Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lightroom HDR vs Google's HDR+

When I saw the news that the Lightroom Mobile app had a new feature to create HDR images, I naturally thought "That sounds really similar to the HDR+ feature touted on the Google Pixel XL phone. I wondered what the difference is? Did one of the main reasons I bought this phone just become available to all other phones for free?" After extensive research failed me (a couple of Google searches), I decided that if you want to get something done, maybe you should attempt to half-ass it yourself.

First, the HDR feature in Lightroom Mobile is very processor intensive, so it only works on a handful of phones right now (Currently it works on the iPhone 6S/SE and above and for Android, it works on the Samsung S7/S7 Edge, and the Google Pixel/XL phones). So in that regard, the HDR functionality from Lightroom isn't really quite available to many other phones yet.

How does it compare to Google's HDR+ though? Well, in my unscientific tests, I found that when you take a picture with the Pixel's default camera app, it has HDR+ on by default and it's so fast you don't really even notice it processing. If you try to check your picture immediately after taking it, you may see an "processing HDR+" notification. Typically it finishes processing the HDR in seconds and you get a pretty good picture. However, when you get an image you don't like, I'm not sure if there's a way to go back and easily make adjustments to the HDR because all you get is a jpeg.

Adobe Lightroom, on the other hand, requires you to take a picture through the Lightroom app. It takes much longer to process (it takes 3 raws then combines them into a new raw) and it takes up a ton of space on your phone to store the raw dng files. The positive side of it is that you can make adjustments to the HDR as much as you like after the fact. Exporting to a jpeg takes a few extra steps and a little more processing time but you can get pretty good results. The automatic result isn't always as good as HDR+ out of the box, but you can always tune it in the Lightroom app. I did notice in one image there were some artifacts in the resulting Lightroom HDR though (see below), which is something I hadn't experienced yet from HDR+

What's the verdict?

For something with fast and consistently good results, Google's HDR+ is pretty solid. In most situations you won't have time to open up Lightroom, click on the camera, and take a steady shot. With HDR+, you can open up the camera instantly (there's a shortcut to open up the camera by double-pressing the Pixel's camera button) and even if you're not completely still, the result you get from HDR+ is still usually pretty good. Nothing can really beat the speed and convenience of how HDR+ is integrated into the Google Pixel camera.

If you have time to wait, extra storage space, and have a picture you really want to get right, it might be best to take a Google HDR+ shot first, then switch to Lightroom and take an HDR there too. That way if you're unhappy with the HDR+ shot, you can go back to the raws in Lightroom and make an image more to your liking.

I should also mention that HDR+ can do some amazing post-processing to improve low-light images by subtracting random noise from the burst of shots it takes (at least that's how I think it works on a simplistic level). If you try to take a low light picture with Lightroom HDR, you'll get something like this:

Lightroom HDR at night

Compare that to HDR+ used to take a picture
under the same conditions


In the examples below, the HDR+ pictures are more saturated have more contrast compared to the Lightroom HDRs, but I believe they could've been tuned in Lightroom to match the HDR+ photos more closely, but I was pretty lazy and just did some basic adjustments. Lightroom was making the HDRs to bright by default so I had to tone it down. The highlights were already tuned down as low as they could possibly go.

Lightroom HDR


Lightroom HDR.. the speedometer is much clearer in this pic

HDR+ (the outside sky looks a little too saturated and blown out here)

Lightroom HDR (the HDR looks a little more natural here, but when zooming in to where the blankets overlap with the window, there are some artifacts that don't exist in the HDR+ picture... check the closeup below)

HDR+ (left) doesn't have the artifacts seen on the Lightroom HDR (right). It looks like chromatic aberration along with an outline around the blanket

Lightroom HDR

Lightroom HDR.. for this pic, the HDR+ pic just looks way better. I tried to match the  Lightroom HDR to the HDR+ photo but didn't have much luck.


Lightroom HDR (brighter and more detail captured under the tree, so I'd say Lightroom HDR wins this time)


Lightroom HDR (this one looks a little washed out/blurrier)
Lightroom HDR (the lightroom HDR in this case wasn't as sharp as the HDR+ pic)

Lightroom HDR (this one came out better than the HDR+ photo by default)

Summary (tldr;)

Google's HDR+
very good results probably 95% of the time (I made up that number)
can improve low-light images dramatically

making adjustments afterwards to a jpeg doesn't give you as much control

Lightroom Mobile HDR
More control over the final image and access to the raw images

takes up more storage space
sometimes has artifacts or bad default results that you need to tune to make look better
doesn't help with low-light images the way HDR+ does

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