The iPhone’s built-in HDR is basically useless - Macenstein

The iPhone’s built-in HDR is basically useless

iPhone HDR photography
Above: Yes, these were taken with the iPhone, but not with the iPhone’s HDR mode.

HDR photography is certainly cool, and the idea of Apple adding it to the iPhone’s camera app sounded great on paper, but in practice, it really doesn’t hold a candle to stand alone HDR apps. I’ve recently been playing with the PRO HDR app (iTunes, $1.99), and as you can see from the following samples, there really is no comparison.

iPhone HDR photography

As you can see, the original iPhone picture, for the most part, is almost always better than the iPhone supplied HDR shot, but still vastly inferior the PRO HDR app results. In fact, it almost appears Apple’s version of HDR is to flatten the images, with a layer of gray, whereas traditional HDR is designed to make the colors pop and more accurately resemble how your eye sees things.

iPhone HDR photography
Above: The iPhone can hardly capture the explosive colors of fall without a little help.

Of course, as with all good things, there are some definite drawbacks to the Pro HDR app. First, it takes about 20 seconds to take a picture (well, 2 pictures, really, plus the analyzing and merging). Apple’s HDR doesn’t take all that much longer than its standard shots. Of course, that’s because it really isn’t doing much. Also, with PRO HDR, you REALLY need to hold your iPhone perfectly still for those 20 seconds, and your subjects need to also remain perfectly still. This more or less rules out shots of kids and pets, and even a windy day can cause your image to come out a bit blurry. I would also imagine shots of the ocean are out as well.

iPhone HDR photography
Above: The first shot (the non-HDR iPhone shot) actually doesn’t look all that bad until you see the PRO HDR shot. THAT is much closer to how the light in the forest actually looked. The iPhone’s HDR shot int he middle just grays it all out.

I’m sure Apple had the best of intentions in introducing the HDR feature to their camera app, and I don’t want to bash it too harshly, but I would hardly call what it does “HDR”. Sure, you can see clouds in an overcast sky a bit better with the HDR setting on, but the results are just so drab and uninspiring when compared with other 3rd party HDR apps that I’ve yet to keep one over the default iPhone camera shot. Hopefully in the future as the speed of the processor and camera improve, we will see better results.

If you really want to take cool nature shots that come close to what your eye is actually seeing, for the moment you’ll need to invest in a 3rd party HDR app. Actually, ideally you’d invest in an actual camera, but if you’re too cheap to do that, dropping $1.99 on an app like PRO HDR isn’t a bad second choice.

18 Responses to “The iPhone’s built-in HDR is basically useless”
  1. Magicpony says:

    If you think that Pro HDR autumn shot more closely matches what your eye sees then I want some of what you’re on.

  2. Lee Burrow says:

    I think you are missing the point a little. I don’t think it was ever Apples intention to produce the over-saturated style of HDR that 3rd party apps achieve. The built in HDR just helps with over blown sky etc. A much more subtle effect.

    I do hope they open up the ability to capture multiple images to 3rd party devs though.

  3. Michael Henke says:

    Hold you iphone perfectly still for 20 seconds? No movement whatsoever on the subject? This rules out pro HDR for basically every situation where you want to take a picture with your phone…

    If you want to go serious about HDR photography, buy a tripod and a decent DSLR!

  4. “If you think that Pro HDR autumn shot more closely matches what your eye sees then I want some of what you’re on.”

    I sort of agree here, Doc. It looks a little Johnny-Depp-In-Alice-In-Wonderland-ish. Lay off the sauce a little, eh?

    I’ve never seen Autumn turn the water bright tan. That’s either a very lively ecosystem, a whole lot of reflection, or someone slipped something in the iPhone’s drink.

  5. Thib says:

    Er…you’re revealing yourself to NOT have a photographer’s eye. What is catching your eyes are oversaturated colours which is typically what wows an amateur about visuals but that is NOT what a professional photographer typically aims for.

    It’s not hard to make oversaturated photos in any case.

  6. D9 says:

    Yes, I’ve not been too impressed w/ the Apple HDR component on my iPhone 4 either. As Michael above note, you first need to hold the camera fairly steady for 4-5 seconds while it composes the shot. And also, rule it out for “moving” shots like sports events.

    But where it may enlighten shadow areas or reducing highlight blowouts, it’s doing so by reducing the tonal value overall. Detail is quickly lost in these shots.

    I don’t mind investing in a HDR app for the iPhone, but I’m wondering if Apple will update the firmware in future to improve its built-in solution.


  7. In all the sample photos I think the iPhone HDR mode yielded the most pleasurable results, personally. The standard iPhone photos are all a bit to dull and the shadows too dark. In the Pro HDR photos the colors are incredibly bright and the shadows are pretty much non-existent. The Apple HDR does a good job of enhancing the colors without completely eliminating the shadows. A good balance in my opinion.

  8. pjs_boston says:

    The purpose of HDR is to avoid loss of information due to overexposure or underexposure. The iPhone4 HDR capability does that while keeping the shot looking natural. If you like super saturated colors just use iPhoto auto enhancement or Photoshop after the fact.

  9. Manni says:

    This hurts! I do not understand how people can call these oversaturated comic-style compositions to be the best results. Apple’s function clearly delivers the most realistic HDR shots.

    I guess some people are not really looking for a way to increase the dynamic range but for some fancy overdone photoshop-filter. The results of PRO HDR APP are really not what human eyes see but what your personal brain thinks how it should not like.

  10. Andy says:

    Can’t comment on this one. I have a 3G so I don’t get to try Apple’s HDR. Can’t say why it matters much either. If I want qualiy photos I’ll bring a camera.

  11. fring says:

    On the evidence of these photos, the iPhone is doing the best job. The Pro HDR app is frankly, horrible tho the average snapper will love it I’m sure.
    But seriously, HDR processing via multishot DSLR pics is the real thing, not these gaudy snaps. My HDR software almost cost as much as my iPhone and there’s a reason for that.

  12. Gavin Fenton says:

    Why the necessity to take three shots in quick succession? Surely the phone could work with the data from the first shot taken and extrapolate one for a blown out sky and one for an underexposed foreground? Isn’t it the software that dictates the image?

    If the sensor isn’t working in this way, then maybe it should …

  13. James Katt says:

    Apple’s iPhone HDR IS USEFUL for those times you don’t have time to hold the iPhone perfectly still, to have subjects stay perfectly still. It creates a better photo than a single shot iPhone will do.

    Clearly when you have more time, when you can have a still subject, and can wait the 20 or more seconds for processing a single photo – instead of being able to take multiple HDR photos in a short time like the iPhone Camera HDR can do – then ProHDR would be expected to do a better job.

    But ProHDR doesn’t do a good enough job for me even – compared to a digital camera and HDR software. The reason is that it can’t take more than 2 photos.

    If ProHDR could do 3 or 4 photos, it would do an even more spectacular job.

  14. Biblezombie says:

    The water down here in Mississippi is brown year round, not just in Autumn. Hell, we get excited when we can see through the tap water, let alone the river water.

  15. David Geissler says:

    I don’t have an iPhone 4 but I tried ‘TrueHDR’ and ‘Pro HDR’. The results are always the same Pro HDR tends to produce oversaturated aritificial photos. Sometimes this might give interesting results, but it certainly does NOT look natural.
    Some days ago I showed a Pro HDR photo to my father. He immediately asked if this photo was painted.
    I like the automatic mode of Pro HDR, but I often use TrueHDR to merge the single Pro HDR photos. The results don’t look so artificial with TrueHDR.

  16. Dennis M says:

    HDR on my Iphone 4 also white washes so bad. Im not sure if it is a defect or? I hate the native HDR on the Iphone 4. My kids faces come out STARK white for some odd reason, to the point of almost looking like a mime!
    Im not expecting 12 MP quality, but even the 3GS cam took very good pics, and the processor didn’t make any attempts to OVER compensate for anything!

  17. Dennis M says:

    2nd comment..
    I also meant to add, that, when you compare ANY of the above pics, from ORIGINAL to HDR (native), not the PRO hdr, you can see that on the HDR pics, they are “brightened” up. The darks look more gray (thats what happens when you lighten up dark areas, they go from black/dark to grey). Look at the tree line on the right side of the river. The ORIGINAL colors of the trees are indeed darker, while the HDR tree pics give a whitewash appearance to the same trees. SO I would go as far as saying the HDR doesn’t add grey, the HDR lightens the entire pick. No matter what pic I shoot, they always turn out lighter/whiter or even a pasty white. yuk!!!

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