[Tech Detox] What the Hell is… HDR?
In today’s time and era, it looks like most of us have been bitten by what we like to call the “phone photography bug”. After calls, instant texting and social networking, we think capturing pictures is one of the major parts of our smartphone-driven lives and by major we mean we have seen smartphones that have camera and just camera as their USP and not just primary cameras, even secondary (or should we say “selfie”) cameras have now become the highlight of the phones. Loads of megapixels, dual cameras, DSLR-like settings and what not. Phone cameras have evolved like humans from chimps. And along with the evolution comes complexity. We have tried to tech-detoxify many of these intricate words that revolve around phone photography: we have explained ISO and aperture and are going to help you out with another one today.
HDR is one thing which recently came into the spotlight and most of us just know turning on this setting makes our photographs look better, but is that all? And if so, should you use the HDR mode all the time? Read on to find out.
What is HDR?
HDR is obviously an abbreviation and it stands for High Dynamic Range imaging, not High Definition Recording as so many assume it does. This much talked about feature which has made its way to the camera phone recently is not so recent in terms of being a concept. In fact, it has been practiced for a very long time in the photography world. Just as the name suggests, HDR is supposed to add a “dynamic range” in your pictures.
Well, dynamic range is basically the ratio of the brightest part of the picture to the darkest side. The feature tries to provide a similar range of lighting which is experienced by a human eye. This means it tries to create pictures with the same lighting conditions as our eyes would see.
But how does the HDR even work?
When you turn on HDR on your phone’s camera, it actually clicks more than one picture at once when you hit the shutter button – generally three pictures (it can be more in terms of manual HDR process). These three photos are taken at different exposures. This means that the smartphone captures three different photos of the same setting with different amounts of light in each picture.
In professional photography, generally the photographers themselves have to pick these three pictures and paste them all together and edit them accordingly, but the little magic box in our hands (the phone, duh!) usually does all the work for us now. In smartphones, one just has to turn on the HDR mode and the smartphone will take three pictures at different exposures and stitch them together. It usually creates a balance between the shadows and the highlights in a picture, picks the best bits out of the three photographs and slaps them together. And the end result is closer to what your eyes see rather than what your camera sees.
This is also the reason why your phone takes a little bit of time when the HDR mode on it is turned on. Instead of taking one picture, it takes three and processes them at the same time which obviously takes fractions of seconds more than normal photographs – it is not lag, it is the camera actually working extra hard.
But HDR is not some magical sword that can be used in all situations (although we suspect Hugo Barra, a confessed HDR addict, might disagree – Edit Mentor). Let us now explain when to use and when not to use HDR mode in phone photography.
When to use HDR?
- While clicking pictures in low light or extremely bright light conditions:
- While clicking landscapes:
- While clicking portraits in sunlight:
We highly suggest using HDR mode in these two conditions. We have mentioned it before and we will say it again, HDR is about creating a balance between light and dark. Sounds like a superhero trying to balance the good and the evil in the world, doesn’t it? – well, we can consider HDR as something like that in the case of photography. When you are clicking a picture in extremely low light conditions or clicking pictures in a very exposed environment, the balance between the light and the dark can go for a toss. But worry not, HDR will come to the rescue in this situation. It will take three shots at different exposures, pick the best elements out of the three and will provide you with the best possible outcome.
Landscapes are usually a bomb of contrasts. The land and the sky and all the other dimensions of the two can be a little too much for your poor smartphone camera to handle on its own. Well, the hero of the day in this situation can also be HDR. With the help of HDR, you can get detailing of both the layers falling in the picture without the sky being too bright or the land being too dark or vice versa.
There can be no photographs without light and it is the most important aspect when it comes to pictures but there is proverb which says “too much of anything can’t be good.” Well, that is the case with light in photography, too. Too much light can hide the details of the subject, cause glare or produce an overexposed picture. And when we need a balance between the shadows and the lights, you can turn on the HDR mode and keep clicking them pictures on a bright sunny day.
When NOT to use HDR?
Well, now that we know HDR provides us with better photographs, you must be all set to keep it on the next time you go out for a shooting expedition. But you need to rein in your wild horses and understand that you can not unleash the HDR monster on every picture you take. Sometimes, just sometimes HDR can have an adverse effect on the quality of your photograph. So here are some situations where it would probably be the best if you keep the hero of balance out of the picture (pun intended):
- While clicking a moving object:
- While clicking vivid colors or high contrast scenes:
Unlike landscape which is stationary and will pose for you to click its pictures, humans, cars, animals and many other subjects roaming on the face of the earth are not that immobile. And this very feature can make them ‘not-so-good’ subjects for HDR photography. Moving objects are an open invitation to blurry pictures and turning on the HDR mode will only add to your blurry problems. It takes three shots and merges them together, remember? Hence slapping them together will give you a blurry mess.
The scene if too bright or too dark can be worked out by HDR but if you use HDR while you are shooting vivid colors or scenes with high contrast, the chances are, you will end up washing them out a bit. In order to create balance, the HDR setting will automatically try to balance colors out and in these situations, you will end up losing colors.
If you want to save yourself from all this pain and just want to point and shoot pictures, there are many smart smartphones which offer an auto HDR mode. The phone will automatically turn off or turn on the HDR mode and HDR will come to your picture’s rescue.