What is HDR in My Smartphone Camera?


I was watching TV last night – Game of Thrones and during the break, I was flicking through my smartphone features and came across a setting called HDR. I had no idea what this feature was. After GOT was finished, I decided to do some research into this setting, to see if it was something that I would find useful.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, it is a term often used in photography to identify photos that have a wider range of tones, from dark to light. To achieve this higher range of tones a camera will often take three pictures; one correctly exposed, one slightly underexposed and one slightly overexposed and join the pictures together to produce a picture with a wider dynamic range than is possible with a single picture. This technique is sometimes called exposure bracketing or just bracketing.

HDR in The Wider World

You will see HDR used as a feature on many different types of devices from cameras to TV’s and is sometimes it’s used audio devices where the device is capable of producing a wider range of sound, low to high tones.

The problem with HDR is that these in no single standard to measure how well it is implemented in any device. Each manufacturer have their own propriety definations of what HDR means.

Should I Use HDR In My Pictures?

I have found that my pictures do look considerably better when I turn on the HDR feature. To get the most out of it you should also make sure you are taking the highest quality picture that your smartphone camera can take.

One thing to be aware of is that HDR images tend to be larger in file size than ordinary images of the same quality, this is because the HDR image holds more data than a standard image. So make sure you have plenty of spare on your smartphone storage or USB card.

HDR Long Exposure, Sligachan Waterfall, Scotland
HDR Long Exposure, Sligachan Waterfall, Scotland

Can I Use HDR In Video?

Most of the latest smartphones support HDR in video and turning it on will give your videos a much richer look. However, some smartphone models may require that you turn off some other features such as optical image stabilization or autofocus tracking. So it can be a tradeoff between better looking video or smoother looking video.

HDR in video works differently to HDR in our pictures. Instead of taking a series of bracketed pictures and joining them into one picture. HDR for video uses the latest video format such as 4K which is capable of producing high dynamic range on a 4K TV or monitor. The TV needs to be capable of producing a wide range between dark blacks and bright whites for HDR video to be presented. An HDR compatible TV needs to be able to handle 10bit color which produces a much wider range of colors than a standard TV.

HDR10

This is curently the most common standard in HDR products. It is an open-source standard that uses static metadata to tell the device what are the darkest and brightest settings for the display. The main drawback with this issue is that the dynamic range settings are set for the whole video or movie that you are watching.

HDR High Dynamic Range
HDR High Dynamic Range

Dolby Vision

This standard produces better results than HDR 10 as it uses dynamic metadata to tell the device the darkest and brightest settings during a video sequence. It is flexible enough to allow the dynamic range to be adjusted per frame or per scene which gives the best possible viewing experience.

Dolby Vision is not open source so the device manufacturers have to pay to add it to their devices. The result of this is that devices with Dolby Vision tent to be more expensive. Due to additional expense, there are not so many movies that incorporate Dolby Vision as HDR 10, but lately, I have read that Netflix and Amazon Video are starting to use this standard in some of their content.

Dolby Vision content can be viewed on HDR with the limitations previously mentioned.

Hybrid Log Gamma

Yet another HDR standard that is being adopted by some streaming services. Its main benefit is that content can be viewed on non HDR compatible devices losing any of the features of HDR of course. It is widely considered as inferior to both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision.

Other HDR standards are emerging just to confuse the situation even more; HDR10+ from Samsung which is a dynamic metadata standard like Dolby Vision. As with all new technologies it takes a while for a single technology to dominate and become the standard, in the meantime at least you have a basic awareness of the situation.

Summary

https://youtu.be/zoxQUsJGydg

I discovered that my smartphone had as HDR feature but I didn’t really understand what it was until I did some research. I found out the HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it is often used in photography to describe images with a good contrast range from dark blacks to bright whites and also a good range of colors.

I discussed how HDR is usually implemented in smartphone cameras by the camera taking a series of bracketed pictures and then joining them together to produce one HDR image.

I found out that there are several different HDR standards so there isn’t any overall standard of how HDR is implemented by different manufacturers.

HDR also relates to video but it is not implemented by bracketing but rather by using higher quality bit rates collecting more data in the video.

We looked at the major standards in HDR and discussed the differences between them and contemplated that a single standard would eventually emerge.

Finally, I answered if we should be using HDR and pointed out that it will help us improve the quality of our pictures and videos, but some smartphone models may disable other features such as optical image stabilization if we enable HDR when taking video.

Thanks for joining me in this fairly short article about High Dynamic Range. I hope that you give it a try in your own pictures and videos and see if it makes a big difference to the quality. See you in the next article.

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