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HDR photography for iPhone and Android

Sharon Vaknin explains the ins and outs of HDR, and shows you how it can be used to create stunning images with your smartphone.

Josh Miller/CNET

Even the uninitiated can identify HDR photos--their striking appearance often pops with high contrast, saturated colors, and an unmistakable surreal look. These photos seem like a lot of work, but when you examine the process of creating HDR photos, you'll find that it's much easier than it looks.

HDR, or "high dynamic range," photography is simple: a photo is shot three times, at three different exposures--low, regular, and high--and then stacked to create one image. In doing so, you create a sharp image that looks closer to what the human eye sees, as the varying highlights and shadows are all accounted for.

The most high-quality HDR photos are taken with dSLR cameras and then edited in a program like Photoshop, but if your smartphone has a good camera (many of the newer ones do), you can create HDR photos in the palm of your hand. Here's how:

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HDR for iPhone

With your iPhone 4 or 4S, HDR photography is easy, as it's built in to the software. Head to the camera and tap Options > HDR On. Now, set up your shot, tap to focus (long-press to lock focus, if you like), and tap the shutter button.

It's important that your shot is steady, so consider using the volume-up button, or use your headphones as a remote shutter release.

Once you've captured the photo, you'll see two pictures in your photo album: the regular photo, and the HDR photo. Swipe back and forth between the photos and you'll likely see a difference in clarity, vividness, and exposure.

If you have an older iPhone (anything before the iPhone 4 does not have built-in HDR), or you want to increase the surreal HDR effect, you'll need an app like Pro HDR ($1.99).

When you launch the app, the camera will be prompted immediately. Set up your shot, and with a very steady hand, tap the screen. Alternatively, you can use the volume-up button or your headphones, as mentioned above.

After a few seconds of holding your breath as the app captures and renders the image, you'll see the HDR photo. At this point, you can adjust the contrast, brightness, saturation, and other characteristics using the settings below.

HDR for Android

HDR isn't yet ubiquitous among Android phones, but some skins (custom interfaces) do include the feature in the camera app. For example, if you own of the new HTC phones (Rezound, One S, Vivid, Amaze and more) you can access HDR by going to your camera > Scenes >HDR.

If your Android phone does not have built-in HDR, you can still achieve striking images with the help of Pro HDR, also available in the Play Store for $1.99.

When should I use HDR?

You'll find that the technique is mostly used when photographing nature, scenery, cityscapes, and wildlife, where a natural, wide range of colors can "pop" with the help of HDR. However, it's not uncommon to see exaggerated HDR photos of cars, people, graffiti, and other urban settings. The latter use of HDR is usually coupled with post-processing to create a grungy look.

One of my favorite HDR photos, shot with my iPhone and filtered with Instagram. Sharon Vaknin/CNET

In the most practical sense, HDR can simply be used to better expose an image. For example, if you're taking a photo of food inside your home or a restaurant, the lighting is usually lacking.

One option is to use flash, which usually wipes out the colors and washes out the scene. Another option is to turn up the exposure. However, both of these methods will likely give you an overexposed photo with inaccurate colors. Case in point: here's a good time to use HDR.

As an iPhone user, I keep the HDR enabled, and although I end up with twice the number of photos, always having the option to choose between regular exposure and the HDR version is worth trouble.

Update, 9:51 a.m PT.: Added that although most Android phones do not have built-in HDR, many of the newer HTC models do.