Photographing with the Essential Phone’s Black and White Camera

I’ve had some time to get used to my new Essential PH-1 phone, which I will just refer to as the Essential phone. I’m past that honeymoon, new toy phase and have had plenty of time to get comfortable with what it can and can’t do. I’ve also given Essential, the company that makes the phone, time to work out bugs and make improvements. This won’t be a phone review because everything has been said already. I’m not a phone blogger either. This will be a camera review. More specifically, this will be a review of one of the three (yes three) cameras on the phone if you don’t count the 360 degree camera accessory. Despite the Essential phone having a mediocre camera, photographing with the Essential phone’s black and white camera has been a treat. 

Note that at the time of writing this, my Essential phone is on version NMJ20D released at the end of October 2017. Also note that the photos included in this article have been edited for aesthetics and are not what is captured straight from the camera. I edit all of my photos before sharing them, no matter how they were captured. 

Why a black and white camera?

Can’t you just take a color photo and make it black and white? What’s so special about a camera that only takes black and white photos? The answer can be a little technical but I’ll try to simplify it. A color image sensor, or cameras that take color photos, have red, green, and blue filters in front of their pixels. When light passes through those filters, the pixels record the colors that passed through. The problem with this is that those filters reduce the amount of light being captured. Additionally, converting a color photo to black and white happens in a number of ways.

Automatic methods typically pick one of the color channels, or filters, and remove all of the color and ignore the others. Most of the time, red is chosen. That means that photos automatically converted to black and white are using only the light that passed through the red color filter and getting rid of the rest. The tone and contrast of the photo can be unnatural. It also means photos that have more red will look brighter than photos that don’t. 

When you remove the red, green, and blue filters, you capture more light. The tone and contrast captured is also that of all light in the scene, not just one color. Details are fuller and the captured photos tend to be more dramatic. 

Generally, what I and many other photographers, do when converting color photos to black and white is to mix the color channels manually. This lets us have control over the tone and contrast, but the amount of light that’s captured is still limited by the filters in the first place. 

Shooting with the Essential Phone

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Essential packed their first phone with a dual camera system on the rear. Their intention was to capitalize on the detail the monochrome camera could capture and merge it with the color photos. Essential has admitted that they’re not quite to the point they hoped to be in that regards yet, so I’m holding off on that topic for now. However, since the Essential phone has two cameras, the company did let you choose between them. Shooting in monochrome mode switches to the monochrome, or black and white, camera. 

Using the monochrome camera requires you to use the Essential camera app. Android isn’t built in such a way for apps to use multiple cameras with the exception of front or back cameras. This means you can’t take advantage of features or user interfaces that might be better in 3rd party apps. Shooting in black and white in other apps will most likely use just one of the filtered colors from the color image sensor as I described earlier. 

I’ve snapped black and white photos with this phone in various situations to get a feel for it and the app. It wasn’t until my day-job moved to downtown Chicago where I really had fun with it, though. Most street photography is black and white and where better to snap some street photos than on my commute to and from work? 

I snapped these photos on a cold, cloudy day in Chicago. Some were near 8 am and others around 4 pm. I didn’t stop to frame my photos and most were captured while I was walking. The volume buttons work as shutter buttons, which helped a lot considering how slick this phone is to hold. The photos peering up into the sky were taken blindly, by holding the phone near my waist, pointing up and slightly forward, and pressing the shutter as I continued to walk. 

What I noticed in my time using this phone is that there is slight shutter lack, the camera app returns to the color camera when the screen turns off and then back on, and the photos captured look amazing. The dynamic range of the camera isn’t great, but that’s typical of smaller camera sensors. Had I used HDR mode, this would have been improved, but I was unsure how it would perform while I was moving. HDR involves snapping multiple photos at differing exposures, then blending them together.

The amount of noise produced in the monochrome camera exceeded my expectations too. Too often I snap photos with a phone, look at them on the screen and feel good, then look at them on my PC and cringe. The same has been true for Essential’s color camera so far, but not so much with the monochrome camera. Lacking a color filter gives this an advantage in low light, even if slightly. I was also able to recover details in the shadows and highlights well. 

Retouching

The monochrome, or black and white, camera takes incredibly detailed and dramatic photos on its own. The dynamic range isn’t the best, as I mentioned earlier, and I enjoy post processing photos. I rarely share a photo I haven’t made edits to and this applies here too. 

For these photos, I chose Snapseed to edit with. I ignored the presets and went straight to Tools. I increased shadows a bit and, where necessary, reduced highlights some in the Tune Image tool. I then increased both structure and sharpness in the Details tool. Then I adjusted the low, mid, and high tones in the Tonal Contrast tool. Finally, I added a subtle vignette to for drama. 

Get Snapseed here: Google Play Store or iTunes App Store

That’s a wrap

Despite the Essential phone having a poor reception after it’s launch due to the camera under performing and bugs, the monochrome camera as of today is among my favorite cameras. I shot with a Canon T2i (550D) for many years, upgraded to a Canon 7D Mark II, and also own a Canon G9 X as a walk-around camera. I outgrew the T2i, wish I could lug the heavy 7D Mark II with me everywhere, and am less than impressed by the G9 X. Shooting with the monochrome camera on the Essential phone makes me fall in love with photography all over again. The color camera on this phone, not so much.

I’m happy to look at the photos captured on the Essential phone on a big screen for a change and the contrast is very satisfying. To get a dedicated black and white, or monochrome, camera in a DSLR, mirrorless, or point and shoot camera, you would need to modify the camera. There are few cameras dedicated to monochrome photos and all of them are very expensive. The Essential phone’s image sensor can’t compete with the expensive options, but it brings this feature closer to many more people willing to give it a chance. Essential certainly isn’t the only smartphone with a monochrome camera, but I am certainly enjoying it. 

You’re welcome to share your opinions, questions, comments, or photos with me and my readers below if you wish. I’m especially interested to see how Essential grows over time and makes improvements. At this moment, the camera app lacks a lot of basic features and the color camera leaves a lot to be desired, but is improving. 

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