. AND you can see how the pro’s use a particular combination of filters to create their presets supplied for free with Aurora (eg. Trey Ratcliff and Serge Ramelli). I don’t think there is any better way to learn to use this software than learning from the PRO’s. It’s a bit like going to a famous restaurant only to be given the secret recipes!


Fun isn’t it! And the results are amazing!


Some good advice! Remember that not every preset is going to look great on all the images. Each preset is crafted in such a way that it’s going to create an instant dramatic look within certain light and tone parameters. So, download all the preset packs you can and don’t be afraid to scroll through and click through the presets like a look book. I might click on 50 different ones before deciding on my favorite.


Now that you know how to run, it’s time to learn to fly! Corny I know, but it’s true!


This section is for the brave souls out there wanting to learn even more advanced techniques in Aurora HDR Pro.


Masking: Have you heard of masking? Don’t worry if you haven’t, it’s a really easy process in Aurora. Masking is the process of revealing 1 layer beneath another layer! I’ll show you the basics of masking and then it will be up to you to let your creative juices flow on how you use it.


There are various reasons for wanting to mask in parts of a layer and mask other parts out from a layer. An example might be that a preset looks great in the buildings but looks terrible in the sky. So you can actually use masking to keep the buildings from the layer and leave the sky from that layer out.


The Process of Masking!


  • Step 1- It’s a good practice to leave an original layer on the bottom, so start from scratch by hitting the Reset All


  • Step 2- Next add a new layer by clicking the ( + ) icon


  • Step 3- Rename the Layer. Double click on the Text Layer 1 to bring up a text box. Left click on the new layer you created and label it something to help you remember what the layer is trying to achieve, like buildings or contrast.


    • Step 3 part B – Go down to the presets at the bottom of the interface and choose one which you like… this could take a while 😛


    • Step 4 – Click on the Brush ( B ) icon found on the layer that you are working (the layer you just renamed). *Layer 1.


    • Step 5 – Adjust the brush settings to the desired amount. Play around with the sliders to see how they affect the brush. The default settings are size 100, Softness 100% and Opacity 100%. You can play around with these to see how they affect the brush.


    • Step 6 – With your Brush selected start painting directly on to your image, this will mask in the top layer like painting with real paint! Except you are painting in the layer the applied a preset too onto the original untouched layer beneath.


    ***A tip for everyone is to notice in the very center of the brush tool is either a little plus sign ( + ) or minus sign ( – ). This indicates that you are either masking in or masking out that layer you are painting on. To switch between the two you will want to hit the brush buttons at the top left (paint) and (erase). For this tutorial, I started with a ( ) Erase so that I could remove the sky from this layer.


    • Step 7 – You can see your mask in red by hitting the key ( / ). Or you can use the mask dropdown menu marked on the above image and select show mask. This will bring you back to your childhood days where you were taught to colour in between the lines! Well, now you can colour in red! Use this mask to paint the edges of the mask and you can zoom in and out using the + and – feature to the top left of the UI.


    Step 8 – When you are finished masking that layer you can go back to step 2 and repeat the process with a new layer and mask. This can be repeated as many times as you like! Beginning with adding a new layer by going back to the big ( + ) icon in the Layers panel and then go and select another preset. Select your Brush ( B ) and you can begin masking in parts of another preset you like.



So you’ve mastered presets, tools, masking and brushes… What’s next?


Well you will be happy to know that Aurora still has a lot more depth to it! There are plenty more features and tools to discover including:


  • Gradient masks
  • Radial gradient masks
  • Layer opacity control
  • Create and Save your own Presets!
  • Blend modes
  • HDR Noise removal
  • Luminosity masks
  • Texture Layers
  • History Panel
  • New HDR Enhance tool
  • Lens Correction Tool
  • Transform tool
  • Image Flip
  • Image rotate
  • Dodge and Burn
  • Use source images in your layers
  • Save your image as JPEG, PNG. GIF, TIFF, JPEG 2000, PDF, Photoshop format as well as HDR formats.


See Aurora’s Full List of Features here



There is plenty to keep even the most advanced HDR Photographers going for a long time. Plus, the great thing about Skylum software is that they are always supplying their users with free updates that give them new tools and features!



If you find that you want even more photography software after trying out Aurora, you can check out these great programs which I use on my own photos. All of these photo editing programs have 1 month trial periods so I wanted to recommend them to give you guys other tools to create photos that stan dout from the crowd. I use a combination of these with my results from Aurora:


Skylum’s Luminar is their answer to adobe Lightroom. It hit the ground running and many photographers have placed it amongst their most used photo editing app’s. It differs from Aurora in that it is a more standard editing photo app (no hdr). I have found it more enjoyable to use compared to Lightroom because of the preset film strip, similar to Aurora’s. It just makes it fun to have the presets displayed in the big preview windows as I scroll through them deciding on a look I want to use. There is a Library feature on its way for Luminar in 2018 so it may just replace Lightroom in most photographer’s workflows altogether.


You can get a 15% discount on Skylum’s Luminar if you use the code “lukezeme” on checkout. Or you can use the 1 month trial and then decide if you are going to buy it and still use the discount coupon. Luminar works really well in tandem with Aurora because they are both created by Skylum and have very similar user interfaces. This also makes it easier to use when you are familiar with a particular workspace.



On1 Photo RAW – is an entire photo suite of software at a very affordable price. I’ve been using On1 software since its very early days around 8 years ago and have always been impressed by the high quality products these guys release. They also come with many great tutorials from their representative Matt Kosklowski who is considered a photo editing guru.


On1 Effects is essentially the stylisation module of On1 Photo RAW and the filters in there are incredible. There are a bunch of specified sharpening settings including different print papers, various screen settings and other sharpening filters like Amazing Detail and High Pass. I am a big fan of the On1 package and it goes great with Aurora. For example you can take your Aurora result into the On1 suite and do all the finishing touches.  On1 Effects is a similar type of software to Luminar but you might like to try them both and then decide which one you prefer. OR you can be like me and have both 😀




Topaz Adjust-  offers you different options in filters and sharpening because you can get a look in some of filters that are a quite unique, like the Dynamic Pop and Pop Grunge filters. If you mask in parts of these using Photoshop your images will just bounce of the screen or paper 😉

Get a 15% discount on all Topaz Software using the code LukeZemePhotography”. Topaz will also let you use any of their software for 1 month free using their trial. They have heaps of photo software!!! So definitely check out Topaz Labs



Now that you have all the tools to start making amazing HDR images create as many as you can as this is how you will improve. Then share them online with your friends, family and photography community. There are lot of great photo communities out there and you will find a lot of support amongst your peers who also passionate about photography.


If you enjoyed this tutorial and found it helpful, you can send your friends to download a copy from That would be a great way of saying thank you 😉


I look forward to hearing from you guys/gals online and seeing your HDR images soon!




Thanks, this has been fun J





Luke Zeme Photography

Photo Portfolio:




I hope you found this FREE HDR Tutorial valuable. Remember you can get a 15% discount on Aurora HDR PRO 2019 with the code “LukeZeme

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