The tri-lens camera of the Huawei P20 Pro is easily the phone’s biggest talking point; it’s a world first for Huawei and serves as a unique feature for its latest flagship. But is this just an expensive gimmick, or is there a method to Huawei’s multi-lens madness?
Aside from looking very different, Huawei’s biggest boasts are threefold; 5x lossless “hybrid” zoom, less shaky long exposures (up to four seconds), and the best low-light shots possible, thanks in part to a max ISO setting of 102,400 and clever “Pixel Fusion” sensor engineering, which promises to capture four times more light than you would with a standard RGB sensor.
Other bells and whistles include improved object tracking, 960fps slow motion video, and an expanded color temperature spectrum, which should see any budding photographer’s lenses steam up.
First of all, let’s take a look at those key specs.
Main Camera Specs and Features
- Monochrome: 20 megapixels
- RGB: 40 megapixels
- Telephoto: 8 megapixels
- Autofocus: PDAF, laser transmitter (up to 3 meters)
- Aperture: f1.8-f2.4
- Flash: Dual LED
- Colour temperature sensor: 1,000-10,000K
- ISO: up to 51,200
The left-most lens, which sits on its own, is the monochrome lens; the RGB unit and telephoto lens sit in the middle and right, respectively. The laser transmitter sits above the telephoto lens while the receiver is mounted in between the RGB and telephoto and the color temperature sensor sits just underneath the flash.
Don’t go looking at that spec sheet and thinking that 40+2+8 means you’ll be able to take 68-megapixel stills; it doesn’t work like that. The biggest stills possible on the P20 Pro are 40-megapixel ones, but we think that most of the time, you won’t really be shooting many of those—you’ll want to make use of that 5x zoom function.
How the 8MP Telephoto Lens Works
Put simply, the P20 Pro achieves greater lossless zoom by artificially enlarging images captured by the 8-megapixel telephoto sensor and combining that data with information captured by the bigger, higher-resolution RGB and monochrome sensors, which fill in lost detail and color. Clever image processing mixes everything up into a composite, hence the term “hybrid zoom.”
As with previous Huawei phones employing the hybrid system, you won’t be able to zoom in at maximum 40-megapixel resolution. You’ll have to stick to the default 10-megapixel (3,648 by 2,736) setting for this.
At 3x magnification, optical zoom sees you closing in on your subjects; at 5x, Huawei’s hybrid zoom system kicks in. This sees the 20-megapixel mono sensor capture detail with the bigger RGB sensor adding color information—capturing, so the theory goes, more information than you’d get if you just used cropped digital zoom.
While there’s no stabilization at 5x, we didn’t spot any obvious shakiness from it in the short time we played with P20 Pro sample units.
As you can see from the stills we got, claims of lossless 5x zoom stand up; the macaroons are crisp, detailed, in focus, good enough to eat. It’s pretty incredible that Huawei improved on the 2x zoom seen on its previous phones, not to mention the lossless zoom afforded by the telephoto lens on iPhone X.
At 10x, things start to distort and details are lost, as you might expect, but the sample we shot here is a lot less noisy than 10x zoom shots we’d get on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. That said, we’ve yet to fully test this out in a great range of lighting conditions, so we should reserve judgment until the full review’s done.
Pixel Fusion: Let the Sunshine In
As with the P9, the first Huawei phone to feature a dual lens setup, everything on the P20 Pro works in tandem to create rich and detailed stills.
Monochrome sensors, as you might expect, only have to focus on how much light is coming in to the frame, while RGB sensors are preoccupied with not only absorbing light info, but also what color everything is. It’s this thinking that has underpinned Huawei’s dual lens setups from day one.
This time around, Huawei’s done something that will see that color sensor absorbing more light—Pixel Fusion.
Steve Lai, Huawei’s senior director of product marketing, told PCMag at a media briefing that Pixel Fusion tech lets the P20 Pro capture four times the amount of light than you would with a regular RGB sensor of the same size. This apparently works by fusing standard RGB arrays onto single pixels, instead of having individual pixels dedicated to capturing red, green, and blue light.
Peter Gauden, global senior product marketing manager, offered the following explanation: “The RGB sensor is made up of 40 pixels. Essentially what we are doing, is taking four pixels, and making them one single pixel. So that’s four red pixels, joined into one big red pixel, four green pixels joined into one big green pixel, four blue, and so on.
“The advantage of combining four individual pixels is that you capture more information more quickly than you would do with smaller pixels. The more light that that photosensitive diode, which is essentially what each of these pixels are, that takes that light information, digitizes it, uses it to form the image that you see on the screen, the more we can do with that.”
Gauden clarified that “doing more” doesn’t just mean big pictures. Extra information allows gives things like AI-enhanced image stabilization—which is also a feature of the P20—an extra kick. When taking stills or video, the Kirin 970’s NPU will perform “very detailed edge-to-edge frame assessment for the image stabilization,” which is handy, as the P20 Pro’s got another neat party trick.
This Isn’t OIS, It’s AIIS
Stabilization, which is particularly important when shooting long exposures, will also be boosted thanks to the on-board AI, which will, apparently “know” how the phone is being held and will automatically compensate for your shakiness.
Huawei promises shake-free long exposures for up to four seconds. Any longer than that, and you may want to invest in a tripod, unless you’ve got a very steady hand.
At the demo event, we sought out the darkest room we could find to test this out for ourselves. Below, you can see the results of us shooting with the P20 Pro propped up on a shelf and another with us holding it about a centimeter off that flat surface:
These were taken by jumping to the manual “Pro” mode and setting the shutter speed at four seconds, with the exception of the last one, which we took at in auto mode for comparison. We should note that the second unsteadied image was not our first attempt. The others didn’t look quite as good, so long exposures will require some practice—and hopefully some software updates.
Nokia Lumia 1020’s Spiritual Successor?
Many who owned a Lumia 1020, which came with an insane 41-megapixel camera, often described that phone as “a digital camera you could also text on.” The Huawei P20 Pro feels awfully similar in this regard and by any estimation, it’s capable of taking some fantastic shots.
Pixel Fusion, as described by Huawei’s Gauden, sounds similar to the pixel-binning feature that made the Lumia 1020 such a standout device. But unlike that phone’s 2/3-inch sensor, which was housed in a circular protrusion extending out from the phone’s body like a hockey puck, Huawei somehow worked a 1/1.7-inch sensor in here with only the RGB and telephoto module rising slightly out of that glass-coated body.
Like the Lumia 1020, having a big sensor also means you can zoom in with minimal or no loss in image quality, something the Huawei P20 Pro does very well.
We’re keen to see how the P20 Pro’s camera measures up against phones of today, namely the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Apple iPhone X. Will you be able to tell the difference between sub four-second-long exposures taken with or without a tripod on these, too? Could a similar effect have been achieved had Huawei stuck with two lenses—one wide and one telephoto—or is three (or more) lenses the way forward now?
Unlike the Lumia 1020, which, apart from the camera, turned out to be quite a lackluster phone, the P20 Pro’s got some other tricks up its sleeve (read: a decent CPU), so maybe it won’t entirely follow in the footsteps of Nokia’s flawed masterpiece. Stay tuned.