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My moto G allows HDR (in the camera app ) in three settings:

  • Always on
  • Off
  • Auto

I was wondering, what's the downside to keeping HDR always on? Is there such a thing as spoiling a shot with HDR when none was needed?

I sometimes feel the HDR in Auto does not always kick-in in situations where it ought to have!

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  • Auto HDR mode captures good images and storage size will be larger than normal images. Also, it may have some lag during capture. Otherwise, there's no downside I think.
    – Rahul Gopi
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 6:20

3 Answers 3

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No downside to it (barring some scenarios)

HDR increases the dynamic range between the darkest and brightest colours in your photo and there's no downside to it apart from lag (that may be fixed by using camera apps that respond faster -you would need to experiment)

But it's not a silver bullet to increase the quality. Some situations where it spoils rather than help :

  • If the picture you wish to take isn't already brightly lit with a bright spots and dark ones (like shadows) , it's better to avoid HDR. In this case, HDR photos look artificial. As Izzy pointed out in comments, pictures that don't have much contrast between dark and bright (low dynamic range) don't come out well. HDR can only enhance range not create . Try taking a picture indoor with subdued lighting with HDR to see how poorly it comes out.

  • If you or the object is moving, the lag may cause blurry photos (HDR takes 3 photos – normal exposure, under-exposure, over-exposure – and combines them. (In professional cameras it takes even 7 photos). If the object moves in this process , it becomes evident as blur. This is called ghosting (anti-ghosting algorithms may be able to compensate, but they have their limits). Same result if you move while taking the shot.

  • Also if your picture has bright colours already like close up of a bunch of flowers in a garden, it adds artificiality.

For a technical understanding see this from our sister site What is HDR

You may feel that HDR is not kicking in when it is required, but then it is the software which decides when it should, so better leave the judgement to it ! (Setting on Auto)

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    Good points as always :) To make the first bullet point a bit clearer: HDR works best if there's much light and much dark at the same time (i.e. a "big range of brightness", i.e. a "High (Dynamic) Range"). It cannot improve a photo if the range is small (i.e. all is "equally lit", i.e. either all dark, all bright or all "middle" – i.e. a "Low (dynamic) Range"). // For the second bullet point, maybe some background: HDR takes 3 photos and combines them (normal exposure, under-exposure, over-exposure). // 3rd bullet is interesting, never thought of that! +1
    – Izzy
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 11:23
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I've experienced that HDR can spoil human skin color very badly (it becomes yellow, green orblue depending on neighbor color near the body-background border). So if you happen to photograph people on sunny days a lot, AutoHDR may sometimes deliver an unnatural outcome to you.

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As a semi-pro photographer, I've used HDR mode near-exclusively across many phones over the last 10 years, and it's exceptionally rare that I won't have it always on. The quality benefits almost always outweigh the cons.

By far the #1 caveat of HDR mode is that it takes longer to take a photo:

  • First, it takes 2-3 times as long just to take the photos it'll need to blend together, which makes it nearly impossible to use when anything is moving. In low light especially that can be ages, though Moto has manual ISO/shutter speed to alleviate that. It'll either be a blurry mess or won't be able to HDR anything, or worse, both in different parts of the image. All of the major camera apps (Google's, Apple's, and Samsung's) are much better at detecting that than they used to be, and just throw away the HDR.
  • Second, it takes ages to process the HDR into the final image. That means you can only take 2-3 in quick succession, and then the camera will tell you to be patient while it does its thing. The faster the phone is, the faster it processes. Low-end phones usually don't even have HDR because they're just too slow and memory starved, but only the highest-end flagships will be fast enough that you won't notice. The Galaxy S8 was the only one I could only rarely get to pause. My Nexus 5X was infuriating because if I left the camera app or put the phone to sleep, it sometimes would kill the app for taking too long while it was HDRing, leaving a corrupted photo. Along the same lines, battery life suffers considerably vs taking straight photos, as well.

There are a few other negatives:

  • If you happen to get a sunbeam in just one tiny corner, app will consider the whole shot overexposed and significantly reduce the saturation and contrast of the rest of the photo to compensate. I've yet to encounter a camera app that offered a region of interest for its HDR analysis. You do need to pay attention to framing; these are the only times I wish it'd give me a raw mode.
  • If shots are slightly rotated, you can get some VERY strange artifacts.

The benefits are great, though:

  • You get detail everywhere instead of blown highlights and lowlights, without having to mess with raw mode or manual HDR blending.
  • You often get improved white balance.
  • You almost always get a significantly less noisy and more detailed image, simply due to the nature of blending 3 separate shots. The noise pattern will always be slightly offset, since it's never held perfectly still. High-ISO shots benefit enormously, no more need for extra-long exposures with high likelihood of blurring.
  • In contrast to the other answer, I've found that HDR mode also turns on a "magic fix" mode. Just like high contrast photos are compressed, low contrast is expanded somewhat. You can only do so much in an 8-bit format, but HDR definitely gives you either a better immediate shot or a much better base to start from than instant photos.

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