What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in an iPhone camera, should it be turned on, and how does it affect photo quality


Smart HDR is, as the name suggests, similar to normal HDR, but smarter. This feature first appeared on the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR in 2018. It takes full advantage of all camera sensors, the power of the A12 Bionic neural chip, machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision and the latest advances in mobile photography. Thanks to Smart HDR, all iPhone users can easily take pictures with sufficient light and high dynamic range.

What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in iPhone Camera

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The user is not required to delve into fine-tuning – just press the shutter button, and the iPhone will do the rest. But behind such a simple feature lies sophisticated technology that takes full advantage of Apple-designed processors and graphics chips. This hardware is optimized to interact with the camera software, allowing you to effortlessly capture beautiful images.

Previous iPhones already had regular HDR and Auto HDR, but Smart HDR debuted on the iPhone XS / XR series.

apple iphone hdr

Smart HDR delivers better color quality and allows you to capture more light and dark details in your photos

On older models, the function will not work due to the lack of the required fast sensors, shutter lag and other new improvements. Auto HDR is mainly used by users to capture a moment in time with more detail and take sharper, more realistic shots.

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What is HDR

This abbreviation itself literally stands for High Dynamic Range. This is the name given to a digital photography technique that allows you to take great pictures in scenes with high contrast levels. HDR allows you to compose the tones of several similar images to expand the dynamic range beyond the built-in capabilities of the capture device. This feature works best when photographing a shaded subject against a bright background.

What is HDR

Only HDR makes such shots possible: excellent detail in low light, no overly bright sky on the right side of the shot

On traditional DSLR cameras, you have to choose between too bright a background or a shaded subject. HDR allows high-quality display of both. With this feature enabled, iOS quickly takes three consecutive shots, each with a different exposure level. One is at normal level, one is for the brightest part of the scene, and the third is for the darkest. The best parts of each exposure are combined into a single high dynamic range frame. HDR is especially useful in difficult lighting conditions such as harsh, bright backlights.

What is HDR

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The images below clearly show how the HDR function works.

What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in iPhone Camera

In the first (left) image, the exposure has been balanced to best represent the sky. This made the object too dark. In the second photo, the shutter speed was balanced for the best shot of the subject in the foreground. This made the sky overexposed or just too bright. HDR blended all three frames to enhance detail and present them in bright and midtones.

As you can see, HDR took the best parts of the overexposed and underexposed shots and combined them with the third shot taken at normal exposure. This made it possible to obtain a detailed photograph (located on the right) with high contrast.

The sophisticated displays of Apple gadgets are capable of displaying a wide color gamut. The cameras of these devices also know how to create it. They can increase the dynamic range of HDR images by 60%.

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Auto HDR on iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

On iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and newer, this feature is enabled by default in iOS. The latest models of smartphones from Apple actively use HDR not only in the main camera unit, but also on the front one, when the device considers it possible to improve the photo. But this behavior of the iPhone can be turned off. The Auto HDR switch can be set to inactive in the camera settings (app Settings → Camera) in the HDR section.

Auto HDR on iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

It has already been said above that devices such as the iPhone XR, iPhone XS / XS Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone SE 2, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro / 12 Pro Max have improved camera sensors and chips. providing enhanced HDR. Based on these benefits, Apple has created an even more advanced version of Auto HDR. It is not for nothing that it got the name Smart HDR.

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Smart HDR on iPhone XR, iPhone XS / XS Max, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone SE 2, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12 Pro / 12 Pro Max

Smart HDR is activated by default whenever needed to improve image quality based on shooting conditions. Unlike previous HDR modes, this smart one works with more scene types. Some of them could not use traditional HDR: Portrait and Portrait Lighting modes, panoramic and burst shots, live photography and other similar real-life scenarios.

All HDR images taken with iPhone X (iPhone 8/8 Plus) or later are marked with a distinctive HDR icon in the very corner. On the iPhone XS, and newer models, Smart HDR is involved in almost all images, but the icon at the bottom of the photos appears only if it is significantly processed.

Below is an example with two different Apple devices to showcase Smart HDR image enhancement through faster sensors, better chips, and improved processing algorithms for newer devices.

Auto HDR VS Smart HDR

Left: Auto HDR on iPhone X; Right: Smart HDR on iPhone XS. Notice the overexposed clown in the Auto HDR photo.

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The difference is obvious. The image on the iPhone X is clearly disrupted in tricky lighting, but the image on the iPhone XS looks much better. This happened precisely due to Smart HDR. Note the ability to read the Shelton Theater on the back of the clown’s mouth. But you can also turn off Smart HDR in the camera settings, so as not to use this function every time you press the shutter button in the Camera application. To manually control HDR, do the following:

On iPhone iPhone XR, XS / XS Max, 11, 11 Pro, SE 2, 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro / 12 Pro Max, turn off Smart HDR along the way: Camera → Settings

What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in iPhone Camera

On iPhone X / 8/8 Plus, turn off Auto HDR along the way: Camera → Settings

Auto HDR on iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

On previous models, turn off HDR along the way: Camera → Settings

On all iPhone models that support HDR, this feature can be controlled directly from the Camera app without going to Settings. To do this, in the top panel, you just need to click on the HDR icon and select the mode On or Off

What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in iPhone Camera

Note: On iPhone XS and later, when Smart HDR is enabled, the HDR toggle on the camera itself will not be present.

What is HDR, Auto HDR and Smart HDR in iPhone Camera

All iPhone models prior to the iPhone 8 always save a normal exposure image in the Photos app along with its HDR counterpart. This is because the technology has not yet been fully developed, and the photographs were not always perfect. Of course, storing two versions of a photo at once, regular and HDR, doubles the amount of storage required for each shot.

If the issue with the availability of free space is relevant, then you can save only the version with HDR, abandoning the source. To do this, go to Camera → Settings and enable the parameter “Leave original”… And the latest iPhones with advanced chips and sensors, such as the iPhone XS and above, by default do not save the image at normal exposure along with the HDR version of the image.

In fact, this is the main thing to know about HDR on the iPhone.

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