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 MONOCHROME IMAGE SENSOR
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
Unit Tentera Darat
Crop from previous image
Portrait of a Soldier
Crop from previous image
SCRUTINIZING THE MONOCHROME MODE OUTPUT
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
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
Sultan Abdul Samad Bulding
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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