Instagram is full of bright-as-hell HDR videos, but it didn’t have to be this way.

I can’t be the only one who has had this experience: I’ll spend time scrolling through my Instagram feed when all of a sudden my iPhone screen turns the brightness up to 11 for a random video clip or reel. It’s worse if you’re in a dark environment or a dimly lit bar when this happens because these bursts ignore your brightness settings and can get pretty nasty on your eyes.

The reason why this happens is that people are sharing more and more HDR (high dynamic range) videos on social platforms, whether they are aware of it or not, and when their fancy smartphone plays them, the screen speeds up to display In Apple’s words, “realistic color and contrast” thanks to HDR. But what you’ll notice most, more than anything to do with colors, is that your screen gets very bright whether you want it to or not.

Premium smartphones have been able to shoot HDR video for a few years now. Apple uses Dolby Vision, while Samsung prefers HDR10 Plus. But I don’t think these companies have effectively taught customers where and when the capability is actually useful, and when it’s best to leave it. Many people leave their camera app on the default settings, and in that case, their iPhone will happily capture their concert recordings or vacation memories in HDR. But you might not realize that once you upload those videos to Instagram or other apps like Reddit, they’ll hijack screen brightness for anyone watching with an HDR-capable iPhone.

I’m noticing this kind of thing more and more in recent months. Watch any of The Rock’s recent Instagram videos (like this adorable one) on an iPhone, and you’ll see what I mean. Why is this in HDR? What is being gained? I’d say it looks best when viewing in a desktop browser in SDR with no distracting bright reflections taking my attention away from the subject. That feels antithetical to who I am as a screen and home theater nerd. When HDR is used well and for the right scenes, the resulting videos can be stunning. But our phones are too eager to lean on it for normal, everyday clips.

I’d argue that HDR video recording went mainstream before many consumers really understood the best circumstances to use it, and now we’re facing the growing pains that come with such an aggressive push from phone manufacturers.

I doubt Apple will back down or become more conservative when capturing video in HDR. This is the company that no longer lets you turn off HDR for still photos on current iPhones. I still don’t understand that.

But a short-term “fix” could give iPhone owners more control. There is no switch to disable HDR playback within Instagram. You can’t turn off this often-too-bright system-wide playback experience anywhere in iOS settings. These seem like significant oversights when you consider that it’s been over two years since the iPhone 12 line introduced Dolby Vision recording. Just because something was captured in HDR doesn’t mean I want to see it that way or that my viewing preferences should be overridden. I expect intensely bright and vivid HDR from the TV in my living room. When I use a mobile device, there are times when I definitely don’t need it.

For now, the best way to avoid these random brightness ramps is to turn on iOS Low Power Mode, which will cause HDR videos to play normally. But there has to be a simpler and more direct solution than that.

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