Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro Camera Review

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Ever since Huawei began its partnership with Leica, it was clear the company was getting serious about smartphone photography and its role in the industry. This year's P20 Pro was a technical marvel and improved everything that last year's Mate 10 fell short on, and this year's Mate 20 promises to take what's good about the P20 Pro and turn it up several notches. While the outside camera hardware looks nearly identical when holding the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro next to each other, there are substantial differences in sensors, but not the overall configuration or functionality. Both phones sport a triple camera system on the back, but the exact configurations are quite different. The less expensive Mate 20 utilizes a main camera with a 12-megapixel sensor behind an f/1.8 77-degree angle lens, an 8-megapixel secondary sensor behind a 52mm f/2.4 telephoto lens, equivalent to 2x optical zoom, and a 16-megapixel sensor behind an ultra-wide angle 103-degree f/2.2 lens.

This new ultra-wide angle RGB camera replaces the monochrome camera from other Huawei flagship phones, and is also present on the Mate 20 Pro, however on the Mate 20 Pro you'll find this sensor is upgraded to 20-megapixels and is behind an even wider 106-degree angle f/2.2 lens. The Mate 20 Pro's secondary telephoto camera is an 8-megapixel one, like the Mate 20, but the Pro's telephoto lens is an upgraded 80mm f/2.4 lens, equivalent to 3x optical zoom. That main sensor is the same amazing 40-megapixel sensor from the P20 Pro, which sits behind a 77-degree angle f/1.8 lens. Both phones feature a combination of laser, phase detection, contrast, and even software-calculated predictive autofocus, which Huawei calls the 4D focusing system, as well as Huawei's own AI Image Stabilization, which is a combination of optical image stabilization and NPU-driven digital methods.

This crazy spec list is just the tip of the iceberg for what Huawei has in store for the cameras on both phones, and it all adds up to the most comprehensive camera experience on the market, even if it doesn't fill in every single nook and cranny you can think of. On the software side of the house, the interface looks identical to the one that launched with the P20 series earlier this year, including the carousel system on the bottom, which is scrolled through by either clicking on the mode names or turning the digital dial beneath. This helps alleviate accidental mode switching by swiping on the viewfinder, but all the extra modes are located in the "more" section at the end, which can be a bit confusing to remember which mode is located where since there's no single area that every mode is listed in.

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I also don't like having to switch between photo and video modes and would prefer if there were just a dedicated button for each at the bottom, but at the least, mode switching is faster than other phones on the market. All the base modes from the P20 are here, including the incredible night mode, which we'll delve into in a bit. New modes include underwater, AR and HiVision. Underwater is the answer to the age-old problem of how to take pictures in water with a water-resistant phone, even though water touches the screen in a similar way to our fingers, making photography a bit difficult. Huawei's answer to this is similar to Sony's foregone design, which locks the digitizer and instead requires the use of hardware buttons to take the shot. This is a brilliant idea and works perfectly, although you'll need to keep in mind the phone is water resistant, not proof, although Huawei sells a proper waterproof case for this exact use-case scenario.

HiVision is Huawei's answer to Google Lens or Bixby Vision, and can be activated on any screen, or directly from the viewfinder for visual identification of objects and languages, utilizing the neural processing units inside the Mate 20 to do the job. AR Mode is Huawei's version of Animoji, but like most implementations, isn't all that great. This is particularly surprising on the Mate 20 Pro, which features 3D facial recognition, including a dot projector and IR camera, yet it has a difficult time accurately animating my face in any real degree and thinks I am perpetually frowning. It also doesn't follow my mouth very well, or even at all in many cases, when talking and trying to record a video of myself as an AR Emoji.

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Huawei's Pro mode uses an interface identical to previous efforts, which works great for manual photography, but Huawei is upping the game in some pretty unbelievable ways with an insane ISO and shutter speed range that outpaces everyone on the market. Most manual modes restrict the ISO between 100 and maybe 3200 at the highest, but Huawei allows for as low as 50 ISO, and as high as, get this, 102,400 ISO on the Mate 20 Pro. I actually thought that might have been a typo at first, but there it is in clear writing, and I thought Sony's crazy high ISO on the XZ2 Premium was good. Sheesh.  Shutter speed ranges from 1/4000th of a second up to 30 long seconds of exposure, and exposure values also range from -4 to +4, also exceeding other OEMs by quite a few points. There's no manual video support, but you can save RAW photos from all three rear sensors, which means this could very well be a feasible camera replacement for some folks given the focal length available through all the lenses.

Huawei introduced the concept of a neural processing unit, or NPU, to help with AI-related tasks on the phone, but particularly with the camera, utilizing this dedicated co-processor for scene detection and a few other things as well. This year they're quite literally doubling down on their efforts with AI and have packed the world's first dual-NPU solution inside the Mate 20 family of phones. The result is a brand new series of AI-related video features that are an incredible start to some new concepts in mobile phone photography but definitely feel like first-gen products. While the Mate 20 family can record in 4K at 30 frames per second, these AI modes will only be accessible in 1080p quality at 30fps, so while there's a definite sharpness degrade, the extra style and image stabilization will probably be enough to satiate those that prefer the look.

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AI color modes can act as simple filters for video like we've seen on LG phones for some time now, or get far more advanced by singling a subject out with a portrait-mode style depth of field effect. This effect is super cool and makes the video very dramatic, but is definitely quite temperamental. This temperamental nature also extends to the AI color mode, which records a scene in a black and white filter, but keeps the color on human subjects that are identified on a real-time basis automatically. Just like the background blur effect, you'll find this effect doesn't always work, but it really does a surprisingly excellent job of singling out a subject or two and keeping them colored most of the time, even during actions like crouching or jumping, although every now and then you'll see colors fade out or the background pop back in. These don't work on multiple subjects, likely a limitation of the NPU rather than anything specific in the software, and there's a definite latency when using these modes, although it's nothing that hinders the experience.

Another interesting mode is AI Zoom, which works to identify moving subjects in an image and will provide a handy lock icon on each subject. These locks are only visible when the NPU identifies a subject it can work with, and that too can be finicky at times, but when it works it's super awesome. The idea here is that the subject should always reside in the middle of the viewfinder, and the software will zoom in and digitally pan to help keep the subject in frame, even with movement of both the subject and the camera itself. Like the other AI modes it works really well when it actually works, but the temperamental nature of the subject identification will likely keep this mode relegated to use by only a few die-hard creative types rather than be the truly useful tool it was designed to be all the time. This one will certainly improve over time, as it wasn't a mode available upon initial launch but was included in a post-launch update.

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Master AI for photos is disabled by default, which is a really interesting decision on Huawei's part. For the most part, Huawei's AI scene detection for photos works really well with the exception of 2 or 3 modes which increase saturation and contrast just a tad too much. I would have preferred to see these particular modes tweaked or removed for the time being rather than see this function turned off by default, but it can always be easily enabled via the settings menu.

Aperture mode is something not offered on most phones and works differently from Portrait mode in an important way. Many phones with portrait mode, including these phones, use subject identification to figure out where to blur the background from the foreground, while aperture mode forces a more lens-like look with a gradual fading focus line that isn't dependent on detecting specific objects in the scene. The result is a photo that looks more like something that came from a camera with a proper lens rather than from a smartphone. It's a great way to achieve this effect without relying on software to do all the calculation work, as you can manually adjust the amount of blur before taking the shot too since the viewfinder shows a real-time look at what will be processed.

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Portrait mode is just as good as it was on the P20 Pro, with deep colors, excellent object detection, and fast processing, meaning you won't have to wait for a while for the camera to identify what needs to be blurred, rather it's effectively an instant process. This is the only phone that seems to take as good of, or even better portrait shots than the Pixel 3. The ability to use up to 3x optical zoom on the Mate 20 Pro's portrait mode makes this a more versatile portrait shooter as well, and the 2x optical zoom on the Mate 20 makes it superior to the Note 9 because it's able to take portrait shots at both zoom levels, while the Note 9 can only use the telephoto lens for this. Some of these shots are just astoundingly good and look like they've been taken by a professional with a proper camera rather than me just holding the phone, back facing toward me, pressing a button.

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Portrait mode on the front-facing camera isn't nearly as good as I'd hoped, and part of this problem is that it just plain gives up if it can't detect the exact scenario it wants. With the P20, Huawei forced portrait mode, even if it didn't look great, whereas the Mate 20 family will only blur the background if it can detect things correctly. I'm not really sure what the deal was here, as it didn't matter about lighting conditions or business of the background. Thankfully the front-facing shots themselves are far better quality than we saw on the P20 Pro though, as that was one of that phone's only weaknesses when it comes to camera prowess.

Something brand new to the Mate 20 family is the wide angle lens, which replaces the monochrome sensor found on previous generation Huawei phones. Like the rest of the sensors and lenses, the Mate 20 Pro features a better version of this idea, with a 4-megapixel resolution increase and an extra degree wider lens. Functionally they're going to deliver an identical experience though, and can be quickly accessed by either clicking through the zoom levels or just pulling the slider back to the 0.6x option. At this point, LG has been the only major manufacturer consistently implementing a wide angle secondary camera on their phones, and it's really refreshing to see Huawei join the game, especially with their excellent optics and generally good processing. In most situations, you'll find the V40 and Mate 20 family trade blows, but the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro typically produce slightly better results than the V40, when considering noise, where there's generally less noise without sacrificing detail, as well as sharper imagery in lower lit scenes that the V40 might use extra long exposures for.

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Night time or low light photography tends to be six of one, half dozen of the other when comparing them, as the Mate 20 family seems to get the colors and light balance better, but the V40 is usually brighter. The flipside is the ability to use Night mode on the Mate 20, a massive advantage if you find yourself taking shots at night in a city or somewhere that wide-angle photography makes a lot of sense. Huawei isn't just using this wide-angle lens for wide-angle shots though, it also gives both the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro the ability to focus in close on objects, and makes this the absolute best phone for macro photography on the market. You can get ridiculously close to objects, and it does an impeccable job of producing tons of up-close detail that no other phone can. The difference in focal distance is a game changer if you find yourself getting close up to things and taking a shot, and it helps round out the already excellent wide-angle camera to provide yet another compelling reason to love this camera.

Night mode was a huge deal when it debuted with the P20 earlier this year, and with Google's incredible Night Sight, which just debuted with Google Camera officially on the Pixel line, and unofficially on other phones, Huawei had to step up their game with the Mate 20. Indeed they have in a few ways. First off you'll find that color accuracy has improved over the P20 Pro, which is likely due to the fact that the monochrome camera was a big part of what made the P20's night time photography so amazing, but the lack of color data from that sensor led to washed out imagery in extremely low light conditions. That's been improved, as well as the few times when we'd see hand jitter introduced during long exposures, both due to an improved algorithm and the fact that the exposure lengths have been capped at 6 seconds for the automatic night mode setting, while the P20 Pro could sometimes see exposures as long as 60 seconds when just hitting the shutter.

The downside to this is that shots tend to be darker than they might otherwise be if an 8 or 10-second exposure were allowed, but this can always be changed with a simple click of the shutter speed button, or even with the ISO button if you'd rather use that. This compared to Google's Night Sight mode, which is only automatic and has no options at all, and you'll once again see how these options can make a better experience if you so desire to change them. Google's Night Site introduces more noise into the images but gets a brighter image, while Huawei's methods are super clean but are definitely not as bright in most scenarios. Google's does a better job on auto than Huawei's in most situations, so folks that don't want to adjust things would probably prefer that, but Huawei's methodology is once again far more versatile. Between the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro, there's can be a pretty big difference between the two, but often times I found the Mate 20 Pro was less aggressive with longer shutter timing, which resulted in a darker photo but one with less noise.

There are other modes that Huawei has had for a while that are certainly special, like light painting and such, but aren't new to the Mate 20 family and haven't necessarily been improved at all, other than maybe better noise reduction and, of course, better sensors over the years.

Now that we've covered the specialized modes, let's take a look at automatic photography, starting with low light. Huawei led the way with incredible low-light performance earlier this year with the P20 Pro, and the Mate 20 family only furthers that. The only major phone that competes with these two in auto mode in low light is the Note 9, which definitely trades blows in most situations, although there's a pretty clear pattern when going through most of these shots. In general, you'll find the Mate 20 Pro produces the absolute brightest imagery of any smartphone out there, and it does so in an instant. It's really incredible to see how much light information is grabbed from seemingly nowhere without any real delay to the capture speed, and overall I found the auto mode very low light abilities to be more impressive than night mode because of the sheer speed difference in capture time. The Galaxy Note 9 tends to produce more detail in very dark scenes, but also produces a slightly darker image.

As light increases, Huawei's lead decreases and even begins to fall behind in some areas, depending on the specific situation. Every once in a while the camera gets a little crazy with oversharpening of the scene, which can sometimes make parts of an image look clearer, like Santa's list in this Christmas tree, where the words are very clearly visible and readable on the Mate 20 Pro, while the OnePlus 6T and Google Pixel 3 remain a bit soft in this section of the scene thanks to the direct lighting on the list, while the rest of the scene looks more balanced on those phones than on the Mate 20. Another scene with similar lighting shows the same result, but here there's no real specific spot where sharpening could help text, and the more gentle processing of the OnePlus 6T makes it look better.

Dynamic range is phenomenal and represents one of the biggest improvements over the P20 Pro, which at times could underexpose shots instead of making a more aggressive HDR shot. Noise reduction can also get a little crazy in scenes, and while it does an excellent job of scrubbing out noise in shots that need it, you'll find that phones like the Xperia XZ3, which don't worry so much about removing every spec of noise, will produce a more detailed moderate to low light shot because of this effect. This seems to be more aggressive than it was on the P20 Pro, but could also be the result of Huawei upping the aggressiveness of HDR in lower light shots, and as you'll notice from many Samsung and LG shots in these types of lighting conditions, also produces a softer picture for the exact same reason.

The phone's issue with oversharpening at times can also translate to daytime shots, where the unique 40-megapixel sensor on the Mate 20 Pro gets downscaled to 10-megapixels for computational reasons, but it also adds a layer of sharpening and processing that doesn't occur when the 40-megapixel mode is selected. Sometimes this processing can pay off, as is evidenced by comparing lower light shots between the 10 and 40 megapixel resolution options, where the 40-megapixel mode doesn't just look dark, it also is a far softer image, and overall just doesn't look that great, while the 10-megapixel mode is super bright in low light and even has far better detail, sometimes to a pretty extreme amount depending on how low the light is in the environment. Just like the P20 Pro though, I preferred the look of the 40-megapixel resolution photos during the day, as it's not just the amount of detail in a scene that makes this mode preferable, but the fact that it doesn't even look processed and instead feels like something that came out of an SLR camera instead. In fact, I've shot many different wallpaper-quality photos with this 40-megapixel mode that I'm using on my desktop, but the biggest image quality caveat in any lighting condition is the huge dive in dynamic range and color accuracy that occurs because of a big drop in processing.

That's not the only big problem with selecting 40-megapixel resolution though. This selection actually disables the other two cameras on the back, meaning no wide or telephoto zooming options when 40-megapixel resolution is selected. This makes it difficult to use the 40-megapixel resolution as there's no way to quickly swap between the two, as it takes several clicks to switch between 10- and 40-megapixel modes. On the bright side, it seems that Huawei has finally made its HDR mode more aggressive in general, which is a big improvement over the Mate 10 last year, and a slight improvement over the P20 Pro from earlier this year. Colors still seem to be a tad dull at times, which is odd since that monochrome sensor is no longer on board, but every now and then I found the colors to be terribly muted, and really it was just a bit weird. I'm not entirely sure why this happens, but it was more of a blue moon kind of deal rather than something super common. There's still a color setting up top which will turn on super vibrant colors if you'd like, but this is a bit of an extreme setting that I wish was tweakable with a simple slider or something similar.

Huawei does offer more focal length options than anyone out there though, from the wide-angle 16mm camera all the way up to the 80mm telephoto lens, it's really amazing how well-rounded this experience can feel. The telephoto lenses are an area that Huawei really specializes in though, and there's no other major phone on the market that can provide the unbelievable amount of detail these phones can when zooming into something, which is especially true of the Mate 20 Pro. When comparing the two it's pretty clear how much of an advantage these telephoto lenses offer when put side-by-side with a digital crop of the same subject.

There's also a sizable difference between quality on maximum zoom between the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro, where the 5x zoom option on the Mate 20 Pro actually makes a palpable difference this time around. Comparing it to the digital zoom of phones like the Pixel 3 shows a stark contrast in available detail, and it also trumps the Note 9 in detail too. Zooming in low light turns out a bit darker than expected, especially given the ultra bright photos taken with auto mode in 1x zoom, but it's likely just the difference between the f-stop rating of these lenses in conjunction with the narrower field of view. Either way though, you'll find unbelievably good results in good light, with diminishing returns the lower the light goes.

The front-facing camera on both phones is fantastic in most lighting conditions, with sharp imagery, great dynamic range and excellent color reproduction. You'll notice the blue sky in the background instead of having a blown out one like many others do, all while keeping the foreground well lit and sharp too. Low light is good, but at times it can be a bit soft, and color accuracy takes a bit of a dive in these conditions too. The portrait mode is an improvement over the P20 when it launched, although it's not nearly as good as Google's front-facing camera overall, either in portrait or standard modes.

On the video front we're looking at a pretty significant improvement over the P20 in every single way, from color accuracy and overall contrast and detail to dynamic range and even the stabilization of 4K video. There's a really distracting bug that kills the new stabilization though, and it's really a shame, although I'd expect this one to get fixed at some point…hopefully anyway. If you look at the left and right sides of any video taken from the Mate 20 or Mate 20 Pro, you'll notice some really weird warping going on, assumably due to some calculation error when trying to digitally stabilize video. This problem does not occur when using the wide-angle camera to film video, only 1 through 5x zoom levels, so it's certainly something Huawei can fix with software. Zooming between all three cameras is a relatively good experience, although there's an obvious jump when moving between all of them. There's a delay when switching between all three too, although the one for 3x zoom and beyond is more of a gradual pop-in, while the switch to the wide-angle is a clear pause in the video.

As said before, color accuracy is really something special most of the time, and represents some of the more color accurate video when compared to the rest of the flagships on our list here. I can certainly understand wanting the more saturated look of the Note 9 or OnePlus 6T though, so if you prefer a little more pop to your colors, those might be better options. Like photo mode there's a color saturation option in video mode, but it's a little too extreme and makes things just look weird. Low light video, on the other hand, is about as bad as it gets. I don't know what in the world is going on here, but it's uniformly bad between both Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro, and it's really quite puzzling. Putting it next to the Note 9 makes the Mate 20 family look like a pair of $100 phones trying to record 4K in the dark. The stabilization is messy and spazzy looking, the entire video is dark and blurry, and overall it's really just sort of embarrassing for Huawei. This is easily the weakest point of either phone's camera experience.

Audio recording is also somewhat weak in every area, which you'll find if you check out our camera review for the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro. We put them head to head together with the Sony Xperia XZ3 and HTC U12+, two of the better performers of audio recording quality this year. When watching, you'll notice how much more full the XZ3 sounds, while the Mate 20 Pro is just passable. It gets the job done and probably won't be noticeable when playing back on the phone, but it's definitely an obvious difference when played back on something better. When comparing audio quality when zooming into a subject, you'll find the differences between the Mate 20 Pro and HTC U12+ are night and day, both in audio and video quality. The Mate 20 Pro is sharper and has an overall nicer quality image, but the stabilization issues when zooming in are incredibly distracting and really look bad. Audio quality isn't even comparable either, part of this owing to the fact that the HTC U12+ can actually zoom into an audio source and target the area with its 3D directional mics, while the Mate 20 Pro very obviously doesn't have any such capability.

Lastly, we'll take a look at slow motion, which is just as weak as it was on the P20 Pro, but only for software design reasons, not for quality. Sony still sports the absolute best quality slow motion in the business but Samsung reigns supreme in its software design, as its super easy to set it on auto mode and let the phone do all the capturing rather than relying on manually starting the slow-motion capture. Huawei features both an automatic and manual capture, but both phones can only record a single slow-motion capture at a time. This means if you miss the capture you'll have to wait several seconds for the phone to not only finish capturing and processing but to line everything up and start all over again. It's terrible, to say the least, and needs a complete overhaul. It's a shame too because in general, the quality sits somewhere in between the Note 9 and the Xperia XZ2 or XZ3, and can be so much better if Huawei fixes this issue. For reference, those phones can record an unlimited number of slow-motion sessions in one take, so there's no limitation like there is with these phones.

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Assistant Editor

Nick has written for Android Headlines since 2013 and has traveled to many tech events across the world. He's got a background in IT and loves all things tech-related. Nick is the VR and Home Automation Editor for the site and manages the Android Headlines YouTube channel. He is passionate about VR and the way it can truly immerse players in different worlds. In addition, he also covers the gamut of smart home technology and home automation. Contact him at [email protected]

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