Huawei P20 Pro review: raising the bar for smartphone cameras

Chinese tech behemoth Huawei has been around since the late 1980s and has essentially been in the business of manufacturing telecommunications equipment. For some years now, it has also been producing pretty decent smartphones. Until very recently, Huawei wasn't at the top of the typical Kiwi consumer’s mind when thinking of smartphones, existing in the shadow of device giants Apple and Samsung.

However, this has changed rapidly in the past few years. With increasing parity between all the high-end smartphone devices, manufacturers are increasing their focus on quality imaging. In that time, Huawei has arguably made the strongest statement of all with its device camera capability.

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In April 2016, Huawei announced to the world their new partnership with iconic camera brand Leica, launching the P9 — a smartphone sporting a dual rear camera. It rolled out a colossal marketing campaign in NZ, featuring international superstars Henry Caville and Scarlett Johanssen.

Roll forward two years, and the all-new P20-Pro (launched in NZ May 2018) is a serious statement of intent that Huawei intended to obliterate all competition for the world's best ever smart-device camera system. More than ever, it is now targeted towards photographers.

Key Camera Features

This device sports a (first ever) triple rear camera, continuing the fruitful brand partnership with Leica.  The main RGB camera is a staggering 40-megapixels with an f/1.8 aperture (the main colour camera). There is then the 20-megapixel monochrome camera (f/1.6 aperture) and an 8-megapixel zoom telephoto camera with f/2.4 aperture. Oh — and the 24-megapixel front (read: selfie) camera.

The P20 Pro has a standard camera setting that takes 10-megapixel photos, but while this is a considerably lower resolution than the marketing suggests, this enables the fantastic zoom functions in addition. The monochrome camera also further sharpens and brightens the final image capture, and with a quick swipe resolution can be tweaked up to 40MP.

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With up to three-times optical zoom, it has the highest magnification of any smartphone on the market. The standard zoom is five times, giving a combination of both optical and digital cropping. Images taken using the optical zoom remain sharp, and only slightly less so when pushed out to five times.

During the global rollout, Huawei has really emphasized the total dominance of its sensor. The 40MP camera sensor is 1/1.7", which is quite a bit larger than Apple/Samsung's latest comparable device camera sensors. This means it captures about 20 per cent more light than smaller sensors, and with the support of the additional monochrome sensor, it's no wonder Huawei has gone to such lengths to point out its edge in sensor size.

Huawei has recognized that the vast majority of users will be amateurs with limited technical skills, and has identified the most common subjects that users tend to shoot. The P20 Pro offers as much assistance as possible to the novice, with various modes and AI features. Once into the phone app, a number of user-friendly modes automatically enable instant point-and-shoot photography for the novice.

Love them or hate them, the selfie, taken by a device's front-facing camera has become a global phenomenon and one of the most commonly used smartphone camera functions globally. Front-facing cameras have typically been of less interest to manufacturers than the main rear camera in development, and a bug-bear of users has been the resulting diminished quality of the 'selfie' compared to the rear captured images.

In the P20 Pro, Huawei has made a big push to improve the selfie with it's 24MP front-facing camera. Aside from the improved clarity, this mode offers multiple setting options, such as 'Perfect Selfie', 'Mirror', and smile detection.

Aside from the standard Photo and Video modes, Night and Portrait modes have been singled out by Huawei as particularly valuable, and Slow-Motion, 3D Panorama, and Monochrome, amongst others, are a swipe away. In addition, colour balance is automatically selected by AI, which even makes automatic suggestions for improving composition.

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Even in the basic photo mode, the 'Master AI' identifies 19 different commonly identified categories such as 'food', 'group', and even 'fireworks', 'sunset', and 'text'. There is even differentiation between 'dog' and 'cat'! For the experienced/educated photographer, this AI can be disabled in 'Pro' mode.

In stark contrast, 'Pro' mode offers up several advanced options for the more serious photographer, giving specific control over shutter speed, focusing, white balance, and ISO, amongst others. If users wish to employ RAW shooting, this is the option for them.

Video capability is also an essential part of the push, and the P20 Pro offers ultra 'super-slow motion' video capability — a real-attention grabbing feature latched on to by all the major players.

A real bugbear for smartphone users is the difficulty in capturing crisp images when (almost always) the device is reliant on a perfectly steady hand to minimize  blur. Huawei has really considered this and another notable camera feature built in is 'AI Image Stabilisation' (AIS). It blends both electronic and traditional stabilization and works to help sharpen the results for the user.

Camera Performance Highlights

With all the camera features (and complementary AI technology), the P20 Pro has almost universally received rave reviews globally since release. A few of the features really are notable game-changers.

Results in low-light/dark must particularly be acknowledged — this is a typical weakness for phone cameras. In the P20 Pro, the larger sensor combined with the AIS enables low noise levels and results in surprisingly crisp, detailed images for both indoor and low-light situations. Of course, its low-light functionality does have its limitations, being unable to shoot RAW and only shoot at 10MP, meaning that finer details can be lost. Images taken in Night Mode take several seconds to capture, so quick snaps aren't possible. However, this feature, boosted by the stabilization tech, will not fail to delight any user.

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The zoom capabilities are also a real highlight. The detail is arguably the very best ever delivered in a smart device. As expected, 5x zoom doesn't deliver detail as strongly as 3x where image clarity is remarkably detailed and accurate given that it isn’t a conventional digital camera.

'Pro' mode gives a serious level of control over images being taken. If you want to let the device do all the thinking, the standard modes work harder than other devices to require less decision making than ever before. This might appeal to the serious photographer in some instances, but 'Pro' mode enables control to be taken back and provides unprecedented control for this historically limited digital photography technology.

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The performance of the 40MP camera in bright light is also a standout. While the standard photo mode can deliver over-saturated colours, the range of versatile controls over settings mean that balanced images can be captured with remarkable detail, sharpness, colour, and controlled noise.

The options and modes for shooting are a lot of fun, especially the panorama options (which include 360-degree capture) and the ultra-slow-motion video, which is sure to put a smile on anyone's face. The portrait mode gives impressive depth-of-field capability and the selfie mode offers an adjustable 'beauty' mode for those who desire it.

Summary

Since cameras were first introduced to smartphone devices more than a decade ago, serious photographers have rightly derided their limitations, despite them decimating compact digital camera sales and now being the ubiquitous means by which most people capture still and moving images. There is also so much on offer for the casual point-and-shoot device owner who is not interested in the finer technicalities. The intuitive automation and range of basic modes mean that excellent quality quick snaps have never been easier.

With the P20 Pro, Huawei has perhaps stretched the limited capability of the smartphone camera further than ever previously achieved. Its combination of the triple lens, on-board computation, and manual control in 'Pro' mode offer something special for enthusiast and serious photographers alike, offering a device that gives an excellent and convenient camera option to complement their specialist equipment.