How To Take Better Phone Photos Using HDR Mode

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There are hundreds of things I’ve yet to learn about my smartphone. It seems like I’m discovering some new button or function daily! Luckily, the Camera app (obviously, the most important) only gets better and better!

However, there is a function in the Camera app that some folks are only now discovering – HDR Mode. Have you ever wondered what that funky little option does?

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a photographer’s best kept secret. Essentially, your smartphone takes three images at three different exposures – overexposed, underexposed, and in the middle – and combines them (typically takes about five seconds), creating one high dynamic photograph. It uses the best of the highlights, lowlights, and mid-tones from each image to create a photo that’s more accurate to what the human eye really sees. Pretty cool, eh?

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The iPhone also offers an option to save the original image, in addition to the HDR photo, which means you can see the difference between the two!

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However, HDR Mode is not the best choice for your daily photography. It does have a few downsides:

1. Motion blur. If you were shooting with a normal camera, you’d be using a tripod to keep steady while capturing the same image at 3 various exposures. Since your smartphone is merging 3 images into a single photo internally, it is very easy to create a ghosting effect, where an object is in multiple places in the photo. It’s similar to a multiple exposure effect, but not what we’re going for here! To avoid this, keep a steady hand and make sure your subject is very still.

2. Decrease contrast/color. HDR can bring out the contrast or color in areas where it’s too dark or overexposed. However, it can also do the opposite. If your photograph is already exposed how you want it (e.g. with a dramatic shadow or bright blue sky), go ahead and turn HDR mode off. It’s likely to expose the areas you wanted dark, or desaturate the vibrant colors that stand out.

So when’s the best time to turn HDR on?

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Landscape Photography. HDR mode is most often used in landscape photography, because it’s very easy to keep the subject still, and the highlights/lowlights are easily recognized by the camera’s sensor.


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Outdoor Portraits. I say this one with hesitancy! We all know the sun can create harsh shadows, which sometimes is unavoidable. Use the HDR option for portraits if you cannot move your subject into better lighting. To shoot a portrait in HDR, tap the darkest area of the subject’s face, which is where the camera will expose properly. If you focus on the light, it will darken the areas you wanted exposed.

Low-Light or Backlit Photos. If you’ve got too much backlight in your scene, that often means the photos will turn out dark. You can lighten up the foreground by switching on HDR mode, which won’t wash out the better-lit parts of your picture!

Have you already mastered the art of HDR? We’d love for you to share your best photos with us on our Facebook, Twitter or Google + page!

Images: Natalie Rhea

Hello! I'm Natalie Rhea, a professional photographer/videographer based out of Austin, TX. I make a living telling other people's stories! Follow my work at as I tell you stories about the world I see.

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