Taking professional-quality photos on an iPhone is incredibly easy, thanks to the combination of powerful hardware and software features. A key tool in accomplishing this is HDR, but what does it actually do?

Here, we’ll be taking you through how HDR works on an iPhone, including the ways it can transform your photos with ease.

If you’re an existing iPhone user seeking a new handset, or are new to the iPhone range, our extensive collection of Apple devices has you covered.

What does HDR mean?

HDR stands for ‘high dynamic range’, referring to the range of light and dark contrasts in an image. It works by making sure the dark areas of a photo (like shadows) are inky-black, whilst the lighter parts remain vibrant. Without HDR, you can end up with photos that are oversaturated or lacking in effective colour balance.

A lady in red stood on rocks infront of the sea

The overall aim of HDR is to mimic what the human eye captures in the environment. We can see contrasts just fine, but cameras can’t inherently reproduce this and ensure detail is visible in all areas of the image. HDR solves this, enabling your phone to take natural-looking photos whilst retaining as much detail as possible.

How does HDR work on an iPhone camera?

You don’t have to turn HDR on to use it. The benefit of using an iPhone is that it automatically enables HDR for front and rear camera shots, for example when taking a photo of a darkly lit or shaded tree.

To get the best possible output, the phone will rapidly take several photos and combine them together; the result is a highly detailed image with accurate contrast levels.

Someone holing a iPhone about to take a photo

Because your iPhone needs to capture several photos quickly, it can take slightly longer to produce the final image.

Which iPhones support HDR?

Many older and modern iPhones have HDR support built-in, making it a widely accessible feature:
• iPhone 4
• iPhone 4S
• iPhone 5
• iPhone 5S
• iPhone 5C
• iPhone 6
• iPhone 6 Plus
• iPhone 6S
• iPhone 6S Plus
• iPhone SE (2016)
• iPhone 7
• iPhone 7 Plus
• iPhone 8
• iPhone 8 Plus
• iPhone X
• iPhone XS
• iPhone XS Max
• iPhone XR
• iPhone 11
• iPhone 11 Pro
• iPhone 11 Pro Max
• iPhone SE (2022)
• iPhone 12
• iPhone Pro
• iPhone Pro Max
• iPhone 13
• iPhone 13 Pro
• iPhone 13 Pro Max

What is Smart HDR on iPhones?

Smart HDR is an AI-enhanced version of the technology, utilising the iPhone’s Bionic chipset.

iPhone camera about to take a photo in night mode

When taking a photo, Smart HDR further improves the image’s colour and contrast levels. Night Mode benefits significantly from Smart HDR, with even the darkest night-time shots looking crisp and clear.

Smart HDR 4

If you have an iPhone from the below list, you can also use Smart HDR 4. This feature makes use of A15 Bionic and later chipsets to optimise images with even greater detail. It can also detect up to four people in a photo and fine-tune their skin tone, helping the subjects look far more natural and lifelike:

• iPhone XS
• iPhone XS Max
iPhone XR
iPhone 11
• iPhone 11 Pro
• iPhone 11 Pro Max
iPhone SE (2022)
iPhone 12
iPhone 13
iPhone 13 Pro
iPhone 13 Pro Max
iPhone 14
iPhone 14 Pro
iPhone 14 Pro Max

When should I use HDR?

The automatic functionality of HDR on iPhones means you can utilise it at any time. If you want to capture specific vistas, however, it helps to know when to make the most of it.

HDR is particularly beneficial when taking photos of:
Landscapes – larger, wide-angle landscape shots often feature highly contrasting backgrounds and foregrounds
• Backlit subjects – objects or subjects with a bright background directly behind can end up as extremely dark silhouettes
• Subjects in direct sunlight – bright environments with tall subjects cast a lot of shadows

Image of a landscape showing a zoomed out image and a zoomed in section using HDR

With HDR at its disposal, your iPhone can balance the lighting contrasts in these different scenarios and produce photos with intricate detail.

How to enable HDR on an iPhone

Even though HDR is turned on by default on most iPhone models, you can configure it in the Settings menu, and make other changes as well.

To enable HDR:

  1. Go to Settings > Camera
  2. Scroll down to HDR and toggle the ‘Smart HDR’ option to green
    a. This option will be listed as ‘Auto HDR’ on some older iPhone models
  3. You can also choose to keep a non-HDR version of a photo by selecting ‘Keep Normal Photo

Tips when using HDR on your iPhone

Here are some tips to keep in mind when taking a photo with HDR:
• Use a tripod – the additional length of time it takes to snap a HDR photo can result in some camera shake
• Avoid photos with moving subjects – HDR is best used for static shots, rather than photos where long exposure is more important
Compare your HDR image with the non-HDR version – sometimes, the photo that hasn’t been optimised via HDR can work better for your subject. Check both to find the ideal result for you
Edit away – there are many powerful editing apps that you can use to tweak HDR photos exactly how you want

iPhone placed on a tripod

Now that you know what HDR is and how it works, all you need is the right phone for the job. We’ve rounded up the top smartphone cameras you need to know about; all designed to make mobile photography a breeze.