What Is HDR Photography and How Can I Shoot It With My Camera?

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How it worksWhat is HDR and how it can help make your photos beautiful

Instruction from a few simple tips

  • Artem Luchko. 11 February 2014
  • 645046

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Owners of the latest smartphones have probably seen that they have an HDR (High Dynamic Range) photo app. experienced users know what HDR is, but not everyone understands how and in what cases this function is best used. Under the heading “Instructions” we will try to clear up some confusion and show how to maximize the use of HDR capture on a mobile phone

As you know, the human eye can see a much higher dynamic range of a scene than any camera, let alone a cell phone camera. We can equally well distinguish small details of a dark building against the background of a bright sky and, for example, an airplane flying high above it. But we all know what happens if you take a photo of a building with your phone: it turns out to be too dark with very poorly distinguishable details.

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Photo with exposure across the sky

Of course, we could try to eliminate this problem by setting the exposure on the building itself, highlighting the area with it on the screen. With this approach, the décor of the building is visible well, but the sky in the photo has turned into an overexposed, blurred white spot.

Photos from the exposition of the building

Our goal. combine the best features of the two photographs to create an equal image in which both the building and the clouds look great. This is exactly what HDR technology offers. Photos taken with HDR are essentially multiple combined shots taken at different exposures.

The default iPhone application for taking photos has built-in HDR functionality. You can enable HDR by clicking on the option button in the “camera”. When HDR is on, iPhone will automatically take HDR photos. Please note that this takes longer than normal shooting.

However, the built-in iPhone application gives a rather “weak” result, and you will be able to take much better pictures using the Special Programs.

Photo taken with Pro HDR on iPhone 5 photo taken with default app on iPhone 5

One of the most popular and convenient HDR photo apps is Pro HDR (for iOS, RUB 66; for Android, RUB 61.75). However, there are also free versions with limited functionality.

The Pro HDR app offers two modes: automatic and manual. If you choose Auto, the application will analyze the scene, take a frame with a dark exposure (with more detailed highlights, but less detail in the shadows) and a light exposure (with more detailed areas in the shadows, but little detail in bright areas) and combine the two images.

Some photos may not look natural enough. To add realism to your shots, use the five sliders in the simple and intuitive settings panel. They allow you to adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, warmth, and hue. Automatic mode is fine for most situations; manual mode is only necessary when shooting the most contrasting scenes.

Settings panel interface in Pro HDR

Please note that HDR photos do not always look better than those taken in standard mode. Try to save both HDR and “normal” shots in order to then choose the most successful of them.

Using HDR mode is inappropriate when shooting in motion. Due to the fact that HDR combines multiple exposures of the same scene; and if these very scenes change, in the end you will get the most unpredictable result. Try to shoot with something stable or using a tripod.

How does HDR work?

When you take a photo with HDR enabled, the camera captures several images in quick succession with different exposure values. The smartphone camera software then combines these images into a single photo which maintains detail from the darkest and lightest regions. 

Before this functionality found its way to smartphone cameras, you had to capture three photos (with your camera of choice), transfer them to a PC, open them in Photoshop or something similar and use the HDR software function to combine the three images, highlighting the best parts of each, to achieve the same effect.

On the right, you see images with high and low exp

On the right, you see images with high and low exposure values; on the left, these two photos combined with HDR / Wikipedia

Thankfully, smartphone manufacturers have adapted HDR to their devices’ camera software so that, when activated, the phone does all of this work automatically. Because the software is essentially combining several images to create your final shot, HDR works best with static shots and a steady hand.

What is HDR

Smart heads have come up with an algorithm devoid of HDR flaws. However, it has only a name in common with HDR.

HDR stands for High-Dynamic Range Low Noise. He gained his fame for a number of outstanding features: the algorithm is able to eliminate noise with virtually no loss of detail, higher color reproduction quality, which is extremely important in low light and at the edges of the frame, at the same time it greatly expands the dynamic range of photography. HDR, unlike standard HDR, Almost not afraid of smartphone shaking and movement in the frame.

The first smartphone with HDR support was the Nexus 5. Due to more than one better white balance and a small aperture (f2.4), the camera of this smartphone was considered no more than a strong middling. That all changed with the release of the Android 4.4.2 update. It was this that brought with it support for HDR mode and Amazing quality of night shots. Although they did NOT differ in high brightness across the entire field of the frame, thanks to HDR, they practically did NOT contain noise while preserving fine details and had excellent (for smartphones in 2013) color reproduction.

(Image in original quality)

Final Thoughts

HDR is an interesting technology as it represents an intelligent software-driven technique to get the most accurate photos possible using a digital camera. This detailed imagery may otherwise be beyond the capabilities of your camera. HDR has now become a standard measure of performance in today’s digital camera sensors. The more dynamic the range of the camera is, the better is its sensor. When shooting with HDR in mind, it is best to use a tripod, as anything that eliminates the possibility of movement will help you click perfect HDR images.

Moreover, a multi-featured photo editing software, such as Aurora HDR, plays an important role in accomplishing professional looking photographs. Whether you want a vintage look to your photos or wish to experiment with their color tones, the software offers you several options you can use to let your inner creativity shine.

3. Merge the images

There are specialist HDR software options for editing those exposure bracketed images, such as Photomatix. But the big boys such as Adobe Photoshop have that option too. 

Image 1 of 4 An example HDR photo using Photoshop’s ‘merge to HDR Pro’ feature. (Image credit: Future) Image 2 of 4 HDR off +1EV (Image credit: Future) Image 3 of 4 HDR off 0EV (Image credit: Future) Image 4 of 4 HDR off -1EV (Image credit: Future)

The simplest method with Photoshop is to select File>Automate>Merge to HDR Pro, where you are asked to import the sequence of images taken at the different brightness values.

(Image credit: Future)

You can check the ‘Attempt to automatically align source images’ box and hit OK. Once the images are processed, the ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ editor opens and the fun begins.

The HDR+ and Its Importance in Android

The HDR+ made Nexus 6P was so groundbreaking at the time when it came to photography, and the Google Pixel 2 XL achieved the same results. The Google camera takes several photographs with different levels of exposure, from the lowest to the highest. In this way, It manages to combine them all in a final photograph with perfect exposure, both in the front and rear cameras.

Something similar Huawei does with its night mode, taking pictures with different ISO levels, and combining them to create the ultimate night photography. Apple has followed this pattern, and now its devices shoot with a Smart HDR that combines several photographs of different exposure, finally achieving good control over the focal point.

1. Stabilize the camera

Whether using a camera or smartphone, your first step for HDR photography is stabilizing the camera. A shaky camera for HDR photography can result in blurry pictures. (It’s a similar principle to why it’s best to avoid fast-moving subjects in HDR photography, because of ghosting).

(Image credit: Nikon)

Ideally, fix your camera to a tripod or stable support, at the very least steady your hand. If you’re really going to town, remotely trigger or timer delay your camera to avoid shake from pressing the camera’s buttons. 

What is HDR+ and how can I get it?

Since its launch, Google’s Pixel 3 has been widely recognized as the camera king of the Android world. But what is it that makes the Pixel 3 camera so impressive? The secret lies in the software and, in particular, its HDR+ technology. It has been available on Pixel devices for a while, but has improved significantly on the 3rd generation. HDR+ is like HDR on steroids. Not only does it increase the dynamic range but it also reduces noise and improves colors at the same time. The Pixel’s camera app does this by taking a quick burst of shot when you take a picture before merging them to create an image built from all of the best bits. The results are impressive!

 Google Camera app in action / © NextPit
Google Camera app in action / © NextPit

Because this trick relies on software and not hardware, it’s possible to use HDR+ on Android smartphones that are not made by Google as well. If you want to take pictures like the Pixel 3 does on a Samsung, OnePlus or Xiaomi phone, take a look at our guide to sideloading the Google camera app.

2. How To Use HDR On Your iPhone Camera

Now it’s time to learn how to take HDR photos on your iPhone!

But first, you need to make sure you have the proper settings.

Tap Settings on the Home Screen. Tap Camera. Make sure that Auto HDR is turned off.

(On some iPhones, Auto HDR is called Smart HDR.)

(On some iPhones, Auto HDR is called Smart HDR.)

Turning off Auto HDR will ensure that you can activate the HDR setting yourself (in the Camera app).

Second, make sure that you select Keep Normal Photo. This causes your iPhone to save both the HDR and non-HDR version of your image. Therefore, if you don’t like your HDR photo, you’ll be able to go back and find the non-HDR version in your Photo Library.

Now open your Camera app.

Now open your Camera app.

Look at the side (or top) of the screen. You should see the HDR icon. Tap this.

On older iPhones, you’ll be given the option to se

On older iPhones, you’ll be given the option to select Auto HDR or to turn HDR on. If given the option, tap On. This will ensure that an HDR photo will definitely be taken when you press the shutter.

On newer iPhone models there are no additional settings. Just tap the HDR icon and the HDR feature will be activated.

Then, once you’ve found a good composition, go ahead and press the shutter button. The resulting photo will use the HDR feature—and it will display detail in both the lights and the darks of the scene.

Why HDR Photography Has a Bad Reputation

HDR was particularly popular among photographers some years ago. Unfortunately, with automated tools, the internet became flooded with bad pictures.

They show surreal, fake and oversaturated HDR pictures.

Classic overcooked HDR landscape.
Classic overcooked HDR landscape.

The problem is that it is easy to over-process HDR photos. There are many presets available in automated HDR software and nowadays there are also HDR filters. They produce unappealing images.

In time, those images became synonymous with HDR mode. But HDR is not a style. It’s a technical tool. The goal of HDR mode is to expand the dynamic range of your pictures.

Good HDR photos are subtle and keep the natural look of your images. Furthermore, you don’t need to remove contrast because it’s what keeps things natural. The way you manipulate the picture has little to do with HDR. You can opt for realistic editing, or you can go wild.

A more balanced and natural landscape.
A more balanced and natural landscape.

HDR camera settings: then and now

When the term HDR first came on the scene, it referred to a technique called “bracketing.” This technique achieves a wider dynamic range by taking the same picture three times — one at the most natural setting, plus two more that are overexposed and underexposed. Then, editing software blends the three images to preserve the details from the brightest highlight to the darkest shadow.

When we talk about HDR now, its meaning is slightly different, thanks to recent advancements in digital cameras. Many cameras now have a built-in HDR setting. This means the camera will take the three photos but only show you the result of blending all three — saving you from the hard work.

Conclusion

You should learn to use High Dynamic Range because you’ll find it useful in situations when you just need greater details. Just remember that you don’t need to create unrealistic HDR images. Instead, use our tips to help you create natural results.

Check out our post on how to use tone mapping next!

For in-depth knowledge on how to edit in Lightroom, take a look at our Effortless Editing course!

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