Snapseed was a surprisingly big part of today's Google+ event, and largely for a single reason: a new feature called HDR Scape. Google claims Snapseed is the first mobile app to use the pixel-edge contrast method to produce HDR photos, which certainly sounds fancy. How does it stack up in reality, though? Most smartphones today ship with an HDR mode on-board, generally creating an image by taking multiple photos at different exposure levels and then combining them into a composite image. We decided to do a quick comparison using the HDR modes on two popular phones, the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, and pitting them against Snapseed's new method. Check out the results below.

Galaxy S4

Scene 1 - This scene made for a pretty easy photo, but dark spots on the tree and and bushes in the background, along with the shadow from the bench, could use a little lightening up. It's not a bad photo to start with - here's the unaltered original next to one taken with Samsung's HDR mode (left to right).

wm_1_0percent wm_1_HDR Samsung

Left: original, auto mode, right: HDR mode

The HDR shot takes away some of the highlights on the sky and definitely makes the tree's various low and high light spots blend better. Whether the reduced contrast is more visually appealing is really a matter of taste, I guess. I have to say, though, it's not a particularly drastic difference.

Let's see what Snapseed can do with this - below you'll see the HDR Scape mode set to 25% and 50%, respectively, when used on the original, unaltered photo.

wm_1_25percent wm_1_50percent

Left: 25% HDR Scape, right: 50% HDR scape

At the 25% level, HDR Scape isn't too aggressive with the image, though it obviously ups the saturation of colors substantially. The result is a less natural-looking photo, but one with very well-defined elements and contrast. Compared to Samsung's HDR, Snapseed clearly has the more noticeable effect, though at the price of photorealism. Even at 25%, it's clear to the naked eye that this photo has been edited - it just doesn't look as natural as the original, or even Samsung's HDR. Some may prefer this aesthetic, however, and I'll leave that to all of you to decide.

The 50% image basically amps up the saturation and further reduces low-light spots, and as a result looks even less realistic. If you take the slider up further, to 85%, things start to get weird.


HDR Scape - 85%

Well, it's certainly... interesting. Maybe not something every photo should be subjected to, though.

Scene 2 - This second scene had more low-lights, so you can see how that worked out with Snapseed compared to the S4's onboard HDR. The top two photos are, respectively, the unaltered original and the Samsung HDR version. The bottom three, left to right, are Snapseed HDR Scape set to 25%, 50%, and 85%.

wm_2_0 wm_2_HDR Samsung

wm_2_25 wm_2_50 wm_2_85


Scene 1 - this particular scene wasn't in need of heavy-handed dynamic range adjustment, but dark spots in the foreground and on the trees near the rear of the photo could certainly be lit up to give this photo a more pleasing appearance.



As you can see in the unadjusted photo, the shadows from the trees behind where I'm shooting add a lot of darkness to the front of this picture, and you might want to do something to balance things out. How'd HTC's HDR mode do, the one that's built into the phone? Let's see.

wm_1_HTC HDR

HTC HDR mode

Yikes - we've got major highlights on the grass and clouds, and the photo just looks too washed out altogether. It's also developed a bit of ugly blurring if you zoom in closer. I have to say, I walked away unimpressed with HTC's HDR in pretty much every sample scene I shot this afternoon, because almost every photo ended up looking like this.

Now, let's look at how Snapseed did.


HDR Scape - 25%

At just 25% of the effect scale, HDR Scape does an admirable job of bringing out some color in that dark grass, and even some of the trees in the back. The clouds look a bit more defined, and the whole picture just appears a little more crisp. The shade of green on the grass, though, is approaching a level of saturation I'm not sure I'd like. But overall, I'd say the photo is improved in a number of ways, even if has lost some of its realism. So, what if we turn up the HDR dial further?


HDR Scape - 50%

Wow, those clouds are really popping now, and the grass hasn't gone all crazy-crayola on us. The trees are a much more defined element in the composition, and the sky has tons of texture. Neat, though obviously not a very realistic photo anymore. Let's go one more.


HDR Scape - 85%

Whoah there, now we're getting a little crazy, and look at all the ugly noise in the sky! I'd like to point out that 85% is the default adjustment level when you use HDR Scape in Snapseed, so expect some hilariously over-processed photos in a Google+ feed near you soon enough.

Scene 2 - Here are the shots from the second scene I did with the One, in a more condensed format. The top two images are the unaltered photo and HTC's HDR version. The bottom three are, from left to right, the 25%, 50%, and 85% Snapseed HDR Scape photos.

wm_2_0 wm_2_HTC HDR

wm_2_25 wm_2_50 wm_2_85


The conclusion I'd draw at this point is that while Snapseed's HDR Scape is definitely a very powerful tool, it's pretty easy to use in a way that doesn't really make photos any better, so much as it makes them weirder. With a light touch, however, it seems HDR Scape can be used as an effective HDR substitute in certain situations.

Frankly, my jaw wasn't dropped by either the on-device HDR or Snapseed in any particular scene. These are still photos from smartphone cameras, and even altered they still have many of the shortcomings smartphone cameras suffer from - lack of detail at full crop, noise, and less than perfect exposure / white balance.

Has Snapseed made on-device HDR useless, though? I really don't think so, though I'm not sure on-device HDR was ever all that useful in the first place. Its effects are rarely beneficial enough to warrant the long processing times it requires, and it can even make some photos worse (looking at you, HTC One). In that sense, HDR Scape is a more versatile tool - you don't have to worry about turning on HDR mode, and the processing doesn't happen until you decide to edit your pictures. You can also choose the level of HDR-iness you desire.

In short, it's not magically going to turn your phone's photos into works of art, but it's an easy way to fix up low lights and add some (admittedly, less than realistic) texture and contrast to a boring image. You can try out HDR Scape by downloading the Snapseed app, linked below for your convenience.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Kaemo

    I don't know why they haven't integrated this with the Google+ app.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but Snapseed was integrated into Google+'s iPhone app when Google+ 4.0 was released, wasn't it?

    • miri

      G+ on Android has had "Snapseed lite" for the past couple updates.

  • Santeri

    Guess that post processing HDR isn't all that good than a few instant photos with different dynamic ranges combined. It still looks good though.

  • VyktorJonas

    Downloading it RIGHT NOW

  • andy_o

    Highlights are completely blown. You cannot recover that from a jpeg.

    • Thatguyfromvienna

      Neither from RAW. When it's perfect white, there's no details left.

      • andy_o

        So? You also can't recover from a bmp or a tiff. What's your point?

        Regardless, recovering highlights from RAW has always been understood as recovering highlights from what you're seeing on the screen, which is almost all the time an RGB conversion. In that sense, yes, you can recover some highlights from RAW.

  • nagi
    • didibus

      So if I understand that graph, finding an old film camera is the fastest way to skyrocket the quality of your pictures.

      • SpoorthyVemula

        You'd be surprised at how accurate that is. Once you slow down and think about your shots, they'll get much better.

        • Thatguyfromvienna

          Something you could do with a digital cam as well.

          • SpoorthyVemula

            But its something you'd be forced to do with film since film isn't free. With digital you can start snapping pictures mindlessly. You don't have the luxury with film

          • nagi

            Even a manual focus lens is a big help in slowing down and actually thinking about how to make the shot.

          • Alex M Wekell

            That is such pretentious BS. You're not making your photos any better by arbitrarily making the process harder, digital is the standard for reason. You could use this logic by saying: "well if you have a horse carriage instead of car, you have to plan your destination much more carefully".

        • didibus

          That's a valid point. You will probably spend more time thinking about each shot. I'd add that film cameras have the added bonus of instant retro filters on all your pictures without the stigma of having added one.

          • William Kister

            DSLR's can use the same

          • didibus

            True, they do and often gives you some amount of control over it, except when using RAW format. Then I believe no post processing is added by the DSLR.

    • roxannelgj914

      Highlights are completely blown. You cannot recover that from a jpeg.

    • mma173

      HDR is not a bad thing but people have the tendency to misuse it. HDR pictures can be so natural looking that no one would notice that they are.

      Attached is an HDR I took last year

      • didibus

        Well, it shows this id HDR, I mean, look at the clouds. But I agree, sometimes, HDR is closer to reality than non HDR, especially if it's a case of the camera reproducing the light wrongly, like not enough light.

  • Nick

    I thought Snapseed's HDR (when over used, this was at 100% to exaggerate what Snapseed does ) looks like a painting or a drawing of some kind. It's fairly obvious which is the original, but as you can see Snapseed also adds elements to the picture that are not otherwise there. Two side notes is one it still looks awesome, like a painting, but awesome. Also two, I just learned you can download the Auto-Awesome photos and they're GIFs

    • Nicholas McDonald

      C'est compl├Ętement fou, je l'aime.

      • Nick


  • palf91

    Tried it out on an HTC One running Cyanogenmod, at reasonable levels I really like HDR Scape.

  • Mastermind26

    So does snapseed need 3 shots to make the composition? Because if it's just a filter and you only have to take 1 shot (instead of 3), then it's a better/faster route.

    • miri

      Just one.

      • Mastermind26

        ty. Snapseed it is!

    • Thatguyfromvienna

      Faster? Yes. Better? No way.
      With sensors that small and JPEG instead of RAW, you have hardly any tolerance when editing any exposure settings.

      • Mastermind26

        Did you see the comparison? The end results look almost identical/too close to call a clear winner. If it's faster and gets you similar/equal results, then it's a better choice.

    • Frettfreak

      its just an editor. Take the photos with your camera or from your gallery and edit them there.

  • Itchy_Robot

    Black-haired animals is a great test for HDR. It's about the only photo mode I can use to take pictures of my black cat. Otherwise he just looks like a black demon blob.

    • Thatguyfromvienna

      Then crank up the exposure 3/2 stops. No need to rely on HDR for such an easy task.

  • GraveUypo

    ew those one pics are awful by themselves and the filter only makes it worse

  • Thatguyfromvienna

    HTC native HDR mode is terrible. Completely blown highlights in the clouds with no visible structure left. Never used that app so I hope it's a user mistake. If this is the best result that camera can deliver, they better remove this feature from the phone.

  • hyperbolic

    Imo HDR always makes the photos weirder.

  • http://www.jugarjugar.net/ Jugar Jugar

    It really is the obvious difference through every photo if you are to install the various shooting modes. The Samsung galaxy s4 is indeed a Samsung handset is pretty much investor attention photographic effects

  • Frettfreak

    Good article but its pretty obvious that the author just doesnt like HDR.

  • Eric Jones

    I've been really disappointed with HDR mode on the HTC One. On the HTC Evo 4G LTE, it worked really well. I think overall, most photos on the HTC One are better than the Evo, the HDR mode turned to crap. I almost never get good photos out of it.

  • George Av

    This filter is crap. All it does is add noise and make everything look worse. It's easier and looks better just to bump the ambiance up to 85-100

  • J.J. Valenzuela

    at least snapseed doesn't CRUSH clouds to a grey soupy mess.

  • Serhat Aygun

    Please do same for Pure HDR Camera. It is a real Hdr app that takes 3 bracket images and merges them.