mobile phone photography

Are digital cameras still relevant for everyone? Huawei P20 & P30 Pro discussion.

Over the last few years most of my work was done with some variant of the Canon 5D full frame DSLR. Whilst this is a heavy hulking beast of a camera - it’s also a workhorse that provides beautiful imagery. The ample body has a very ergonomic layout - with plenty of customisation that can be done to the controls, which makes it very easy and fast to work with.

A common theme for me was that this camera was my default choice for any work, however for travel photography and social events - it was way to bulky for me to comfortably carry around. This prompted my decision to invest in mirrorless cameras: which were smaller and fit in your pocket (mostly.. maybe with cargo pants..) but even then there were many times where I had not brought it along due to it’s size.

Fast forward to the last few weeks - my wife and I had an adventure planned in Japan. Now this is not the kind of holiday we do every month, and Japan is a VERY interesting and pretty place, so I agonised over my equipment choices: Should I take the 5D? compromise with the A6000?

Ultimately i decided to go with the Huawei P20 Pro. But that’s not a camera! you might be saying, and you are arguably correct. However if i think about it: I had a 27mm f1.8 camera, and an 80mm f2.4 camera with optical image stablisation. The B/W camera is not mentioned since it’s way to buried in menus to be useful, and realistically most times shooting using the main sensor (and converting to monochrome) does a better job.

By far the most useful range in a camera is the 24-70mm space and I was pretty covered. Throw in all the HDR, image stacking and other digital wizardry that the phone is capable of and here are some results. All the photos are shot using the Huawei P20 pro and edited using Snapseed on the phone itself. I was able to take most shots i had in mind and had a decent keeper rate in even challenging light and autofocus conditions.

To wrap up - to cherry on the cake is that most of these images will only ever be seen on social media on mobile devices. The quality is way high than what is necessary for that, so much so i’d be pretty confident in having any of these shots printed in A2 or higher size.. So why bother with anything else?

What do you guys think? Leave a comment below.

So what’s next?

Huawei have just announced the new P30 family of phones and to be quite honest many of the features which reviewers are praising (battery, low light performance, overall performance, etc) are already top notch with the P20 pro and (in my humble opinion) not worth the upgrade. I would hazard and even say that the much vaunted 5x periscope camera (125mm) is going to be less useful than a native 80mm on the P20. Time will tell.

However there are 2 killer new features which I am really looking forward to:

  1. Optical Image Stabilisation on the Main sensor. This will make it much easier to use Light Painting and Night modes, or any other in camera images stacking which have become so powerful

  2. Ultra wide angle lens. This was something that I really missed in japan and it’s not something you can recreate digitally like lens blur or zoom (just crop! :))

Huawei P20 Pro - A photographer's review

I have been a long OnePlus fan, i’ve owned the OP3 and then the 5 which i’ve kept for the past while, hoping for a refreshed camera experience - which was one of the main reasons for me to typically update the phone.

Since the OnePlus 5T, they have stuck with a borderline useless combination of cameras (even though admittedly the main camera was improved in the 6). Camera output was pretty decent and overall the photo quality was not bad. The problem arises when you look at what is possible today from other manufacturers.

This review was done using a Huawei P20 pro which i bought with my own money.

Tl Dr

The Huawei P20 pro has a fantastic camera with the main sensor being pretty huge - even though not all the features work as you might expect. Processing tends to be a bit on the heavy side, and doesn’t seem to be OIS on the main sensor. It’s also a great phone with good battery life and user experience if you can deal with some Huawei oddities on top of the stock android experience.


How is the P20 pro as a phone?

Photography aside, the phone itself is good. Comparing to my Oneplus 5, performance is pretty much on par with any other Snapdragon 835 device and screen is more detailed. There is a small difference between 1080p screens and 1440p - it’s not huge, but it’s there. Battery life is amazing - i’ve recently spent most of the day travelling and got home with 35% battery despite 7 hours of screen on time, 2 hours of stored Netflix and hours of music streaming. The only negative experience is the software - Even though EMUI is usable, it’s not as smooth as the native google experience, or lightweight skins like OnePlus’s OxygenOS. One mindbogglingly annoying feature is that the double-click on the power button doesn’t load the camera. There is a double-click volume down option but that doesn’t work at all if you have music streaming. The device is also a bit thicker than OnePlus phones and whilst not a big deal for people with bigger hands (mine are quite small) - it is noticeable.

Let’s talk about the camera engineered with Leica

Being a photographer, i had some ideas about how each of the separate cameras in the P20 pro would work independently in the same way that i would use different lenses on an SLR camera for different things. The main mistake in this way of thinking is that not each of the lenses available has the same capable sensor.

So if we had to take a look at the 80mm lens/sensor in isolation - this tends to be a little bit too close when shooting typical portraits with a phone, but also there is a noticeable loss of quality if you use 3x zoom in pro mode (which i believe uses the 8MP zoom sensor exclusively). Doing a simple test where one lens is covered shows that expected behaviour but this is hardly foolproof since there might be other colour information being gathered from the other sensors.

Whilst the 3x zoom performance is perfectly fine, it is not as good as the results you get from the main camera - which are borderline insane from a phone. Dynamic range is solid, and fine detail is great. In good lighting, 40MP mode (the camera is set to 10mp by default) is pretty detailed - however the camera disables zoom when it is set to 40MP mode. This makes it pretty unusable since it would take way too much time to stay entering the settings menu every time i want to get at the zoom. It would have been 10000x better if the camera just automatically switched out of 40MP mode if you try to zoom…

The same issue arises when we talk about the dedicated monochrome sensor. To shoot in monochrome you need to slide all the way right into the “more” section and THEN select monochrome. The results are pretty nice.. but we’ve lost the large 40MP sensor again - so what we gain by losing the bayer filter, we lose by having the smaller sensor.

So if i had to look back, i wouldn’t buy this camera for the black and white or zoom modules on their own - in the sense that it’s not a good expectation to want to use these on their own. And in fact it’s together that this camera array really shines.

5x hybrid zoom. In hindsight i should have pushed this file a little less in post or removed some of the noise

5x hybrid zoom. In hindsight i should have pushed this file a little less in post or removed some of the noise

5x Hybrid zoom (which at first i thought was: digital zoom - ugh) is actually pretty usable. Photos taken in the fully automatic “photo” mode have beautiful colours, dynamic range i’ve never seen in a phone before and very satisfying detail. Some of the other ‘magic’ modes like night mode or water trails are harder to use since they involve stacking multiple shots together behind the scenes… but if you have a stable base (even good hand holding works) then the results can be pretty epic.

The Fake Bokeh(tm) mode we find in all modern phone cameras is mostly at par with other phones. I think the Pixel is by far the best in this space but realistically they are all going to be hit or miss at times. Whilst it is not perfect, the P20 pro hasn’t performed horribly here.

Autofocus is pretty accurate and the only times it’s gotten confused what when i was shooting through glass… but other than that it’s pretty instant.

The photos tend to be quite nice straight out of the camera, but they also have quite a bit of room for pushing. I edit all my phone photos and all the ones below have been tweaked using Snapseed. If you want an accurate representation of what the camera does out of the box please check out the Huawei P20 pro DXOMark review.

Pro mode was needed for this backlit photo but the results are quite good with lots of detail retained both in the shadow and highlights

Pro mode was needed for this backlit photo but the results are quite good with lots of detail retained both in the shadow and highlights

Light-Painting “water trails” option can create some beautiful soft water

Light-Painting “water trails” option can create some beautiful soft water

There is so much dynamic range in the main sensor that converting to black and white is probably as good as using the dedicated sensor

There is so much dynamic range in the main sensor that converting to black and white is probably as good as using the dedicated sensor

Great fine detail even in the 10MP mode

Great fine detail even in the 10MP mode

Close up food shots work quite nicely

Close up food shots work quite nicely

Lots of detail retained in the areas of the building which was in direct sunlight

Lots of detail retained in the areas of the building which was in direct sunlight


Editing Mobile Phone photos

Even though i am a professional photographer, there are times where i don't have (or don't want to have) my camera with me - both when i'm in Malta and abroad. Like anyone else who has made their merry way into the 21st century, i do however have a mobile phone pretty much always in my pocket.

One of the main benefits a professional camera brings to a photoshoot, is the ability to work fast and in difficult conditions without losing quality. However, if you're prepared to sacrifice image quality a little bit, pushing your photos during editing will make a big difference in the impact.

This article is based on the Snapseed mobile application. This was built on an excellent software suite by a company called Nik (which was then taken over by Google). I use the android version which you can download here and there is also a version for iPhone here

Disclaimer: Is editing going to make my Oneplus 5 images look like they were taken with my Canon 5D mk4? No way! but it will add perceived detail and impact

Basic Corrections

The first step in our editing is to correct any mistakes that the camera may have made. Remember that the amount of light the phone captures and the colour which it sets to be "white" are guesses and it can get these wrong. (For example you might take a picture of a white plate in a room lit up in warm white light and get a yellow colour cast.)

1. White Balance (ie - is everything yellow-ish?) - The White balance tool has a selection tool that allows you to click on a spot on the photo and set it as white. If you're shooting food, this could be the table cloth or plate. Neutral greys work just as well (or better) than white too. Once you fix this you will see new colours appear in the photo

2. Exposure (ie is the photo too dark or too white?) - For these two questions we'll be using two different tools. Unfortunately, if the photo is too white, it is much harder to fix since the detail is lost and the colours may have become skewed. Your best bet is to use the Tune Image tool and reduce the brightness and highlights settings. Be careful because whites might become greys which are possibly uglier than the white you are trying to fix.

To add light we can either use the Tune Image tool and add brightness but i find that using the Curves tool and selecting "Brighten" from the palette produces a more pleasing effect. You can then adjust the curve to increase/decrease this - or you can just run the Curves tool multiple times (i find this produces the most natural result)

At this point out photo is well exposed and is showing the correct colours. Since these are things mobile phones often make mistakes in, we've already improved the image substantially

Case Study: Dinner

Food in particular needs correct colours and good lighting, additional detail and contrast are an added bonus (if you like that effect)

Food in particular needs correct colours and good lighting, additional detail and contrast are an added bonus (if you like that effect)


Adding Detail

1. The aptly named Details tool is an easy way to bring out the structure in the image. I personally like adding a lot of this since it adds sharpness and contrast across the board. You can then go into the layer mask (View Edits -> select the layer -> select the brush) and then brush away the areas where it might have added too much structure

2. Focus on your subject. This is much harder to do with a phone than with a professional slr since depth of field (blur/bokeh) is linked to the size of the camera sensor (which is tiny on a phone) so we can turn to software to help us out. Disclaimer: This can look fake if misused. This effect is very obvious and i tend to reduce the amount of blur that is set by default. I also adjust the shape of the circle to go around the object i want to keep in focus.

3. HDR. Yes, HDR Scape is a great editing tool for mobile phones - especially since the dynamic range of the sensor is much smaller than you get in a good camera. Disclaimer: This can look fake if misused. I use HDR typically for food shots and landscapes. Like lens blur i reduce the amount of filter strength that is set by default (be particularly careful for whites becoming "dusty" and reds becoming highlighted and over bright). From the palette i typically select the "Nature" or "People" setting

4. Tone the image. The Vintage tool is a great way to tone the colours in your image - again this is an effect that should be used sparingly and with caution. I tend to reduce/almost remove the default vignette setting and i reduce the overall effect by at least 50% - otherwise it will just take over all the colours of your photo. Remember that you want to add some spice, not overwhelm it

Case Study 3: Architecture in Valletta


5. Selective editing using the healing tool can help fix mistakes or dirt in the photo. Click on the affected areas will draw information for the surroundings to remove the offending debris. It's also very good when someone attacks the food before the photo was taken! :) In the next case study i had wanted a photo of the dish but absent-mindedly broke it with my fork. 



Questions? Anything Not Clear?

Just leave a comment below and i'll do my best to reach out and help you out or edit the article and explain better :)