I’m often asked the question, “What is HDR on the iPhone camera?” Even those who know that HDR stands for High Dynamic Range often get confused about when and how to use it. In this article, you’ll discover how to get the most out of HDR photography on your iPhone, including achieving amazing exposure in your landscape photos.
The above photo is an HDR photo. 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, depending on which part of the image I had set exposure for.
The photo 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!
What Is HDR Photography?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. In a nutshell, 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 higher dynamic range than any camera, including the camera of your iPhone. We can easily see the details of a dark windmill against bright sky, but do you know what happens when we take photos of a scene like that?
That’s right, 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 windmills, right? 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.
As you can see, 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. This sky looks really bad in comparison to the other photo, and once again the result doesn’t look particularly good.
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.
HDR photos combine several photos taken at different exposures into one single well-exposed image. This can be done during post-processing or while taking photos. It’s more convenient to take HDR photos at the time of shooting, so that’s what we’re going to focus on in this tutorial.
HDR In The iPhone Camera App
You may have noticed that the native iPhone camera app has a built-in HDR function. You can turn it on by tapping the HDR option inside the camera app and selecting the On setting.
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 it has to capture three separate images at different exposures.
Therefore, 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 – if they’re moving they may 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.
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.
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.
As I said before, the iPhone’s built-in HDR is weak and you can often get better results by using a dedicated HDR app. The image below was taken using the Pro HDR X app.
This app creates a much stronger HDR effect than what you can get from the 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 those taken with the native camera app.
Note that HDR photos don’t always look better than regular ones, 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, ensure you 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.
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.
When you tap the shutter button to take the photo, ensure you keep the camera held very still. Remember, to create a 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.
You may often find that HDR images can look a little unnatural with over-saturated colors, and sometimes a halo effect around the darker areas of the image. Luckily, there’s a simple editing panel right inside Pro HDR X that you can use 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.
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.
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 a some more photos that I’ve taken with the Pro HDR X app.
Look at that sky! Could it possibly be any more dramatic? Also notice how the grass is bright green. It would probably be pitch black if I wasn’t using HDR.
This is the original HDR version of the photo at the very top of the article, before I edited it in Snapseed. I think it’s pretty cool and I never would have achieved such a well exposed shot without using HDR.
As you can see in the windmill photos above, HDR is best used 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, particularly when taking landscape and landmark photos. In such situations it’s a good idea to take photos using HDR.
HDR And Movement
The one time when you don’t want to be using 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.
Now, this photo makes no sense, and clearly this is not what I had in mind when I was taking it. 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. Have you ever seen a windmill with eight blades?
Neither have I, but this photo tells me that there have to be some. Of course it didn’t really have eight blades, but since they were rotating as I was taking the photo, the end result of the combined images shows the blades in different positions during the exposure.
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.
In general, HDR and movement don’t go together well – you need to keep the camera steady and ensure there are no moving subjects in the scene. If possible, use a tripod or support your iPhone against something steady while taking HDR photos.
That said, you may occasionally get something interesting or even funny if there is movement during the exposure. If you do want to create interesting 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.