Once again, Huawei delivers the very best smartphone camera on the market for photography
It's been a year since Huawei amazed us with the P20 Pro, and now they're back with this year's hot new follow-up, the P30 Pro.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the P30 Pro's camera from the get-go is the new periscope camera, which surpasses the typical telephoto style camera in several ways. While it's still an 8MP sensor, the lens itself has changed drastically. The sensor is now recessed inside the body quite a bit because a new f/3.4 5x optical zoom lens is now in front of it.
As you might expect, this new periscope lens makes a drastic difference in zoom performance, even coming from the incomparable Mate 20 Pro. While the Mate 20 Pro offered an impressive 3x optical and 5x hybrid zoom, the P30 Pro offers 5x optical and 10x hybrid zoom, with an insane 50x digital zoom max. That's quite literally 5x the zoom offered by any other phone on the market, and you'll be amazed at how many scenarios this changes for the better.
Direct comparisons show the absolutely massive gulf in performance in any type of lighting condition, particularly good light, where it genuinely looks like the P30 Pro's image was replaced with some sort of stock imagery, while the other phones struggle to deliver more than an obvious blurry digital zoom mess.
Some people may scoff at the difference here and wonder what sort of circumstances this could actually be useful in. It's been dubbed the creeper cam by a few out there, and while that's not a fair assessment of the purpose, it could always be used for nefarious things. Aside from that, the possibilities are truly endless.
Take a look at this historic hotel example above. Zooming into the ceiling tiles reveals an astounding level of hand-crafted detail in each and every face. Or how about the facade on the outside of the building that you could never quite get close enough to really appreciate with the naked eye. These types of details tend to get lost with many other phones, but it's easy with the P30 Pro.
The f/3.4 lens means that it doesn't have quite the dynamic range or low light performance that a lower f-stop rating could bring, and the ¼" sensor size doesn't help things too much either, but it still outclasses everything out there no matter what light it's presented with.
There are plenty of scenarios where a traditional side-by-side comparison simply isn't possible, and that's because it's really just too hard to snap an action photo or video with two phones at this zoom level. Recording birds flapping around in the birdbath, or flying around the bird feeder, is a crisp, clean experience with the P30 Pro. Heck, any kind of nature photography or videography taken with this phone simply doesn't even compare to others out there. It's a truly unique experience that only this sort of insane lens technology can deliver, and it impresses no matter the situation.
Since that telephoto lens doesn't get utilized until you reach 5x zoom, there's certainly a reason you might worry about the results between 1x and 5x zoom. Thankfully, the 40-megapixel main sensor is put to good work here and provides amazing digital zoom detail that meets or exceeds the quality of other phones with dedicated telephoto lenses. This is similar to what we saw on the HONOR View20 with its single 48-megapixel camera.
4K video can be recorded with any of the lenses, but it feels most impressive with the 10x hybrid zoom simply because of how far you can reach with the optics. There is an obvious issue from the get-go with this periscope camera though: you'll need to have a super steady hand, or just mount it on a tripod. Huawei has gone some pretty great lengths to improve the stabilization capabilities on the P30 Pro, which are monumentally better than any previous generation Huawei phone, but it's still going to be quite shaky if you're trying to hold it still with your hand.
The biggest issue we had was related to exposure, where the phone would sometimes "freak out" and flicker between several different exposures to maintain a bright image, resulting in video that's distracting. There are almost no options pertaining to video either, other than resolution and a few other things, but no exposure lock or decent manual controls of any kind, which is a huge disappointment given the incredible hardware behind this phone.
Huawei added a cool new dual video feature in a recent update, which splits the screen in half and records from two cameras at a time. While you're not likely to use this all that often, it presents a rather unique way of recording videos that's not found elsewhere and uses more than one camera at a time as well. One side will record from the ultra-wide camera at all times, while the other uses the main or telephoto cameras, depending on zoom level, with support for up to 15X zoom.
It's also got some great stabilization that's a significant improvement over what we've seen on past Huawei phones but seems to work best during motions like walking. Zooming far in and holding the phone by hand still results in a fair bit of hand jitter, which detracts from the overall quality of the imagery at hand.
Aside from the cool new dual-video mode, Huawei has improved video recording drastically over any previous generation phone from the company.
Last year we loved the photos that both the P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro produced, but video recording quality was severely lacking on those phones in some very basic ways. This time around Huawei has clearly been spending time to address those exact problems, and the results speak for themselves.
Like the photos, the color accuracy in videos is second to none, and oftentimes you'll notice it's not just the white balance that's more accurate, it's also the colors themselves, which are more muted and realistic than the ones from Samsung's phones, for example. In this particular sunset example, you'll find the ultra-wide angle camera is slightly less detailed than Samsung's ultra-wide angle camera, but the colors and exposure look better than the Galaxy S10, as much of the shadow detail is crushed on the S10's video.
Detail improves significantly when switching to the main camera on the P30 Pro, and eclipses Samsung's video quality in every regard when comparing the two main cameras at this time of day, a time which often delivers fuzzy video on phones as it's somewhere in-between that easy, crisp daylight processing and the significantly more difficult nighttime processing, resulting in higher ISO as the phone tries to still capture enough light to make the scene bright.
Moving into nighttime video, the P30 Pro absolutely crushes other phones like the Google Pixel 3, a phone that already takes generally good quality video in most lighting conditions.
The detail and noise difference between the two is simply astounding in many areas and shows how hard Huawei has worked on improving this piece of the puzzle, in particular. If you've seen our Mate 20 Pro camera review, for instance, you'll know how bad the nighttime video taking was just a few months ago on Huawei phones and how far they've come in such a short period of time.
As covered previously, the crazy 5/10/50x zooming abilities from the photo modes all work just as well in video and work to significantly enhance detail and overall quality when compared to every other phone on the market, even ones with telephoto lenses that can help in these areas.
That main sensor is the same 40MP 1/1.7" one from the Mate 20 Pro but has an upgraded f/1.6 lens, up from the f/1.8 on the Mate 20 Pro. That means even better low light performance just on physics alone, let alone the new software tricks Huawei has employed, and boy oh boy are these some unbelievable software tricks.
We've seen Huawei push the boundaries of what's possible with low light photography out of an auto mode shot before, but the P30 Pro even outclasses night modes on most phones with just its auto mode, and it's all in the way Huawei is pushing its sensors to do more than ever.
While we were astounded by the 100,000-plus ISO on the P20 Pro last year, Huawei has quadrupled the possible maximum ISO to 409,600, allowing for some truly unprecedented low-light photography, all without having to stand still and wait while the phone takes several dozen pictures or super long exposures.
Surprisingly, even with these higher ISO levels, the amount of noise in shots is lower than other phones all while still being brighter and more detailed. It's an astounding technical win that directly translates into better pictures for everyone.
Night mode has seen an improvement too, just like auto mode, and the same powerful combination of automatic smarts combined with optional manual controls make this the most versatile night mode in the industry. It's nothing short of bliss using this phone in the dark, much less even moderately low light, and you'll be impressed with the results every time.
The wide-angle camera is identical to what we saw on the Mate 20 Pro, including the same 20MP 1/2.7" sensor with f/2.2 106-degree angle lens and subsequently identical results. Ultra-wide angle cameras have thankfully started to become the norm on flagship phones, and that's a great thing for everyone.
It's not just about wide-angle though, it's also about super macro, as Huawei's autofocus module and specialized lens make it easy to get ultra close to subjects with this camera, significantly enlarging detail that you might otherwise miss.
Lastly, we'll take a look at portrait mode and the front-facing camera. Portrait mode is as good as ever on the rear camera and often meets or exceeds the quality of other flagships that excel in this area. Huawei's edge detection is superb and the ability for it to utilize portrait mode in lower light than other smartphones makes this a win.
The front-facing camera has seen another upgrade in megapixel count, but with a tiny sensor like this, it's only going to make a difference in good lighting. In general, it's not the best front-facing camera out there, and that goes for portrait mode on this camera as well.
The Galaxy S10 and Pixel 3 have it beat, sometimes by a fair margin.
It's not a bad experience by any means, just not class-leading as most of the rest of the camera experience is.
All in all, this is another winner for Huawei, particularly when it comes to video, where we're looking at the biggest improvement to overall quality for a single component of the camera experience in a long time. That periscope camera is a huge deal for anyone looking to get a little closer to the action, both in photos and video, and Huawei's nighttime photography and videography skills have never been better. Once again, if you want the absolute best smartphone camera on the market for photography, it's Huawei's latest flagship that you want to pick up.