- Great 3x optical zoom
- Excellent low light Night mode
- Clever, if aggressive, AI scene modes
The highlighting feature of the Huawei P20 Pro is a triple camera setup. It’s the first of it’s kind that we’ve seen on a phone and includes Huawei’s standard set of a monochrome and a color sensor, as well as a telephoto lens fixed at 3X optical zoom.
The first sensor on top is the 8MP telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture while the one below it is the primary 40MP RGB sensor with an f/1.8 aperture. Finally, the last sensor is a 20MP monochrome sensor with f/1.6 aperture. All of these sensors are helped with multiple auto-focus technologies that Huawei has built on the P20.
As standard the Huawei P20 Pro shoots 10MP photos but you can shoot 40MP ones if you like, and even 76.2MB DNG RAW files when using the Pro mode.
Huawei’s JPEG handling is so good that when you zoom to 100% in a 10MP photo it actually appears far sharper than a corresponding 40MP one. However, look deeper, to the point where the 10MP photo devolves to blocky pixels and you’ll see far more detail in the 40MP files.
At pixel level these images aren’t ultra-sharp, but there’s real additional image data here.
However, you’re actually better off going with the way Huawei intends you to use the P20 Pro's camera, shooting 10MP shots and using the zoom. Despite having lower resolution, the 3x zoom camera can take some great pics and renders more detail than a crop of the RAW or 40MP JPEG files can provide.
You can also shoot at 5x zoom, which Huawei calls Hybrid Zoom. This uses far more intense processing than the 3x zoom and doesn’t uncover more true detail. But it does make far-away text clearer and uses smart upscaling to make the photos look right rather than blurred like a simple digital zoom.
Watch what happened when we took the Huawei P20 Pro at the top of the world's tallest tower- the Burj Khalifa.
Huawei loves smart camera processing, and this has also resulted in something called AIS. This is Huawei’s software version of optical image stabilization (OIS), using smarts to get rid of the need for mechanical stabilization.
What this means is the camera never seems to slow its exposure beyond 1/16 of a second, using processing and the black and white secondary sensor to improve image quality. Judging by our hand-wobbling tests, though, the 3x zoom camera does have OIS, because a zoom lens effectively amplifies any shakiness in your hand.
The Huawei P20 Pro uses relatively high ISO sensitivity at night, but the resulting images are still comparable with the best, including the iPhone X. Huawei’s processing and AIS really seems to work, although the Galaxy S series greater (although decreasing) reliance on OIS can still result in less shaky photos in low light.
This all changes when you use the Huawei P20 Pro’s Night mode, though. It’s nestled fairly deep in the camera app but is one of the phone’s most impressive features.
It merges a barrage of images over 3-6 seconds. Previous Huawei phones had a similar mode, but this one is designed to be used handheld, which is an amazing feat of AI image processing. And it works.
Using night mode, you can get ultra-dark shots with dynamic range and detail far in excess of any LG, Sony, Apple or HTC phone. It can handle the kind of scenes that make other phones curl up and cry.
The Huawei P20 Pro's camera is an interesting jigsaw puzzle of technology. But are its actual, normal images any good?
For the most part they are great. Its 10MP images are sharp and detailed, low on noise. The phone handles exposure and dynamic range optimization very well, although at times it can be a little too obsessed with retaining every square inch of highlight, making some parts of a photo look a little dull.
Thanks to the large main sensor and relatively wide f/1.8 Leica lens, natural bokeh (background blur) is lovely and very pronounced. While there’s a great virtual wide aperture mode, you don’t need to use it to isolate near subjects.
The one part we don’t always like is the workings of the AI scene selection. The Huawei P20 Pro constantly analyses the camera feed, to see what you’re taking a photo of. It’ll recognize food images and nature shots with great speed and accuracy.
However, what it does to these pics isn’t always welcome. It turbo charges color too often, resulting in near-toxic levels of color saturation in some shots. When this is the photographic equivalent of face smoothing it’d be nice to have some control over its level.
You can switch it off entirely, though, which might be an idea if you end up with fields that look as though they’ve been laced with neon.
The Huawei P20 Pro can shoot video up to 4K resolution, but for handheld footage you may want to stick to 1080p. At 4K res there’s no image stabilisation, which makes footage look juddery and amateurish.
At 1080p, though, the software stabilisation is extremely effective. You can run along the road with the Huawei P20 Pro in your hands and the footage will still look pretty smooth.
You lose the stabilisation when the frame rate is upped to 60fps at 1080p, so you do need to think about whether you need stability or another strand of image quality.
There’s slo-mo shooting too, up to 960fps (32x speed). However, at 960fps and 240fps you can only shoot at 720p, the same cap as the Galaxy S9’s 960fps mode. These videos don’t look super-detailed so won’t come across well on a large screen.
The Huawei P20 Pro’s front camera has specs worth bragging about too. It uses a very high-resolution 24MP sensor. This resolution isn’t all that obvious in the shots it takes, though.
However, like the rear camera it holds up well in low light, making us wonder if there’s some automatic pixel-binning going on. This is where sensor pixels are combined to increase low light performance at the expense of detail.