The way that certain cameras feel and work and operate lends them to a certain kind of photography. And for me, the iPhone is perfect for high-contrast, graphic black and white images. True, the image quality is some way short of what you’d get from a ‘proper’ camera, but when I’m using it I see the world differently and I see compositions in a way that I don’t when I’m looking in a camera viewfinder or at the back of a screen.
Perhaps it’s because the camera is also the display medium? Imagine how differently we’d see and capture images if we were able to hold a 10″ x 8″ print up to a scene and see the image formed on it directly.
So here are three tips for better black and white iPhone photography:
Tip 01: Use the Noir filter
The iOS Camera app has a selection of filter effects including three for black and white: Mono, Tonal and Noir. Noir is my favourite because it delivers a high-contrast rendition that also renders blue skies as very dark and intense (though see the note below). You don’t just get this effect in the final image, you also see it live on the screen as you’re composing the picture, and this high-contrast rendition helps you ‘see’ shapes, light and compositing much more clearly. And these three are the cornerstones of successful black and white.
Tip 02: Shoot square
I like the square format on the iPhone for two reasons: first, it’s a relatively unfamiliar aspect ratio that makes you re-evaluate ideas about composition. With regular rectangular ratios you can easly just slip into a compositional rut; the second reason is that shooting square means you don’t have to rotate the phone – and smartphones are much easier to shoot with in the upright position.
Tip 03: Check the exposure
For stark black and white compositions to work, the exposure has to be right. Your phone will make an educated guess, but if you’re shooting a scene made up of bold lighting contrasts and patterns of light and shade, you’ll probably need to take control. On the iPhone that’s easy. Just tap on an area of the scene you want correctly exposed – a sunlit part, for example – and the phone will set the focus and exposure for that area. It will aim for a mid-tone grey, though, and if this is wrong just drag up and down on the exposure compensation gadget to make the picture lighter or darker. Simple.
Oops: what’s that noise?
There is a bit of an issue with the iPhone’s Noir filter. It manipulates the colour information in the image to make blue tones much darker (i.e. blue skies) and it does this, like any other black and white conversion tool, by making heavier use of the red channel. As with all single-layer sensors, the red pixels make up only one in four of the total number, and when you bring the red channel to the fore like this you also expose edge effects and noise that wouldn’t be noticeably in a regular RGB colour photo.
This shot shows the problem. The blue sky is heavily darkened, which is a really nice effect, but you can see a ‘halo’ effect around the architectural details on the building, and the sky itself has a slightly blotchy tone.
This only affects photos where you have a sharply detailed subject against a rich blue sky. If it’s ruining the shot, there is a solution – simply revert to the original colour photo in Apple Photos and try adjusting it with the manual black and white tools in the program, or use another editor like Snapseed. Unfortunately, these artefacts are baked into the red channel, so using a red filter effect in another program will just land you back where you started. But you might find a combination of filters and local adjustments that gives you the result you want without leaning so heavily on that red channel.
See also: Top ten iPhone photography tips