What Is HDR & How to Use It on Your iPhone Camera (Updated for 2020)

* This post is part of iPhone Life's Tip of the Day newsletter. . *

What does HDR mean, and should I use HDR in my iPhone photography? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and an HDR photo is created by balancing the shadows and highlights of an image so that neither is being favored or ignored. Basically, HDR on the iPhone combines three different exposures into a single shot. iPhone HDR has been around for a long time, so you won't need an HDR camera or a special app if you have an older iPhone 4, iPhone 5, the iPhone 7, the iPhone X, an iPhone 11, the latest iPhone SE or any of the models in between. We’ll go over the meaning of HDR, when HDR should be on or off, as well as how to use HDR on your iPhone to take better pictures. HDR mode on your iPhone camera makes a big difference in the right situations, such as when taking a photo of land and sky. So let’s get to it; here’s everything you need to know about what HDR is and how to use HDR on your iPhone to take awesome pictures.

Related: iPhone Photography Tips: How to Shoot an Overhead Picture

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What Is HDR on the iPhone?

Photographers have long been using HDR to improve their photography. Apple adapted HDR for the iPhone camera. Here's what HDR means and what HDR is on the iPhone.

What is HDR & What Does HDR Mean?

As stated, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. But what does High Dynamic Range photography 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.

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 just a dark shadow. HDR combines multiple exposures so that both the sky and lighthouse are optimally exposed, meaning that both are properly lit, and the contrast levels of the photo are balanced.

The above video is a preview of an iPhone Life Insider Daily Video Tip

Okay, What Is iPhone HDR, Then?

HDR on your iPhone is the combination of three shots, taken within milliseconds of each other, and stitched together into one photo. Your iPhone takes three pictures in order to capture each part of the landscape in perfect exposure. As we stated above, it’s hard to achieve ideal exposure of both light and dark areas. So, the iPhone creates a High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo by combining the properly exposed parts of each of the three images into one that looks seamless. 

The images below show how HDR works and what it looks like when you use HDR on your iPhone:

What is HDR?

what is. hdr on iphone

Related: iPhone Photography Tips & Tricks: Learn How to Take Better Pictures

HDR Photography Tips 

HDR mode on the iPhone works best when the photo is taken with your phone stationed on an iPhone tripod. However, the images above were taken without one. So, you can take HDR photos if you don’t have a tripod, but it is important to have a steady hand when taking an HDR picture if you aren't using one. This is because HDR doesn't capture movement well. Since HDR on the iPhone combines three different shots into one, too much movement might cause the multiple photos not to align correctly. For the same reason, taking pictures 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.

HDR vs. Non-HDR: Should HDR Be On or Off?

HDR is best used in high-contrast scenes. Here are some examples of situations where you should 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.

HDR adds details to the shadows and the highlights, but sometimes you don’t want that. High contrast images, with really deep darks and shining brights, can be striking and beautiful. Here are some situations to avoid HDR:

  • Silhouettes. When you want that stark outline to really stand out, turn your HDR off.
  • Dark as a backdrop. If you’ve got a dark room behind a brightly lit subject, you may not want to see details back there. With HDR off, nobody ever needs to know about the mess the shadows are hiding.

*Pro-Tip: On the iPhone, you can turn on a setting that saves both the HDR photo and the standard 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 an iPhone below.

HDR iPhone Settings & Options

First, if you have an iPhone X and earlier, you need to 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.

Set Your iPhone X or Earlier to Save Both the Normal & HDR Photo or Just the HDR Photo:

This option is not available on iPhone SE (2nd generation), iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max.

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap Camera

    iphone camerawhat is hdr
  3. Scroll down to HDR (High Dynamic Range); you’ll see the option to Keep Normal Photo.
  4. Toggle it on to save both the HDR photo and the non-HDR photo.
  5. Toggle off to save only the HDR version.

    keep normal photo and hdr photo

How to Turn Off HDR: iPhone 7 Plus & Earlier

For older iPhones, you can choose to turn HDR to Auto, On, or Off within the Camera app. 

  1. Open your Camera app.
  2. At the top, tap HDR.
  3. Choose On to leave HDR on and Auto to let the camera decide when it’s necessary.

    hdr settingshdr options
  4. When HDR is enabled, you’ll see a yellow box that says HDR near the top of the screen.
  5. Tap the shutter button to take your picture.
  6. The photo will automatically save to your Camera Roll.

    hdr is on

How to Turn Off HDR: iPhone 8, 8 Plus, X, XS, 11, 11 Pro, Pro Max & iPhone SE (2nd generation)

If you have an iPhone 8 or later, then your camera will automatically take HDR photos whenever possible unless you turn it off in Settings. As you can see below, the Camera app on my iPhone X doesn't have an HDR icon to the right of the flash icon as on older iPhone models. 


How to Turn Off Auto HDR or Smart HDR

  1. Open the Settings app.
  2. Tap on Camera.

    iphone settingswhat does hdr mean on iphone
  3. Toggle off Auto HDR.
    Note: On iPhone SE (2nd generation), iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone XR, and iPhone XS, this will be called Smart HDR, and it is less useful to turn off, since Smart HDR is far less likely to result in motion blur. 
  4. Now return to your Camera app.
  5. You'll see HDR next to the flash icon as before; tap it.

    what is hdr on iphone cameraauto hdr is off
  6. Now you'll see the Auto option to let your iPhone decide when to take an HDR photo, turn HDR On, or turn HDR Off.

    iphone hdr camera options

Note: with Auto HDR (or Smart HDR) toggled off in Settings, and HDR set to on in your Camera app, your iPhone will still only take HDR photos when it detects that the HDR technique will improve the photo. If your HDR setting appears to be on in the Camera viewfinder and you're still not seeing HDR photos in the Photos app, then your subject matter probably doesn't have enough contrast between light and shadow to make the HDR technique necessary. Try taking a picture of a tree against a clear sky, or out a window from a dark room into a bright outside, to make sure that HDR is working.

How to View HDR Photos on the iPhone

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

  1. Open the Photos app.
  2. Select Photos at the bottom of your display.
  3. If you have the Keep Normal Photo setting on, you’ll see both the normal photo without HDR and the HDR picture.
  4. Photos that are HDR will say so in the top left corner of the preview.

    hdr in photo preview

Is HDR for TVs Different than HDR on an iPhone?

Yes and no. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range regardless of whether we're talking about photographs or displays. As a photographic technique, HDR has been around since the early days of film. HDR displays, on the other hand, are an advanced technology that offers millions more colors than HD displays by literally shining more light, so the image is more vibrant and striking. You can take and view HDR Photos without an HDR display, and they'll still do a better job than normal photos of balancing light and dark. That said, some iPhones (the X, XS, XS Max, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max) have HDR displays in addition to their HDR Cameras, so they combine ancient photographic techniques with advanced technology to take and show photos that are more true to life, brighter, and more colorful than ever before. 

Which iPhones Have HDR Mode?

HDR on the iPhone has been around since the iPhone 4 and iOS 4.1. Wow! So it’s highly unlikely you’d have an iPhone without HDR:

  • iPhone 4
  • iPhone 5
  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
  • iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
  • iPhone X and X Max
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (second generation)

As far as software goes, if you’re running iOS 7, iOS 8, iOS 9, or iOS 10, iOS 11, iOS 12, iOS 13, and later, then I’m sure you’ll have no problem finding HDR mode in the camera app on iPhone.

HDR Camera App: 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 third-party apps you can use. Two of the top-rated apps for HDR are Pro HDR X ($1.99) and HDR for Free. If you love iPhone photography, it’s worth the small investment.


Top Image Credit: blackzheep / Shutterstock.com

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Author Details

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Author Details

Sarah Kingsbury

Sarah Kingsbury is the Senior Web Editor and SEO Content Manager at iPhone Life. She manages the web editorial team and oversees all web and newsletter content. A long-time Apple enthusiast, Sarah can't live without her iPhone, Macbook Air, HomePod, Apple TV, or Apple Watch. As the original contributor to the iPhone Life Tip of the Day Newsletter, she wrote hundreds of iPhone how-tos to help users master their iPhones. It's safe to say that she has written or edited every tip published on iPhoneLife.com! In her 20 years of editing and writing, Sarah has done everything from working as the associate editor of the Iowa Source magazine to developing recipes and reviewing cookbooks for a vegetarian cooking website. But teaching people how to use their Apple devices is her favorite job so far.