How to take awesome HDR photos with your iPhone

How to take awesome HDR photos with your iPhone

Have you ever wondered what that HDR toggle in your iPhone's camera options is for? And why you want to use it? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and refers to a scene that includes both bright and dark elements -- the sun, reflecting off water, with deep shadows in the tree lines, or even a regularly lit person standing against the glare of an open window. When we talk about HDR photography, we are referring to taking photographs of such scenes. Unfortunately, unlike the human eye, camera sensors need a little extra help to get that done. So, in this week's iPhoneography column, we're going to discuss more details about HDR and how best use your iPhone's camera to get the most dynamically awesome photos ever.

What is HDR?

As mentioned above, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is not exclusive to photography. When you step outside on a sunny day and view a scene that has both really bright area and very dark, shaded areas, you are living in a setting with a great dynamic range -- a huge range of light intensity levels. On a foggy day, the dynamic range is very low (and usually ideal for photography).

By definition, photography is the art of recording light. This act must be done with the camera sensor -- which is only capable of capturing a certain range of light intensity at any given time. Even the most expensive and most professional cameras on the market are not equipped with sensors that can capture all ranges of light in one photograph. That's where "HDR photography" comes in.

HDR photography is traditionally done by taking multiple photos with the exact same composition but with different exposure settings, then merging them all together as one photo. For example, a photographer will set up his camera on a tripod, take one photo that is exposed for the darkest area of the scene, a second photo exposed for the mid-range section, and a third photo exposed for the brightest area of the scene. The photographer will then edit these photos in sophisticated software, such as Photoshop, and blend them together so that all the properly exposed areas of the three photos are merged together as a single photograph. A quick search for "HDR" on Flickr will provide a lot of great examples of the types of photographs that are created with this technique.

The iPhone uses a similar, though less sophisticated, method of creating HDR images. When you enable HDR, the iPhone will take three photographs at the same time, with different exposures, and layer the best parts of each one to create one photo -- all in a matter of seconds. There are definitely noticeable improvements when using this feature, but it turns out that you can do more than just enable HDR to produce a better image.

How to enable HDR on your iPhone's camera

Enabling HDR on your iPhone's camera is very easy. With the Camera app open, you should see a button at the top of the screen that says Options. Tap this button to see the Grid and HDR toggles. To turn on HDR, switch to toggle to ON by tapping it. Tap Options again to get the menu to disappear. HDR will stay on until you repeat the process to turn it off.

Since the iPhone will take three photos every time you trigger the shutter, Apple has included an option in the Settings app that lets you keep the normal photos -- meaning the photos you would've taken if HDR was turned off. To turn this on, go to Settings > Photos & Camera > Keep Normal Photo > ON.

Tap to expose for darkest part of scene

Following the above instructions will have HDR up and running without any effort on your part. However, I've learned through much experimentation a little trick that will improve results -- exposing for the darkest part of the scene.

Everyone is familiar with the tap-to-focus feature of the iPhone's camera, but what many people don't realize is that not only is the camera focusing on your subject, but it's also exposing for this area of the photo as well. I don't have an explanation as to why, but exposing for the darkest part of the photo seems to produce better results than to let the iPhone choose an exposure automatically. The algorithm that the software uses appears to do a better job at recovering bright areas of a photo vs dark areas.

The sequence of photos shown above demonstrates this. The first photo was taken without HDR. The second photo was taken with HDR enabled and the exposure that the Camera chose automatically. For the third photo, I tapped on the left part of the screen where the grass is darkly shaded before taking the photo. It could be a matter of taste, but I prefer the last photo out of the three.

HDR apps

The built-in HDR feature of the iPhone's camera is a great, but there's no denying its limitations. That's where the App Store comes in. The App Store has a plethora of various apps dedicated to HDR iPhoneography that provides features like creating HDR effects on non-HDR photos from your Camera Roll, more sophisticated algorithms for merging photos, filters, and more. Here's just a few:

Do you have any favorite HDR app?

Now go out and shoot!

Now that you know all about HDR photography, go test your new knowledge on the streets! Or other beautiful scenic areas. As always, please share your best photos with us in the iMore Photography Forum. Most importantly -- have fun!

How to get more help with iPhone photography

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Leanna Lofte

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

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Reader comments

How to take awesome HDR photos with your iPhone


Personally I used HDR Fusion and it creates a REALLY awesome image. The picture itself will turn out very desaturated but go to your Photos and use the Auto-Enhance and it will spice it up to make it really cool looking.

Thanks for the tips/article, Leanna.

I still have an iPhone 4 (for a few more weeks, anyway ;) ) - I think for outdoor photos it is amazing. Never used the HDR setting, but am going to try it out.

Were I think it falls a little flat as a camera (and have read the 4S is better, so hoping the new iPhone improves again) is indoors. Any suggestions there?

Only suggestion I have is to find light. Really, all but professional level DLSRs suck indoors without flash. Photography is the art of recording light, if there isn't much light to record, then the image won't be very good :(

Thanks again. I just find the flash on the iPhone to be too bright for most uses. Wish there was a way to reduce the brightness.

That's always a problem for me with these cameras. yeah for me, many of my pictures aren't "art" photos or intended as art. So it's where these cameras all fall short. Like i'm taking a picture to capture a moment in time. Like at a wedding. Well you can't very well say "hold up. Everyone let's move outside out of this dim church so i can take a picture." You know what i mean. So i kinda wish they'd put a decent flash. I know you'll probably say you hate a flash but if i'm not concerned. When the choice is an all black picture or one with visable faces with a flash i take the flash. But for me it's normally not convenient to "find light." LIke the other day i was at dinner and wanted to take a picture. Didn't come out well cause of low light but i surely wasn't feasible to ask everyone walk somewhere were there was light. So i hope in the future for us point and shooters they put a flash in these things that allows for better images in a normal room. because interestingly though the specs on my iphone say it's a better camera my old canon sd200 or something takes better pictures simply because the flash is much much better. (Which i find funny since when i bought the phone the "weak flash" was precisely what reviewers criticized. I guess weak is relative though.

Exactly. The iPhone flash, at least to me, is insanely too strong. Maybe if the subject is across the room, buy I am an anti-digital zoom guy, so my 'zoom' is my arm.

The iPhone flash it itty bitty teeny tiny. Compare it to the size of the flash on point and shoot cameras. The iPhone simply cannot fit a good quality flash into the hardware.

All I can say is that if you know you are going somewhere like a wedding or dinner with friends, bring your point and shoot along for those darker environments.

And yes, I do hate all on-camera flashes. They produce flat images. BUT, I do agree that when it comes to capturing a moment, having the option of the flash is great. I do use it. It's better to have a flat image than no image!

But I'm sorry, there's nothing more that I can say. The iPhone's flash sucks and there's nothing any of us can do about it. If you frequently take photos in environments where the iPhone's camera is not sufficient, then you need to invest in an actual camera that fits your needs.

See lol, i knew you'd hate flashes. :) For my non-artistic needs "flat image" isn't truly in my photo lexicon. Ah my 11th grade photo teacher would be so ashamed. And i was actually not bad at photography. But i digress.

But as for "not being able to fit a bigger flash in an iphone, I don't know. The EVO has two flashes. That's an option. I'm sure engineers could find a way to make a bigger flash if they wanted too. It's simply not on their list. But big picture i think if it's important to them they'd make room. Aren't there Nokia phones that have larger flashes? But i get it. I just don't like the situation. Where i jobs i'd have been like, this sucks. As for carrying a big bulky camera. That's unlikely. not gonna happen anytime soon. I'm a dude. People just have to deal with crappy pics my iphone may take.

i turn hdr off because i almost never take a shot where everything is stationary. There's always always people moving. Iike at the beach or something. so hdr ends up with blurs, even worse when my hand wobbles.

I am with you there. Sounds like we use the camera for the same things. Capturing my kids, mostly. Yes, they are getting to understand 'stand still' for the picture, but at 7 & 10, there are a ton of action moments I want to get. Outside it's great!

To clear up Leanna's point about tapping in the darker areas for a better HDR shot, my guess is because it allows the camera, combined with the algorithms used by the software, to follow the "expose to the right" rule in digital photography. A digital camera's sensor, and in this case the iPhone's camera sensor, will have a certain tonal range or number of stops that "see" certain levels of light ranging from dark to bright. Most of the levels are on the right half of the range.

I wrote an article on this for my local camera club's site and it explains this theory much better then I can here. It delves into the science of photography a little so it may bore some of you but it does show what I mean by my initial statement here. You can read it at

I should note that I could be way off on this but when Leanna said she gets better results by tapping on the darker areas, this made the most sense to me because trying to recover dark areas of an image just produce noise.

I think the explanation for exposing for the darker area can be explained by stating without light there cannot be an image. Therefore, by metering the dark area of a scene intentionally overexposes the resulting image. Another way to imagine it is as follows - The image created is only a result of the reflection of light so underexposing an image means the light never reached the film plane (or sensor) and hence no image was ever formed. By slightly overexposing the scene you capture the image (light reflection) and keep on capturing resulting in the brighter areas being blown out (too bright). This means you can recover an image that is overexposed (within reason) but you cannot recover an image that was never created (underexposed) in the first place.

Great Article Leanna.

I am sorry if someone already posted this, but the absolute best way to take HDR photos is by using the method below.

Take photo with native camera. Do not worry about focusing on the light or dark area, just make sure its a steady shot.

If you have Photoshop Express (Iphone/ipad app), input the original photo and under-expose the picture (all the way). Save the Under-exposed photo. Re-open the original photo in PS Express and this time over-expose it (All the way). Save the Under exposed Photo.

Now, I use Pro HDR. Open the app > Actions > HDR from Library. Choose the under-exposed image then the over-exposed image. Let the app do its thing.

This is the best way I have found. Simply incredible photos. May take a few extra moments to complete your photo's but the HDR Range is incredible.

I know I'm late to this party, but I /just/ got my iPhone (I saved a link to this article when it came out). HDR is apparently not working for me. It's enabled (duh). When I turn it on and take a test shot with a nicely lit portion and a dark portion, my iPhone is taking/saving two images, one is ever so slightly over-exposed in the nicely lit portion, and that is the only difference I can see. I can see no further into the shadows with the image version labeled "HDR". iPhone 5, not yet updated to iOS6.1.