What is HDR and when to use it

A couple weeks ago I received this question from a reader.

“Hi Linda, 

Can you please write a post about HDR is and when to use it? I thought it was suppose to make my photos look better but I often don’t see any difference at all and sometimes they even look blurry.” Kate D.

Hi Kate,  here is the scoop about HDR and when to use it.

HDR stands for HIGH DYNAMIC RANGE which in simple terms is the ratio of light to dark in a photo. HDR works to balance the highlights and shadows in the photo so that neither is dominant. Before I get into when to use it, let me first explain how to turn the HDR on. The photo below shows the iphone camera screen. At the top of the screen just to the right of the Flash symbol is the HDR symbol. The slash through it means it is turned off (photo on left).


iphone camera screen

To turn on the HDR just tap the HDR symbol. You will then see three options; ON, OFF or AUTO. The auto setting lets the camera decide when it should be put into use. I prefer to control it myself because I have found the camera is not always accurate as to when it should be used.

To activate the HDR, simply touch the ON button and a yellow HDR box will appear. It is now activated (photo on right).  When HDR is activated the camera takes three images instead of one and then combines all three to make one photo. When using the HDR it is very important the camera is held in a very steady hand or on a tripod because the longer exposure time to take three separate images can often result in a blurry image.

So when should HDR be used?  HDR is best used when you want to balance high contrast lighting situations.

1.Landscapes are usually a good candidate for HDR because there is often a wide range between the highlights  and the shadows. This is a test out my back window very early morning to show you the difference.

Non HDR and HDR comparison

Non HDR and HDR comparison

The photo on the left is the native camera app with no editing and without the HDR activated. The photo on the right is also with no editing but with the HDR turned on. The difference is slight but you can see in the photo on the LEFT that the sky and trees are a little washed out as the camera light sensor was doing it’s best to expose for the snow and bright sky as well as the darker woods. The image on the RIGHT with the HDR turned on has more detail in the shadow areas and the sky appears more saturated and bluer which is more true to how it actually looked when I took the photo.

2. Backlite or high contrast lighting situations are also a good time to use HDR.

Here is an example of an interior shot in a high contrast situation. The photo below was taken without the HDR activated.

interior with HDR not activated

interior with HDR not activated

This is one of the toughest lighting situations for any camera. The bright highlights, in this case the window, causes the rest of the photo to be too dark. This photo is unedited and appears exactly as the camera took the photo without the HDR activated. The photo below is the exact same image also unedited with the HDR activated.

photo taken with HDR activated

photo taken with HDR activated

See the difference? Although this photo would certainly benefit from editing it is overall a better image with the HDR activated. The window now shows some outside detail and the chest which was in deep shadow and underexposed in the top photo has more detail and better color.

So when should you NOT use HDR?

1.You should never use HDR with any kind of photos involving movement. Even if the camera is on a tripod there will be blur due to the longer exposure time when HDR is activated.

2. When there is low contrast in the lighting you will see little to no difference using the HDR.

3. In situations with very vivid colors. Sometimes the HDR function causes highly saturated colors to appear washed out such as in a sunset or sunrise. It really depends though on the specific situation so when in doubt, take your photo both with and without the HDR activated.

Most phone cameras allow you the option of taking both the HDR image as well as an origional without HDR even when the HDR is activated. Simply go into Settings and tap on “Photos & Camera”. Scroll all the way down to the bottom and turn on the “Keep Normal Photo” feature.

Camera and Photo screen in Settings

Photos and Camera screen in Settings

This option does eat up more storage but it allows you to see which image you prefer and then you can delete the other.

I’m in Orlando this week at the 2017 Kitchen and Bath Show so be sure to follow me on Instagram to see live updates of the best products I spot at the show.






10 Responses to What is HDR and when to use it
  1. Adrienne Gerein Reply

    Great blog post Linda. I have been wondering for some time now how that works. Thanks as always for clarifying. Love reading your blog!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      So glad you learned something new Adrienne and thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  2. Kelly F Martin Reply

    Thanks, Linda. Very hepful– especially the tip about using it with backlite. : ) Have a great trip!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      Thanks Kelly!

  3. Jil Sonia Interiors Reply

    Everything you mention applies to my BlackBerry too, thank you!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      I figured it would but wasn’t sure so thanks for letting me know Jil.

  4. Tiffani Stutzman Reply

    Very helpful and easy to understand!! Thanks, Linda!

    • Linda Holt Reply

      You are welcome Tiffani and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. Carla Aston Reply

    Such good info! You were right, this would have been a good post to read BEFORE I went to KBIS! Thanks for sharing this, Linda! Pinning!

  6. Karen Peyton Reply

    Thank you for the “rules” and examples! I’m looking forward to fewer edits to conquer shadows. Zero would be terrific.

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