Huawei's latest flagship smartphone, the P30 Pro was launched just over a month ago and has since then received a lot of praise, especially for its camera. I've been using the device since launch day and thought now would be a good time to summarize my experience and determine if the hype around the P30 Pro camera is justified.
Focal length flexibility
A lot of that hype stems from its periscope-style 5x tele lens and the resulting zoom performance. We've already had a close look at the system and my early impressions have been confirmed since those first days of using the device.
The P30 Pro is by far the best current smartphone for zooming. While the focal length of 'traditional' single-lens smartphone cameras (typically somewhere between 25 and 28mm equivalent) is great for street and landscape photography and similar genres, it's not ideal for any photographic situations that require wider or more narrow angles of view.
The P30 Pro's camera setup covers equivalent focal lengths from an ultra-wide 16mm to a 125mm tele, allowing for much more flexibility in your framing and more creative freedom. If you're happy to accept some loss of image quality, you can zoom in even further but everybody's tolerance threshold is different in that respect.
Image quality is best at the individual cameras' native focal lengths
While there's no doubt that the P30 Pro beats the current competition in terms of zooming, there's still some obvious room for improvement, however. The hybrid-zoom technology processes captured image data from one or more lenses, then uses computational imaging methods to achieve a seamless zoom experience for the user. This means that image quality is best at the individual cameras' native focal lengths.
|This shot was captured at a zoom setting of around 3.5x. It is softer than the 5x image, especially close to the edges of the frame, ISO 50|
If you shoot at intermediate zoom factors, images can look soft. Between 1x and 3x, the P30 Pro uses its 1x main camera and progressively crops in, using a multi-frame based super resolution algorithm to improve results. For 3x to 5x zoom factors, the tele camera is used for the central portions of the image, with crops from the 1x camera upscaled (again using super-resolution) to fill in the outer portions of the image. This means that image edges at these intermediate zoom factors are noticeably softer than central areas of the frame.
This isn't much of an issue if you post your images on Instagram, of course, but it will be noticeable when viewing at larger magnifications.
The zoom is also limited by its AF system. So while you might be able to nicely frame a soccer player in the game, don't expect the autofocus to lock on, at least not before the subject has moved out of the frame. You can get good results with some practice and trial and error, but expect a lot of out-of-focus-results with moving subjects as well.
|Out-of-focus, 125mm equivalent, ISO 50||In-focus, 125mm equivalent, ISO 50|
Night shots are a breeze
Moving away from zoom, the P30 Pro is also a great smartphone for photography in low light, especially for static scenes and when using the built-in multi-frame night mode. It's pretty amazing that a smartphone is now capable of capturing hand-held night shots which not too long ago would have required long exposures, manual settings, probably some manual frame stacking in Photoshop, and definitely a tripod.
|Night mode, 27mm equivalent|
|Night mode, 27mm equivalent|
Night mode can record usable results in near darkness, even capturing starry skies, and is capable of nicely balancing bright and dark parts of the frame. It can be used with all three cameras but the results are by far the best on the primary unit. If night shots are your thing, this is pretty much a must-have feature. Just don't expect a consistent color response when shooting in near darkness. As you can see, the camera's auto white balance system produced quite different results for the two samples above.
The P30 Pro also performs well in low light in its standard camera mode but the results are much more in line with what you'd expect from other high-end smartphone cameras.
27mm equivalent, ISO 250
Low light image quality in standard mode is in line with other high-end smartphones.
125mm equivalent, ISO 3200
Zooming, low light and moving subjects are not a good combination.
Low light image quality is best on the primary camera, however. Both the super-wide-angle and tele lag behind in terms of detail, exposure and dynamic range. The tele is definitely taken beyond its limits when you try and capture moving scenes in low light, so don't expect tack-sharp concert close-ups or action shots in a dimly-lit gym from the P30 Pro.
Video stabilization for steady-cam-like footage
When shooting video on the P30 Pro, I generally found the footage to show pleasantly warm colors and decent dynamic range, capturing good detail in bright skies and high-contrast scenes. Noise reduction can be a bit aggressive, though. Distant foliage and other low-contrast textures can appear a little mushy. I was particularly impressed by the image stabilization, which allows for super-steady shooting even when hand-holding the device.
However, stabilization is not without its artifacts. It can lead to blurring in-sync with your steps, visible in the fence behind the subject near the end of this clip. There can also be a judder effect - where the video skips ahead for a brief instant. This can range from subtle (my panning clip below) to fairly distracting. These artifacts are either absent or more subtle on the latest iPhone and Pixel phones.
Overall, with some careful consideration to shooting technique - bending your knees and walking softly, and panning slowly - the Huawei can be a great device for mobile video capture without the need for any additional equipment, such as gimbals or other external stabilizers.
The best smartphone for imaging right now? Probably.
The P30 Pro isn't just a very good camera phone, however. It's also very nice to use as a general device. The body design with its rounded display edges and smooth lines looks and feels premium. Thanks to the high-end chipset there are no performance lags whatsoever and Huawei's EMUI user interface is much less cluttered than it used to be on previous device generations, making for an overall very pleasant user experience.
No other smartphone camera offers as much flexibility in terms of focal length and framing
The camera is this device's unique selling proposition, though, and it does deliver. No other smartphone camera offers as much flexibility in terms of focal length and framing. That doesn't mean that the zoom system is perfect, but it is the best you can get on a smartphone right now.
|The P30 Pro captures pleasantly natural colors in most situations, 27mm equivalent, ISO 50|
The P30 Pro performs well in most other photographic respects as well, delivering very good still image and video quality across the board. Night mode is excellent and the camera is capable of capturing a decent simulated-bokeh shot.
|Portrait mode, 27mm equivalent, ISO 50|
As always, there is still room for improvement but a couple of software updates have already been provided since launch. We can be sure that Huawei and other manufacturers will be working hard to make the next device generation even better, with improved image quality and more intelligent features.
In the fast-paced smartphone world it will likely only take a few months for a better option to come along, but until then the Huawei P30 Pro is my undisputed go-to smartphone camera.
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