There is just something about black and white photography that captures our attention. Without color to give us clues about the makeup of the scene, we’re forced instead to inspect the image more closely - to look at the areas of light and dark and look for details like lines or patterns - that give the image visual interest. The simplicity of black and white photography is classic as well, regardless of whether it’s a landscape, a portrait, or something in between.
Creating black and white images with your smartphone might seem overly difficult at first, but when it comes down to it, it’s simply a matter of following a few crucial guidelines. Lighting, like for any type of image, is of the utmost importance. But beyond that, there are some creative choices and add-on gear for your smartphone that will enhance your ability to create compelling black and white images.
Look for Contrast
In the absence of color to provide visual impact in the image, black and white photos instead rely more heavily on contrast to capture the viewer’s attention. Fortunately, an increased level of dynamic range - the difference between dark blacks and bright whites - is easy to find, especially if you’re shooting during the middle of the day.
Typically, the rule of thumb is that you should avoid harsh, midday lighting regardless of the subject matter because the light creates such heavy shadows. However, this is a benefit for black and white photography with your smartphone. The deep shadows created by harsh lighting gives depth and dimension to the scene, making it appear three-dimensional. What’s more, deep shadowing makes the lighter tones in the scene appear even brighter, which gives the photo additional impact.
The direction of the lighting will impact the level of contrast as well. If, for example, you’re taking a portrait, having the subject face the sun will result in a high-key shot in which there is an abundance of bright whites and not a lot of contrast. This is especially the case when using your smartphone because of the limited capabilities of your phone’s lens (at least compared to traditional lenses for DSLR and mirrorless systems). Conversely, if you place the sun behind the subject, you’ll get a silhouetted image with few highlights and a lot of dark shadowing.
Perhaps the best lighting to get high-quality contrast is side-lighting. Whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, a street scene, or something in between, lighting from the side casts long shadows that give the image the depth discussed above, while also ensuring you’ve got a good range of light and dark tones. Remember, however, that when you take your images you’ll see them in color, so it will take a bit of training to get your eyes to see beyond color and look for contrast.
Taking a Portrait? Set the Exposure on the Subject’s Face
Portraiture with a smartphone camera is one of the most common subjects, yet many people that use their smartphones for photography don’t fully understand how to get the best exposure for the portraits they take. Fortunately, metering (getting a light reading from the scene) has become a standard feature on most smartphone cameras, which allows you to set the exposure for the scene wherever you’d like. Simply tap the phone’s screen and that’s where the camera will meter from.
In the case of portraiture, obviously you need to meter off of the subject’s face. This ensures that you get an image that is well exposed. Granted, metering in smartphones isn’t as powerful as something you’d find in a top-end Canon or Nikon camera, but it will still do a reasonable job. Even if it isn’t perfect reading, it will be a much more pleasing exposure for the subject’s skin tones than if you meter from elsewhere in the scene.
When metering, keep this in mind - underexposure is easier to work with than overexposure, especially when it comes to skin tones. If anything, slightly underexpose the image because you’ll have an easier time recovering details from dark areas than you will from light areas.
Silhouettes are an ideal choice for black and white photography because, as discussed above, black and white images benefit greatly from good contrast of lighting. Silhouettes are easy to create as well - just place a light source behind your subject, meter off of a bright area in the scene, and your subject will be rendered in shadow, creating a nice contrast with the bright background lighting.
Look at the image above as an ideal example of this. The mother and baby are both quite dark, yet you can still see the details of each of their faces. This contrasts with the light coming through the window, giving the image an incredible sense of depth. At the same time, the dynamic range in the image is extensive, from dark blacks on the left to bright whites in the background.
Use an Add-On Lens With Polarizer
As we’ve discussed throughout this article, contrast is your friend when it comes to creating dynamic black and white images. An ideal way to create better contrast is by using a polarizing filter. In color photography, a polarizer makes the sky a deeper blue and the clouds whiter. But when the color image is converted into black and white, this creates very dark skies and very bright clouds for a sky full of contrast, as is seen in the featured image at the beginning of this article.
Using a polarizer with your smartphone requires that you utilize an add-on lens as well, which is a smart choice if you want the highest optical quality. Sirui has a line of lenses for smartphones that that are constructed of high-quality glass that results in a high-definition picture quality that you’d typically associate with lenses for traditional cameras.
One of our favorite Sirui mobile phone lenses is the wide-angle version, which has a perspective similar to an 18mm lens on a full frame camera. This viewing angle is great for landscapes, street photography, and many other scenes that lend themselves to a black and white treatment. Better still, Sirui’s polarizing filter fits their wide-angle lens perfectly, giving you the opportunity to take stunning images with the dynamic range needed to make your black and white photos pop. If you want to maximize your ability to take impressive black and white photos with your mobile phone, a Sirui polarizing filter and wide-angle lens is something that should be at the top of your list!
Creating compelling black and white images with your mobile phone is probably simpler that you think. Contrast is key, regardless of the subject. Looking for opportunities to create silhouettes will also help you generate some eye-catching black and white images with your phone. If your subject is a person, be sure to use your phone’s metering function to meter off their face, bearing in mind that underexposure is preferred to overexposure. And, though there are limitations to your phone’s capabilities, adding a wide-angle lens and polarizing filter will allow you to get sharper photos with increased dynamic range. The drama-filled images you get as a result will be worth the time, money, and effort!