iPhone HDR photography is incredibly easy to do, and it’s accessible to almost everyone; those are just two of the reasons that make it so great.
The HDR technique, popularized by photographer Trey Ratcliff, previously required heavy DSLR cameras, expensive software, complicated exposure calculations, and a huge amount of patience to get right. It was difficult, time-consuming, and involved a lot of manual editing in Photoshop or other post-processing applications.
But these days? HDR photography is as simple as pressing a button on your iPhone!
However, there are a few things you need to know in order to create beautiful HDR iPhone pictures, and that’s what I share in this article.
What is iPhone HDR photography?
HDR stands for high dynamic range. An HDR photo generally features very bright and very dark areas, but – this is critical! – the brightest portions are not overexposed and the darkest portions are not underexposed. In other words, HDR files include detail in the shadows, midtones, and highlights.
How does this work?
The basic HDR process involves capturing multiple images with different exposures, then blending the images together for one perfectly exposed final photo. When working with your average DSLR or mirrorless body, you’ll need to do this manually – but thanks to the computational powers of modern iPhones, it’s pretty much automatic.
You see, when your iPhone captures an HDR image, you only need to press the shutter button once, yet the phone camera fires off several pictures. Some of these photos have the bright parts toned down, others have the dark parts lightened up, and some are, like Goldilocks and her porridge, just right. Then a host of software algorithms combine all the images into one gorgeous shot that has the best of every exposure baked into a single file.
(The iPhone HDR process happens so fast that it’s completely invisible to users; all you see is the final result!)
“But wait!” you might be saying to yourself. “I’ve never used an HDR setting on my iPhone, and my pictures turn out just fine. Right?”
Well…not exactly. You see, iPhone photography processes have gotten so good that HDR imaging is usually turned on by default. So the likely reason your pictures are full of detail? Your iPhone was shooting in HDR mode all along! It’s thanks to something called Smart HDR:
What is Smart HDR?
iPhones have been capable of capturing beautiful HDR images for several years, but HDR photography used to work via a setting that users would enable and disable at will.
Things are much different in today’s high-powered mobile devices. Your iPhone now does all the heavy lifting for you so you can focus on the actual photography.
Smart HDR, which is enabled by default on most iPhones, automatically analyzes the scene in real time as you prepare to capture an image. Then, if it notices that some parts are excessively bright, Smart HDR tweaks the image-capture process to make sure those areas look good in the final shot.
If you want greater control over the process, you can disable Smart HDR and then enable HDR on a per-shot basis in the Camera app. Personally, I prefer to leave Smart HDR on all the time. I never know when HDR might be useful, and I’d rather err on the side of caution and use it more often than not. Plus, Smart HDR means I worry less about the technical particulars of each shot and can focus more on composing interesting images.
When is HDR technology useful?
iPhone HDR photography is most useful when you have a foreground subject that you want to properly expose and you have a very bright background. This type of scene can occur in plenty of situations, but it happens most often out in nature, usually when the subject is under a shadow or just backlit by the sun.
You’ll also appreciate the benefits of HDR imaging if you take pictures against a bright window or a large light source.
The above example is artificial but not uncommon; I end up in situations like this all the time, and with a traditional DSLR or mirrorless camera, I have to decide which part of the image to expose. Happily, iPhone HDR photography more or less eliminates that decision from the entire process, and I can always capture a nice image.
By the way, when shooting without HDR on an iPhone, you can always tap different parts of the image to set the exposure. For this next shot, that’s exactly what I did: I tapped on the sky, which ensured that there was plenty of cloud detail. Unfortunately, it also meant that the animals were too dark:
HDR, however, gives you the best of both worlds! Notice how, in this next example, the sky and the animals both look great:
That’s what HDR offers, and it requires no special tools, techniques, or photographic knowledge to make it happen. Just be sure Smart HDR is active – or make sure to enable HDR in the Camera app – and your iPhone will take care of the rest.
Tips for beautiful HDR images on an iPhone
I remember creating my first HDR image with my Nikon D200 more than ten years ago. It was a painstaking process, and part of me still can’t believe that modern mobile phones are capable of doing in an instant what took me hours to figure out that first time around.
Despite major advances in technology, however, many of the old rules still apply. These tips will help you get the most out of your iPhone HDR photography.
1. Look for high-contrast situations
The subtle exposure-blending that the iPhone does when creating HDR images can end up being somewhat difficult to notice in everyday snapshots. It’s not that your phone isn’t creating an HDR image; it’s that the results might not look all that different from a normal image.
However, if you specifically look for high-contrast photo opportunities, you can create beautiful photos that stand out from the rest thanks to the HDR technique.
I like to shoot HDR pictures out in nature with bright, sunny skies that contrast against darker foregrounds. Street photographers often like high-contrast situations combining shadows and sunlight in a single frame. Portrait photographers use HDR to brighten subjects without losing background detail.
Bottom line: Intentionally seeking high-contrast scenarios like these can get your creative juices flowing and give you impressive results.
2. Check to be sure Smart HDR is enabled
While your phone’s Smart HDR is turned on by default, it’s always good to make sure it’s active before taking photos. I’ve disabled it by accident when fiddling around with my camera settings, and I know others who have done the same thing.
(If you aren’t getting the results you want, there’s a good chance you inadvertently turned off Smart HDR!)
Now, if Smart HDR is turned off, you can always enable and disable HDR within the Camera app by tapping the HDR icon at the top of the screen:
This requires an extra step, however, and you might not have time to do it if you just want to take a quick snapshot with your iPhone. So get in the habit of checking for active Smart HDR when you pull up your camera!
3. More HDR isn’t always better
While iPhone HDR photography has come a long way over the years, it’s still not perfect. Sometimes, it can look unpleasant and artificial.
Therefore, one of the best things you can do is compose your shots so that the high dynamic range processing is kept to a minimum. Pay attention to the fundamentals, like light, shadow, subject, and composition. Try to take pictures that look good even without HDR.
For instance, if you’re taking a picture of someone outside, observe the sun and the direction of the light. Try to position yourself so that the sun is behind you and not behind your subject, or move to a location where the entire composition is in shadow, like the side of a building or underneath a large tree.
You’ll like the results, and you might even become a better photographer in the process!
4. HDR isn’t always necessary
While it may seem like a good idea to always use HDR in order to get a balanced exposure across the entire frame, there are times when you can better results with HDR off. Photography is all about light and shadow, and many photos are improved by dark areas or otherwise unbalanced exposures.
For example, silhouettes only work when your subject is shrouded in darkness, yet shooting in HDR would ruin the effect. And nature, travel, sports, and other types of photography can greatly benefit from exposing one part of the image while leaving other parts of the scene covered in deep shadows or washed-out highlights.
HDR is a tool, and it shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for all your photography problems. Yes, HDR processing is pretty amazing, but at the end of the day, it’s just another arrow in your quiver. iPhone HDR photography can produce amazing results, but sometimes it’s best to leave it off and let the highlights and shadows speak for themselves.
How to record HDR video
If you really want to take things to the next level, you can use HDR to get the benefits of high dynamic range processing in your videos. The extraordinary processing power of newer iPhones lets you capture HDR video at up to 60 frames per second; you can even use programs like Final Cut Pro or iMovie to edit your footage and get the most out of every clip.
There are a few important caveats when shooting HDR videos. While many new tablets and televisions can take advantage of true HDR video content, most laptops and normal computer monitors don’t have true HDR displays. This means your HDR videos will look a little over- or under-exposed until they are edited and exposure levels are adjusted.
Also, HDR videos take up more storage space than non-HDR videos. In general, I find HDR video to be impressive on a technical level but not all that useful for day-to-day iPhone clips of my kids and the world around me. Still, your experience may vary and it’s certainly worth trying if your iPhone supports it.
iPhone HDR photography: final words
High dynamic range images were once created only by patient photographers who could afford expensive gear, had lots of patience, and knew how to use complicated software to create strong final results.
iPhone HDR photography has now made this technique available to almost anyone, and it requires very little time and effort. If you’ve never tried to do iPhone HDR photography, just make sure Smart HDR is enabled, and you’ll be good to go! Or if you prefer more manual control, you can choose when to enable HDR and when to leave it off.
At the end of the day, HDR is an amazing tool that every photographer should try!
What do you plan to photograph using HDR? Which technique will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!