Android 14 introduces support for Google's groundbreaking Ultra HDR image format, promising to revolutionize mobile photography. As Google unveiled its Pixel 8 series, boasting impressive AI-powered camera features, the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro quietly ushered in a new era of mobile photography as Android 14 unveils Ultra HDR capabilities.
Ultra HDR is an innovative image format that builds upon the widely recognized JPEG format. While it retains the familiar .jpg file extension, Ultra HDR images incorporate a critical addition—an embedded HDR gain map in the metadata. This advancement ensures compatibility with platforms that support JPEG, making Ultra HDR accessible across the board. However, the magic of Ultra HDR truly shines on devices equipped with HDR displays.
When an Ultra HDR image is viewed on a device with an SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) display, it displays the standard SDR version of the image, ensuring compatibility across various platforms. However, the true magic unfolds on devices equipped with HDR displays.
Here, the embedded gain map enhances the base image, resulting in HDR visuals characterized by vibrant colors and enhanced contrast. This transformative experience is currently available on platforms that support Ultra HDR, such as Google Chrome or any Chromium-based browser running on Android 14 or Windows 11/macOS.
The diagram above illustrates the composition of an Ultra HDR image and the key differences that make it stand out in the realm of mobile photography.
To demonstrate the real-world impact of Ultra HDR, an experiment was conducted using the Google Camera app (version 9.1.098) extracted from a Pixel 8. The test involved capturing various Ultra HDR photos in a nearby park, utilizing a Pixel 6 Pro—surprisingly, this device supports saving photos in Ultra HDR with the latest Google Camera sideloaded.
To visualize the difference between the SDR and HDR versions of these photos, display analyst Dylan Raga contributed graphics that emulate the viewing experience on both types of displays. For those without HDR displays, these graphics provide a glimpse into the transformative power of Ultra HDR.
SDR vs HDR
However, the true potential of Ultra HDR becomes evident when experienced on devices with HDR-capable screens and operating systems or browsers that support this format. To view these Ultra HDR images in all their glory, visit the GitHub repository provided. The distinction between the HDR and SDR versions of the images should be unmistakable, leaving no room for doubt.
While the promise of Ultra HDR is tantalizing, its journey to becoming the standard for mobile photography is not without challenges. Currently, Ultra HDR support remains limited, posing obstacles to widespread adoption. Notable platforms and applications, including popular social media services like Instagram, have yet to incorporate support for this emerging format.
Moreover, some social media platforms apply image compression during the upload process, potentially compromising the HDR gain map within the metadata. Even basic metadata editing using Windows File Explorer can disrupt the HDR gain map.
Layout of an Ultra HDR image
Fortunately, Ultra HDR's full backward compatibility with JPEG ensures that the image remains viewable, even if the gain map is corrupted or lost.
The road ahead involves significant updates to apps and platforms to accommodate Ultra HDR, and this process will undoubtedly take time. There is no guarantee that all platforms will embrace Ultra HDR, especially considering that Apple has introduced its own version of HDR called Extended Dynamic Range (EDR). Apple's EDR format embeds an HDR gain map in HEIC/HEIF images, potentially creating competition in the field of advanced image formats.
While Ultra HDR primarily transforms the realm of mobile photography, its influence stretches far beyond smartphones. HDR technology has made significant contributions to the world of television and cinematic content.
HDR technology is not confined to mobile devices; it also plays a pivotal role in the world of television and filmmaking. When filmmakers create movies and TV shows, they collaborate with colorists to achieve specific visual aesthetics and convey emotions through color grading. The dynamic range and color depth available in the Digital Cinema P3 color space during production provide a rich palette for creativity.
However, to make these cinematic experiences compatible with standard TVs, adjustments are necessary. The wide color gamut and dynamic range must be tailored to fit the limitations of HDTV systems. As a result, some dynamic range and color vibrancy may be sacrificed to ensure compatibility.
When you watch content on your television, the choice of viewing mode can significantly impact your experience. Modes like "Movie" or "Cinema" optimize the image for HDTV systems, while "Vivid" or "Dynamic" modes may exaggerate colors beyond the director's intentions.
Recent technological advancements, such as 4K Blu-ray (4K BD) and streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, have introduced metadata—a game-changing addition. Metadata provides precise instructions to HDR/WCG (High Dynamic Range/Wide Color Gamut) TVs, guiding them on how to display content accurately. This ensures that viewers can enjoy content as intended by the creators, with deeper colors and enhanced dynamic range.
Tools like Technicolor's Intelligent Tone Mapping facilitate the creation of HDR content, making it more accessible and cost-effective for content creators. This innovation ensures that creating HDR versions of movies and shows is efficient and practical.
While Ultra HDR focuses primarily on mobile photography and Android, its broader applications in television and cinematic content highlight the versatility and impact of HDR technology across various platforms.
The bold claim that Ultra HDR represents the future of photography may raise eyebrows. At first glance, it might not seem like Ultra HDR will usher in a revolution in mobile photography. However, a deeper dive into the technology and its implications reveals its potential.
A man taking a photo using his smartphone.
Dylan Raga, a display analyst, offers a compelling perspective on why Ultra HDR matters, even to photographers:
"If you're a photographer, even if just as a hobby, you should be really excited for [Chrome supporting HDR image rendering] and the addition of Ultra HDR!
Camera HDR processing is not to be confused with these new, true HDR image formats. Many recent complaints about modern computational photography have to do with the 'overprocessed'-look of the HDR tuning that takes place: people want subjects to be properly exposed, yet sometimes want the entire foreground and background to be legible. But to achieve this, smartphones need to do a whole ton of tone map processing and squishing to fit the entire dynamic range into a very limited container. This HDR processing can make things look very artificial; the sky can be thousands of times brighter than the subject of your photo, yet the color of the blue sky may turn to the same brightness as the subject's blue shirt in the final processed photo.
With Ultra HDR, the image processing for the full HDR output can use a lot less tone mapping, making them look much more balanced and natural while improving contrast. Browser support in Chrome is also a huge step forward in making these types of photos the norm, and SDR dimming means you don't need to turn up your screen brightness just for HDR content to look correct. All around, Android is making huge moves for HDR, and I love it.”
— Dylan Raga, Display Analyst for XDA-Developers, on Reddit.
Despite the excitement surrounding Ultra HDR, it's essential to acknowledge the current challenges it faces. As a novel image format, Ultra HDR is met with limited support across various platforms, and not all apps have embraced it. Social media platforms, including Instagram, remain devoid of Ultra HDR support, and image compression can disrupt its intricate metadata.
As technology evolves, app developers and platforms will need to adapt to this emerging format, which will undoubtedly take time. Additionally, Apple's introduction of its EDR format adds an interesting dimension to the future of advanced image formats.
Ultra HDR is an innovative image format introduced in Android 14. It enhances image quality by embedding an HDR gain map in the metadata of images, allowing for crisper colors and improved contrast on devices with HDR displays.
Ultra HDR retains the familiar JPEG format with a .jpg file extension but includes an embedded HDR gain map. When viewed on devices with HDR displays, it enhances the image, creating vibrant and high-contrast visuals.
Currently, Ultra HDR support is limited, and not all apps and platforms have adopted it. Social media services like Instagram, for instance, may not support Ultra HDR, and image compression during upload can affect the HDR gain map.
Ultra HDR offers photographers improved image quality with less tone mapping, resulting in more balanced and natural-looking photos with enhanced contrast. It also benefits from browser support, making it easier to share HDR images.
While the potential of Ultra HDR is significant, its widespread adoption as an industry standard remains uncertain. It faces challenges in terms of support and competition from other HDR formats like Apple's EDR. However, it continues to evolve and has the potential to redefine mobile photography.
To capture Ultra HDR photos on your Android device, you need to have a smartphone running Android 14. Once you have the compatible hardware, use a camera app that supports Ultra HDR, such as the Google Camera app. This app allows you to capture photos in Ultra HDR format, taking advantage of the enhanced image quality.
Currently, Ultra HDR is primarily associated with Android 14. While Android devices have embraced this new image format, there's no official confirmation about its availability on iOS devices like iPhones and iPads. The competition between Ultra HDR and Apple's Extended Dynamic Range (EDR) format may influence its adoption on iOS platforms in the future.
In conclusion, while Android 14 unveils Ultra HDR, holding the potential to redefine mobile photography with its impressive image quality improvements and compatibility with JPEG, its journey to becoming the industry standard remains uncertain. However, its transformative capabilities and promise make it a development worth watching closely. As the technology landscape continues to evolve, Ultra HDR's impact on photography may become more apparent, solidifying its position as a significant advancement in the field of visual storytelling.