Testing iPhone HDR Photography

I’m still on an iPhone 3GS, so I need third party apps to do HDR photography with the iPhone.  I use mostly TrueHDR, which had a recent and very exciting update.  At least, I think it’s a recent update. I’m very slow with hitting the ‘Update’ button in the App Store, so perhaps it’s old news now.

The biggest change is the style of  processing it does.  It no longer goes for an over-the-top psychedelic neon-filled HDR look with the images you feed it.  It goes for what the creators call a “natural” look.  The results bear that out.  Not only are the pictures less “obviously” HDR, but they also process more quickly.  It’s a serious win/win.

Let me take a recent example.  Here are the two images I shot on the iPhone in the park last Wednesday after that day’s half foot of snow fell:

The raw files

I exposed one for the highlights and one for the shadows.  I saved those pics in the Camera Roll and then started up TrueHDR.  The App will walk you through the process, too, if you’d like, giving you a live camera app and letting you take the pics from inside it.  I prefer the speed of taking all my raw files for HDR first, myself, and then loading up the app and merging files later.

The latest update of TrueHDR also allows for Auto Capture and Semi-Auto Capture.  In “Auto Capture,” you hold the camera still and the app takes three pictures.  You can watch it running on the screen, as things get darker and brighter between shots.  I’m not sure how it happens, exactly, but the app uses only two pictures.  In “SemiAuto Capture,” the app asks you to set the focus and then takes two pictures on its own.  Both of these methods are slower than just taking the pictures yourself.

After the break: Lots of before and after pictures, a second HDR app, and more!

Once you have the pictures, the app goes off on its own to merge and tone map them. The only thing lacking in TrueHDR is any sort of manual image control.  You get the tone mapping that the app does for you and you have to be happy with that.  End of program.  You can’t adjust so much as brightness or saturation.

For that, I use a program I just recently discovered, FilterStorm, that I first heard about on Mac Break Weekly. It has an incredible set of tools, including curves.  It’s not the easiest or most intuitive to app to use at first glance, but it’s powerful.

Here are the results from that run.  First is the pic straight out of TrueHDR.  Following that is what it looks like after a couple of tweaks in Filterstorm:

TrueHDR Results -- Extra contrast added later for image on right.

TrueHDR (on the left) loses a little contrast that I added back in (on the right).  It made the pic a little darker and ominous, I think, but I like the new image.  Is it truly representative of what I saw that afternoon?  No, not really.  It wasn’t that dark. But it does look cooler.  (The first thing I learned from reading Trey Ratcliffe’s HDR book is that skies always wind up being too dark in HDR and that you should mask the best one into your image after tone mapping. That’s doable on the iPhone, but I’m not that patient.  Plus, I like this more dramatic look.)

Some detail got lost in the trees during tone mapping.  That might have been the wind moving branches around that made lining things up impossible.

I went into the settings to change TrueHDR back to its original “Vivid” setting and got this mess:

TrueHDR Original Vivid Setting

Very green, very bad.  You can see why I prefer the “Normal” mode now.

The other HDR app I carry is ProHDR.  It’s like TrueHDR, but with a few sliders at the end to help edit your picture.  The results are nearly identical in my testing to what ProHDR gives you.  The only extra step you need to take is making sure to choose the right pictures from the Camera Roll in order.  It asks specifically for the highlights pic before the shadows pic.  That’s not too hard to figure out, though larger Camera Roll thumbnails certainly would be welcome.

ProHDR Before (left) and After (right) extra processing

Yeah, so I might have overprocessed and overcolored this one a bit.  Still, there’s no denying that the blacks look less washed-out in the After picture.  ProHDR also appears to retain more color in the final image than TrueHDR.  In this photo’s case, I prefer the slightly more monochromatic look, but in other pictures I might prefer the color.

But, here, I converted both pictures (post-processing) to black and white in Photoshop Elements 9:

Finally, a conversion to black and white

They’re still nearly identical.  There are obvious differences in where the blacks are blacker or the grays are more gray, but I doubt most people would notice too much.  I prefer the image on the left, just because the clouds are less dark, so you can see the trees sticking out in front of them.  But the pic on the right keeps the bank of trees in the middle a little more washed out, which pushes they into the background a bit more.  All of photography is a compromise, right?  I’ll stick to the one on the left, which comes from TrueHDR.

So, what did I learn from this process? TrueHDR and ProHDR do the same job for me. In the end, ProHDR might get the nod for having a few sliders at the end of the process, but those are the kinds of things that I would use a second app for, like FilterStorm or my old standby, Photogene.

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2 Responses to Testing iPhone HDR Photography

  1. Pingback: The iPhone Photo Apps I Use | AugieShoots.com

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