Each month, followers of our Skylum Photography Facebook Group have a chance to participate in our “Image Makeover” series. This is an opportunity to showcase a creative makeover using Layers in Aurora HDR. There were plenty of beautiful submissions to choose from, but this image of a lighthouse at sunset really captured my imagination.Thanks to everyone for the wonderful submissions.

The Image

Mike Hardisty captured this photo from North Wales. I love the composition, and of course, you can see there was quite a bit of color already present in the scene. Here is the center exposure from the 3-exposure set of brackets.

Original Image by © Mike Hardisty

The Image Merging Process

Taking advantage of the power and flexibility of Aurora HDR and it's layered functionality, we will walk through how we can bring this image to life and add some creative flair to it. First, we will merge the bracket set to build the base HDR photo. I also chose to use the Alignment option since I am unsure whether these photos were shot on a tripod. 

And here is the base HDR photo:

It’s obviously quite a gorgeous scene. This is going to be fun!

The Image Makeover Process

Our first step will be to make some minor corrections with the Lens Correction and Transform tools that are a part of Aurora HDR. These tools are visible via their icons at the top of the filter stack, right next to the word FILTERS. Just click on each, in turn, to open it up and make your necessary changes.

Lens Correction & Transform

In this case, we used Lens Correction to fix some of the wide angle distortion while also removing some of the vignetting caused by the lens. Then Transform was used to slightly change the aspect ratio and realign the lighthouse in the frame. 

This resulted in some empty space at the bottom of the image, so next up was the Crop Tool. A cinematic 16:9 crop was chosen which still allows plenty of the gorgeous light to be visible in the sky, while also making the lighthouse more prominent as a subject in the photo. Additionally, this removed some of the dead space in the foreground. The composition feels a little tighter and more purposeful now.

Now that the basic structural edits are completed let’s dive into making adjustments to the photo. We’ll begin with the HDR Basic panel.

HDR Basic Panel

The HDR Basic Panel has a lot of capability in it. We’ll begin with a slight temperature adjustment, which has a slight cooling effect on the photo. This change is minor as we do not want to lose the beautiful warm colors in the sky. Then a bump in Contrast and a small increase in Smart Tone to overcome some of the darkness that the Contrast adjustment added to the foreground and lighthouse. We will come back to the lighthouse on the next layer.

Next, we will apply the Color Filter in order to give a little more “pop” to those beautiful colors. Since there is already a lot of color, the Saturation slider is skipped in favor of Vibrance, which will help bring up some of the non-dominant colors in the scene. Then Color Contrast is used to add a little more impact.

Add a New Adjustment Layer

Now that we have done all that let’s add a new adjustment layer so we can focus on the lighthouse. In your Layers panel, click on the big plus (+) sign and chose “Add New Adjustment Layer.” This layer will be all about the lighthouse.

Currently, the lighthouse is too dark and has taken on a blue hue, and we want to return it to how it should appear to our eyes. At the same time, since it is the anchor element in the photo, we want to amp up the details a little bit, especially since the rest of the photo is mostly made up of soft, dreamy sky. This makes a nice counterpoint and helps draw the eye to this interesting subject.

So we begin in the HDR Basic filter again, moving up the Temperature to give it a warmer feel, while also increasing Exposure and HDR Enhance. Next, we slightly decrease Saturation and Vibrance in the Color filter, and then a slight bump in both HDR Structure and to the Medium Details slider in the HDR Details Boost filter. 

All of these edits are designed to draw the viewer to the lighthouse and make it appear more realistic. It also helps to differentiate it from the rest of the scene in terms of color and detail, serving as a bit of contrast to an otherwise natural, dreamy scene.

The thing about layers is that they give you the flexibility to target specific areas of a photo, such as the lighthouse. However, you have to mask those adjustments in with a brush or other tool in order to apply them specifically. So that’s our next step - some brush work to “paint” these adjustments into the lighthouse. This leaves the rest of the photo untouched by these current edits.

So we selected the brush and “painted” over the lighthouse. Here’s the mask that was brushed onto the photo:

Add A New Adjustment Layer, again.

Now that the lighthouse is finished, we can add another adjustment layer and put some finishing touches on the photo. Specifically, we will use Image Radiance in order to give it a little bit of a romantic glow and thus enhance the dreamy quality of the photo, and then also use the Polarizing Filter to slightly tone down the brightness in the sky. This also makes the blues richer and deeper.

Here’s how the photo looks after these two filter adjustments:

Final Layer

Lastly, we will add one more Adjustment Layer in order to apply noise reduction across the sky. This feels like an almost dreamy scene, and using Noise Reduction to smooth out the clouds feels like an appropriate step here and will enhance the dreaminess quality.

So after adding the new layer, choose the HDR Denoise filter.After bumping up the sliders, you will note that once again it has affected the entire photo. So this is where brush masking comes in handy. The only place in the photo to definitely avoid this smoothing is in the lighthouse, as this smooth effect looks great in the sky and even works in the foreground, too.

Since we previously created a mask just for the lighthouse we can reuse it.  Let’s go back to that layer and copy the mask, and then return to this current layer and paste it.

However, since pasting the mask as is will add these current adjustments to the location of the mask (that is, onto the lighthouse), we also have to invert the mask after pasting. That way all of the edits on this layer will apply everywhere EXCEPT for the lighthouse, which is the goal here.

Here’s the photo with the last layer edit applied:

The Conclusion 

I’m really pleased with the updated image and feel it makes the original photo look great. Here’s the final completed photo:

Taking advantage of the layers function in Aurora HDR gives you unrivaled power and flexibility to realize your vision for a photo. It’s well worth spending some time ensuring you are familiar with all of these powerful tools in Aurora HDR. Thanks for viewing!