May 27, 2021 | iPhone

What is HDR Photography and How Does it Work on My iPhone 11 or 12?



Want to learn more about High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography?  How does HDR work on the iPhone?  Should I use HDR on my iPhone?  Read on and we will discover the answers to these questions and more!

The human eye focuses on objects very quickly.  When you look at something near to you versus far away, you don’t even notice the focus shift.  Your eyes are just that fast.  Similarly, your eyes can adjust for dark areas and light areas in a scene almost as quickly.  If you look at a bright area of a room and then look at a dark area of a room, you can see the details in both areas.  Your eyes quickly adjust to the area you are looking at.

Cameras are at a disadvantage.  Their image sensors can not cover the same range of bright areas and dark areas in the same frame.  Where your eyes can look and focus on one area or the other, the camera has to capture all of that dynamic range in a single image.  If it cannot capture the whole range, it must prioritize either the shadows or the highlights, at the expense of the other.  HDR photography allows the camera to cheat a little by combining multiple exposures and combining them together to capture a broader dynamic range.

What is HDR photography?

Dynamic Range, in a photographic context, is the range of brightness from the brightest element to the darkest element.  Essentially, how dark are the shadows and how bright are the highlights?  In some scenes, these two values are close together.  In other scenes, they are very far apart.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is defined as a technique used in photography to reproduce a greater range of luminosity in an image than would be possible with a standard exposure.

It is a way for photographers to capture more detail in the shadows while also capturing more of the detail in the highlights than could be captured in a single exposure.  Cameras and the human eye have some things in common and, of course, they have their differences.

At the most basic level, multiple images are captured at different exposures and the images are later combined into a single image using the best lighting from the different exposures.  For example, three images are taken of a scene, one at normal exposure, one slightly underexposed, and one slightly overexposed.  Then the images are combined into a final image, as seen below.

How do I enable Smart HDR on my iPhone?

HDR is simple to set up on the iPhone.  If you have an iPhone XS or newer, you don’t have to do anything, the Smart HDR system on your phone will determine when the HDR process is appropriate and implement it when needed.  There is nothing more you need to do.

If you have an iPhone X or older, you will simple have to turn on the HDR mode in your camera app when you wish to utilize the feature.  With your camera app open, simply look at the top of the screen, just to the right of the flash toggle and you will see the HDR setting.  Tap it to toggle it on and tap it again to toggle it off.  It’s that simple!

When should I use HDR?

The short answer is: Anytime there are dark shadows and bright highlights in your scene.  Your eye can see these scenes just fine, but your camera has a much harder time.  Generally, your camera will be able to expose for either the dark shadows or the bright highlights, but not both.  This will happen often when taking images of landscapes, photos indoors with uneven lighting, as well as most photos taken under harsh sunlight outdoors.  For best results, the subject should not be moving, which makes HDR largely unsuitable to action or sport photography.

Using the HDR setting will allow the camera to compensate by taking multiple exposures and merge them together to use the best parts of each exposure.  Your iPhone does this exceptionally well, so well that the iPhone itself decides when HDR is necessary and automatically uses HDR to produce a well-exposed photo without user input.  This is a feature on the iPhone called Smart HDR.  The Smart HDR feature is automatic and requires no user input.

When should I disable HDR?

There might be times when you are exercising your more creative side and would like to maintain the dark shadows and bright highlights without the camera interfering with your vision.  In that case you can simply disable the Smart HDR feature on your phone. The steps to disable Smart HDR are:

Settings —> Camera —> Smart HDR (toggle off)

Which iPhones Have HDR Mode?

HDR on the iPhone began on the iPhone 4.  Starting with the iPhone XS, Smart HDR took over and now it is in its third iteration on the iPhone 12 series with Smart HDR 3.

  • iPhone 4
  • iPhone 5
  • iPhone 5s
  • iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
  • iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
  • iPhone X and X Max
  • iPhone XS and XS Max (Smart HDR)
  • iPhone XR (Smart HDR)
  • iPhone 11, Pro and Pro Max (Smart HDR 2)
  • iPhone SE (2nd generation) (Smart HDR 2)
  • iPhone 12, Pro and Pro Max (Smart HDR 3)


HDR photography has been around for a long time and is a great way to capture more of a scene with difficult lighting than would be possible with a single exposure.  When there are dark shadows and bright highlights in the same scene, consider using HDR photography to help tame the extremes of lighting.

The iPhone itself is a powerful HDR machine. Since the iPhone XS, Smart HDR has been implemented and activates automatically to help capture the best photos possible without user intervention.

If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment below.  If there is a topic you would like to see covered, please leave a suggestion at the link in the menu above.  Until next time, go take some pictures!



Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.


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