Impressions of the Huawei P20 Pro – your next everyday camera?
AI real-time scene recognition
This is another headline feature, which uses the AI to recognise what the camera is viewing at the time and adjusts the capture parameters to match. The P20 Pro is swift to register shots as scenes, such as Snow, Greenery, Blue Sky, Beach, Portrait and impressively live music (Stage). It can recognise a cat and a dog, though it also tagged a bear as the latter. There are 19 categories in all. It mostly works really well, but sometimes the colour seems too extreme. In the shot of Rumbling Bridge gorge, correctly identified as ‘waterfall’ by the AI, the lichen on the rocks is just that bit too vivid. But the different shades in the rushing water are captured very faithfully. The details on the boats and the landscape elements in the shots of the loch are rendered well, but this image portrays a deeper blue than I experienced. These shots were all taken on the standard ‘Photo’ setting.
Similarly, the two shots at normal and 5X zoom of the horses in the Zoom gallery captures the animals well, but the grass was never that lush on the day.
The P20 Pro features a separate colour temperature sensor (situated below the flash), so it was odd to find such extreme saturation in some shots. Don’t just rely on the AI seems to be the lesson here.
Zoom and focus
As stated, if there’s a chance I’ll be shooting anything when I’m out and about, I’ll always try to take a DSLR (an ageing, but usually reliable Canon EOS 40D), a 40 or 50mm, and at least one other lens with me – a wide-angle or medium telephoto depending on where I was going. The P20 Pro can’t match the more extreme wide shots I like to indulge in, but it does take some great, sharp images with the 27mm (35mm equivalent) lenses. Focus is generally lighting fast and very accurate – there are no complaints there. It can deploy 4D Predictive Focus, which uses the AI to pre-focus on the object, using a predictive grid that updates dynamically – so it can focus on where the object is going to be. It proved ideal for shooting Penguins racing through the water.
Using zoom on the P20 Pro can be a bit hit and miss in some situations, but great in others. Compared with a 250mm telephoto on the Canon (see images below), the tiger at Edinburgh Zoo seems sharper fully zoomed in with the Huawei. However, the phone seemed to mess up the shot of the wallabies from the same trip, and the AI got the colour balance completely wrong. Also, zoom can’t be used when the format is set for shooting in 40 megapixels The good outweighs the bad though, with the 3X Zoom performing well for most everyday tasks.
The P20 Pro can flip into burst mode by holding the shutter down, and you use the phone in a point and shoot quick fire mode from sleep (0.4 seconds according to a message that flashed up on the screen) when double-clicking the Volume down button. The Volume buttons can also be used to Zoom in Photo mode and can be used as a physical Focus control when switching to Video.
Portrait and Pro mode
Beyond the phone itself looking pretty, it can make you look attractive too (within limits). The Portrait mode lets you configure different beautification settings via a slider for slimming and smoothing. You can adjust this and also 3D lighting before or after the shot is taken – lighting modes include Stage, Soft, Split and Butterfly modes among others. The P20 Pro can even create an ‘information database for custom beautification’ for use in Selfie Portrait mode. Onscreen prompts get you to take photos of yourself looking to the front, sides, and downwards to set the beauty parameters. You can then access Beauty Effects to adjust parameters such as skin smoothness and tone. Beauty settings work for groups too, when shot in Portrait mode
Of course, you can do without all this AI-driven goodness and just go manual, as the P20 Pro also offers a fairly comprehensive Pro mode. You can select a metering or white balance mode, adjust the ISO, change the shutter speed, slide exposure compensation values up or down, and also select a focus mode depending on the application – moving, static or manual focus. RAW format (saving as DNG) is also available in Pro mode. Among the other utilities of the camera are a horizontal guide line help gets the shot level and you can choose between a number of grid patterns to assist composition. There’s also a 3D panorama function to capture a 360-degree view- this is harder to get right than it sounds, but it’s useful for creating moving panoramic shots of objects, people, and landscapes.
Another mode, Light Painting automatically sets a slow shutter speed to take long-exposure shots of light trails, flowing water (a feature I didn’t know existed when I was shooting the waterfalls) and star trails.
Other useful features can be download as new apps – you can access custom shooting modes for adding watermarks, as well as shooting food pics and scanning documents – the AI recognises them as such and crops/adjusts the shot appropriately. The phone also can automatically recognise business card info to make it easier to add/convert this to Contacts. It depends on the card design, but this seems to work fairly well.
The P20 Pro features a new 960 fps Super Slow Motion video mode that is just brilliant fun. You need to be quick on the shutter though and it’s only 720p. It can also record 4K (3840 x 2160), but neither of these modes support stabilisation. HD and FHD resolutions, including 1920 x 1080 60fp and FHD+ all do however.
With its impressive glass shell, the phone almost seems too delicate to use in a ‘throw in the bag’ camera fashion. The ultra-slim curved body is also rather elusive to hold – it slips out of the hand and off the edge of couches very easily. This is a phone that cries out for a heavy-duty case, which rather nullifies the point of all the shimmery goodness. Huawei is bringing a smart case out in a couple of weeks for the P20 Pro, but until then, it’s definitely ‘handle with care’.
In a nod to compact cameras of old, Huawei has the lenses on the P20 Pro arranged horizontally on the left of the long edge. It’s a nice idea, but when activating the Volume Down button as a physical shutter control with an index finger invariably caused my other fingers to obscure part of the view. It led to a terse ‘Please do not cover the lens” message to pop up a bit too often. As for the seamless fingerprint sensor, it may be a bit too flush, as it was rather too easy to brush against it when the using the onscreen shutter button and flip out of camera mode altogether.
Another key factor in considering any media capture device is how well does it fit into your existing workflow? I’m used to working with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop and the retro (in a bad way) Android File Transfer software to get images off a phone. Over a USB cable, Lightroom imports from the Motorola G5 fairly well, with all metadata intact. The P20 Pro on the other hand falls foul of a bug that affects some phones, in that it reads the file creation dates as being back in 1970, leading to cataloguing problems. Luckily this phone also has a number of other ways to connect, including Huawei Computer Share which uses your private network connection to mount the P20 Pro as a server on the Mac or a PC. It’s initially a lot slower than the direct connection, but at least it gets all the facts straight. There’s also HiSuite, which is Huawei’s own version of the Android File Transfer software, and only slightly less clunky. A DSLR wins hands down when it comes to file transfer.
There’s no doubt about it, this a great smartphone with a superior camera. And at this premium price, it should be. The Leica triple lens setup and Huawei’s complementary technology means that it’s ideal for low-light shots and great depth of field effects. This is definitely a phone that I’ll already have in my pocket when I leave the house. It is supremely capable of shooting street photos, quick portraits and any amount of holiday snaps, as well as some great video. Am I ready to ditch the DSLR though? Not really, but it will certainly be left at home a lot more on short trips.