In photography, dynamic range is used to define the contrast ratio between the lightest and darkest areas of photo captures. Typically in a single capture. In smartphones and colloquially, as often as not, it’s used differently. Namely, to describe photos that capture a lot of detail in both light and dark areas. Usually via a complex algorithm combining multiple frames being captured.
Before anybody jumps at the opportunity for correction, this guide, unlike the majority of our guides, will deal with the more colliqual uses of the term. That’s as opposed to the technically correct usage. But how do you bring out more detail and “dynamic range” in your phone-snapped photos and fix areas that appear too dark or bright? This guide will attempt to highlight some ways you can accomplish that. More directly, without ever uploading your images to a computer.
You’ll want to enable RAW captures on your smartphone if you can
Now, when it comes to capturing more of that much-sought-after dynamic range from your phone camera there are several options available to help your photos turn out better. One of the most impactful, especially when it comes to post-processing and editing photos using the data captured by the camera or cameras, is to use a more loss-resistant format. Such as RAW. And, fortunately, most top-ranked phones support RAW captures.
As might be given away by the terminology, RAW photos deliver minimal processing on image data. In effect, saving nearly all of the data captured in the photo. As opposed to only saving the data that’s making an appearance in the image itself.
More succinctly, it saves all of the data that’s usually whittled down and processed into the JPG files most Android phones save. And that means you can get more from your photos when you do edit and finalize them.
We’ll discuss that momentarily. In the interim, even phones that come with RAW saving capabilities don’t typically have it turned on by default. And that’s because RAW files can be several dozen — or more — Megabytes in size. As compared to the much smaller files JPGs represent. And, moreover, not a lot of apps support the RAW format anyway. So we’ll need to look at how to turn on RAW, to begin with.
- Now, this process will vary from smartphone to smartphone depending on your OEM. Our example photos use a Google Pixel 5. But the settings should be similar enough for these steps to be helpful. You will, of course, start by opening up your camera app
- Once in the Camera app, there should be a Settings icon available — it may be tucked behind a swipe depending on the manufacturer. Typically, the Settings icon is a gear or cog-shaped icon
- The menu that appears is going to vary significantly from device to device. In some phones, the camera Settings appear as an overlay taking up the entire screen. On our Pixel 5, it appears as a card-style overlay. In any case, the Setting for RAW photography will be in one of two places, if not readily apparent on the primary Settings page, select the “Advanced” option. That may be tucked specifically under a “Photos” or “Camera” tab if your device separates photo settings from video settings. On our Pixel 5, we also needed to start, as shown in the images below, by selecting “More Settings” in the initial overlay
- Once you discover the option to turn on RAW captures, that will usually be presented as a toggle. You can simply turn it on and both JPG and RAW data will be saved, in most cases. For our Pixel 5, the option is available to turn on the “RAW + JPEG” control. Once activated, as shown in the images below, the first Settings menu has the option to turn on or off RAW shooting mode. Then the RAW photos can be accessed via a dedicated folder on the Google Photos app Library page
- Other phones may display the options differently, so be sure to pay attention to any messages your phone displays when turning the RAW mode on
Some third-party apps also claim to unlock RAW captures for Android phones. Some popular ones include ProCam X and Open Camera. These won’t work for every Android phone necessarily. But can work in some cases, so it’s worth looking into if you can’t find the setting above in your stock camera app.
You can also get more dynamic range in your photos using HDR or Pro mode if your phone has it
Of course, most modern smartphones also come with built-in features to help you get the most from your photos without after-editing. Summarily, via an included HDR mode that helps you get even more dynamic range in your phone-shot photos from the initial snap. That’s usually turned on automatically but not always. So we’ll take a look at how you can activate the mode.
Aside from HDR shots and RAW captures, which we’ll discuss more momentarily, there is also typically a pro mode. Now, our test device, the Google Pixel 5, doesn’t come with a Pro mode. Or a dedicated HDR tool, either. But we’ll discuss those features here as well, using a different Android handset, the Vivo X50 Pro+. And how to tweak those settings more to ensure better photos with an improved showing of dynamic range from your phone.
- To turn on the high dynamic range, you’ll need to dive back into your Settings for some devices and not for other devices. So, as with turning on or off RAW mode, there will be some variance depending on your device’s manufacturer. However, the process should be very similar and we’ll discuss common differences in the steps below
- High dynamic range mode is typically referred to in the UI as HDR. And phones that support HDR photography will typically place the options front and center. In the case of our gadget, that’s found right in the top-bar UI. On some other gadgets, it may also be found in the Settings menu itself, tucked behind the gear or cog-shaped icon. Or, conversely, in a swiped menu from the left, right, top, or bottom edge. In any of those cases, the tool is typically accompanied by the above-mentioned HDR icon and easily spotted. Turning HDR on isn’t the best bet for high-intensity shots or those with a lot of movement. Primarily because it relies on taking multiple frames and combining the data. But it will work for just about any other capture. So it is worth seeking out and using
- Accessing and using Pro mode and tools, conversely, can deliver a better result in your photos from the start if your phone happens to have a “Pro” mode. That way, you won’t have nearly as much post-processing or editing to do later on. If any at all. Now, exactly what options are available in Pro mode will vary from phone to phone. So you may not see all of those we mention and we don’t have images for all of those mentioned here either. However, with some practice, you can take far better photos with a much better representation of a natural dynamic range using the Pro mode tools found on your phone.
- As noted above, not all of the tools we’ll discuss here will be found on your smartphone. However, Pro mode is almost always found the same place regardless of the OEM in question. To use Pro mode, start with a swipe through the available shooting modes along the bottom of the UI or access the extras menu dubbed “More” in our sample images
- Once in Pro mode, there are going to be a plethora of options available to you. These will vary depending on your exact device. However, generally speaking, you should see options for adjusting white balance, ISO, shutter speed, shadows, and highlights. These tools can add back some dynamic range while snapping a photo. For instance, by adjusting to make your captures slightly brighter and increasing contrast as well as adjusting white balance, you can improve details across the board. Any changes should, of course, be minimal. In the images below, the settings have been adjusted to the extreme to highlight what each setting changes about an image. But users should, generally, consider the default “auto” setting as a guideline for the approximate appropriate levels. And then make small adjustments to reach the desired end result
Post-process and edit photos using your phone’s built-in software or third-party apps for more or better dynamic range in your final shots
Now, once you’ve taken your photos, you’re going to be able to get a lot more dynamic range out of them using the software directly on your phone. But it’s important to understand how that works.
Of course, you’ll be in a better starting position if you’ve taken RAW photos. Not just because many of the top photo editing apps available on Android and iOS can also work with that format. And since many of those apps’ same tools or proxies are discoverable on a computer, we’ll be discussing those here.
For instance, our example will be using the built-in editing tools on a Google Pixel smartphone. Specifically, using the editing tools in Google Photos and not in RAW since support for that is limited. At least in that app. But many of the available tools in the app and even more are available in other apps. Such as Lightroom CC from Adobe, VSCO, or Google’s Snapseed.
Better still, the tools are effectively the same across services since they’re adjusting the same photo parameters. Albeit, with extras available for photos in the RAW format since that format does save more data, to begin with.
The bulk of the adjustments we’ll discuss can also be used on JPG and other file formats saved by smartphones. So, even if you haven’t saved using a RAW format, you’ll still be able to make improvements with some practice. Here, we’ll discuss what each of these settings is and what they do for an image. In addition to a brief explanation of how they’re used to add more dynamic range in your photos as well as just to make your phone-snapped images better.
…here’s how post-processing tools on phones typically work
Since there’s a lot of variance from app to app, we’ll also be skipping over auto enhancements shown in the images below. Those images are included to provide a look at what exactly those tend to do. In terms of adjusting color temperature and other settings. But those also tend to be fairly extreme in their adjustments. So they serve as a good contrast to what we’re trying to show here.
The images here have also been resized and compressed. And that’s important to bear in mind since changes won’t be as prominent with those factors in place. It’s also important to make smaller adjustments first, as needed. Further changes can be made as needed too, even to those adjustments that have already been made. But small changes to start with will help ensure that the image doesn’t look too overprocessed when finalized.
- Brightness is a setting that effectively increases the exposure of the entire image. That means that darker areas see increased detail, in exchange for a loss in terms of the deepness of dark colors and overexposure in areas that are already bright. These drawbacks can be helped with other settings we’ll discuss here. So don’t worry too much if your photo now appears a bit blown out on making the change.
- Contrast, conversely, is a great way to counter the ill effects of increased brightness. By adjusting contrast, as is implied, you’re increasing or decreasing the difference between shades of color and between the lightest and darkest parts of the image. More prominently in the latter area with the photo tool that we’re using.
- White Point adjusts effectively “defines” what white is for the system. Namely, by adjusting the tristimulus values or chromaticity coordinates that serve as that definition in encoding, reproduction of an image, or image capture. So, summarily, when you adjust white balance you’re changing what the other tools here consider to be white. And how white tones are defined when the image appears elsewhere.
- Black Point serves a similar purpose but sets the tone in the photograph that the system will view as “black.” So it should be set similarly.
- Highlights and Shadows serve a more general purpose but, as is implied, for darker or lighter areas of the image.
- Saturation is a term used to define how much color is in an image. For instance, a black and white photo has effectively no saturation whatsoever. So, if you find your photo looking a bit too bright and colorful, a slight reduction to saturation can help. And vice versa.
- Tint, Temperature, and warmth are not necessarily interchangeable terms but each applies to the overall color tone of an image. Natural daylight, for instance, leans more to the blue side of the spectrum than typical indoor lighting, which is warmer and leans yellow. Tint adjusts the overall color tone more generally, while temperature and warmth generally apply to the blue or red/yellow shift of an image.
- Denoise and sharpen are tools you can use to finalize your photo if it’s looking a bit too grainy or blurry. Denoise, for example, is used to smooth out areas that may be too grainy or otherwise noisy. Conversely, Sharpen can help if things appear just a bit too blended together. Or if they need to be made more clear, to a certain extent.