On Trial: Huawei P20 Pro

Camera - - CONTENTS - STephen Daw­Son Re­poRt by

We’re no great fans of cam­era phones here, but they’re a part of the pho­tog­ra­phy scene whether we like it or not. Stephen Daw­son is tak­ing a look at the smart­phones that have the most ca­pa­ble cam­era ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This is­sue he tests Huawei’s P20 Pro with its Leica-tuned lenses.

So how good are the cam­eras in to­day’s smart­phones? Over the next few is­sues tech ex­pert Stephen Daw­son puts a few of the mod­els specif­i­cally pro­moted for their cam­eras through their paces. We’re only look­ing at the pho­to­graphic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of these phones and in this is­sue it’s the Huawei P20 Pro with its trio of Leica lenses.

win­ner of the Best Photo Smart­phone cat­e­gory in the 2018 TIPA Awards was Huawei’s lat­est, the P20 Pro. This model takes the multi-cam­era ap­proach to a new ex­treme, in­cor­po­rat­ing three of them and with Leica-tuned lenses too (four, if you in­clude the front cam­era for self­ies).

Pre­mium Huawei phones tend to as­sem­ble their im­ages from data taken from two or more cam­eras. In the P20 Pro the ‘main’ cam­era is a 40 megapix­els f1.8 unit with a rel­a­tively large 1/1.7 inch sen­sor. That’s 15 mil­lime­tres on the di­ag­o­nal (the sen­sor size is ap­prox­i­mately 7.76x5.82 mm). It is this cam­era that’s used for ev­ery­day pho­tog­ra­phy. If 40 megapix­els seems like overkill, don’t worry. There is a 40 MP set­ting, but the de­fault is 10 MP. The pic­ture is cre­ated by down­sam­pling or av­er­ag­ing four pix­els to one.

Pic­ture as­sem­bly is as­sisted by the 20 megapix­els monochrome cam­era next to it. This one is slightly faster at f1.6, and can lend as­sis­tance in the area of sen­si­tiv­ity, but also pro­vides data to gen­er­ate bokeh ef­fects.

The third cam­era is a ‘gen­uine’ tele­phone one with a 35mme­quiv­a­lent fo­cal length of 80mm. This brings the user to al­most one-third the dis­tance com­pared to the 27mm-equiv­a­lent lenses of the other two cam­eras. This cam­era’s res­o­lu­tion is only 8.0 megapix­els, but the de­fault out­put is 10 MP. Tele­photo shots are from this cam­era, up-sam­pled with the as­sis­tance of data from the other two cam­eras.

Prac­ti­cal­i­ties

The mem­ory on the P20 Pro can’t be ex­panded and in­stead it sup­ports dual 4G SIMs. But at 128 GB for the Aus­tralian ver­sion, stor­age space shouldn’t be tight. Carry a USB Type-C OTG mem­ory stick just in case you need to make some room.

You can set the cam­era to open up with a dou­ble tap on one of the vol­ume con­trols. By de­fault this im­me­di­ately takes a photo. It’s ex­tremely fast and, to make sure you recog­nise this, it flashes up a timer read­ing. Typ­i­cally, this said 0.3 or 0.4 sec­onds. In this mode the im­ages aren’t stan­dard.

In­stead of the usual 3:4 as­pect ra­tio, it nar­rows im­ages to 1:2. That is, a stan­dard shot (in por­trait mode) was 2736x3648 pix­els (9.98 MP). The prac­tice has arisen in the world of mo­bile phones of re­fer­ring to a 2:1 as­pect ra­tio as 18:9. That’s how Huawei terms the 7.0 MP as “2:1 mode”.

The ‘Quick Start’ mode pro­duced 1824x3648 (6.65 MP) im­ages. It also tended to­wards a higher ISO and faster shut­ter speeds than usual, pre­sum­ably to coun­ter­act the shake in­her­ent in dou­ble tap­ping the hard­ware but­ton. Af­ter it has taken the shot, it re­verts to the state of set­tings in which you last left the cam­era app.

Copy­ing pho­tos to a Win­dows com­puter was done the usual way – plug it in and ac­cess the DCIM folder. It was also easy to use an OTG mem­ory stick. A tap on the USB in­di­ca­tor in the no­ti­fi­ca­tion panel, and I was straight into a file man­ager, ready to copy the pho­tos across. If you en­able RAW, those files are kept in a RAW folder within the DCIM folder. Don’t for­get to copy them.

Tak­ing Pic­Tures

To en­able RAW cap­ture you have to shoot in the cam­era’s ‘Pro’ mode. This lets you ad­just shut­ter speed, ISO, ex­po­sure com­pen­sa­tion, white bal­ance and the fo­cus­ing – sin­gle-shot, con­tin­u­ous or man­ual – and the me­ter­ing – multi-pat­tern, cen­tre-weighted av­er­age or spot. There’s sup­posed to be a lock but­ton to hold your set­tings, but I couldn’t find it. You tap to se­lect a point for fo­cus­ing and ex­po­sure. Tap and hold for a sec­ond, and then you can drag the ex­po­sure point to a dif­fer­ent place to the fo­cus point.

How­ever, with RAW se­lected in Pro mode, you can’t zoom. Also, there’s al­ways a ques­tion with RAW im­ple­men­ta­tions about the point in the process at which the im­age is taken. I couldn’t work out the scheme used by this phone. Some im­ages I took in early June 2018 were full 40 megapixel shots (giv­ing 78 MB DNG files), even though I had 10 MP se­lected for the JPEG ver­sions. Later in June they re­verted to a lit­tle un­der 12 MP and then, in July, they’d gone back to 40 MP. Au­to­matic soft­ware up­dates per­haps? Any­way, the 40 MP ones were clearly pretty raw, so you can process them as you will.

The main set­ting you’ll use when point­ing and shoot­ing is the zoom. You can zoom in the usual way by spread­ing two fin­gers on the screen, but mostly you’re go­ing to tap the ‘1x’ but­ton on the screen. That turns it into ‘3x’ which is op­ti­cal and en­gages the 80mm-equiv­a­lent cam­era. Tap it again and it goes to ‘5x’, and this is ef­fec­tively a dig­i­tal zoom. I’d have liked an op­tion to get rid of ‘5x’, but the ‘3x’ set­ting was bril­liant.

There are some other pre­set modes. The ‘Aper­ture’ mode seems to be a pseudo pro­cessed mode. It al­lows you to choose a ‘vir­tual’ aper­ture of be­tween f1.2 and f16, and I’m pre­sum­ing they’re equiv­a­lents of what you’d get with those aper­tures on a 35mm for­mat cam­era. ‘Night Mode’ gives long ex­po­sures and takes about five sec­onds, so a tri­pod is nec­es­sary. I tested it out and was im­pressed. But then I checked it against the same shots taken in nor­mal pointand-shoot photo mode and, well, the im­prove­ments were re­ally quite sub­tle. The stan­dard shot was a ¼ sec­ond ex­po­sure, and pushed the ISO up to 64,000. It was far, far bet­ter than a sim­i­lar shot made on the Ap­ple iPhone 8 re­viewed in the last is­sue.

Huawei also touts its Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) pro­cess­ing func­tions. In the P20 Pro’s auto mode these se­lect op­ti­mis­ing rou­tines and, for the most part, they seemed to of­fer sub­tle im­prove­ments or noth­ing no­tice­able. But oc­ca­sion­ally they would be tricked badly, such as a shot through the trans­par­ent floor of a ca­ble car into the for­est be­low. It cor­rectly iden­ti­fied “green­ery”, but then turned ev­ery­thing lime green. It didn’t do that nor­mally.

Fi­nally, the P20’s ‘Panorama’ mode is rather con­strained, giv­ing around 110 de­grees of cov­er­age.

THe Ver­dicT

The fact is, no dig­i­tal zoom­ing can com­pen­sate for an op­ti­cal zoom. And no other smart­phone can, as I write this, get you as close to your sub­ject with as de­cent im­age qual­ity as the Huawei P20 Pro.

HuAweI ALSo TouTS ITS Ar­TI­fI­CIAL In­TeL­LI­genCe (AI) pro­CeSS­Ing funC­TIonS, buT for THe moST pArT, THey Seemed To of­fer Sub­TLe Im­proVe­menTS or noTH­Ing no­TICe­AbLe.”

The ‘Pro’ mode al­lows for the man­ual ad­just­ment of var­i­ous cap­ture set­tings, in­clud­ing fo­cus­ing and the me­ter­ing method.

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