iPhone Photography & the Magic of HDR

Great to have you back for our 3rd installment in the iPhone Photography Series here at iDB. A couple quick housekeeping items. If you’d like it see what I’m up to as I prepare our next lesson or if you have questions, give my Facebook page a like or follow me on twitter (@justinbalog). I always do my best to help others realize their own creative vision.

A few non-iPad users asked about my book being available for other devices, I have good news.  It’s now available in .PDF which will work on all your devices. Also included in it are the videos from the interactive iPad Version.

In the previous two lessons, we took a deep dive into exposure and how to leverage it to our creative advantage. In both lessons, we were working within the limitations of the iPhone’s ability to record light. It’s not your iPhone’s fault, it’s a limitation of all cameras. Whether it is film, or the most advanced digital sensor, cameras aren’t nearly as good as your eyes at dealing with a wide range of bright and dark.

That being said, the world of photography has had a long standing workaround. It’s a technique called High Dynamic Range photography (HDR)…

Simply put, HDR is a photographic technique that takes photos exposed for both the highlight detail (bright areas) and shadow detail (dark areas) and blends them together pixel by pixel into a composite image that is exposed properly for both highlight and shadows. Back in the days, photographers used darkroom techniques during the development process to do this. Today your iPhone can do it at the time of the click! Here is a quick example of HDR in action.

Highlight Detail – Here in this image, I have exposed for the beautiful blue sky. However, in doing so I have lost all the bridge detail in shadows.

Shadow Detail – In the opposite exposure I was able to reveal the intricate details in the shadows, but lost the impact of the beautiful blue sky.

Balanced Exposure – By enabling the HDR feature of my iPhone, I was able to produce a balanced exposure that is accurately exposed for both the bright sky and the darker bridge in the shadows.

How To

How do you do such advanced photographic processing on an iPhone you ask? It’s easy, you just turn it on! Right there, under Options. Yep, that’s it. Once once you have it enabled, every time you take a photo, your iPhone will actually take several photos at varying exposures, apply some fancy mathematics to blend them together, and produce a single beautifully exposed image.


That being said, HDR is not the silver bullet it appears to be. There are two distinct limitations of HDR and one personal consideration. Before we get to the limitations, let’s get the personal consideration out of the way.

HDR images take your iPhone longer to process and they can potentially increase your photo storage requirements. Speed is obvious, if you take a photo with HDR enabled, you will notice the processing spinner spins just a bit longer than without. In terms of storage, if you have ‘Keep Normal Photo’ enabled in your ‘Photos’ settings, you will be saving two images for every image you take. You will save both the HDR image, as well as, the middle exposure image. Again, these aren’t deal breakers, but something you should consider prior to leveraging HDR for all your photographic needs. Now, on to the limitations of HDR.

Camera Motion

The first major limitation with using HDR is camera movement. Remember, when you enable HDR the iPhone is going to take several photos at the time of the click and blend them into a single image. If your camera is moving, you will end up with odd looking artifacts around the subject boundaries in your scene. You can mitigate this by using a tripod. I have an entire video dedicated to shooting with a tripod in my book. Get it for your iPad here.

Here in this image of the world famous Red Rocks Amphitheater, you can see evidence of the camera movement along the edges of the rocks.

Subject Motion

The second major limitation with using HDR is subject movement. You can mount your iPhone to the most stable tripod in the world, but if your subject is moving, you are going to have a problem. The photo industry refers to this phenomenon as ‘Ghosting Artifacts’.

Here is this image, after our yoga instructor Ron swam across the lagoon, I thought it would be a good idea to snap a quick photo of our couple’s retreat. It was a beautiful setting for morning yoga. However, my attempt at capturing it failed because Ron was moving around helping all the women with their poses and saying things like “Encouragement….boom…..boom….” and winking.

Here are a few of my photos when HDR was successful.


Your assignment this week is to experiment using HDR. You don’t have to have a tripod, just do your best to keep your iPhone still. I will be posting a few more examples over on my Facebook page, so give it a like. Also, make sure to tag your Instagram images with #iDBHDR and I’ll select a few of my favorites to share in the next lesson. Speaking of our next lesson… we will be exploring composition in two weeks so make sure to check back!

Justin Balog is an award winning photographer and filmmaker. You can follow is daily creative adventures at HOSSedia.com or learn more about iPhone Photography in his iBook ‘Big World Little Lens‘.