What is HDR on Smartphones?

As smartphone technology continues to get better and better, the quality of photos also continues to improve. In the past, many smartphone photographers have struggled with poor contrast. 

It was once incredibly disappointing to take a photo of the beautiful scene in front of you, only to be disappointed by the blown-out highlights and pitch-black shadows on your screen. If only your image had more range in brightness levels.

To solve this problem, more smartphone manufacturers are beginning to introduce HDR technology into their mobile device lineup. So, what is HDR, and how does it affect your photos?

HDR/HDR+ Explained

What is HDR on a smartphone? Well, let’s try to get some contextual understanding first. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Dynamic range refers to the range of color detail in a photo. Photos of the past with poor contrast where the dark areas were too dark, and light areas appeared to be overexposed had a low dynamic range.

With HDR, your photos contain a wider range of luminosity, which results in more detail and better contrast. Though HDR is commonly used in traditional photography, the technology has only become available to smartphones in the last few years. So, what is HDR? In layman’s terms, it’s the technology that makes your photos pop by accentuating the highlights and raising the contrast levels.

Though not all smartphones are capable of capturing HDR photos, most newer models can. Depending on the type of phone you use for mobile photography, this may be an automatic feature on your camera app, or you may need to turn it on.

Some phones may also have an Auto or Smart HDR option, which allows to phone to analyze each scene as needed to determine whether there is enough contrast available to require HDR.

Whether this feature is called HDR, HDR+, or some other similar name will depend on the type of phone you use. Each smartphone manufacturer uses a different term, but they’re not to be confused with HDR10 or HDR10+.

HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision all refer to the manufacturers’ specific technology to achieve a high contrast look in media.

How Does HDR Work?

How Does HDR Work in smartphones?
Photos with Phones

Your smartphone creates an HDR image by combining two or more images. Each image is taken at a different exposure. By combining an overexposed photo with an underexposed photo, as well as one at normal exposure, your phone can combine the best qualities of each image into a single photo.

As we just mentioned, most phone cameras equipped with HDR technology can take these photos and combine them in the blink of an eye.

It is technically possible to combine photos into a single HDR image manually, but it’s pretty complicated and time-consuming. Most mobile photographers would find it easier to invest in a more modern smartphone equipped with HDR technology.

Like most aspects of technology, there are times when HDR can help improve a photo and times that it can hinder the quality of your work. Knowing when to use HDR will help you master your smartphone and improve your mobile photography. Take a look at the graphic above for an example of how Smart HDR can actually result in a worse image.

When to Use HDR

If you’re photographing sunset and have a vibrant sky with a relatively dark foreground, you’re looking at the perfect opportunity to take advantage of HDR technology.

In this example, the HDR setting on your smartphone will take an overexposed image to brighten the dark foreground as well as an underexposed image to tone down the brightness of the sun and sky. By combining these images, the result is the best of both worlds.

Another example would be a photo taken indoors near a window. The bright light from the window might appear overexposed in a normal photo, while your subject inside the room might appear underexposed. HDR can help even this out and expose a wider range of color detail.

Any situation in which you’re faced with a range of light levels that will affect the overall quality of your photo would be appropriate for HDR use.

When NOT to Use HDR

Though HDR might seem like an awesome feature, unfortunately, it’s not appropriate for every situation. Learning when you should and should not use HDR technology is simply a matter of practice.

The more you practice your photography skills and use HDR, the more you’ll begin to understand when HDR can improve your photos and when it’s not going to help much at all.

Any situation where your image has a relatively limited range of brightness levels will not be appropriate for HDR.

When used in these situations, HDR can make the photo appear overprocessed. Instead of a more detailed image, you’ll get a photo that looks fake or poorly edited.

Using HDR in low light situations is also not recommended. This is because your phone will need to take an underexposed photo in order to create the HDR image. In a low light environment, that underexposed image can drastically darken the image and make it appear duller than it would without HDR.

HDR is also not recommended for action photography or any situation where your subject or background moves quickly. 

Since your camera needs to take multiple photos to combine into a single HDR image, the movement captured in the different shots can create weird lines, streaks, or blurs in the final image. 

In many cases, the situations where HDR is not appropriate may require you to adjust brightness levels or other aspects of the photo in your editing session.

HDR on Different Brands of Smartphone

HDR on Different Brands of Smartphone google pixel 3a HDR+
Photos with Phones

One disappointing aspect of HDR on modern smartphones is that different phone brands seem to have different HDR technology. Some software processes images more than others, so a scene that requires HDR on one phone might be best without it on another.

Since each manufacturer seems to do HDR a bit differently, you may find that different phones will require different settings and skills to make the most out of that brand’s HDR technology.

The key to overcoming these differences is to get to know the device you shoot with the most. The more you get to know your phone, the better you’ll know when to use HDR and what the overall effect will be on your images.

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