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Auto HDR will revolutionize the photo industry


Automatic cellphone HDR test photo

The photo above is a freehand snapshot of the evening sky taken with my cellphone camera - it's unedited, straight out of the cellphone.

Well, I did use an application called "Pro HDR" that I bought a few days ago to take the snapshot and it did some heavy lifting inside the phone to get this end result. But from my point of view, I just snapped the photo casually with a single click.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. All cameras, film and digital, suffer from a limited dynamic range. Ever tried taking a photo of a person posing in front of a window with a great view, of persons where some stand in the shade and some in direct sunlight or a scenery photo with dramatic clouds in the sky?

It probably did not turn out so well. Todays cameras simply can not take photos like that correctly.

If someone poses in front of a window you either get a photo with the persons face looking ok and the window completely white with nothing of the great view outside - or you get a photo with the great view looking good and the person standing in front of the window being a black silhouette. Cameras can not capture shades of both very dark areas and very bright areas. In this example the camera has to adjust either to the lighting condition inside to capture the face correctly or the much brighter conditions outside to capture the view outside. This is also the reason why those dramatic clouds in the sky in your scenery photos end up looking plain bright with the clouds hardly visible at all.

The "workaround" is to take at least two photos, one where the dark shades come out correctly and one where the light shades come out correctly and then you combine those two images into one. This technique is referred to as HDR. It used to be difficult, but now there are plenty of programs available for desktop computers to automate this process. In fact, now there are even programs, or apps, available for some cell phones to automate the process inside your camera phone at the very beginning of the process when you snap the photo. The result is a dramatic HDR photo coming out of the camera without you having to do anything more than just pressing the button once. The software will take the two photos in quick succession and automatically combine them into one.

All of this will be standard and mainstream in the cellphone starting September 8th when Apple will begin including this feature as a standard feature in the iPhone (iOS version 4.1).

The results will probably not be dramatic HDR photos but instead more subtle HDR photos that will look perfectly realistic and at the same time superior and far more pleasing to the eye than anything coming out of other cell phone cameras, point and shoot cameras or even high end SLR cameras. Obviously the competition will not stand by and within weeks or months every new Android and Symbian phone will come with this same feature as standard. Manufacturers of "real" cameras may look at such software processing as cheating but they can not stand by and let people become acustomed to cell phones taking far better photos than more expensive single purpose devices so not too long from now all cameras will have HDR support as standard.

In some situations HDR is of no use and will only damage the photo but in many situations automatic HDR can produce stunning pictures. And when uncle Bob starts taking stunning vacation photos with his cell phone camera, that is when you are allowed to use the word "revolutionize" to describe what has happened in the photo industry.

Comments

I couldn't agree more. I've been taking "HDR" photos with my Droid X using Camera 360 for a few months now and the images usually turn out amazing. There's still some issues such as occasionally getting extreme amounts of noise added in, but overall, I love it.

Some of the shots I've taken can be see at: http://peregrineplatform.wordpress.com