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Huawei P20 Pro Camera Review – Do You Really Need Triple Cameras?

In today’s world, the word “portability” is used frequently. Over the years, smartphone manufacturers have been working hard for years at improving smartphone cameras. Huawei’s flagship P20 Pro is not only just a replacement of the previous P10 Plus, but also aim to to allow regular smartphone users to capture professional grade photos. For 2018, Huawei’s partnership with Leica continues, but also bringing lots of smart features to the table. So, has their effort really make us leave our professional gear behind and stick to the phone instead? Let’s find out.

First off, let’s see what’s the P20 Pro is packing:
HiSilicone Kirin 970 processor with AI technology, 4x 2.4GHz + 4x 1.8GHz
6GB RAM, 128GB internal storage, no SD card storage
6.1-inch 18.7:9 ratio OLED display, 1080 X 2240 pixels, 408 ppi
40MP RGB + 20MP Monochrome + 8MP Telephoto Lens, with OIS
Video recording up to 4K 30 frames-per-second
24MP with f/2.0 aperture front-facing camera
4000mAh battery
Retail Price: RM3299

Camera setup

While most smartphones with dual-lens out there has a secondary telephoto lens, Huawei took a different approach, by having a RGB and monochrome sensor combo. While the regular P20 retains that setup, the P20 Pro takes things to another level, by having a 40MP RGB sensor, combining that with a new 8MP telephoto lens and retains the 20MP monochrome sensor.

The RGB sensor is set to 10MP by default, while 40MP option is there. It’s a 27mm unit with f/1.7 aperture. It works in a way that it combines 4 pixels into a larger pixel, which means brighter pixels and more light. Nokia’s 808 PureView is definitely one of the first that implements this, but the P20 Pro can be considered as the first Android smartphone to follow the trend.

The 20MP monochrome sensor from previous Huawei devices remains on the P20 and P20 Pro. It has the same field of view as the RGB unit at 27mm, with f/1.6 aperture. Huawei uses it to capture details, while letting the RGB sensor to fill in the colours, resulting to an image with lots of details. It can still be used standalone to capture monochrome photos as well.

The 8MP telephoto lens is new from Huawei and debuts with the P20 Pro, with 80mm lens and f/2.4 aperture. It’s 3x optical zoom allows it to assist in Huawei’s “5x hybrid zoom”, which combines all cameras to achieve that somewhat “lossless 5x hybrid zoom”. There’s a toggle in the app which toggles between 1x, 3x or 5x.

With the Mate 10 Pro, Huawei introduced AI features to the camera with their Kirin 970 processor with NPU. It was able to recognize different scenes or objects, thus adjusting the settings to suit the environment. On the P20 Pro, it can recognize up to 19 scenes and selects the appropriate mode for it. For instance, if you’re shooting at low-light conditions, it will automatically switch to night mode and brings up the relevant settings.

Apart from Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) for all cameras, Huawei also introduced AI-assisted stabilization (AIS) – which is claimed to be better than regular OIS, and it is aimed at videos and night shot, where long shutter time and shaky hands are involved. There’s laser autofocus for all sensors too, along with a colour temperature sensor. The new colour temperature sensor will assess the white balance across the entire scene instead of just a point. There’s also a single LED flash to go along with the camera.

On the other side, there is a 24MP camera for the front with f/2.0 aperture.

Since we will be comparing slightly with the Samsung Galaxy S9+, we ought to mention it’s camera specs too. The Galaxy S9+ is the first to spot a dual-camera setup in their flagship Galaxy S range. Both are 12-megapixel cameras, with one being a regular wide angle lens, while the other is a telephoto lens that offers 2x zoom. The wide-angle lens spots dual-aperture function – f/1.5 or f/2.4, and it will mechanically switch between the two depending on the surrounding conditions. There’s an LED flash to go along with it. On the front is a 8MP sensor with f/1.7 aperture. It spots autofocus and auto HDR capability.

Daylight scene


Huawei P20 Pro Sample Photos (daylight)

In normal shooting conditions, the P20 Pro is able to capture really good photos. It pretty much excels well in the details department, as they are really well rendered, which we had to credit the monochrome sensor.

As for colour, the P20 Pro continues to offer 3 different modes – standard, vivid and smooth. In standard settings, the colours are already pretty true-to-live, and it’s leaning towards the vivid side, especially Red, Green and Blue colours. Colour balance are pretty much spot on, and there’s a wide dynamic range. If you want to crank the colours up to 11 and make them really pop, there’s the vivid settings. That makes the image look more pleasing, especially under bright conditions with lots of colours. The smooth setting kind of sits in between standard and vivid, and to be honest, it’s not our best colour choice.


Comparison between Standard and Vivid mode.

Huawei’s AI intelligent scene recognition is a bit on the rocky side. When it works, it’s pretty fast to recognize the scene and change it to the appropriate mode. For instance, pointing it to a bunch of leaves or a green field will trigger the greenery mode, which pumps the colours up to make it more pleasing. Pointing the camera at some text will trigger the text mode which makes the image looks like and actual document. While it is really nice, there are times where it can’t recognize well, and did not do any adjustment, while there are also times where it switches to the wrong mode. So Huawei still has lots of work to do on the Master AI part.


Huawei P20 Pro’s Master AI mode in action.

Like previous Huawei devices, there’s no Auto HDR mode, as it is a standalone mode where the device should switch to automatically when needed, but not for us. But, when it is turned on manually, it does a great job at toning down bright parts and make darker parts more visible.


Samsung Galaxy S9+ sample photos.

In comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ have pretty much the same level of details, and unlike other Samsung smartphones of the past, there’s not much over-sharpening issue. They are well rendered. On the colour side though, colours are slightly less vivid, and there’s no standalone colour options. Both do have pretty much same amount of detail, but colour is what sets them apart. Even though Samsung has it’s HDR buried in the settings, you can leave it in Auto mode and it will work it’s way round. Samsung’s approach is still traditional towards this part.

Both excels well in exposure level, and focus tracking is fast and spot on too.

Portrait Mode


Huawei P20 Pro Portrait/Aperture Mode.

On the P20 Pro, there’s a couple of wide aperture mode or “bokeh” mode. One is simply called Portrait, while the other is called Aperture. There are still differences between them other than just a name change. Portrait mode adds beautification feature to the image, which is a better approach to the skin of the person. The aperture mode is best used for objects. You can shoot both either using the wide angle lens or in 3x zoom, which is better for portraits. This also means that you don’t have to stand too far to take a portrait photo. Huawei has been hard at work to improve the bokeh effect on their smartphones. On the P20 Pro, it is quick to recognize the shape and distance of the object, then applying blur to the background, and most of the time, the effect is spot on and very convincing.


Samsung Galaxy S9+ Live Focus mode.

Samsung’s Live Focus is a rather traditional approach, as it’s only a single mode, with beautification setting set aside. Of course, all its image will be in 2x zoom, it makes more sense for portrait mode. As discovered on our review, you can even max out the blur settings and the effect still won’t look out of place. While most of the time the effect is spot on, it hates complicated objects. With Dual Capture enabled, the camera takes an additional wide angle image in case you do not want the portrait photos.

Zoom


Zoom comparison on the Huawei P20 Pro – 1x Wide Angle, 3x Optical Zoom, 5x Hybrid Zoom

This is where the new telephoto lens on the P20 Pro comes to play. Huawei claims that it can do up to 3x optical zoom, and up to 5x hybrid zoom with all 3 sensors joined forces. Huawei’s Hybrid Zoom combines details from wide-angle camera and the telephoto lens to achieve the 5x zoom. At 3x the zoom, images are still as sharp, and there is no detail loss. What’s more impressive is the 5x hybrid zoom, as detail loss is pretty minimal, and the important details are still there. It’s totally different from a 5x digital zoom that other smartphone offers.


Zoom comparison on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ – 1x Wide Angle, 2x Optical Zoom

On the Galaxy S9+ however, the maximum optical zoom is only up to 2x, so anything beyond that is digital zoom. Overall, while it pretty much excels on 2x zoom, it doesn’t stand much chance going against the 3x that’s in the P20 Pro, and forget about 5x.

Monochrome


Monochrome function on the Huawei P20 Pro.

Huawei’s 20MP monochrome sensor continues to stay on the P20 Pro, and you can capture images with lots of depth in black and white. Like all monochrome photos, the dynamic range is really wide, which gives it that depth feel. On the P20 Pro, you can also use it to take aperture or portrait photos.

Huawei P20 Pro monochrome photos.

Night mode

Huawei P20 Pro Night Mode – Off, On.

This is the part where Samsung and Huawei had the same goal – to make low-light photography better, but decided to take different approach to it. Huawei’s approach is slightly traditional, but with lots of technology to back it up. It’s f/1.8 aperture lens allows quite a lot of light to the sensor. Despite that, images are still on the darker side if you stick to the normal settings, while details are still okay. But, turning on the P20 Pro’s party trick – Night mode, it’s a different story. Although it still sticks to the usual trick – increasing the shutter speed while keeping the ISO down to have enough light with lowest possible amount of noise, it’s AI-assisted stabilization is here to fight camera shakes, especially when the device is held by bare hands. Results differ from lighting, as it tries to fill in lighting at darker areas. It still has its drawbacks, such as having ghost effects on moving objects (it’s still a long shutter time after all), but it allows normal shooters to take really well night photos.

Huawei P20 Pro Night Mode Samples.

Samsung claims that the Galaxy S9+ is great for low-light photography, and the way it was able to do that is introducing dual-aperture. It will switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 (and no, there’s no f/1.8 at all) depending on the conditions, with f/2.4 for sharper images in well-lit conditions, and the latter for low-light conditions. Samsung’s approach is more simple, as it’s just like taking a regular photo, without the long shutter speed. This results in photos which are more true to life, and the OIS backs it up to fight camera shake.

Huawei P20 Pro Night Mode VS Samsung Galaxy S9+ f/1.5 Night mode.

Slow-mo 960fps


Huawei P20 Pro 960fps slow-mo sample.

Both the P20 Pro and the Galaxy S9+ will record slow-mo videos up to 960fps at 720p. Unlike regular slow-mo videos, it will only record a very short snippet and reduce it’s speed. On the P20 Pro, there’s no auto mode, and it wholly relies on manual trigger. It is really tricky to time it well, which leads to you missing the action. Final products are alright, a little bit less detail due to it being 720p, but overall it isn’t too bad. Don’t expect it to blend in to a regular 1080p video, as the colours are out as well.


Samsung Galaxy S9+ 960fps Super slow-mo sample.

It’s pretty much the same story on the Galaxy S9+, but there’s an automatic mode, where it will trigger the recording once it detects motion in a yellow box shown on screen. It is so much better compared to a manual mode, and the automatic trigger is instant. No audios are recorded, but Samsung provides a few music in post-editing to go along with the clip.

Videos

The P20 Pro will record videos up to 4K resolution at 30fps, pretty much the same as recent Huawei devices. While previously it records in H.265 codec which is smaller in size and more efficient, but not friendly to online streaming sites such as YouTube, there’s an option to switch back to the regular H.264 codec. Colours are very nice as usual, and the contrast level and colour balance are spot on. There’s very well rendered details at 4K, and stepping down to 1080p won’t loose much either. You’ll be sacrificing the AI-assisted stabilization in 4K and 1080p 60fps, relying on just the optical stabilization, which is okay, but could be better with the presence of EIS. The AIS will only be back for 1080p 30fps.

Samsung Galaxy S9+ Video Samples.

There’s something that the Galaxy S9+ could do that the P20 Pro couldn’t – the ability to shoot in 4K resolution at 60fps. While shooting at 1080p 60fps is cool, the 4K 60fps is extremely well polished and smooth, with no signs of juddering. In exchange, clips are limited to 5 minutes, and file size is huge. You might want to go for larger capacities if you constantly shoot in this setting. You do also sacrifice some details at 60fps, but stepping down to 30fps improves it.

Camera App

Huawei P20 Pro camera app.

The P20 Pro spots a camera app that is similar from previous devices, but spots some design differences. All the usual controls are at their same location – shortcut toggles on the left, shutter buttons on the right. What’s different this time is the swipe up and down action to switch between the different modes, including aperture, portrait, pro mode, etc. There’s an option to switch off the Master AI mode switch as well. Of course, there’s lots to play with the pro mode.

Samsung Galaxy S9+ camera app.

On the Galaxy S9+, it’s pretty much the same thing. Samsung adopted the camera app design from previous Galaxy smartphones, but added little design changes. The mode list is now on the left, where you can switch with swipe up and down action, while the shortcut toggles, camera shutter button and the rest is towards the right. The new AR Emoji feature is within the camera app as well.

The Bottom Line

The P20 Pro’s cameras does sound like every photographer’s dreams. With that triple camera and loads of AI-assisted capabilities, the P20 Pro solves a lot of problems faced by smartphone photographers. While it still won’t be replacing professional gear anytime soon, it definitely takes smartphone photography to another level, by allowing casual photographers to take professional-grade photos without the need of expensive camera equipment and skills.

The Galaxy S9+ is definitely a tough rival for the P20 Pro, as both are equally as good when it comes to mobile photography. It is easy to see how a same objective can be solved via different methods and obtain pretty similar results. The Galaxy S9+ is probably the simplest of all. There’s not much modes or settings to mess around with, just point, focus, shoot and go. The P20 Pro definitely has more modes to play with, even though for most of the time, it’s Master AI functionality will take care of automatic mode switching.

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