Create Atmospheric Black-and-white iPhone Portraits

Adapted with permission from
The Art of iPhone Photography: Creating Great Photos and Art on Your iPhone (Rocky Nook)
By Nicki Fitz-Gerald, Bob Weil. Copyright © 2013
Tutorial by Paula Gardener (jahsharn)

Paula Gardener (jahsharn)

Paula is a wife and a mother of four wonderful children, and photography is her first language. She studied photography and fine art at various colleges in London, and she launched her own photography business in 2010. It wasn’t until November 2011 that Paula realized the true potential and versatility of the iPhone. In 2012 she had the honor of exhibiting her work at the LA Mobile Arts Festival and has had her self-portrait work favorably mentioned in online national newspapers in London and the United States.

Study A: Mr. G

What You’ll Learn

As you work through these two tutorials, you will learn to take great atmospheric portraits in a short period of time and with minimal apping.

You will also learn to adjust the tones of an image; the correct tones are important to draw the viewer in because a flat image will not usually appeal to anyone. Finally you’ll learn how to complete an image by choosing the right border.

What You’ll Need

  • Hipstamatic
  • Snapseed
  • Camera Awesome

Back Story

The iPhone has made photographing friends and family so convenient. Instead of having to lug my huge Nikon and camera kit around with me on family occasions, I use the handy and less intrusive iPhone.

I’m obsessed with creating the perfect portrait. Light, composition, and tone are all extremely important to me. How do I achieve these goals with limited time? It’s easy with the method described here for shooting black-and-white portraits and choosing an appropriate frame.

My husband built a huge shed in our garden—his own personal space. No women allowed. In this man’s club my husband hung a few boxing bags, and he and our sons (11 and 6 years old) spar together. It’s less harmful than it sounds. One day my husband had just finished punching the bags and was exhausted and very sweaty, so posing for a photo was the last thing on his mind. However, as he leaned on the door frame of the shed talking to me, I saw the perfect portrait opportunity. With my iPhone in hand, I quickly thought of which camera app I would use to really take advantage of the beautiful lighting.

The Process

Step 1: Capturing the Image
I knew if I took the picture with the iPhone’s native camera, the background would be visible and reveal all the shed’s contents. The sunlight was slightly harsh, which would have resulted in an overexposed image. I decided to use Hipstamatic’s new Wonder lens and W40 film, and I shot a couple of frames. They looked perfect.

Step 2: Converting the Image to Black-and-White
I opened the saved Hipstamatic image in Snapseed. Then I converted the image to black-and-white and adjusted the contrast and brightness to suit the mood of the portrait. While I was still in the black-and-white filter menu, I tweaked the color preset tones. When I had the tones how I wanted them, I moved the sliding menu to access the crop option.

Step 3: Removing the Preset Border
I prefer to choose my own border or not have a border at all rather than use the Hipstamatic presets. There is nothing wrong with Hipstamatic’s borders, but for people who prefer borders, a number of apps offer a variety of border styles, and of course you can always create a custom border.

I chose to crop off the border. The cropping selection tool in Snapseed provides nine crop ratios. The first one is a free-form option that allows the height and width to be scaled to any proportion. The second option restricts the crop to the aspect ratio of the original image, and the other seven options are preset aspect ratios. I usually work with the free-form option, which gives me the freedom to choose the size and proportion of my image. Within the cropping tool, I simply dragged the sides of the grid to where I wanted the image to be cropped. When I had all the sides positioned where I wanted them, I pressed the right arrow button to crop the image. Then I saved the result to the camera roll.

Step 4: Deciding Whether to Add a Border
Depending on your vision for an image, the final step is to decide whether to add a border. For this portrait I opened the image in Camera Awesome, which has a superb collection of nonintrusive borders. My favorite border, which I chose for this image, is called Skin.


In this tutorial I showed you how to create a beautiful black-and-white portrait from an initial capture of your subject with Hipstamatic. I then demonstrated how to convert the image to black-and-white, adjust the brightness and contrast, and use the crop tool in Snapseed. I also shared my decision-making process when I choose whether to use a border for my portraits, and I suggested an app for nonintrusive borders.

Study B: Laughter and Smiles

What You’ll Learn

In this tutorial you will learn how to adjust lighting and focus and how to blend and crop effectively.

What You’ll Need

  • Camera+
  • Snapseed
  • Diptic
  • Brushes
  • Filterstorm

Back Story

Portrait photography, for me, is capturing an image that will exemplify what is in my heart—my connection with the subject and the emotion of the moment. It’s important for the viewer to connect with the person being photographed. A good portrait is a biography that conveys a message so personal and touching that the viewer will be compelled to engage with the image.

Portrait photography works when the lighting is spot on. Enhancing the subject’s good features is particularly important in commercial photography. In the images in this tutorial, I have tried to capture the atmosphere of the moment through the subject’s expression. I minimized the background to avoid distracting the viewer’s eye from the subject.

I love capturing images of my children; I suppose they are my best sellers when it comes to telling stories. This particular story is of my eldest daughter, whose smile is contagious and whose laughter can fill a room with joy. I wanted to capture these two unique qualities. She always laughs when I photograph her, so it wasn’t hard to provoke that reaction. I shot a series of stills of her laughing and pausing to compose herself, but she was not aware that I was still shooting away. The best portraits are the ones where the subject is relaxed. My favorites are candid shots taken when my subjects are unaware that they are being photographed. This is when their innermost emotions are captured.

The Process

Step 1: Capturing the Initial Image
First I captured a series of images with the native iPhone 4 camera in front of patio doors where the light was perfect.

Step 2: Converting the Image to Black-and-White
I opened the image in Camera+ and applied a black-and-white filter within the FX Effects menu, and I adjusted the intensity slightly. When I had achieved the desired black-and-white tone, I saved the result to the camera roll.

Step 3: Adding Center Focus and Other Adjustments
I opened the saved black-and-white image in Snapseed. Using the Center Focus option, I darkened the background to place more emphasis on the subject’s face; I also created a soft blur and darkened the outer edges of the image to merge the detail from her hair into the background and make it darker.

Still in Snapseed, I further enhanced the tones and lighting by accessing the Tune Image menu and adjusting the brightness and contrast settings. These tools allow me to add subtle but effective contrasting tones to relatively flat images. Sometimes I play with the Ambiance setting, but too much ambiance tends to overexpose the highlights in an image. Finally, I saved my image to the camera roll.

Step 4: Placing the Images in Separate Frames
I opened Diptic, clicked on the layout option with the split screen, and pressed on each of the vacant windows to import the two images into each side of the split screen layout. I then used the Transform option from the menu tab to compose the image by moving the slider. I clicked on Effects on the bottom menu bar, clicked on the Border button (top right), and adjusted the border width to zero (I did not want borders). When I was satisfied with the composition, I saved the image to my camera roll.

Step 5: Blending the Images Together Seamlessly
I merged the two images in Brushes by creating a dark space between the photographs I composed in Diptic.

First I chose a brush stroke that is not too harsh—in this case, a nice speckled stroke. I always keep the opacity low in my brush palette so I can see the gradual buildup of tones blending seamlessly.

Depending on whether I use my fingers or a stylus as a painting tool, I adjust my brush size. I then picked black from the color palette, reduced the opacity of the color, and subtly built up the dark tones to blend with the subject’s skin tones. When I was done, I saved the image to my camera roll.

Step 6: Increasing Resolution for Print (Optional)
In the earlier steps, the image lost some resolution. Some apps do not save images at the iPhone’s full resolution, and the image size can be reduced during editing. I opened the completed image in Filterstorm and upsized it. Several other apps, including iResize, Upsize, and Adobe Photoshop Touch, are also effective for resizing images.


To create my photographic story, I captured images using the iPhone 4 native camera. Natural sunlight was a must to enhance my daughter’s face. I used Snapseed to further refine and change the tones in the images. Camera+ provided some great black-and-white filters that I used to convert the image. I then used Diptic to merge the images, and I employed Brushes to blend out any gray or distracting lines. Finally, I used Filterstorm to resize the image.