iPhone HDR Photography Testing

December 1, 2010
You may also be interested in a later article: "Exposing for the Best iPhone HDR Results"

If you are anything like me (Heaven help you), then you were excited to hear about the built in option for High Dynamic Range (HDR) in the upcoming iOS 4.1 release.  Granted, there are apps that do this now (and very well from what I hear), but to have something reasonably good out of the box would be great for the consumer.  At some point I'm sure there will be comparisons between what you can get in apps and what Apple is offering, but for now I am interested in judging the built-in option on its own merits and flaws.

Anyone who has attempted to create HDR photos in the past by combining multiple images taken at a range of exposures knows that the first thing that needs to be done is to align the images (the software typically handles this).  Almost every time someone explains how to get started you will hear how maintaining a steady camera is crucial and the use of a tripod is strongly recommended.  This is not particularly feasible with the point-and-shoot nature of the iPhone, but to be reasonably successful, Apple needs to make things as fool-proof as possible.

Since I like to start with the hard stuff first, I took some pictures on the way in to the office this morning since the sky was just gorgeous.  (Don't try this at home, kids!)

iPhone HDR Test 1

The top shot is the "original" picture.  It is was the iPhone would have produced without the HDR option enabled.  The bottom shot is the HDR image that the iPhone produced.  You get a good feeling of what the possibilities are.  The ground in the HDR shot has visible detail where in the original the details are way underexposed.

However there are ghosting issues.  Ghosting occurs when the different exposure images have not been aligned properly or if something changed between one shot and the next.  I was curious to see how fast the iPhone camera was while taking its three shots and what it would do, if anything, to ensure proper alignment.  This probably wasn't a fair test.

But I'm not a fair kind of guy!  A quick look at the HDR image above on my iPhone didn't reveal any ghosting on the iPhone display (at least not while driving 60mph) so I figured I would kick things up.

iPhone HDR Test 2

If a car traveling west at 60 miles per hour takes a picture of a truck traveling east at 60 miles per hour, will the picture suck or is the photographer just ridiculous for even trying this?  The answer to both is "yes".  It seems safe to say that the iPhone really tries to get it right even though the result is not particularly usable.

Let me reiterate that these tests were totally unfair.  So why bother?  Because a consumer may think that they can hit the magic Make-My-Picture-Pretty button and just leave HDR enabled all of the time.  I think it's a good bet that most people do not understand the HDR process so their expectations may be set a little high.

I wonder if there is a way for Apple to add something to the camera app that checks for alignment problems based on some threshold and warns the user to review the picture for ghosting or recommend that HDR be disabled if more of the same kind of pictures are going to be taken (e.g. taken from a moving vehicle).

What about something more reasonable?

iPhone HDR Test 3

This is where Apple will really shine with their customers.  In an everyday kind of setting with a very typical problem that people have with regards to exposure, the results here are pretty good.  Foolproof even.

I love the iPhone 4 camera and it's true that the best camera is the one you have with you.  Between the large number of great photography apps and Apple's continued improvements, it's a great time to be a shutterbug.  I cannot wait to keep playing.