How To Take Stunning HDR iPhone Photos

What happens when you set your iPhone camera’s HDR feature to “on?” HDR is a great tool for improving exposure (the amount of light and dark in an image), and in this article you’ll discover how to get the most out of HDR photography on your iPhone. You’ll discover how and when to use HDR, and how to achieve amazing exposure in your landscape photos.

HDR Photogrpahy On iPhone

The above photo was taken using the HDR feature. This means that both the highlights (the sky in this case) and the shadows (the windmill and the green space surrounding it) are properly exposed. Without HDR, the exposure wouldn’t be balanced throughout the image. Instead it would be biased towards either the shadows or the highlights.

The photo below was taken using the Pro HDR X app and then edited in Snapseed to add a vintage filter with scratches. By the end of this tutorial you’ll know how to take similar HDR photos yourself. So, let’s get started!

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 15

What Is HDR Photography?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. The dynamic range of a scene tells you how different the brightest parts of the scene (the highlights) are from the darkest parts of the scene (the shadows).

The human eye can see a much greater dynamic range than any camera, including the camera of your iPhone. We can easily see the details of a dark windmill against a bright sky, but what happens when we take photos of a scene like that?

Underexposed iPhone Photo

The windmill becomes so dark that it’s almost black. Any detail that was there is practically gone, and what we have left is essentially the silhouette of the windmill.

Of course, we could try to correct this by setting the exposure on the windmill. To do that, all we have to do is tap on the dark windmill to make sure it’s exposed properly. That’s exactly what I did in the photo below.

Overexposed iPhone Photo

This approach indeed works, and we can see that the windmill in the center, as well as the windmill blade on the left side, are properly exposed. But now we’ve introduced another problem.

If you look at the sky in this photo, you’ll notice that it’s mostly white with a few strange-looking blue clouds on the right side. In other words, by properly exposing for the windmills, I have overexposed the sky.

But what if we could combine the best characteristics of the two photos and create one image in which both windmills and clouds look great? It turns out that we can do exactly that using HDR photography.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 12

HDR photos combine several photos taken at different exposures into one single well-exposed image. As a result, the entire dynamic range can be properly exposed, creating a stunning photograph.

HDR In The iPhone Camera App

You may have noticed the HDR function in the iPhone camera settings. You can turn it on by tapping the HDR option inside the camera app and selecting the On setting.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 6

When HDR is enabled, your iPhone will automatically take HDR photos for you. Note that it takes longer to take an HDR photo than a regular one since the camera has to capture three separate images at different exposures.

Because of the extra time required to take an HDR photo, it’s easy for your camera to shake or move. That’s why it’s important to hold your iPhone very still or mount it on a tripod while taking HDR photos. It’s also important that your subjects are not moving while the photo is being taken because a moving subject will appear blurred.

In general, the iPhone’s built-in HDR is rather weak. For comparison, here are two photos that I shot for this article.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 14

The photo above was taken in the native camera app with no HDR. And the photo below was taken in the native camera with HDR switched on.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 10

As you can see, the difference between the two photos isn’t very pronounced. The foreground of both images looks virtually the same, however, the HDR photo has produced an image with more detail in the sky.

If you would like to experiment with better HDR than is available on the native iPhone camera, you can use a dedicated HDR app. The image below was taken using the Pro HDR X app.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 11

This app creates a much stronger HDR effect than the one created by iPhone’s built-in camera. Here you can see the colors are lush, the shadows are full of detail, and there are no washed out highlights in the sky. The image is much more dramatic that the one taken with the native camera app.

HDR is a great tool, and it can enhance your photos. On the other hand, though, HDR photos don’t always look better than regular ones.

You’ll probably want to compare and contrast regular and HDR images, which is why I prefer to save both the HDR image and the normally exposed version when using the native camera app. In order to do that, go to Settings, select Photos & Camera, and turn on Keep Normal Photo.

I usually turn off the iPhone camera’s built-in HDR option unless I’m doing landscape photography. I don’t use it a lot because it’s relatively slow and in most cases you can barely see any difference. If you do switch the HDR option on to take a photo, be sure to turn the setting off afterwards.

Using The Pro HDR X App

If you want to get a stronger HDR effect, you have to use a dedicated HDR app. My personal favorite and the App Store bestseller is Pro HDR X, which costs $1.99 to download. It’s a really great app for HDR photography, with a variety of shooting and editing options, and it’s very easy to use.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 5

If you tap the HDR option on the left, you can choose between Auto HDR or Manual HDR. You can also turn HDR off to take an ordinary photo with no HDR effect.

I would recommend using Auto HDR to start with, but if you’re not getting the results you want, switch to Manual. If you choose the Manual HDR option you need to drag the three blue boxes around to choose which parts of the image you want to expose for, e.g. sky, a building and grass in the foreground.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 1

Remember, to create an HDR shot the camera has to take three separate photos at different exposures. You need to hold the camera really steady while it takes the photos to avoid any blurring or ghosting effects.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 2

You may often find that HDR images can look a little unnatural. You may see over-saturated colors or a halo effect around the darker areas of the image. Luckily, there’s a simple editing panel right inside Pro HDR X. Use this after taking a photo to make your image look more realistic.

If you think the HDR effect is too strong, simply dial back the HDR slider until you’re happy with the result. There’s also an exposure slider and contrast slider that you can adjust.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 3

You can access more editing options by tapping the icons at the bottom of the screen. The left-hand icon provides exposure sliders, the middle icon provides sliders allowing you to adjust color, and the right-hand slider has additional effects such as filters, frames and text.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 4

If you make changes to the image, you can save the edited photo to your camera roll using the Save button (middle icon above the sliders). If you don’t want to make any adjustments after taking the photo, tap the camera icon above the sliders to return to the Pro HDR X camera.

When you go to your camera roll in the Photos app, you’ll see several versions of the same photo. You’ll have the three separate images taken at different exposures by the HDR app, followed by the HDR version which is a combination of the three photos. If you’ve saved any edits that you made, you’ll also see the edited version of the image.

Here are are some more photos taken with the Pro HDR X app.

ProHDR Photo 1

Look at that sky! Could it possibly be any more dramatic? Also notice that the grass is bright green. It would probably be pitch black without HDR.

ProHDR Photo 4

This is the original HDR version of the photo at the very top of the article, before I edited it in Snapseed. I couldn’t have taken such a well exposed shot without using HDR.

As you can see in the windmill photos above, HDR is especially useful when the sky forms a large part of your composition. The sky is usually brighter than the rest of the scene, which is why it tends to cause a lot of problems.

Pro HDR X iPhone Photos 13

Why HDR And Movement Don’t Mix Well

The one time to avoid HDR is when you’re taking photos of movement, or when you can’t keep your iPhone steady. HDR combines multiple exposures of the same scene, and if the scene is different in each exposure you’re going to get very unpredictable results. Just look at the photo below that I took with Pro HDR X.

HDR Distortions1

I accidentally moved my camera while Pro HDR X was taking this photo, which is why it randomly combined the different images.

You also don’t want to have moving subjects when you’re taking HDR photos. If your subjects do move, the results will also look unnatural. Because the blades were moving while I took an HDR photo, the windmill on the left appears to have eight blades instead of four!

IMG_9939

Here’s another interesting image – half-person, half-ghost! During this HDR exposure the woman was walking though the frame, and her movement has been captured as a ghosting effect.

HDR Ghost

While HDR won’t capture clear shots of moving objects, though, you can use HDR and movement to create interesting images. If you do want to create unique HDR movement shots, you’ll need to be patient and experiment until you get the result you were hoping for.

7 Hidden iPhone Camera Features

As it turns out, some of the most important iPhone camera features are hidden from casual iPhone users. That’s why we created a free video revealing 7 hidden iPhone camera features that every photographer should use.
iPhone-camera-features

  • Ken

    Very informative, thank you, I am using an iPad, how would I keep it steady long enough to not blur the image? If I could prop it up how would I press the shutter button without disturbing it?
    Thanks again

    • Well, you need to get creative. Try supporting it somewhere like on the ground or on the fence to minimize camera movement.

  • Darren

    Is HDR improved at all when using the iphone 5s?

    • The built-in HDR is slightly better and so much faster, so yes.

  • TW

    Is there any way to get rid of the ghosting from ProHDR in post?

    • You can try to use Selective Adjust in Snapseed, it’s not a perfect solution but it works. Or you can use masking software to blend the HDR image together with an identical non-HDR image, but that’s way harder.

  • iOS7_Us3r

    Great post! Really enjoyed this and now, I am seeing greater photos in my photo album on my iPhone! Thanks so much! Keep it up!!!

  • soumita sharma

    can i use it im my samsung smart phone too?

    • I’m sure they have the equivalent functionality on Android phones, and ProHDR is also available there. So the short answer is yes!

    • tim242

      The S5 has real time HDR in the viewfinder. Works really well.

    • Ron Aliprand

      It is built in on the S3. Open cam, touch Shooting mode, scroll down to HDR and select. Don’t forget to select Single shot again after. For S2 you can download and app to do it

  • Fahd

    Very interesting article! is it possible to have access to the original low dynamic images, which were used to render the final HDR image? thanks!

    • In iPhone camera app you have that option if you turn on “Save Original Image” in Settings -> Photos & Camera.

  • Shabaz

    thanks bro. I am frm punjab and here is great trend of HD pic. so thx again

    • Alan Spicer

      How did you know there was a great trend?

  • Karan

    Hey ! Why can’t I keep my flash on while takin’ a HDR photo ? 🙂

    • I don’t think you’d ever need to use them together (the flash is only useful in complete darkness when the subject is close), but honestly I don’t know why Apple has disabled it.

  • Paul Fleming

    I’m rather late to this post… but better late than never, right?!

    ProHDR is my app of choice too (infact, most of my Instagram shots are from it @LoveThyWalrus).

    One thing I have noticed when people say the app takes a long time, is that they are using it on auto mode. Switching to manual, which lets you choose the exposure levels (I’m sure you know this already of course) speeds it up and is quick enough for handheld shots (well, it was on my iPhone5, and now on 5s). As long as the scene I am shooting isn’t moving too much, I rarely now need to steady my phone before shooting.

    Great post by the way, it’s a good intro to HDR on the iPhone.

  • Emre Orhan

    How can I take a half ghost half person photo. The native camera wont let me do that

  • Raven

    Sorry if I missed this by not reading all the posts. You can do HDR using ProHDR and only one shot. I use 645 Pro recording .tiff only. Then I use Filterstorm and adjust the brightness only up about 25 to 50%, save that image as .tiff. Use the original image and adjust brightness down the same amount, 25 to 50% and save as .tiff. Then, using the Actions/HDR from Library, menu from ProHDR and following the instructions, I combine the darker image and the lighter image; ProHDR does the heavy lifting. I get a 1.5 to 2MB image in hdr. It’s easier than it sounds. You do not have to do the .tiff; but do start with as large an image as you can manage, I only do that to maintain image quality to the end. You probably don’t have to use 645 or filterstorm either. (I know you don’t, just tried with simple shots and brightness management. My way was better though.) The advantage is taking the single, large picture home and working there. You don’t have to wait for the rather slow ProHDR to grind away; take a dozen shots in large format and maybe one using ProHDR for comparison. By the way, the author of this column did me a huge favor a few weeks ago by mentioning 645 and Filterstorm, thanks Emil. R

  • Marilyn Wilkie

    ProHDR isn’t available in America’s APP store evidently. So I guess I will stick with my Snapped edits. But I have noticed, as you have pointed out, that the HDR setting on the iPhone does almost nothing.

  • Nani

    HDR movements actually look pretty cool! Naturally flawless art <3

    • That’s very true Nani! “Mistakes” often turn out to be the best photos 🙂

  • Chris

    Since iOS 8 is here, has anyone tried ProHDR X? I’m debating purchasing this for my iPhone 6, but some of the reviews seem to say that it doesn’t work much better than the built-in HDR setting and that the effect is quite weak.

    • Hi Chris. Yes, I installed it a couple of weeks ago and think it’s much better than the HDR setting in the native camera app. You can control the amount of HDR effect, and also apply other edits to the final image with a variety of slider controls. I’m in the process of updating this tutorial with instructions for ProHDR X. 🙂

    • Chris

      Thanks, Kate!

      Just read the updated version and will now pick up Pro HDR X. I was hesitant since the reviews seemed so varied, but its hard to know if the people leaving reviews are actually really into photography with their iPhones, and what they might be expecting out of it. Its nice to have an iphoneographers views on these things to help in the decision making process!

      Thanks again!

      Chris

  • I have been using vividHDR since that is the HDR app illustrated in your class. How would you compare the two?

  • Giri

    Hi, Great post!.
    I just wanted to know the general preference between VividHDR and ProHDR X. Any comments or suggestions based on your experience would be helpful 🙂

  • astha srivastava

    Great article ..can anyone suggest free HDR app

  • Marilyn

    Seems to work fine on my iPadAir, but not on my iPhone 4S. The picture vanishes before I get the chance to hit the ‘save’ icon. It happens when I use the app on both auto and manual. Anyone else had this problem?

  • Violeta

    I didn’t find in Google Play Store Pro HDR X for my Samsung K ZOOM.
    I find Pro HDR Camera from EyeApps LLC. Is this the right app for Android? Give me more information, please.

  • Lane Bowers

    MORE fantastic ideas and a GREAT app idea. You are da man… Who is the video version of what you do???

  • Glad to hear you found it useful 🙂

  • Moya Ruocco

    I am not Happy With any Of The hdr apps For iPhone . I Have not wish to change phones , But i Have Tried The Android With a Samsung phone app camera studio hdr And picart . This is exacyky The app i am Looking For . unfortunately its not available For iPhone . Do You Have any sugestiomd please

  • helen

    Many thanks for the artcle. I couldn’t figure out what this option was about on my camera and why it didn’t work when I was shooting a selfi photo. It’s hepful because it gave an explanation what HDR is and how to make best use of it.?

    • So glad to hear you found this helpful Helen 🙂

  • Alex Morales

    I prefer to use Top Camera 2 for my HDRs… You get very good results with minimal tweaking…

  • WGW

    As an avid hack graphic artist (since photoshop 1.0) I’ve never been much interested in photography or even why people spend so much money on it because there is nothing a million dollar camera can do that a cheap camera and photoshop can not do better. I’ve always told people to get the highest resolution digital pictures that they can and have excess lighting and then I can do anything with photos with some editing time, and that has held true, but I sure like not having to waste so much editing time and apps like these save tons of editing time. Even good enough that for the most part I don’t bother editing them as most people would not notice and an easy trick to always make a photo seem better to most people is to just saturate it/over/under expose etc and/or make it look just different than your standard photos and people call it art or talent. Funny huh. The real talent and art comes from creating not seeing and shooting. You’re just lucky to have been witness and had a camera or to have been in that moment for that sight, it doesn’t have much to do with art, well kinda. =) Anyone can really do it, of course mastering the object/tool to collect the sights/moments which takes knowledge and skill is in a sense a form of art. – I’m sure many photographers and such have heard this from us hacks before. =)

  • NoMoLies

    Fυck you. I’m not giving you my email to see your stυpid video.

  • Ron Fox

    How do you set the focal point with Pro HDR X? With Vivid HDR , you tap the screen and you set the focal point. I have tried this with Pro HDR X but nothing happens? Your module does not talk about this.

    • Hi Ron. You just tap on the screen to set the focal point. It’s a bit confusing as you don’t see any focus box appear – but it definitely does set focus wherever you tap.

    • Ron Fox

      Thanks I’ll try it.