Huawei reinforces its claim to the smartphone photography crown with the new P30 Pro
- Quadruple cameras: three photo cameras plus a ToF (Time Of Flight) 3D sensing camera
- No more mono camera
- Radical new SuperSpectrum 40MP camera sensor enables remarkable low light capability
- Longer 125mm (5x) telephoto lens thanks to clever folded optics
- Mate 20 Pro style 16mm (0.6x) ultra wide-angle lens
- Almost 100% 6.5 inch display apart from a ‘tear drop’ style micro-notch for the selfie-camera
- On-screen optical fingerprint sensor (don’t worry it’s better than the Mate 20 Pro’s)
- No 3D face-sensor (Mate 20 Pro) so face-unlock will be less-efficient and less-secure
- Mate 20 Pro style extra-large 4200mAh battery and fast 40W Supercharging
- Mate 20 Pro style wireless charging with reverse charge mode
Improving on the already remarkable P20 Pro
A year ago Huawei built on its already established reputation for photography innovation in smartphones with the P20 Pro. This was the first triple-camera smartphone, featuring a 40 megapixel sensor and a mono camera, plus remarkable low-light capabilities. It also brought AI smartness to the fore.
Today, Huawei has unveiled the P30 Pro, and what a successor it is. I’ve had the privilege of being briefed by Huawei in advance, which included hands-on use of pre-production samples, though no images taken with these were allowed to be retained.
A radical new image sensor and a cleverly implemented telephoto camera, plus a fourth ToF camera/sensor, top the list of exciting new features the P30 Pro can boast. Here’s my hands-on preview:
Seeing in the dark and that new sensor
It was widely speculated that Huawei would opt for Sony’s new 38 megapixel Exmor RS IMX607, which features a modified Bayer filter array that incorporates white, as well as red, green and blue (RGB) pixel filters. White (colourless) filters increase light transmission and the effective sensitivity of the sensor.
So imagine our surprise when we were told that the P30 Pro uses a sensor that substitutes all the green filters in the Bayer array for yellow filters. Yellow filters transmit substantially more light than green filters. You could call this a RYB filter.
Huawei says this enables the effective maximum ISO sensitivity rating of the sensor to be raised from ISO 102400 on the P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro to 409600 ISO, or two stops (EVs) extra sensitivity. That’s four times more sensitivity.
To back up this seemingly outlandish claim Huawei invited us to use pre-production P30 Pros in an almost completely darkened room. Lo and behold, the P30 Pro was able to record discernable images in what appeared to be almost total darkness.
I also tried a Mate 20 Pro at the same time and virtually nothing recorded on the image.
Under those conditions the picture quality wasn’t great but I’d certainly be thankful of being able to take a picture, without the need for flash, in certain circumstances, when a typical camera would be unable to.
I can’t wait to see for myself if the extra sensitivity of the sensor can be harnessed to improve quality in more realistic low light shooting conditions.
You might think that using yellow instead of green Bayer Filter Array pixels would be a recipe for chromatic disaster. While we were unable to bring shots taken with the pre-production sample devices away with us to show you in this preview article, examination of the P30 Pro results in-phone at the time revealed no obvious colour anomalies.
Indeed, top pro photographer and Leica ambassador, Alex Lambrechts, who has used the older P20 Pro extensively, told me the colour and tonal quality he has been seeing in P30 Pro images is discernibly better than the P20 Pro.
We just have to find out if that’s because the P30 Pro’s new 6.47 inch AMOLED display is better, or maybe the camera and the display are both improved. Alex also says the photographic aperture blur/bokeh effects are processed in a more pleasing way.
What is the ToF camera for?
We’ve already seen a ToF camera on Huawei’s sub-brand model, the Honor View20. Samsung followed this example in its Galaxy S10+.
So what is ToF? It stands for Time of Flight – think of it as a kind of radar or sonar using invisible LED or laser light, transmitted in pulses. This light is reflected back and the time it takes to return to the ToF camera sensor can be calculated in real time as a distance between the phone and whatever reflected it back to the phone.
ToF cameras are like digital cameras and they have thousands of sensor photosites and each one can record a distance value, building up a three-dimensional view of what the camera sees. And it can do this in real time.
It’s really accurate and potentially better than existing optical image-reliant measuring apps, like Google Measure. You will be able to use it to measure in one and two dimensions and also three, for volume.
ToF capability will also boost the power of AR (Augmented Reality) where 3D computer-generated animated graphics are blended with a real scene.
The Honor View20 prioritises the use of its ToF camera for gaming; you can model your own body and a game can then sense your body motion for real-time avatar control.
I understand that on the P30 Pro the ToF camera aids the optical cameras to more-precisely sense object boundaries so artificial background blur/aperture algorithms make less mistakes. I suspect that the ToF camera can also assist in focusing and object/scene sensing in dark conditions.
Folded telephoto optics
The P30 Pro’s extra-long 125mm (native optical 5x) equivalent telephoto lens camera would have required an unsightly lump in the phone’s otherwise slimline form. Telephoto lenses, by their very nature, have to be long. So Huawei and Leica went for a folded-optics arrangement.
Folded optic lenses in other more conventional digital cameras have also been around for a long time and for the same reason, to fit a powerful telephoto lens into a slim camera body.
This means the lens elements are stacked 90 degrees between the front and back of the device. A key benefit is that there is less of a compromise on the optical design forced on engineers trying to keep the optics as short as possible.
To enable the lens to see in the same direction as the other cameras, a 90 degree prism is used at the top of the lens stack, resembling a periscope. You can tell which is the tele lens because the prism is square rather than round on the camera array.
As far as I know this is a first for a contemporary smartphone. Apple did patent a folded optic layout for an iPhone optical zoom lens a couple of years back, though it hasn’t been demonstrated yet. The P30 Pro telephoto lens is a fixed-focal length lens, though seamless bybrid optical and digital zooming is possible in conjunction with the other cameras from 16mm (0.6x) to 125 mm (5x). A lower resolution 10x tele mode is also provide and there is even a 50x mode for emergency use.
The P30 Pro’s telephoto camera has a resolution of 8MP, is optically stabilised (OIS) and has a native optical equivalence to a 125mm lens, or 5x the main 27mm (1x) 40MP camera lens. 10x and 50x digital zoom options are available. The ultra-wide camera is equivalent to a 16mm lens (full frame), or 0.6x.
There is another tweak to the main camera, which now has a faster (brighter) aperture of f/1.6 compared to f/1.8 on the P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro.
Comparing the P30 Pro with the P20 Pro and the Mate 20 Pro
|P30 Pro||P20 Pro||Mate 20 Pro|
|Screen size||6.5 inches||6.1 inches||6.4 inches|
|Resolution||1080 x 2240||1080 x 2240 (408ppi)||1440 x 3120 (538 ppi)|
|Curved edge display||Yes||No||Yes|
|Camera 1||40MP SuperSpectrum 27mm f/1.6 (1x)||40MP 1/1.7” 27mm f/1.8 (1x)||40MP 1/1.7” 27mm f/1.8 (1x)|
|Camera 2||20 MP 1/2.7” 16mm ultrawide f/2.2 (0.6x)||20MP 1/2.7” 27mm f/1.6 MONO (1x)||20 MP 1/2.7” 16mm ultrawide f/2.2 (0.6x)|
|Camera 3||8MP 135mm f/3.4 OIS (5x)||8MP 1/4” 80mm f/2.4 OIS (3x)||8MP 1/4” 80mm f/2.4 OIS (3x)|
|ToF camera sensor||Yes (back facing)||N/A||Front facing proximity|
|Selfie camera||32MP||24MP 26mm f/2.0||24MP 26mm f/2.0|
|Face/selfie depth sensor||N/A||N/A||IR dot projector|
|Chipset||HiSilicon Kirin 980||HiSilicon Kirin 970||HiSilicon Kirin 980|
|Battery||4200 mAh||4000 mAh||4200 mAh|
|Wireless charging||15W with reverse mode||N/A||15W with reverse mode|
|Fingerprint sensor||In-display (improved)||Front below display||In-display|
The in-screen fingerprint sensor on the Mate 20 Pro was a cool entry on the features list and a headline-grabber, but in reality it was slower and less-reliable than the P20 Pro’s conventional scanner built into a button-like pad below the display.
The P30 Pro also has an in-screen fingerprint scanner but I am cautiously optimistic it has been significantly improved after trying it on a pre-production device. It’s also further down the display, which – personally – I feel is a more sensible position.
I certainly hope my initial impressions are confirmed because the P30 Pro doesn’t inherit the 3D face sensing IR dot projector of the Mate 20 Pro, which makes that phone fast and secure at face-unlocking, even in darkness.
The P30 Pro relies solely on the selfie-camera, which is less secure and not likely to work in low light.
The P30 Pro borrows all the power goodies from the Mate 20 Pro, including the huge 4200 mAh battery, 40W charger, wireless charging and reverse wireless charging so you can top-up other devices from your phone. With Huawei’s more efficient HiSilicon Kirin 980 chip-set, more processing grunt isn’t at the cost of huge battery drain.
Resolution remains at 1080 x 2240 for the AMOLED screen, which is marginally larger (6.47 inches) than the P20 Pro, so you don’t get the super-fine res display of the Mate 20 Pro, but it’s an impressive looking display, nonetheless.
It’s also a curved-edge display, which may polarise opinion. I like this because it makes Android Pie 9 gesture navigation from the sides of the display more comfortable. However, it will severely limit your choice of screen protector options.
The Infra red transmitter or IR Blaster has been retained, however, rumours that a headphone socket had made a return are only half-correct; the lower-spec P30 (not the Pro version) gets the headphone socket.
Huawei are constantly tempting us with mesmerising new colours and the P30 Pro has a suitably cool selection, including a pearlescent white, which is my favourite.
As a photographer, the radical new RYB sensor and the folded optics 125mm telephoto, with Leica genes, is very exciting indeed. I’ll post my feedback on using a production device as soon as possible; we’ll be provided with a production P30 Pro for testing after today’s launch event.
The loss of the P20 Pro’s mono camera will frustrate some. It’s a polarising issue, but my personal view is that I can convert colour to mono effectively in post-processing, with especially good results when shooting RAW. Therefore, the ultra-wide camera, first introduced with the Mate 20 Pro, is very much worth the change. But I do concede this view is not universal.
The fact that the P30 Pro gets much of what was, until now, exclusive to the Mate 20 Pro is also very welcome.
I’m also looking forward to finding out what the fourth ‘camera’ – the ToF camera/sensor contributes and if it makes noticeable improvements to the photographic capabilities of the P30 Pro.
There’s so much to report back on! Watch this space.