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 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

Sunset Singapore

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

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

Above 2

Glass Windows

Empty Bottles

Merdeka Parade

Patriotism

Fly

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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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kuala Lumpur After Sundown With Huawei P9

This is a continuation from the Huawei P9 camera review I posted here a few days ago. Kindly do read that original full review for photography if you have not, as I have covered all the important highlights and my opinion on the P9. This particular blog entry serves as an extension to the original review, with one particular capability put to test: long exposure shooting.

ABOUT LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY 

Long exposure photography to me is extremely enjoyable, it requires opening the shutter for an extended period of time, typically more than half a second long, to perhaps minutes or even longer to capture more light into the sensor. Slow shutter speed is one important aspect of photography, typically setting up the camera on a tripod (or non shaky/moving steady surface). Having more light exposing the image sensor means that we can afford to use lower ISO setting on the camera, ultimately producing clean, noise free, and sharp images. Therefore, to shoot beautiful images of city landscapes and building lights at night, long exposure is the best way to go. Furthermore, allowing the camera to capture the light for seconds also means that it will record all motion and light trails, which can create very exciting effect in the end result. Light painting, fireworks, car light trails, all can be produced from long exposure photography.

However, long exposure photography is difficult to be performed on most smartphone cameras, mostly due to the lacking of full manual control of the imaging parameters. In order for long exposure to work, we need to have access to control of shutter speed and adjustments of ISO sensitivity. Huawei P9 has both these controls, allowing shutter speed adjustments from 1/4000th of a second to the slowest exposure of 30 seconds, which is very generous and flexible enough to use for a wide variety of long exposure situations. ISO can be set from 50 to 3200, and believe me, in long exposure, the lower the ISO, the better the image quality, so ISO 50 was a great starting ISO. In case those of you are not aware, the aperture is fixed at F2.2 (there is no moving aperture diaphragm to stop down further), and there is no mechanical shutter mechanism, thus electronic shutter is used.


HUAWEI P9 LONG EXPOSURE SETTINGS

My set up for this round of shooting session, typically:
Huawei P9 on PRO mode (full manual control)
Shutter speed varying from 1/2 second to 5 seconds, adjusted as necessary
ISO fixed at 50, for cleanest, best looking image.
Self-timer set at 2 seconds to prevent the phone being shaken from the tap of the screen to start shooting.
Camera was mounted on tripod, via a cheapo clamp bought from Daiso (RM5.30)

Huawei P9 mounted on a tripod. Waiting for the light to go down, overlooking KL City Skyline

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Huawei P9 Camera Review - Is This The Photographer's Smartphone?

Update (24/8/2016): Huawei P9 Review extension for Long Exposure photography is published! 

Surprise! I have a review write-up and this time it is not a camera or lens, it is actually a smartphone, the Huawei P9. I acknowledge that Huawei P9 has been in the market for months now, and there have been dozens (perhaps even hundreds!) of reviews being posted online everywhere. Not only the usual gadget review sites, this time I also notice a handful of photography specific site reviewing a smartphone, and the most notable one being the review posted on DPReview. Therefore, there really is nothing much I can add to what has been posted and shared out there.

I was connected to Huawei Malaysia by an Olympus user (thanks heaps Grexer), and I was provided with a loan unit of a Huawei P9 for review purposes. I was immediately interested to try out the Huawei P9, considering it was heavily advertised as being "co-engineered with Leica". Leica's involvement, to what extent not being properly clarified, certainly piqued my interest to take a look at the P9 closer. The setup of the camera having dual modules, containing two image sensors that have corresponding two lenses was unusual. There have been mixed reviews thrown out there, several review sites (mostly gadget reviewers) concluded that the camera in the P9 is not as good as competition, while some actually praised the camera's imaging prowess.

DISCLAIMER

I must emphasize that I am not a tech-junkie, and I will only be reviewing the camera and imaging performance of the Huawei P9 only. I will not be covering the phone review of P9, as I believe this has been done and you can read the many reviews available online by major tech/gadget review sites. I am not a professional photographer, I am merely a photo-enthusiast who shoots passionately as frequently as I can. I am not connected to Huawei in any other manner except for this arrangement of a loan review purpose. I shall approach the review of P9's camera the usual way I always do for my camera and lenses reviews on this blog: by shooting a large amount of photographs, and write my review based on the experience using the P9 out in real world situations and carefully scrutinize the image output from my PC monitor. I support my claims through evidence found in the images, which will be shown plentifully here in this review entry. You can say that this is a user-experience approach review of Huawei P9's camera capabilities.


Huawei P9 fits perfectly in my not so large hands. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Olympus Photowalk in Kuching, Sarawak with Great Wall Camera

Last weekend, I was back in my beautiful hometown, Kuching, Sarawak (which is in Borneo Island), and we did an extensive consumer event, stretching the entire Saturday afternoon at Great Wall Camera, Kuching. Firstly, I did an hour long photo-sharing, showcasing a compilation of my most recent street photographs, dispensing tips and tricks on how I obtained my shots, and my ideas and thought process behind each shot. Secondly, we had a touch and try session with the latest Olympus products, we brought along the PEN-F, OM-D E-M5 Mark II, E-M1, E-M10 Mark II, and many M.Zuiko lenses, the 300mm F4 IS PRO, 40-150mm F2.8 PRO, as well as prime lenses such as 17mm F1.8, 25mm F1.8 and 45mm F1.8. Thirdly, we had a photowalk in the late afternoon along Carpenter Street and Main Bazaar (neat the Waterfront), and the participants for this event were allowed to loan our cameras and lenses to try and use during this photowalk!

We had an overwhelming response, unexpectedly there were 46 awesome Kuching folks who turned up, filling the floor space of Great Wall Camera's first floor workshop space to the brim. I rarely did such a huge event, however I also acknowledge that we rarely do events in Kuching and we decided to allow more participants to go in after our initial capping of 25 participants. Considering that the same weekend there was the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF 2016), the turn up could have been more than 50 people, since some of the photographer friends I personally know went to the RMWF instead. It was indeed such a great joy for myself to see so many beautiful Kuching people, my own people, coming together to a photography event, and shoot together! I was so glad to see some familiar faces (Eve, Gladys, Sin, Lance) and meeting many, many more new faces!

Before we started the day, obviously, we fueled ourselves with the breakfast of champions, found exclusively only in Kuching.

Kolo Mee