Hydra, HDR, iPhoneography

A sunset captured with Hydra’s HDR mode

First of all, after writing for TUAW for more than 6 years, Im thrilled to be here writing for Life in LoFi, a web destination I frequented when it was busily observing the world of iPhoneography. As the iPhone camera improves, apps and additional hardware come in to support it, and I’m here to keep an eye on this growing field, and hopefully provide some insights and guidance.

Let’s get on with it shall we? My first stop is Hydra, ($4.99) a sophisticated universal app for iOS that takes HDR photography and low light shooting up a few notches from what other developers have been offering.

High Dynamic Range photography is exploding on mobile phones, and higher end DSLRs. That’s both good and bad, as we’ve all seen some terrible HDR examples, but under the right conditions HDR can turn impossible lighting conditions into favorable ones.

Hydra has just been updated to version 1.0.1 to foil a few bugs, but let’s talk big picture first. The app lets you take HDR photos, HDR videos, very low-noise low light photos, and using some clever software tricks, can do digital zooms that don’t look awful.

Hydra HDR mode

The HDR mode is very advanced. Rather than take 2-3 exposures and tone mapping them, Hydra can take up to 20. When you point the camera, the app software will figure out how many exposures to take and then fire away. In my testing, I’ve seen the app select from 7 to 20 exposures, and it seems to make pretty good decisions based upon the dynamic range inherent in the scene,

I gave the app my best HDR torture tests – a dark room with a bright window, and the results were excellent, and better than I’ve seen from other less flexible HDR apps.

Hydra, HDR, iphone photo, iphoneography

Hydra user interface in HDR mode

Hydra, HDR, iphone photo, iphoneography

Hydra, HDR, iphone photo, iphoneography

After you take your photo, the app lets you choose the type of post-processing, getting you a black and white image, medium tone mapping, or a more extreme push which seems to enhance the blacks a bit but adds a bit of noise.

If I could make a change to the HDR part of the app it would be to give the user more control over the taking of the photo and the post processing. After some of my HDR photos, I felt the need to reduce brightness in an external app. I’d like to see some basic editing modes built in to the app so it is an all in one solution. A slider that lets me set the number of exposures would be most welcome, and sliders to control the tone mapping and color parameters would enhance the app considerably.

Like any HDR app, you can make things really garish. I did I find I could get natural results, but again, more control over the tone mapping process would be a plus.

Video with HDR

The video HDR function is also worthwhile. The effects are more subtle, but the app processes the images fast enough to get you HDR in real time as you take your pictures. This feature is less successful on fast moving scenes, like sports photography. There are settings for light or strong HDR, and 720p or 1080p resolution. The reduced resolution settings should be better for quick pans or videos with motion.

Hydra Low-light feature

The low light settings are really effective. As with the HDR mode, Hydra takes a series of images, and by stacking them reduces the noise inherent in low light photos. This is a technique that goes way back to the film days, and it’s effective. You’ll want a static subject, and you’ll need a steady hand or mini-tripod, or something to brace yourself against. As the camera takes a longer exposure than what you’lTherl use in brighter conditions, it’s not in your best interest to be moving. You can see two photos below using the low light mode. The first is a single still, which is very noisy. The second still using Hydra’s noise reduction technique is quite clean of noise, although the room is pretty dark.

Hydra, HDR, iphone photo, iphoneography

Normal still, low light

Hydra, HDR, iphone photo, iphoneography

Low light still shot with Hydra

Hydra’s Digital Zoom

The zoom mode is most impressive too. The app gives you a choice of a 2X or 4X digital zoom, and gives you an outlined target that shows the zoomed image borders. Most digital zooms just blow the image up, which really doesn’t work very well. The Hydra software interpolates pixels, giving a sharper image. It’s not as good as an optical zoom, but the iPhone doesn’t provide one of those. I’d say Hydra’s software does a nice job when you need to get closer.

Hi-res mode

Using software algorithms, this app can offer an image in up to 32 MP mode. Again, it’s not the same as having a better sensor, but it can often look better than what you’d get without it. A steady hand helps here too. All my tests were hand held, and I thought the feature wasn’t magical, but it was a solid improvement. Below is a screen grab of an image taken in high-resolution mode, giving you the rough equivalent of a a 16 MP sensor, twice what the iPhone 6 actually has. Is it is good as a 16 MP sensor? Not really, but it is often an improvement over a standard digital zoom, and a noticeable improvement over using the standard camera without a software assist.

Bottom Line

I like Hydra’s app very much. It’s a multifunction app, not just an HDR app, so that gives it extra appeal. It does a good job with each function, but I still crave more control, especially in the HDR mode.

Hydra requires iOS 8.1 and it’s a universal app. It worked fine on my iPad Air 2, but the camera is better on my iPhone 6 so I did most of the testing on that device. Hydra is optimized for the iPhone 5 and 6 series of phones.

This latest version fixes a few bugs, including tagging locations improperly in the western hemisphere. Memory requirements have been lowered, and a few bugs that led to crashes have been cleaned up. I didn’t have any issues after several hours with the app.

App Store Link: Hydra – Amazing Photography – Creaceed SPRL

– Mel Martin