How To Take Stunning HDR iPhone Photos

HDR is a fantastic iPhone camera feature for improving the exposure of your photos. It allows you to easily create more balanced exposures in high contrast scenes such as landscapes. With HDR you can capture more color and detail in both the dark foreground and the brighter sky. In this tutorial you’ll discover how to get the most out of HDR iPhone photography so that you can create stunning images even in the trickiest of lighting conditions.

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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).

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

Because the camera isn’t capable of capturing detail in the very dark and very bright areas at the same time, you’ll usually end up with one of the following exposure problems (exposure refers to the brightness of the image):

Either the dark areas will appear correctly exposed with plenty of color and detail, while the brighter sky appears over-exposed (pure white with no color or detail).

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Or the sky will appear correctly exposed with plenty of color and detail, while the darker areas appear under-exposed (very dark with virtually no color or detail).

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You can control which part of the scene appears correctly exposed by tapping on that part of the screen. If you tap on the sky, the sky will be correctly exposed but the darker foreground is likely to be under-exposed. If you tap on the darker foreground, that area will be correctly exposed, but the sky is likely to be over-exposed.

You can tweak exposure further if necessary by swiping up or down on the screen, however, this doesn’t help the camera to expose for both the highlights and the shadows at the same time.

But what if you could combine the best characteristics of the differently exposed photos to create one image in which both the subject and the sky look great? It turns out that you can do exactly that using HDR photography!

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An HDR photo combines several images of the same scene taken at different exposures (one slightly over-exposed, one normal exposure, and one slightly under-exposed) into one single well-exposed photo.

As a result, the dynamic range of your image is increased, creating a more balanced exposure throughout the picture. This means that you’ll be able to see more detail in both the shadows and the highlights of your image.

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When To Use HDR iPhone Feature

The iPhone HDR feature is perfect for shooting high contrast scenes where you have both bright areas and dark areas within the frame.

One of the most useful applications of HDR is in landscape photography where you often have a dark foreground compared to the much brighter sky.

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The photo above is the non-HDR version. Notice how the brighter parts of the sky are completely over-exposed, appearing pure white with no color or detail at all. At the same time, the boat and plants in the foreground appear slightly under-exposed and it’s difficult to make out the detail in these areas.

Now compare the above image to HDR version below. Using HDR when shooting landscapes allows you to capture more color and detail in both the foreground and the sky.

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Of course, HDR isn’t just for landscape photography. It can be used in many other shooting situations too.

As a general rule, if you’re struggling to get a decent exposure because the shadows appear too dark or the highlights appear too bright, try using HDR to create a better and more balanced exposure.

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How To Use iPhone HDR In The Native Camera App

It’s easy to shoot HDR photos in the iPhone’s native camera app. Simply tap the HDR option and select the On setting.

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When HDR is enabled, your iPhone will automatically capture HDR photos whenever you press the shutter button.

Note that it takes slightly longer to take an HDR photo than a regular one. This is because the camera has to capture three separate images at different exposures and then combine them together into a single image

Because of the extra time required to take an HDR photo, it’s easy for your camera to shake or move during the capture. That’s why it’s important to hold your iPhone very still or mount it on a tripod while taking HDR pictures.

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It’s also important to consider whether anything in the scene is moving while the photo is being taken. Any movement may appear blurred when the three images are combined.

HDR is a very useful tool, allowing you to enhance your photos by creating more balanced exposures. However, HDR photos don’t always look better than regular ones. For this reason, it’s a good idea to tell your iPhone to capture a regular version of the image as well as the HDR version.

To do this, go to Settings > Photos & Camera. Scroll down to the HDR section at the bottom of the settings, and ensure Keep Normal Photo is switched on.

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Now whenever you take a HDR photo with the camera app, a non-HDR version of the image will also be created.

You can then compare the HDR and non-HDR versions in your photo library. The HDR image will have have a HDR label at the top left so that you know which is which.

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It’s worth nothing that the built-in HDR feature in the iPhone’s native camera app is rather weak. For comparison, below are two photos that were shot with the native camera app.

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The photo above was taken with the HDR feature switched off, and the photo below was taken with HDR switched on.

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As you can see, the difference between the two photos isn’t very pronounced. There’s very little difference in the exposure of the leaves, however, the HDR photo has produced an image with more detail in the brighter areas of the sky.

To create a stronger HDR effect, you’ll need to use a dedicated HDR camera app. The image below was taken using the Pro HDR X app.

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This app creates a much stronger HDR effect than iPhone’s native camera app. When using an app such as Pro HDR X, you’ll notice that the colors are more vibrant, the shadows are full of detail, and there are no washed out highlights in the sky.

In the next section you’ll learn how to use the Pro HDR X app to create dramatic HDR photos with your iPhone.

Use Pro HDR X App For A Stronger HDR Effect

If you prefer to create images with a stronger and more dramatic HDR effect, you’ll need to download a dedicated HDR app. One of the best apps available for HDR photography is Pro HDR X ($1.99).

This app is very easy to use, and it has a range of shooting and editing options so that you can customize the final result.

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The photo above was shot with the Pro HDR X app. As a comparison, below is the same scene shot using the HDR setting in the native camera app.

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The photo taken using Pro HDR X is much more dramatic with its vibrant colors and enhanced detail.

The results of not using HDR on this scene are shown below. Both photos were shot in the native camera app without using HDR. Exposure was controlled by tapping on different parts of the scene and using the exposure slider.

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In the first image (above) the foreground is correctly exposed, but the sky is completely over-exposed. In the second image (below) the sky is correctly exposed, but the foreground is under-exposed.

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As you can see from these examples, the Pro HDR X app does a great job of creating a balanced exposure throughout the entire scene as well as producing vibrant, lush colors.

When you’re ready to shoot a HDR photo, open the Pro HDR X app. You’ll see the camera screen as shown below.

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If this is the first time you’ve used the app, it’s worth checking the app settings. Tap the Menu icon (three horizontal lines) at the top right of the screen, then tap the Settings icon (second icon from the right at the top of the camera screen). Check the settings are set up as shown below, then tap Done.

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Tapping the HDR option on the left of the camera screen allows you to choose between Auto HDR and Manual HDR. You can also turn HDR off to take an ordinary photo with no HDR effect.

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I’d 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’ll 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 the foreground.

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Remember that the camera will need to take three separate photos at different exposures. To avoid any blurring in the final image, make sure you hold your iPhone really steady or place it on a tripod while the app is taking the photos.

Below is an example of what happens if you move the iPhone while the camera is taking the pictures. When the three photos are merged you end up with a blurring or ghosting effect because the photos don’t line up properly.

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When the app has captured the three different exposures and combined them together, you’ll see the resulting HDR image on your screen. You’ll also see a range of icons and sliders as shown below.

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You may often find that the initial HDR image looks a little unnatural. For example, the colors might be over-saturated, the highlights may appear too dark or grainy, or you might see a bright halo effect around the darker areas of the image.

Luckily, you can fine-tune the image using the sliders in the editing panel of Pro HDR X. Be sure to use these tools after taking a photo to ensure you create a realistic looking image.

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.

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 color sliders, and the right-hand icon has additional effects such as filters, frames and text.

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If you make changes to the image using the editing tools, you can save the edited photo to your photo library 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 open the Photos app to view your images, you’ll see several versions of the same photo. You’ll have the three separate images taken at different exposures, followed by the HDR version which is a combination of the three photos. If you edited the image within the Pro HDR app, you’ll also see the edited version of the image.

It’s not always convenient to make adjustments to the final HDR image in Pro HDR X after taking each shot. If you’d rather take all of your photos and then tweak the HDR effect later, you can easily do this (as long as you’ve chosen to save THREE bracketed images in the app settings).

Simply tap the Menu icon (three horizontal lines) on the main camera screen of the Pro HDR X app, then tap the Photo Library icon (third icon from the right at the top of the camera screen).

The Library Mode message will appear asking you to select up to three exposures – tap OK.

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Open the All Photos album, then select the three differently exposed images (dark, bright and medium) that you took with the Pro HDR X app earlier. When you tap Done, the three images will be merged to create the HDR photo.

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You can now use the editing tools to customize the HDR effect to your own preferences.

When Not To Use HDR

There are, of course, times when you shouldn’t use HDR. Knowing when to use it and when not to use it is key to capturing the best quality photos in any given situation.

For example, if you want to intentionally capture the high contrast nature of a scene, then it’s best to keep HDR switched off.

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Maybe you want to capture the contrast between light and shade in harsh sunny conditions. Or perhaps you want to create a silhouette photo where the subject appears completely black against the brighter background. In these kinds of shooting situation you wouldn’t want to use HDR.

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Another time to avoid HDR is when you’re taking photos of movement. This is because 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.

For example, if someone walks through the frame as you’re taking a HDR photo, this movement will be captured as a ghosting effect.

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The same goes for situations where you can’t keep your iPhone steady. So if you’re shooting HDR photos in low light, ensure you mount your phone on a tripod or other steady surface so that it remains perfectly still while capturing the multiple HDR exposures.

HDR iPhone Photography: Conclusion

Using HDR in your iPhone photography gives you an incredibly useful tool for creating better exposed images. It works particularly well when shooting high contrast scenes such as landscapes that have a dark foreground and bright sky.

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The built-in HDR feature in the native iPhone camera app creates a subtle HDR effect that’s particularly useful for preventing over-exposed skies when shooting outdoors.

If you want a more dramatic HDR effect, use a dedicated HDR app such as Pro HDR X. This app allows you to customize the final image using a range of built-in adjustment tools.

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By experimenting with HDR iPhone photography, you’re sure to create some stunning images that will really catch the viewer’s eye!

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!!!

    • Awesome, I’m so happy to hear that!

    • Maurice Daly

      Emil, I have just bought the PRO HDR X app but when I open the Photos album and select the 3 differently exposed images, I cannot see where to tap “Done” . Thus I cannot merge my 3 pics to create HDR photo. What am I doing wrong ?
      I enjoyed your tutorial very much.

    • Hi Maurice. Are you definitely selecting the three photos from within the Pro HDR X app? In Pro HDR X you have to tap the menu button, then tap the Photo Library icon, then select the 3 photos – once you’ve done this you’ll see the Done option at the top right of the screen.

    • Maurice Daly

      Hi Kate,
      I’m giving up on it as the “Done” option is not appearing on the top right of the screen. I’m experimenting with the lights of a Xmas tree which is in contrast to the dark corner where it is located. I think I’m following the instructions.

  • 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.

  • Zemira A. Bianchi

    Thank you for another informative post! I use Pro HDR all the time and love it. Is Pro HDR X an upgrade? if so, how does one upgrade to it. I’ve searched all the menus and found nothing.

    • Hi Zemira. Glad to hear you enjoyed this tutorial! Pro HDR X is from the same developers as Pro HDR, but I believe you have to purchase it separately, rather than it being an upgrade to the original app. Hope that helps 🙂

    • Zemira A. Bianchi

      Yes, exactly what I found out. Thank you!

  • purchased the app, when I went to have the 3 images merged it gives me an error stating I need to select 3 images which I had done in the previous step. Any reason for this?
    I’m using an iPhone 7Plus with iOS 10.2

  • Ravi Rai

    Thats a awesome trick! Thanks again Emil!

  • Stephen

    the article is spot on… and i was very pleased to see that they noted the weakness of the iphone HDR native app. I use Vivid HDR with great results – but will try the Pro HDR X … my students are amazed at their iphone HDR capabilities…

  • Thanks for sharing fantastic iPhone camera feature. HDR is really handy for the exposure of a photo. I think With HDR we can capture better color in brighter foreground.

  • Sleahcim

    I noticed this was an old post that was reposted. While the information on HDR is informative, and still relevant for those looking for such information, the recommended app (Pro HDR X) hasn’t been updated since 2014. I removed this app from my phone for this very reason. If developers can’t keep their apps updated then they shouldn’t benefit from those of us in the community that support those that do. Please update this article with a more current app by a developer who updates their apps on a regular basis.

  • owenpga

    one of the best HDR apps out there. I’ve been using it since it came out. when are they going to update the app to accommodate the duel lens function in the iphone 7?

  • 9light

    Apple tells me that this app will slow down my iPhone 6. Says the app needs an update. What’s up? Why are you pushing an app that may have problems?