All about HDR mode: what and when to use it on your smartphone camera

All about HDR mode: what and when to use it on your smartphone camera

What the HDR?

HDR the acronym for High dynamic range which, in good English, means High Dynamic Range. In technical words, it means the amount of light of different intensities that can be recorded by the camera lens. Although the goal of HDR is to make photos look better, it is not recommended that you go out using it in any environment you want to shoot.

Image made by Bruno Salutes, Centenrio Stadium in Montevideo, Uruguay. Galaxy S8 Smartphone:

IMG 3585 side
Sunlight Exposure / Bruno Salutes / AndroidPIT

Misusing the functionality can have the opposite effect: it makes the image look artificial, giving it the impression that it went through a beautiful Photoshop treatment. But do not worry. Below, we will indicate how HDR works in practice, beyond where and when to use HDR.

How does HDR work?

When enabled, HDR mode uses different images captured in the same shot (usually three) each with a different shade of light, shadow and exposure time. From there, the smartphone camera software combines these photos into one, resulting in a final image that gets details that would be lost in bright and low light conditions.

Before long, HDR was a unique feature of image processing software such as Photoshop, Photomatix, or Aperture. Prior to the arrival of functionality in smartphone cameras, it was necessary to capture the three photos (with the camera or mobile phone), transfer them to a PC that had one of these programs and use the HDR function to put these three images together and highlight the images. best parts of each.

Image made by Bruno Salutes, Sahuasiray Andes Valley, Peru. HDR vs. without HDR (Galaxy S7):

hdr example one
Example: with HDR (left) and without HDR (right) / Bruno Salutes / AndroidPIT

But to avoid all this editing work, smartphone manufacturers have been able to adapt HDR to their camera software. Then, when activated, it will do all the work, automatically adjusting the exposure of the images. That is, you just need to snap the photo and the result will be something that should look more like what your eyes come to and less like what the "v" camera is.

It is worth mentioning that when you use the camera in HDR mode, the image takes about 3 seconds to appear on the screen as the software is combining the captured photos under different conditions.

When should you use HDR?

As we said before, HDR cannot be used at any time, at the risk of giving the photos that artificial look. So here are some tips for when you should use the feature to capture your images:

  • Landscapes (Panormicas): Generally, large landscapes have large contrasts between sky and earth, for example, which makes it difficult for the camera to work together all the details in the same image. With HDR, your smartphone's camera captures details of the sky without making the screen look too dark, and vice versa.

Remember, everything here is essentially related to the incidence of light, so the camera lens prioritizes one over the other over light, less light.

Image made by Bruno Salutes, Sahuasiray Andes Valley, Peru. HDR vs. without HDR (Galaxy S7):

hdr example two article
Example: with HDR (left) and without HDR (right) / Bruno Salutes / AndroidPIT
  • Portraits in sunlight: Lighting is one of the most important aspects of a good photo, but in the open, sunlight can cause shadows or glare to "burst" the image. HDR can adjust these discrepancies and makes the subject of the image appear better.
  • Low backlight scenes: If your photo looks too dark, which also happens if your scene is backlit, the HDR can brighten the foreground more without leaving the image too dark or too bright (burst). In other words, it will balance the scene.

But it's always worth remembering: HDR doesn't work miracles, since there are logical limitations. For example, if in an environment there is no light, even if the camera captures the maximum light in one of the three images, it will remain dark, as the other two will have the same strong index in terms of darkness. In the image below we have an unlighted object that received light compensation, but the already low background light was decompensated.

Image made by Bruno Salutes, Sahuasiray Andes Valley, Peru. HDR (Galaxy S7):

hdr example don't use
Here HDR didn't help Bruno Salutes / AndroidPIT

Importantly, in the image above, you clearly realize that we are losing more light information, one of the criticisms of the camera's HDR mode, because when trying to balance the details of an image, it will always tend to lose more detail in the light than in the light. shadow.

When should you not use HDR?

If on many occasions HDR really helps, on other occasions it makes the images look worse. So here are some situations where you better forget that the resource exists:

  • Photos with motion: If any of your objects are moving (or may move), HDR increases the chance that a photo will blur. Remember, HDR takes three pictures, so if your subject moves between the first shot and the second shot, the final image will not look very good.
  • High contrast scenes: Some photos look better with strong contrast between the light and dark parts of the photo, as if you wanted to highlight darker spots. Therefore, the HDR makes it less intense, resulting in a less detached photo.

Image made by Bruno Salutes, Punta Ballena, Uruguay. HDR vs. with HDR (Xperia Z5):

hdr don't use two example
HDR eliminated the vividness and contrast of the right colors / Bruno Salutes / AndroidPIT
  • Vivid colors: If the environment is too dark or too bright, the HDR may leave some of the colors lifeless. However, if you are dealing with colors that are already very vivid, the HDR can make them even more vibrant.

Which smartphones have HDR as standard?

Relatively new feature on smartphones, HDR mode can be found natively on mid-range and top-of-the-line models. And most models introduced this year also have the "factory" feature in the camera app.

Please note that feature performance may vary from smartphone to smartphone depending on the camera and how the HDR is configured. Some models misuse the function, slightly expanding the dynamic range; others increase more. Therefore, if you take this feature into account when buying a phone, it is recommended to perform some tests with the handset.

View of AndroidPIT headquarters, Berlin, Germany. HDR (OnePlus):

Androidpit hdr 0019
HDR on / AndroidPIT

But if your device does not have native HDR, the solution is also simple. Just use specialized photography apps that bring the feature:

View of AndroidPIT headquarters, Berlin, Germany. Without HDR (OnePlus):

Androidpit hdr 0018
HDR Off / AndroidPIT


If you belong to the group that just wants to capture quality photos without dwelling on photographic techniques, the best tip about using simple HDR: take a test image with the feature and one without it and then see which one suits you best. Because it is a feature that can be turned on or off on your smartphone, perform this simple "A / B test".

Just keep in mind that HDR is not necessarily a function of the most geis and you need a little patience (a matter of a few more seconds). This is because the smartphone camera captures the images and soon after the software needs to process them to deliver the final photo. Therefore, if your records require speed, it would be the case to keep the feature disabled.

And did you feel any big differences when using HDR mode on your smartphone?

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