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iPhone 4.1: HDR Photos.

Yesterday, I downloaded the new iPhone iOS 4.1 software/firmware for the iPhone 4, and today I got to try out one of the new features, the automatic HDR (High Dynamic Range) feature built right into the camera. Apple explains it this way:

Take great photos that capture a wider range of light intensity using the new high dynamic range (HDR) setting on iPhone 4, which automatically combines multiple exposures into a single HDR image.

Apparently, the way it works is that it takes three photos in rapid succession (almost instantly) to create one HDR photo. HDR is really only useful when there are varying levels of light in one shot. Some of the best real HDR photography out there can be found at the Austin-based Stuck In Customs blog.

Having been a frequent visitor at Stuck In Customs for a while now, I was skeptical about the new iPhone HDR feature, but it seems to work pretty well so far.

You can select whether or not to have the HDR turned on:


Just tap that button that says "HDR On" if you want to turn "HDR Off." Easy.

When in HDR mode, the output in your iPhone camera reel folder is two photos. One "normal mode" and an HDR photo.

So this morning, I took some photos at an outdoor endorsement press conference in downtown Austin. The "normal" photo is on the left, and the HDR version is on the right (you can click on each image to see larger files):

This one is a .gif. I should also note that for the sake of bandwidth, I downsized this in Photoshop from more than 5000 pixels wide to 1500 pixels wide. I further downsized it into a clickable thumbnail. Keep that in mind. Notice how the sky becomes much less washed out. The clouds become far more defined. The colors become more vivid and bright.

Another angle. This one, I saved as a .jpg. Both the sky and the truck become more vivid, but if you look closely there is a little distortion in the tree branches and so forth. I think I could have possibly done a better job holding still, but I didn't really know it actually took three photos in rapid succession. As Gizmodo put it:

In HDR mode, the iPhone 4 captures three exposures to combine into an HDR photo: underexposed, normal, and overexposed. Even though it's shooting those sequence of pictures pretty fast, it's not instant. So, if you move the phone, or if your subject is on the run, you're going to wind up with some mutant friends with three arms or whispy ghosts when the phone tries to mix all the photos together.

I should also note that sometimes I like to focus on the sky or background when I take photos for a cool effect, but the HDR feature seems to work best when you just focus in on the foreground subject.

I also snapped these two of Governor Perry with some of the leadership of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters:


See the difference?

In this one, I am pretty sure I never focused the shot on anything in particular:


The people look mostly the same, but in the HDR version, Governor Perry actually blends in more with the podium than in the non-HDR version. The HDR is a huge improvement, though, in terms of the washed out sky and bright, concentrated sun pouring over the building.

In this one, from roughly the same position and angle, I tap-focused on the sky, and here's what resulted:


Clearly, an improvement.

Finally, if your subject is moving and gesturing, as Governor Perry tends to do when he speaks, you may get something like this:


The HDR version looks much better, but the main subject looks like a hologram or someone from The Matrix.

Generally, I am a fan of the HDR feature on the iPhone 4.1 firmware. I like that it keeps the "normal" version if you are inclined to go in with Photoshop and do a more manual fix, but I also like that it does tend to help photos. You can either choose it or not. Not locked in either way. This is a feature that, with practice, can probably produce some cool shots.

Overall, the camera on the iPhone 4 is one of the most important upgrades over my old iPhone 3G. I shot this picture on my iPhone 4 before the HDR feature and messed around in Photoshop with the Dodge tool on the buildings and the water paper filter on the sky to create this effect:


This shot is not HDR, but I am digging the capabilities on the iPhone 4 camera, and the new HDR feature is a definite plus.


Here's another example from downtown Austin:


Posted by Will Franklin · 10 September 2010 12:15 PM