P30 Pro in Paris: A closer look at Huawei's new SuperSpectrum cameras

This week in Paris, Huawei announced the P30 family of flagship smartphones. As usual, the focus is on the camera.

Last year with the P20 Pro, the company introduced a triple-lens configuration with a 40-megapixel main sensor, and it was incredible. My biggest question at the time was how it could possibly be improved upon. As it turns out, it can get even better.

And it’s worth pointing out that Huawei’s camera game is really the best at this point. When writing a review of a new smartphone, I no longer find myself comparing it to the latest from Apple or Samsung. No, it’s Huawei that’s setting the bar.

Camera specs

P30 P30 Pro
Main sensor 40MP, f/1.8 40MP, f/1.6, OIS
Wide angle 16MP, f/2.2 20MP, f/2.2
Zoom lens 8MP, f/2.4, OIS, 3x 8MP, f/2.4, OIS, 5x
Autofocus Laser AF, PDAF, CDAF PDAF, CDAF
TOF No Yes
Front camera 32MP, f/2.0 32MP, f/2.0
Video 4K - 30fps, 1080p - 60fps, Front - 1080p - 30fps 4K - 30fps, 1080p - 60fps, Front - 1080p - 30fps

My first smartphone from the P-series was the P10, and it put Huawei on the map for me. Last year, I reviewed the P20 and the P20 Pro, accepting the former mainly because I loved the regular P10 so much. After all, the P20 didn’t have the 40MP sensor or a triple-lens setup, but it was still a great follow-up to its predecessor.

So here we are with the P30 and P30 Pro, and I’m once again reviewing both. But it’s not just because I appreciate the smaller form factor - and I do -, but it’s because both have been vastly improved in different ways.

Both the P30 and the P30 Pro have a new 40-megapixel SuperSpectrum sensor. The idea is that rather than RGB (red-green-blue), which is what’s been used pretty much forever, it uses RYYB, swapping out the green pixels for yellow. According to Huawei, this allows in 40% more light.

Frankly, the results are incredible. Years ago, all I’d have wanted from a smartphone camera is the ability for the camera to simply see what I see. But with the P30 and the P30 Pro, the camera actually sees more than you do. It’s wild, and a little shocking.

I was briefed on this. I was shown samples. But it’s one thing to see something in a demo and another thing to see it in practice. Taking the same picture with the iPhone Xs Max, Mate 20 Pro, and the P30 Pro, I tested it out with the lights off in my hotel room. Sure enough, I got hot garbage from the iPhone as expected. The Mate 20 Pro delivered a grainy, dimly lit image. But the P30 Pro delivered an image that was clear as day. It looks like I went and turned the light on, but I did not.

iPhone Xs Max Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Huawei P30 Huawei P30 Pro

I also didn’t use night mode on any of them. In fact, it seems like night mode actually makes some shots worse. It’s unexpected, because night mode was always one of the hidden gems of the Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro.

Huawei says the ISO sensitivity of the P30 Pro is 409,600, and 204,800 for the P30. It was 102,400 on the Mate 20 Pro. For general low light use, I found the P30 to be almost as good, at least when it comes to the SuperSpectrum sensor.

P30 Pro front camera P30 Pro main camera P30 Pro main camera with portrait

Sadly, while there are four camera sensors on these phones (plus the time-of-flight sensor on the Pro), only one of them has these improvements. If you take a picture in low-light settings and then take the same shot in wide-angle mode, there’s a drastic difference in quality.

This is not surprising at all, given that there’s a smaller aperture on the wide-angle lens. What bugs me about it is that I don’t think that most end users will know that, nor should they have to. Most users are just going to see that they get great results in one setting and not in another.

Naturally, you’ll have to use night mode to compensate. Again, I really feel like the end user shouldn’t have to know that you don’t need night mode with 1x zoom but that you do with the wide-angle lens.

There are also some color inaccuracies with the SuperSpectrum lens, where things can have a greenish tint in low light. Obviously, it took a lot of work for Huawei to do RYYB, and it’s working in conjunction with two RGB sensors. This is something that easily can, and I’m sure will, be fixed in a software update.

But going back into how the different sensors work differently, you don’t get those color inaccuracies when using the other lenses. In fact, you’ll find that by playing around with the zoom, the color profile of the image changes seemingly at random.

Again, these are things that can and will be fixed via software. This is a new product, and it’s just remarkable.

Two things that I spent a lot of time testing out (a lot of time is relative to the short amount of time I’ve had the devices) are portrait and aperture modes. Portrait mode is what it sounds like, creating background blur, or bokeh, behind a person or group of people that you’re taking a picture of.

Aperture mode creates the same effect, but for objects. A smaller aperture creates a larger depth of field. Aperture mode is not new to Huawei smartphones; it’s been around for a while, and it’s one of those awesome features that seems to be overlooked.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that I took a lot of images of the Eiffel Tower, all with different settings, or in different lighting. One of my favorite things to do is take pictures of the Tower as a background, so I’d use aperture mode to keep something like a tree in focus and then have the bokeh effect on the Eiffel Tower.

Another thing that aperture mode is good for is taking pictures of the back or sides of people. Another thing I like to take pictures of is people when they don’t know their picture is being taken, capturing the actual moment. Probably wrongfully so, portrait mode only captures faces, so unless you’re right in front of someone, you’ll need aperture mode.

The Huawei P30 Pro includes a fourth camera sensor on the back – hence the name Quad Leica Camera – which is a time-of-flight (TOF) sensor. It works by sending out light and recording how long it takes for that light to return, recording depth.

That’s one of the reasons that I took so many portrait photos, especially in low light. I wanted to see just how much that TOF sensor makes a difference for images that use a depth effect. The answer is that yes, it actually makes a big difference. Depth effect photos in low light almost always looked better on the P30 Pro than the P30.

There are a few things you'll want to notice. For one thing, there are various settings for portrait mode, like that one that came out terrible that looks like window blinds. The most common one will probably be circles, which makes the lights behind you look like circles. You can also make them look like hearts.

Now let’s talk about zoom. Both units have a 40MP main sensor, but that’s where the similarities end. The P30 has a 16MP wide-angle lens and an 8MP 3x zoom lens, while the P30 Pro has a 20MP wide-angle sensor and a 5x zoom lens.

The idea of lossless zoom is something that I really care about, ever since the old days of the Nokia Lumia 1020 and its 41MP camera. The cool thing about lossless zoom is that you don’t have to be close to your subject to get a great shot. Regular digital zoom only works by degrading an image, as a sensor can only see so much with so many pixels. A higher resolution meant that you pretty much had more pixels to lose, and so you wouldn't lose as much quality with digital zoom.

But now we’re seeing additional sensors get added with smaller fields of view. Huawei has a new periscope lens in the P30 Pro, with various lenses zooming in. On the P30 Pro, the combined sensors add up to a promised 10x hybrid zoom, while on the P30, you can get 5x hybrid zoom.

First of all, this is a massive step up for the non-pro P30, whose predecessordidn’t have a 40MP sensor before, or even a zoom lens. Now, we’re looking at a level of zoom that we had in the P20 Pro, and the low-light performance is probably even better.

The P30 will let you zoom up to 30x, and the P30 Pro will let you zoom up to 50x. But you’re not going to use that. It was actually talked about a lot following the event, mainly because Huawei told us it would be possible and because zoom is the focus of these cameras. But no one is going to be using 50x zoom. Just think about how often you crank up the zoom on your current smartphone camera to the max.

As has always been the case, Huawei’s Camera app lets you toggle between zoom settings. On the P30, you get wide, 1x, 3x, and 5x. On the P30 Pro, you get wide, 1x, 5x, and 10x. I remember when the P20 Pro launched, and it had settings for 1x and 3x. I was discussing with some colleagues that a lot of the time, 3x is just too much of a zoom, and how nice it would be to get a 2x toggle in there.

The point of that story is that 5x is just insane. You’ll find yourself pinching to zoom more often than not, once you realize that tapping the zoom button gives you more than you actually wanted. At this point, I’d appreciate 1x, 3x, 5x, and 10x buttons on the P30 Pro. Personally, I’d ditch the wide-angle lens option, making the user pinch to zoom out for that. I assume that Huawei has telemetry on how many people use the wide-angle lens and how many still want to zoom to 3x.

One other thing I want to mention is video. There’s still no support for 4K 60fps capture, which is strange for a company that’s so focused on smartphone photography. Huawei says it’s done a lot of work on stabilization though, and it does seem a bit better. I compiled some samples.

Both of these two smartphones are not just incredible cameras, but they’re incredible devices. They come in beautiful designs, and they have powerful hardware. I’ll be spending more time with them before writing full reviews.

Special thanks to Jaime Rivera, Myriam Joire, Michael Fisher, David Cogen, Danny Winget, Nirave Gondhia, Daniel Bader, our friends at Racepoint Global and Huawei, and everyone else who appeared in these photos.

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