What Is HDR and How to Use It on iPhone: Everything You Need to Know

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. HDR works to balance the shadows and highlights of a photo so that neither are being favored or ignored. This is done by combining three different exposures into a single shot. We’ll go over everything you need to know about why and when to use HDR as well as how to use HDR on your iPhone. For the perfect amount of exposure in a photo of land and sky, HDR mode on your iPhone camera makes a big difference in the right situations. Let’s get to it; here’s the meaning of HDR, why it’s important, and how to use it on your iPhone.

You May Also Like: 15 Photography Tips to Help You Master Your iPhone's Camera


Table of Contents:

What is HDR?

HDR vs. Non-HDR or Normal Photography

When to Use HDR & When Not to Use HDR

How to Use HDR on iPhone

How to View HDR Photos on iPhone

Which iPhones have HDR mode?

Alternative 3rd Party Apps for Taking HDR Photos


What is HDR?

As stated, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. But what does that really mean? It has to do with the differences in vision between the human eye and a camera. Dynamic Range in photography is the range from the lightest light and the darkest dark that can be seen in a photo. Our eyes can see a much larger dynamic range than a camera— and that’s where HDR comes in to make up the difference.


HDR vs. Non-HDR or Normal Photography

For example, say you’re taking a picture of a lighthouse against a blue sky. You can focus and properly expose the lighthouse or you can focus on the sky. One or the other will appear accurately but not both. It will either appear as though the sky is washed out (overexposed) or the lighthouse is but a dark shadow. HDR combines multiple exposures so that both the sky and lighthouse are properly exposed, meaning that both are properly lit and the contrast levels of the photo are balanced.


When to Use HDR & When Not to Use HDR

HDR mode on the iPhone works best when the photo is taken with your phone stationed on a tripod. It’s important to have a steady hand when taking an HDR photo if you aren’t using a tripod. HDR doesn’t capture movement well, because HDR combines three different shots into one, which means too much movement might cause the multiple photos not to align perfectly into one. You’ll end up with a photo that has ghosts of itself. For the same reason, taking photos of moving objects doesn’t work well either. You can use HDR to experiment and get odd shots with double exposures, but for the intended purpose of HDR, movement is a detriment to the shot.

So when should you use HDR?

HDR is best used to balance high-contrast scenes. Some examples of situations in which to use HDR:

  • Landscapes. The sky and the land have a lot of contrast between them. HDR is capable of capturing the light of the sky and the dark of the land in one shot that doesn’t make either the land too dark or the sky overexposed.

  • Objects in Direct Sunlight. Sunlight casts shadows creating a wider range of contrast in a photo. Using HDR brings balance to all the elements both light and shadow. 

  • Scenes with Backlighting. The same principle as above applies to the reverse situation. If you have a scene that’s bright in the background, HDR will lighten the foreground without making it look overexposed and washed out.


*Pro-Tip: Generally, I wouldn’t worry about it. On iPhone, you can turn on a setting which saves both the HDR photo and the normal photo, which means you can compare and choose after the fact without having to worry about whether or not using HDR will ruin or improve your shot. We’ll cover this setting in How to Use HDR on iPhone below.


How to Use HDR on iPhone

First, decide whether or not you want your iPhone to save just the HDR photo or both the HDR photo and the normal photo. The pro of saving both is that you can review each and choose which you like the best. The con is that saving both takes up more storage on your iPhone, which isn’t a problem if you go through your photos and delete the version you don’t want to keep. But it’s something to keep in mind.

To set your iPhone to either save both the normal and HDR photo or just the HDR photo,

  • Open Settings.

  • Tap Photos & Camera.

  • Scroll down to HDR (High Dynamic Range).

  • You’ll see the option to Keep Normal Photo.

  • Toggle it on to save both the HDR photo and the non-HDR photo.

  • Toggle off to save only the HDR version.

How to Use HDR on iPhone  How to Use HDR on iPhone


On the iPhone, HDR mode is easily turned on, off, or set to auto within the Camera app.

To use HDR on iPhone,

  • Open your Camera app.

  • At the top, tap HDR.

  • Choose On to leave HDR on and Auto to let the camera decide when it’s necessary.

what does. hdr mean  what does HDR mean

  • When HDR is enabled, you’ll see a yellow box that says HDR near the bottom of the screen.

  • Tap the big white shutter button to take your picture.

  • It will automatically save to your Camera Roll.

How to View HDR Photos on iPhone

You view HDR photos on iPhone the same way you view any photo on iPhone. Once you take your picture,

  • Open the Photos app and select Camera Roll.

  • If you have the Keep Normal Photo setting on, you’ll see both the normal photo without HDR and the HDR picture. Photos that are HDR will say so in the top left corner of preview.

HDR vs. non-HDR or normal photo  


Which iPhones Have HDR mode?

HDR on iPhone has been around since the iPhone 4 and iOS 4.1. Wow! So if you have an iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 6 or 6s, iPhone SE, or if you’re planning to get the iPhone 7 — it’s highly unlikely you’d have an iPhone without HDR. As far as software goes, if you’re running iOS 7, iOS 8, iOS 9, or (the soon to be released) iOS 10, then I’m sure you’ll have no problem finding HDR mode in the camera app on iPhone.


Alternative 3rd Party Apps for Taking HDR Photos

HDR mode on the iPhone has improved since its introduction, but many photographers still say it isn’t the best. For the average photo-taker, HDR mode in the iPhone camera app is likely sufficient. However, if you want to step your HDR game up, there are plenty of alternative 3rd party apps you can use. Two of the top rated apps for HDR are Pro HDR X ($1.99) and vividHDR ($2.99). If you love iPhone photography, it’s worth the small investment.



Top Image Credit: lzf / Shutterstock.com

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Sarah Kingsbury is the Senior Web Editor of iPhone Life magazine. Previously she wrote for savvyvegetarian.com and was the Associate Editor of the Iowa Source for many years.