Open letter to the Huawei engineers (A Huawei p30 pro camera review)

There are many reviews on internet talking about the great camera that the Huawei p30 pro has got, but these reviews are not telling the whole truth. I bought this phone for my wife after we decided that her old Iphone 6 was indeed old enough. We of course value a lot our photos for various reasons that I have also explained in my blog, hence nowadays is important for us to have a tool as convenient as a phone to take photos when a camera is not available or too awkward to use.

While I agree that the Huawei p30 pro has a great hardware, with hindsight I may have thought twice about it. The reasons, which I present in form of this open letter to Huawei hoping they would take notice, will be explained soon. But first I want to praise the pros:

The Good

The only reason while I would stick with this phone is the unique 5x lens. I think it’s a great choice over the more common 2x which is less useful for most of the cases. a 2x zoom makes sense, because its field of view is very close to the human eyes (I guess around a 50mm lens on a 35mm sensor), however 5x lens are far more useful to achieve depth compression that otherwise would be impossible to get right. Here an example from my last visit to the Death Valley:

Ultra wide
5X tele lens

Usually people link tele lens to zoom effects. However seeing things closer is not the only application and in my opinion not even the best. The best application is the depth compression. As you can see those mountains were quite far and become even further away with the standard wide lens of a phone. The 5x turns them in a predominant element of the photo, which can be achieved through the narrow field of view. Moreover thanks to the 40MP main lens, the 2X digital zoom can be used without any loss of detail (just it won’t be a 40MP image of course, but big enough for a good print).

About the rest I don’t need to add anything else that hasn’t been already said by other reviewers. Great resolution, low noise, good handling of low light, good dynamic range. It’s a marvel of the modern consumer technology to be fair.

The Bad

The are only two hardware downsides for this phone: the first is the 5X lens sensor size. 8MP is not enough, at least 12MP would have been desirable for bigger prints. The second is the lack of autofocus on the front camera, which is very annoying on several occasions.

Now let’s talk about the real gotcha related to the Huawai p30 pro camera: the camera software. We have used this phone on a 15 days trip to the USA, hence we had the chance to thoroughly test it and analyse all the problems. Luckily since these are software related, they could all potentially be fixed, however I really have no clue why they haven’t been addressed already, as for me they are really big usability issues. Maybe this phone is not used by many photographers able to give good feedback after all? Let me the problems I found in random order:

  1. The HDR mode should not be a separate shoot mode, but an option always available in all the modes. While the dynamic range of the camera is pretty good, the software HDR is not in par with the Samsung algorithm.
  2. The phone has got 3 lens with 3 different sensors. The 5x 8MP sensor, the main lens 40MP sensor and the ultra wide 20MP sensor. Every time the phone switches back to the main sensor, I expect the software to set the resolution back to 40MP, but instead it switches to 10MP. This is utterly annoying and frustrating when you realise that you have shot with your main lens at 10MP instead of 40MP. A workaround is to use the Pro mode (which is my standard choice), the pro mode will switch resolution automatically, but it won’t allow digital zoom (I am not sure what would be the reason behind this choice).
    Note: read my edit at the end of the post, it may explain why the software pushes the 10MP resolution. I need to do some research to understand where the truth is, as using a 40MP sensor only in 10MP would be controversial, but again choosing a camera for its megapixels is usually a bad choice anyway and according the technology the 10MP version of the image should be far superior than the output of standard sensors of the same resolution/size. To be tested…
  3. Digital zoom should be allowed at 40MP and shouldn’t force me to switch to 10MP. I understand why it happens, but it should happen automatically and switch back to 40MP once the zoom is disabled.
  4. The continuous focus is unreliable. This together with the wider aperture make very hard to take photos or videos of close moving small things. For example: we have a couple of conures we take pictures of (Taco and Bella: https://www.instagram.com/onetacoaday/) and taking pictures of them with the Huawei is a nightmare compared with my samsung s8 or the old Iphone 6)

I hope Huwaei team reads this post and may do something about it, it would make the experience much more enjoyable!

Edit: after I wrote this post I read about the sensor used in the phone main lens. I have never thought it would have been something different than a standard Bayer pattern filtered sensor although the sensor area is small, I assumed it was just the result of technological advancement. However the sensor uses instead a quad bayer filter which after some read up explains why the 10MP resolution option exists and why the software pushes its use. The sensor is in reality equivalent to a standard 10MP bayer one, while at 40mp the software must use custom (even AI based) demosaicing trickery to reconstruct the pixel colour. Plus with such a small pixel diffraction may become an issue. As a result photos may be better off at 10mp. I need to do some study, luckily I always shoot in raw mode, so I need to check if the software is able to reconstruct both images from the same source and compare the results.

P.S.: there are a lot of articles about the main sensor, but I couldn’t find much information about the other two sensors. I assumed they are standard CMOS backlit Bayer sensors, if you know anything about those, please let me know.

7 thoughts on “Open letter to the Huawei engineers (A Huawei p30 pro camera review)

  1. I’m not a pro photographer but thank you for this open letter to Huawei. You have summed up all my gripes with the phone’s camera system and I do hope that they read it and work on correcting some of them. Android/EMUI 10 update maybe? Fingers crossed. It is a good phone but for some reason I was expecting more on the photography side of things. My expectations were propably unrealistic though.

  2. I do have a problem with the camera, which is it cannot differentiate shades and colour when comes to my dental work, my Lgg4 4 year old phone does better job than this new sensor.

  3. Great post. Let me add some things here.

    First, let me express thanks to Huawei for giving us phone in 2019 with snappy UI, 5x optical zoom and a battery performance that leaves any Samsung of that time far, far behind, in a cloud of dust (or smoke, sometimes).

    Second, please don’t forget to post a link to this post to Huawei user forums – they claim they are passing the feedback back to their dev teams.

    Now, my main gripes with the camera:

    1. Single-handed camera operation (primarily not talking about the Pro mode here but the others). I believe using the camera single-handed at all times is a habit and a no-brainer for anyone snapping +10k’s photos a year. Not only you blend into your environment much better, but many times you can cover angles and frame situations that would be gone if you tried to rotate your whole body and use two hands, and it is also easier physically, which means extra photos taken once you are super tired at the end of that all-day trip. You also obscure half the screen by fingers, trying to use both hands, even if one is just holding the phone by its edges.

    You instead pull the phone from your pocket, double press the volume-down button while you are raising your hand, aim, frame & zoom by dragging your finger along one of the edges*, and then take the shot by pressing the on-screen camera button. This is 2, 3 or with a lot of zooming at most a 5 second operation, so you usually capture the moment you want, framed & zoomed the way you want it.

    *if you are right-handed and taking a landscape shot, this is the right edge of the camera window, so you must be careful to not interfere with the camera mode switch-bar, otherwise you switch the main mode instead and lose everything — this is one of the main gripes, but not the biggest.

    The biggest problem with the single-handed camera operation is however the accidental edge input — as you are gripping the phone, sometimes there is input from the edges. This results to:
    – not being able to zoom, because the camera UI is blocked by that other touch already
    – switching camera modes accidentally (+loosing the zoom if any, which also takes extra seconds to set up). I need to note – switching camera nodes on the P30 Pro is a disastrous and slow UI experience. So switching the mode by accidental touch feels like an insult, and losing the moment you tried to capture like an added injury.
    – tapping the camera screen accidentally, resulting in a wrong focus and/or exposure point, which is then really hard to cancel.

    2. I’ve already mentioned the terrible camera mode switching (and you the HDR mode), but let me add+repeat:
    Why on earth is the HDR mode not a part of the main camera UI, like every other phone has?
    Why on earth is the video a separate camera mode into which you need to painfully switch any time you need video to actually capture the scene?
    On Samsung, you are in the main camera mode, and you have a video-record button aways there and ready.
    This issue alone makes me take almost no videos with the phone, while I’ve “accidentally” made a short (and quite popular) youtube movie from a videos I’ve taken on my trip in Japan with the S10+. This is the difference that button makes.

    3. The fluency of the zooming (compared e.g. to Galaxy S10+) is quite horrid as well. This is with taking photos, but especially while taking videos. You just need two hands here, which sucks utterly, because it also distorts the motion smoothness while taking / panning the videos.

    So yeah, I hope they will improve on these, and rather dramatically. I also hope they will not remove the 5x optical zoom from the phone (Mate 30 “Pro”??), as that is one of its main selling points.

  4. I forgot to add, the auto-focus (in the auto mode) is also entirely unusable in the following conditions:

    1. trying to take a photo of a smaller objects (e.g. hold a flower) — the phone always focuses on the background.

    2. trying to take a photo from a window (e.g. on a plane) – the phone always focuses on the window, and not outside.

    That’s another thing that has to be fixed.

    1. I agree about the focus issues, the HDR mode and the zoom stuttering. To solve the focus issues I am often forced to switch to manual focus.

  5. I just used my new P30 Pro at a car show this weekend and shot almost 1,400 pictures and videos. I have had the phone for about 1.5 months now, and I have tried some other camera apps, but they don’t take advantage of the 3 lenses–most don’t even offer use of the wide angle.

    At any rate, I 100% agree with your point about HDR. It should be a toggle on the main screen. I don’t use Portrait or Aperture modes, and rarely use Night Mode. However, I shoot at least 50% in HDR. I also use Super Macro mode a lot (which actually uses the wide angle lens, so another bonus for that shooter). The work around I found, is you can edit the “MORE” menu to sort the icons (tap the pencil icon at the top). Also, instead of tapping on MORE, you can just flick the slider all the way in that direction and it will enter the menu in one swipe. After that, if you locate HDR mode close to your thumb you can click it easily. It would be better if you could customize the main slider to remove seldom-used modes like Portrait, and add whichever you choose.

    Since that work around exists, I would say my #1 gripe before the HDR one, is the lack of a 16:9 ratio. Huawei does this on all their phones, and it is ridiculous. All camera apps have this option. 4:3 is great if I want to show my photos on a CRT television from 1992. And “Full Screen” 2:1 only uses enough of the sensor to create a 6MP image. Really, where are you going to view this crazy wide format other than on a phone–and even there, the format is not standardized, so the experience will vary from phone-to-phone and probably be partially obscured by the FF cam placement. All PC monitors and TVs are basically standardized to 16:9. This fits on a phone screen with enough border for buttons and holding the phone. It needs to be an option!

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