Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Full Monochrome Image Sensor Implemented in Huawei P9

This blog entry is a continuation from my Huawei P9 review series. If you have not read my previous posts, please go to the following links: 1) Huawei P9 Review and 2) Long Exposure Shooting with Huawei P9

In this paricular blog review, I shall explore only one specific feature of Huawei P9, the Monochrome mode.

Why black and white, you ask? For photography-enthusiasts, especially street photographers like myself, at some point of our journey in photography we will stumble upon, and fall in love with the simplicity and elegance of black and white as a medium of photography. Without the distraction of colors, we open a whole new different world of images, which boldly emphasize on the subject content, drawing attention to the main idea of the image, as well as strengthening the subject expressions and overall emotional output of the image. Black and white is a different class of photography altogether, and is an art form by itself.


The Huawei P9 is the second photographic device to implement a full monochrome image sensor, considering the first camera was the Leica M Monochrom. The Huawei P9 has dual cameras (with one lens on each camera), one has the usual RGB color sensor, and the other has the monochrome sensor. The logic behind having a full monochrome sensor is quite straightforward, by removing the traditional colour filters in a typical RGB image sensor, the light will hit the image sensor at full spectrum, unfiltered, allowing the image sensor to collect full information with minimal losses. This translates to images in black and white which display greater sharpness, depth and clarity, hence the claimed superiority of utilizing a full monochrome sensor.

How do we define sharpness, depth and clarity? Sharpness simply means the ability of the lens + image sensor combination to resolve as much fine details as possible (per-pixel sharpness, even if you have not that large Mega Pixels count, if you have high quality pixels, you still get plenty of details). Depth can be achieved by having good contrast and tones, ability of the image sensor to differentiate highlight, shadow and midtones, resulting in smooth transitions. Otherwise, having poor contrast and bad differentiation between light and shadow will result in flat images. Clarity basically means, images that have both excellent sharpness and contrast, producing the "clear", life-like appearance.

I intend to explore the following items:
1) What is the advantage of using the Monochrome mode in the Huawei P9, versus the standard color mode which is converted to black and white later in post-processing?
2) What is my experience shooting in full Monochrome mode?

All images were shot with Huawei P9 Monochrome Mode, unless otherwise stated.

Above the Clouds

Sunset Singapore

Unit Tentera Darat

Crop from previous image

Portrait of a Soldier

Crop from previous image


Alright, scrutinizing is just a nicer word for "pixel-peeping". 

I must say, without zooming too much into details, just by general observation of the black and white images churned out from the Monochrome mode. I am surprised by the pleasantly rich, high contrast and almost 3-D looking images! There is something different in the Monochrome images, I just could not quite quantify how, and properly describe the differences in words just yet. Some photographer reviwers have claimed that the black and white images look similar to the output of Leica M Monochrome (of course not as sharp, or as rich as the true Leica M Monochrom). I have no way to testify to this statement since I have not used the Leica Monochrom before, but I can admit this far, the Black and White images from the Huawei P9 Monochrome mode is different from usual black and white images I have seen from ordinary cameras, and the Huawei P9's images look really good. 

Then I decided to take a closer look. Much, much closer look. 

I shot a few images, both in the normal full color mode, and then subsequently in Monochrome mode, and did side by side comparisons. 

It is rather difficult to point out the advantage of having more details, or sharper images, since the ordinary color images did utilize the monochrome sensor to boost the overall sharpness and structure of the image. Therefore, in terms of overall sharpness, I'd say the full color images looked a little sharpner, considering it combines the details from both image sensors, while the black and white images from the Monochrome mode only utilizes a single image sensor. That aside, both images look almost equally sharp with not much noticeable difference. Yet, somehow the Monochrome images appear to have higher "clarity". Then I immediately realized that, if the difference is not in the sharpness, it must be in the CONTRAST. 

 Original color image

Monochrome Mode

Crops from previous images
On the left: Color image converted to black and white in post-processing
On the right: original Monochrome mode image
Pay attention to the chain hanging the lamp, and the inner bulb area. 

Superlatively zooming into details, to reveal the difference in quality contrast handling. 
On the top: Color image converted to black and white
Bottom image: Original Monochrome Mode image
The color image converted to black and white was harsh, with easy clipping on highlights (overblown), while the Monochrome mode resulted in smoother appearance, and more shades of grey (better transition from light to dark areas). 

Then I did a 100% crop comparison, side by side, between color converted to black and white, and black and white originally from Monochrome Mode. Then the Eureka moment hit. Indeed, due to the color filtering process, the image was not resolved as smoothly and as accurately as the full black and white images that did not have to deal with color. The limitation of a color sensor, due to RGB filtering can be clearly seen in the not so smooth chains of the hanging lamp in the sample images. The color converted to Black and white image appears jagged, and unnatural, while the Monochrome image exhibited smoother transition between the differing brightness regions. The Monochrome Mode handles contrast (difference between light and shadow, bright and dark) much better, and produces more natural looking results than the color image. This smooth tones and gradual change in shades of grey added that "film" quality look to the image. 

Now that we have discovered the magic of the Monochrome sensor, which is in the contrast, let's take a look at another example!

Original Color Image

taken in Monochrome Mode

On the left: Color converted to black and white
On the right: Original Monochrome mode. 
Pay attention to the smoother, more natural looking area on the shoes of the Monochrome image. 

Pixel level view of the color image (crop of image, below the trouser cuffs)

Pixel level view of the color image converted to black and white

Pixel level view of the Monochrome image

On the left: color image converted to black and white
On the right: monochrome image
This side by side comparison clearly indicated the strength of the monochrome sensor: there was a lot of more information recorded in the transitions, there is no sudden, hard change between light and shadow, and the smoother gradient resulted in more natural looking images. This higher level of contrast translates indirectly into higher clarity images.

Alright, enough pixel-peeping. 

On a more casual note, I did find myself being completely immersed with the Monochrome Mode, and was completely fine with just shooting in black and white. I understand that ordinary smartphone users may not find this mode very exciting or useful in the day to day use, for example shooting food photos for Instagram, or their pet photographs for Facebook sharing. I understand that the black and white photography as a medium is quite a niche, and when you have Huawei P9 that produces beautiful colors in their normal camera mode, why bother with the Monochrome?

Convenience is another factor, many would just shoot everything in color, and only convert to black and white if necessary, or if they feel like it later. In this case, the images were all in color. For Monochrome mode, there is no way for you to recover the color details in the photo after the shots were taken. You can convert color to black and white, but you cannot convert a black and white image to color. 

Not many people will be able to appreciate the advantages of the monochrome mode in their usual use of the Huawei P9. Yes, the images look more natural and has greater contrast, but seriously, if you are not a photographer, high chances are that you will not be able to tell the difference, and that is perfectly ok. I had a difficult time to describe the difference myself, and I needed to pixel peep, and let's face the truth, we do not pixel peep our photographs at that level all the time. If you do, man, what the hell are you doing with a smartphone? Go back to your Hasselblad or Leica cameras!

Another limitation worth mentioning, is that the Depth of Field Control mode (or Wide Aperture Mode), with the ability of the Huawei P9 to simulate shallow depth of field, artificially blurring the background into creamy bokeh, is not applicable when the Monochrome Mode is activated. The Depth of Field Control requires the use of two cameras, hence only utilizing one Monochrome image sensor will not be able to have this function, which is quite a pity!

Nevertheless, if you are considering a full black and white photography project, or shooting a series of exclusively black and white images, that Monochrome mode will make a world of difference in creating a more impactful final results. 

It is perfectly fine to just shoot normal, color images, and convert to black and white in post-processing, if you think that the Monochrome Mode is not for you!

Portrait of a Soldier 2

Close Up


Above 2

Glass Windows

Empty Bottles

Merdeka Parade



Sultan Abdul Samad Bulding

Friendly Strangers

\Walking in

Rizal (left) from Kuching, and Grexer (right) who connected me to Huawei Malaysia for the loaned P9 unit. Thanks so much Grexer! It has been quite an amazing experience using the P9. 
This image was shot with the Depth of Field Control mode, in color, and converted to Black and White, since all other images were shown in black and white. 

I hope I have created a useful series of reviews for Huawei P9. 

I intend to come up with a blog tutorial on "How To Take Better Photos With Huawei P9". However, I also beg your understanding that a tutorial blog entry will take plenty of time and effort, and I will not be able to publish it that soon. Nonetheless, do let me know if that tutorial will be helpful. 

I still do have some time with the Huawei P9. Please let me know if you have anything else you would like me try. 

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  1. Robin, thanks for the reviews, bought a P9 at the weekend and the depth of field simulation is incredible as is the sharpness. Monochrome I concur, they have a richness and subtle depth.

    1. Hey Martin, glad to know that you also own one! Enjoy shooting with the Huawei P9.

  2. Brilliant review and I am in the mood for having a camera with a monochrome sensor. But not in a smartphone, sure connectivity and an all in one package is a nice thing but there have to come up more cameras in the payable range with BW sensors. Nonetheless great gear this P9. Do you have DNG Files for Download? I want to compare with my trusty Lumia 950 with excellent Zeiss Lens and a surprising OIS,also good Sensor in Low Light (much better than S6/S7 or iPhone 6) also DNG is possible. And the Lumia Camera App from now Microsoft is a breeze to use.

    1. Hey XebastYan,
      I shot everything in JPEG, as I believe usually the common users of smartphone will only use JPEG (generally speaking). Also, if I were to bother about post-processing RAW images I would just bring out my Micro Four Thirds system.

  3. If I remember right, one reviewer mengioned, that the color/bw blending option does not kick in below ISO 800, do you have any info on that topic Robin?


    1. The dual camera will be used at all times. If you block either one of the camera, the phone will warn you and ask you to unblock the lens, even at ISO50. The purpose of having another sensor is not to shoot better high ISO image, but to add better overall sharpness (details). And of course, the wide aperture effect.

    2. All right, thanks a lot Robin!

  4. Thank u very much sir for all your 3 reviews on P9 photography. I bought this model just to replace my old Honor 3C and just a casual pns auto mode camera person.

    I did copy a setting from your picture review (copy and paste yes im no pro lol) for night shot and with tripod and WOW the result from this P9 is stunning at least for a non camera person like me. Compared it with auto and night shot on tripod, that copy n paste manual mode picture totally awesome,clear and superb.

    So yes, i do welcome your "how to take awesome pic with P9".

    Looking fwd for it. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Ehsan! I am glad you have found my settings for long exposure shooting useful. Yes, do give me some time to prepare for the tutorial, that is not going to be easy.

  5. Great photography! Stunning B&W results, and it's almost mind-blowing these are from a phone. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I love to have one, unfortunately P9 can't be used on the Verizon network in the US.
    The comparison of the images of dark pants is quite revealing, illustrating how the nuance in rendering shades helps the pop. Thx for all the work you put in and sharing the results.

    1. Hey bostonc
      Oh no! did not know about the compatibility issues in the US networks! Such a pity, and the more reason to raise consumer voice to Huawei, I am sure they will listen for their future products. Such a shame not to take US customers seriously!

  7. Solid in depth review focusing on the camera only. Probably the most detailed one I've come across so far, having read/watched everything I've come across prior to purchasing it.
    I found it great how you gave each feature it's own post, rather than cramming everything into a general overview. This should really be on the first page of results, as I had come across it by luck after digging through several pages.

    Looking forward to your P9 guide!

  8. "The Huawei P9 is the second photographic device to implement a full monochrome image sensor".
    Only if the Sigma cameras are not classed as photographic devices. In every one of them, the top layer is a full monochrome image sensor with no colour filters or OLPF filter. Combine all 3 layers and it becomes a full colour image sensor with no colour filters or OLPF filter.

    1. Check the output from Sigma DP. Wait... They are in full color! Shocking!

  9. Easy readable post with many important information. I must back again for something new. Keep up posting and share with us. Thanks for your great staff....
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