On Trial: Huawei P20 Pro
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.
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.
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 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.