HDR Images on the iPhone Camera Are Not Very Good—Here's Why

It’s a matter of over-processing

  • The iPhone’s HDR images have started looking totally unnatural. 
  • It’s a matter of bad choices made by the software. 
  • Try a regular camera, or stick to subjects the iPhone handles best.
Someone taking a picture of a city skyline with a Ferris wheel using an iPhone.

Alina Fiene/Unsplash

If you've noticed your iPhone photos steadily getting garish, unnatural, and just plain weird over the last few years, you're not alone. 

Pictures from phone cameras look incredible, especially from the iPhone and high-end Android phones like Google's Pixel. To get such great images from such tiny image sensors, they have to do a lot of smart processing to create the final photo. The problem is that processing can go too far, and in recent years, that's exactly what has happened. 

"[I have] been disappointed with a lot of the photos since upgrading to an iPhone 12 mini. Overall, they look better than with previous iPhones, and overall they look better with Smart HDR enabled. But sometimes Smart HDR does a bad job, making things look artificial and over-processed, and there's no way to 'undo' that and get an unprocessed photo," Michael Tsai, a technology critic, said on his blog.

Sense and Sensor Ability

Compared to dedicated cameras, phone cameras have teeny sensors with tiny pixels that capture a lot of noise along with the actual light from the image. To compensate, the phone will typically take several photos in very fast succession and combine the results. This can reduce noise in dark scenes and capture amazing detail in the highlights (a bright sky) and the shadows simultaneously, something impossible without processing. 

While HDR can make your photos look garish and even cartoonish, you can still use it to your advantage.

"Smartphones don't have the sensor capabilities of dedicated cameras, so they bridge the quality gap by applying lots of processing to make your images look good," Liam Davis, an art historian at Art File Magazine, told Lifewire via email. 

The problem comes with the iPhone's HDR mode. HDR means High Dynamic Range, and what it does is capture images at different exposure levels to cover the entire range of light levels in the scene. Then comes the tricky part, called tone mapping. This is where the software decides how to interpret all that data into a final image. 

Back in the early days of digital photography, there was a fad for HDR images, where the tone mapping made everything equally bright and colorful, as you can see in the image below.

An image of an alleyway surrounded by colorful buildings.

Eric Masur / Unsplash

It hurts your eyes just to look at it. But HDR isn't necessarily this bad. It can result in natural-looking images that approximate the scenes we see with our eyes and brain. 

"It's possible to take great, natural HDR pictures with an iPhone camera. A good thing to remember is to avoid using HDR to photograph subjects on the move or ones with vivid colors. HDR is best if you want to take pictures of landscapes, subjects in sunlight, and things in low-light conditions," says Davis. 

The problem is Apple is going too far in the wrong direction, and its HDR images are getting worse. 

HD-R You Serious?

Things have gotten so bad that I only use my iPhone camera for quick memo-type shots or for snapping stuff to sell on eBay. If I want photos to keep, I take them with a regular digital or even film camera. 

Tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee, aka MKBHD, agrees. Every year, Brownlee does blind comparison tests of available smartphone cameras, and he has noticed this trend toward absurd over-processing. 

In his recent video, he goes into detail on this subject. 

"Look at how they completely removed the shadow from half of my face. I am clearly being lit from a source that's to the side of me, and that's part of reality, but in the iPhone's reality, you cannot tell at least from my face where the light is coming from every once in a while you get weird stuff like this, and it all comes back to the fact that it's software making choices," says Brownlee in his video

So what can you do? Switch back to a regular camera? One option is to wait it out and hope that Apple dials things back down, although as this trend began before it even switched to the new 50MP sensors in the iPhone 14 Pro, that might be a long wait. 

The easiest way is to pick your battles.

"Bottom line: While HDR can make your photos look garish and even cartoonish, you can still use it to your advantage. Avoid HDR when you're taking pictures of colorful things on the move, but use it to your advantage when your subjects are in harsh sunlight or in low-light conditions," says Davis.

Or you can switch to a camera app like the amazing Halide, which gives you more control and even lets you shoot raw images on some iPhones.

Which is to say, you will have to assess each scene, consider your camera's abilities and shortcomings, and make a choice. Just like we've always done with photography, right back to its beginnings.

Was this page helpful?