iPhone 5S HDR Photo Test

December 23, 2013

iPhone 5S camera HDR banner

In this article I want to talk about the iOS High Dynamic Range (HDR) camera app feature.  When you shoot an HDR photo, the camera takes three sequenced shots and combine them to a single high dynamic range image.  You probably had a change to see some high dynamic range images before, but most of those highly saturated images were actually taken with a dedicated HDR app or software.

The iPhone 5S HDR doesn’t produce that colorful dramatic effect that you see on many HDR images on the web. In fact, the idea was to enhance the images by optimizing the highlight and shadow areas. This helps to recover some details in the image that otherwise would have been lost.

How to Activate HDR on iPhone 5S / iOS 7?

By default, when you take an HDR photo, the camera saves both the original image and the HDR image. You can turn this feature off by going to Settings > Photos & Cameras > Keep Normal Photo.

Activating HDR on iOS is simple. Activate the camera app by clicking the iOS default camera app icon. This will launch the built-in camera app. At the top (portrait orientation) or at the left side (landscape orientation) you should see a text that says “HDR Off”. This means that the camera by default captures non-HDR photos by default. Click the text again to turn on HDR and the text will now show “HDR On” with a yellow color. Now every photo that you capture from that point on will be a high dynamic range one. Click it again to turn it off.

HDR On and Off, iOS7 camera app screenshot

HDR On and Off, iOS7 default camera app screenshot

Is There any Big Difference Between Regular Photo and HDR One?

It depends on the specific HDR app that you use. Using the built-in HDR feature on iOS 7 on my iPhone 5S,  there is a slight difference in the overall image capture. Having said that, you need to take a closer look at certain areas to see how the HDR affects the image. Don’t expect any major differences or something colorful like you see on some HDR dedicated sites. The whole idea is to recover details from highlight and shadow areas, normalizing the image at certain areas that are either too dark or too bright (blown highlights).

In the next example you can clearly see how the HDR effects the blown highlights. I took two photos with my iPhone 5S, the first one with HDR turned off and the second one with HDR turned On. You can clearly see that the original image clearly has some blown highlights in the bottom area of the curtain.  The curtain contains lots of texture information that was lost.

iOS7 HDR on and off comparison

iPhone 5S / iOS 7 HDR on and off comparison

I did try to recover some of the details using Adobe Photoshop, but those areas that are completely white cannot be recovered. In the next image you can see the Luminosity histogram that shows that luminosity of a selected blow highlight area in the original image and below that, you can see the histogram of the image when the HDR was turned on.  Lots of the blown highlight data is lost, and only some of this data can be recovered, so there is not much you can do with Photoshop to recover that area. This is exactly the place where HDR can be very helpful.

Photoshop histogram with HDR On and Off

Photoshop luminosity histogram with HDR On and Off, showing the blown highlight areas

Another advantage that HDR brings is for optimizing shadow and mid-tone areas by revealing more details and also by minimizing the amount of image noise in those areas. Shadow areas are more sensitive to noise, and some camera manufacturers actually boost the exposure in order to maintain a cleaner image. This leads to more blown highlight areas in certain parts of the image.  Using HDR you can minimize the amount of image noise in shadow areas, but not at the expense of blown highlights.

In the next picture you can clearly see that HDR reveals more information in the shadow areas and bright areas at the same time, as well as reducing the amount of noise by using the data from the well exposed image. Both images were shot at the same ISO sensitivity (ISO32), so the difference in the amount of noise is not due to different ISO levels.

Landscape image with HDR on and off using iPhone 5S camera

HDR On and Off using iPhone 5S camera, reveals more details in shadows and bright areas as well as produces cleaner image

You can clearly see that the HDR image taken using the iPhone 5S back camera contains much less image noise and more details revealed in both shadow and bright areas of the photo. The main benefit of HDR is in when shooting in daylight rather than in low-light. Some people use only in HDR mode, if only for the advantages that I mentioned above. Some people were even disappointed seeing that HDR Off is the default option.

You shouldn’t limit yourself to the built-in HDR functionality of iOS. There are many HDR apps for iOS on the App Store, each one with its own unique cons and pros. I’ve installed HDR FX app (not the pro version, the free version). I took two shots, one without any filters and the second using the “Spring” HDR effect. The image turned out to be much more colorful and certainly more pleasing to the eye of the viewer. On the other hand, it increased the image noise and didn’t solve the blown highlights issue.

HDR FX test comaprison

HDR FX "Spring" effect vs Original

This of course doesn’t summarize my experience with HDR FX app, and I think it’s a great app for enhancing your photos. Having said that, you should understand that some HDR apps on the app store, although do enhance your photo visually, might not solve the basic issue that HDR was intended to solve in the first place. Some of them just enhance the photos using regular image editing techniques like boosting the saturation and contrast, others are more sophisticated. I didn’t spend time downloading and comparing the different apps out there, and I assume that there are some very good ones.


What I wanted to say is that the iOS7 HDR works very well for what it was designed for, and it helps improving certain areas of the image that needs optimization. I will certainly use the built-in HDR more often and I trust this feature give me high quality photos, especially at times where there is more likely to get blown highlights and noise in shadow areas (e.g. shooting at noon, against a strong backlight, etc.). I highly recommend that you give that HDR feature a try.

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