Do you know those travel photos you see where everything is so bright and vivid? That’s called HDR. In this post you’ll learn all about HDR iPhone photography so you’ll be able to rock it in your travel photos on your next trip. I’ll go over…

  • What is HDR?
  • How to get HDR iPhone photos
  • When to use HDR
  • When not to use HDR
  • How to enhance HDR iPhone photos with editing apps

Before getting started let me say the HDR effect is pretty strongly debated in the world of photography. There are some who love it and others who can’t stand it. If HDR is taken too far, the effect can be too much. It will appear over saturated and gaudy. But a subtle HDR effect can really bring out the finer points of an image and create something stunning. It can be easy to go overboard playing with HDR, so experiment a bit  before applying it to all your photos indiscriminately.

By the end of this post you’ll understand HDR and how to get perfect HDR iPhone photos from your travels. Let’s get into it!

 Getting started with Travel iPhoneography ‹‹ iPhone travel photography tips for your next trip ››

What is HDR?

HDR stands for high dynamic range. The purpose of HDR is to show a greater difference between the lightest parts and the darkest parts of a photo. It is meant to represent a more accurate depiction of what the human eye can see in real life. Confused? Let me break it down.

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When you take a photo with your iPhone (or any camera), you might find that when the dark parts are properly exposed the light parts are overexposed. And when you adjust exposure for the bright parts of the photo, you find the dark parts are underexposed, i.e. too dark. This is normal and it happens to the best photographers, especially when we have less control with an iPhone than a DSRL.

Dynamic range is the difference between these dark and light areas.

The sensor on your iPhone is not capable of capturing the proper exposure for both the dark and light parts of a photo. This is why we can see everything fine with the naked eye, but it is difficult to get a photo to show all the details at the proper exposure.

Thankfully, with some fancy photography techniques, skillful post processing, and your iPhone camera, it’s possible to  take wonderful HDR iPhone photos of your travels. Below are a two examples of HDR iPhone photography. Depending on how much work you put into them, the final image will be different. The image on the left is a regular non-HDR photo straight from my iPhone, the one in the middle is HDR taken from the iPhone, and the one on the right is when HDR has been enhanced in post processing.

How to get HDR iPhone photos

Before the HDR function was introduced on the iPhone, HDR was a long and complicated technique. It would require a photographer to take three exact photos of the same scene with three different exposures. Obviously a tripod is needed to do HDR this way. The three photos would then be combined and edited so the best exposed parts of each photos showed. To be honest, I don’t really understand how to get HDR photos this way. I mean, I understand how it works, but I don’t know how to do it.

It’s a good thing there is an easier way to get HDR iPhone photos! To get your own HDR iPhone photos:

  1. Open the camera app
  2. Tap on the icon on the top/left side of the screen that says “HDR”
  3. Select On
  4. Take a photo – You did it!

HDR iPhone photography

That’s all there is to it. As long as you have HDR turned on, your iPhone will take an HDR photo every time you tap the shutter.

However, you might not always want to keep the HDR photo (I’ll get into this in a minute). In this case it’s better to set your iPhone camera to take both a non-HDR and an HDR photo so you can choose one later. To do this go to Settings > Camera/Photos & Camera then scroll down to where it says Keep Normal Photo. Make sure this is switched on. Now when you take a photo in HDR mode you will end up with two photos: a non-HDR and an HDR one.

HDR iPhone photography

When to take HDR iPhone photos

You should have a good understanding of what HDR is and how to take HDR iPhone photos. But it’s not as simple as turning HDR on and expecting every photo to be stunning. You don’t want to overuse this technique, and there are times when the non-HDR photo will be better than the HDR one.

So, when should you use HDR?

Generally, HDR works best for scenes with high contrast. This means there is a large difference between the light parts and the dark parts in the camera screen.

One of the times you will encounter high contrast is when taking landscape photography. This is because the sky is often brighter than anything in the foreground, on sunny days but even just on cloudy days. However, HDR is not just for landscape photography. You can try it out taking any type of travel photography. And if you want even more valuable advice on taking great iPhone travel photos, sign up for my free email course:

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For example, take these two photos of the science museum in Nagoya, Japan. The one on the left is the non-HDR version, and the one on the right is the HDR photo. In the photo on the left you can see some parts of the sky are overexposed and there is little detail. In fact it’s completely white. At the same time, the darker parts of the foreground are too dark. In the HDR photo you can see much more detail in the bright sky and also the dark parts of the foreground. Pretty neat huh.

When not to use HDR

At this point, you might be wondering when you should not use HDR.

Remember, the best time to use HDR is when there is high contrast in your scene, and you want to reduce this and see more detail in the bright and dark parts of the photo. Therefore, you should not use HDR when you want to keep this high contrast since it will detract from the effect. For example, if you want to bring attention to a shadow. Turning on HDR would make the shadow lighter and reduce the dramatic effect that shadows have.

If you take an HDR photo of a scene that doesn’t look good because it reduces the contrast between the dark and light areas, now would be a good time to use the non-HDR photo. This is why it’s important to set your iPhone to take both a normal photo and an HDR photo at the same time. That way you can see which one is best and delete the other one.

You’ll also want to avoid taking HDR iPhone photos when the subject is moving or you are moving. This is because HDR is a combination of three differently exposed photos that need to line up perfectly. So if the camera moves, the images won’t line up, and you’ll be left with a poor shot or a “ghost” image.

I don’t recommend leaving HDR turned on all the time. You’ll end up with double photos of everything, which takes up space on your iPhone. Instead, leave it off most of the time and turn it on when you want to use it.

I also find HDR doesn’t look good on a close up of people. It brings out too many lines and weird spots on the skin.

Furthermore, be careful you don’t make your photos too HDR that they appear unnatural. Here’s an example what you should NOT do in post processing:

HDR iPhone photography
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How to enhance your HDR iPhone photos

You might take an HDR iPhone photo and think to yourself it’s not very vibrant. And it’s true. While HDR is a great way to add some creativity your iPhone travel photos, the HDR effect on the iPhone camera is subtle.

The HDR photo above of the science museum is untouched in post processing. You can see the HDR effect, while nice, is not as vibrant as it could be. The truth is, the iPhone camera is just not capable of taking those vivid and bright HDR photos you see right out of the camera. To get that more dramatic effect you need to play with your photos in post processing.

My favourite app for enhancing or converting photos into HDR is Snapseed. It is a free app in both the App Store and Android, and it’s great for a lot of simple and advanced editing besides HDR. It’s also easy to use. Click here to download my recommended iPhone photo editing app guide.

To enhance your HDR iPhone photos, open the app and tap Tools. Then tap HDR Scape. You can choose from several presets: Nature, People, Fine, and Strong. You can further make adjustments to these settings by swiping up and down on the screen to open the hidden menu.

Here’s the HDR photo taken with the iPhone camera and edited in Snapseed. You can see how much brighter and detailed the image is after some fine tuning.

HDR iPhone photography

You can even apply the HDR Scape tool to non-HDR iPhone photos for the same effect. Here is a black and white HDR iPhone photo that was converted from a normal photo from my iPhone camera.

HDR iPhone photography

Takeaways

You should now understand what it looks like and how to effectively take HDR iPhone photos. It’s quite simple to take HDR photos with your iPhone, and you should have a good idea of when to apply the effect and when not to. This can also take a bit of practice, so don’t be afraid of trying it out in different situations. HDR is one of many ways to make your iPhone travel photos more interesting.

Although the HDR effect straight from your iPhone camera is not overly dramatic, in the right conditions it is an improvement over a non-HDR photo. And there are apps to help you bring out the HDR look and make an image brighter and more vibrant. My favourite app is Snapseed. You can even apply HDR to regular photos.

Here are the important points to remember from this post:

  • HDR stands for high dynamic range: the difference between the dark and light parts of a photo
  • Turn on HDR on your iPhone camera to take a quick HDR photo
  • HDR is best when there is high contrast, i.e. bright parts and dark parts in a single scene
  • Don’t use HDR if you want to show this high contrast
  • Hold your iPhone very still and don’t use HDR when you or the subject are moving
  • You can enhance the HDR effect in post processing; my favourite app is Snapseed
  • With Snapseed you can convert regular iPhone photos into HDR

I hope you learned a lot about HDR iPhone photography in this post. HDR is a brilliant and fun way to play with your travel photos and make them stand out. Whether you like HDR comes down to personal preference, but when done tastefully  the effect can be very nice. Images are brighter, more vibrant, and more dramatic than their non-HDR counterpart. It’s only when they are edited too far into the extreme and they appear unnatural that turn people off.

If you want to learn even more about iPhone travel photography, take the free 5-day email course and you’ll get value-packed lessons right to your inbox.

As with any photography skill, getting the hang of HDR takes some practice and learning what you like. You need to learn when are the ideal conditions and situations to use HDR or not. But a bit of practice and experimentation will help you figure things out. I encourage you to try out the HDR feature on your iPhone camera and also to play around with it in post processing. Spend some time learning how HDR works on your iPhone and what happens when you play with the different editing tools. For more iPhone travel photography tips and secrets, read Getting Started With Travel iPhoneography.

Let me know your thoughts on HDR in the comment section. Do you like creating HDR images of your travel photos? Or do think HDR is unattractive? Let me know, and be sure to jump on my mailing list for even more exclusive iPhone travel photography tips and tricks!

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Author

Jennifer has lived in Japan for a total of seven years. She has travelled, taught English, studied Japanese, completed a Master's Degree, and travelled some more. She currently calls Nagoya her home, where she lives with her Japanese husband.

8 Comments

  1. love love love. Ive always loved photography and at the moment I can’t afford all those fancy dslr cameras so this is a great alternative.
    thank you and I did sign up for the course as well. can’t wait to learn more

    • I’m so glad to hear that! That’s wonderful you found this post helpful, and I hope you enjoy the email course! 🙂

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