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You Can Shoot Iconic Black-and-White Photos on Your Smartphone

Find the right filter, and you’re all set

spinner image black and white photo of a dog

If you’re looking to unleash your inner Ansel Adams and photograph like the masters, looking at the world in black and white is the way to do it.

Often relegated to fine art photography, black-and-white photos deliberately express a photographer’s feeling, emotion or unique idea, conveying how he or she sees the world. These images are particularly compelling when capturing human forms, objects, architecture and silhouettes.

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The thought of black-and-white photos may take you back to iconic images shot on Kodak’s Tri-X black-and-white film. The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, the sailor kissing a woman in Times Square at the end of World War II, Adams’s photos of Yosemite National Park or memorable National Geographic photos are classics.

Removing color from an image and processing it in black and white narrows your focus on a subject in a way that’s not possible with hues of red, green or blue. Called monochromatic photography, it represents subjects in varying shades of gray. Whether print or digital, black-and-white images seem to pop and clearly define subjects or objects, drawing viewers into the environment captured.

Our fascination with black-and-white images is evidenced by the number of them you see on social media. Despite their popularity, taking black-and-white photos with a smartphone isn’t as easy as you might think.

For starters, phones have no black-and-white button, only filters that you navigate and scroll through to get black-and-white images. And unless you know your way around photo capture and editing apps, this can be challenging.

But you can take — and make — great black-and-white shots with your smartphone using free and fairly simple tools.

Phone cameras soon to lead in photo quality

The latest smartphones come equipped with wide-angle, telephoto and zoom lenses, as well as technology that lets you “unblur” your grainy photos. In fact, today’s smartphones have made digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras nearly obsolete. Tech giant Sony recently predicted that smartphone cameras will have better image quality than DSLRs by 2024.  

Yet surprisingly, the Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel line of phones don’t have a dedicated black-and-white tool or even the words “black and white” listed. Instead, you’ll find options like “Silvertone” and “Noir.”

You have options to photograph in black and white or convert color images that you’ve already taken.

Start with a filter

Apple’s iPhone camera app has a Filters tab that you can find only by clicking the arrow ⌃ at the top middle of the screen. This brings you to the camera applications menu, where several icons — from seven on iPhone 12 to nine on the new iPhone 14 — start with Flash on the left and end with Filter or RAW, available only on iPhone 12 Pro and later models. RAW allows you to photograph higher-resolution, uncompressed photos.

In Filter, you have three black-and-white choices under the icon that looks like three linked circles: Mono, Silvertone and Noir. You also have two additional choices in Portrait mode, Stage Light Mono and High-Key Light Mono.

Here’s the catch: In Portrait Mode, these options work only if you’re taking a picture of a human being. If you photograph an object, it will appear in black and white but photograph in color. We’re still trying to get our heads around that one!

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On most Samsung Galaxy phones, you click the Filter wand in the upper right of the camera app, scroll through the preloaded filters and choose the B&W filter for three black-and-white choices.

You can also scroll through each filter to adjust the intensity. Like Apple, Samsung also has two black-and-white filter options available in the Portrait mode section of the camera app, High-Key Mono and Low-Key Mono.

spinner image a black and white image of a bearded man smiling and holding up two fingers while taking a selfie
Getty Images

From color to black and white

If you want to experiment with a photo that you’ve already taken, you can convert a color image to black and white in the various phones’ Photos apps.

To transform an iPhone photo from color to black and white:

1. Go to your photo library, generally in the Photos app.

2. Open the photo and click the word Edit at the top right on the screen.

3. Scroll through the menu under the photo until you get to Saturation.

4. Slide the scale all the way to the right to remove the color and end up with a black-and-white image.

5. Click Done to save.

Google Photos is often the standard app on Android phones to store, manage and edit your photos.

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1. Open your image there.

2. Click the Edit icon.

3. Look for SuggestionsFilters is several options away.

4. Find the four black-and-white choices — Onyx, Eiffel, Vogue and Vista. They are at the end of the row.

5. Hit the Save copy button when you’re satisfied with your result.

Instagram, which launched in 2010 specifically to share photos, also offers three black-and-white filters. But those seeking richer, more customizable black-and-white images can find more options in competing apps.

There’s a tool for that

Third-party camera apps such as Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile and Google’s Snapseed are free and available for Android and Apple devices. Not only do these third-party apps offer more filters but the filters often are labeled better, meaning easier to find, and give you more opportunities to do refined editing.

In Lightroom, once you open the image for editing, click on the COLOR tab in the menu and select the B&W option. From there, you can adjust the luminance, making greens, for instance, lighter or darker, as well as various hues of reds, yellows and blues do the same.

With Snapseed, open an image and click on the Tools menu. Click the black and white tool and you’ll see six options, basically different variations of black, white and gray in varying levels of contrast.

Choose the tone you like. Adjust it by putting your finger over the photo and sliding over it to define the contrast, brightness and amount of grain you seek.

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