Huawei P30 Pro camera experience: Stunning results that may be worth owning a banned phone

Last year, Huawei passed up Apple in global smartphones sales with recent quarter reports indicating it was fast approaching Samsung at the number one spot. With the current political climate and trade wars, Huawei's future is in flux. However, looking strictly at camera performance, no other phone can match the P30 Pro.

Huawei P30 Pro: Everything you need to know ZDNet's Matt Miller sits down with TechRepublic's Karen Roby to talk about the stunning camera experience the Huawei P30 Pro camera offers. Read more: https://zd.net/2I6LyT1

The Huawei P30 Pro, see our full review, is clearly one of the best smartphones available today and many consider it the best. Given the recent Huawei trade war woes, it's questionable if you should purchase a new Huawei phone or not.

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Before all of these Huawei issues, I purchased a Breathing Crystal P30 Pro from ebay and despite the uncertainty of Huawei's future I decided I am going to keep the phone and play the long game with it. The quad camera system is unmatched in the smartphone space, check out the DXO Mark review, and if I never see another Android system or security update the phone camera will continue to perform magic.

Huawei took over the number two spot in global smartphone marketshare from Apple last year and the most recent quarterly reports show it moved even further past Apple with its sights set on Samsung in first place. It's likely we won't see that happen this quarter with the recent trade war news, but we'll have to see how things play out. Taking the security concerns and politics out of the discussion, let's take a closer look at the quad camera system on the Huawei P30 Pro.

Also: The 10 best smartphones you can buy right now

huawei-p30-pro-main-colours.jpg

The 6.47-inch Huawei P30 Pro comes in a range of colours -- including black, for traditionalists.

Image: Huawei

Rear quad camera system

The Huawei P30 Pro is one of the first quad camera smartphone systems with the first use of periscope technology to obtain a higher level of optical zoom in a phone form factor. The three primary rear cameras are arranged in vertical alignment with the top one a 20 megapixel ultra-wide angle lens, the middle one a 40 megapixel wide angle standard lens, and the bottom one an 8 megapixel 5x telephoto lens. A time-of-flight (ToF) camera is found to the right of this line of cameras under the flash and sensor module. We used to see a dedicated monochrome lens on Huawei phones, but that has been replaced with an ultra-wide angle lens instead. You can still take monochrome shots, but there is no dedicated camera for that function.

Most telephoto lenses on smartphone offer 2x optical zoom, with Huawei's P30 and P20 Pro offering 3x zoom. The P30 Pro offers an amazing 5x optical zoom for a telephoto experience unlike any you have seen on a smartphone. Hybrid zoom up to 10x is available through an intelligent, automatic balancing of the lenses by Huawei. The periscope lens technology, revealed in a teardown video shows that the sensor lies sideways in the phone with the opening visible to your eye being square rather than a circle like we see with other camera lenses.

Digital zoom up to 50x is also available and while I never use digital zoom on phones, this capability allows you to see things through the P30 Pro that are not visible with the naked eye. It's actually rather stunning what you are able to see with the 50x zoom on the P30 Pro, even for reference and not for clear photos.

While Huawei continues to use the pixel binning technology it has used on previous super phones with the 40 megapixel lens, it has also switched from RGGB to RYYB (red-yellow-yellow-blue) in order to help you capture more light. Huawei calls this a SuperSpectrum sensor that contributes a 40% increase in light.

Also: Huawei's new P30 Pro has ground-breaking Leica Quad Camera system, superb low-light performance

The ultra-wide camera captures a field of view more than 120 degrees. The quad camera system is also capable of macro photography up to 2.5 cm close. In the past, I always found Samsung cameras to excel at macro photography, but Huawei is now leading the charge here.

Google's Pixel 3 and 3 XL set the bar for low light photography last year and held onto that crown...until now. Huawei's night mode captures details in very low light conditions that are beyond my capability to understand. Light is grabbed from every available source and then intelligent algorithms work to enhance the scene. In comparisons to the Pixel 3 XL, the P30 Pro captures a bit more light with less artifacts and distortion than what I've seen in Google's results.

Huawei provides a solid video experience on the P30 Pro as well with 960 fps super slow motion, dual view video, and video with filters like we see on LG phones. The dual view video mode, just enabled with a software update, let's you capture side-by-side video from close-up and distance perspectives to help you create some unique video clips.

Front 32 megapixel camera

As fantastic as Huawei's rear camera system is, the front-facing camera is a bit of a let down. The best front-facing shooter I have seen comes from the Google Pixel 3, but it seems like every other manufacturer has given up on producing anything innovative in way of the front camera. Huawei just seems to keep throwing megapixels at the front, while making no measurable improvement in quality or performance.

There are various subtle filters and options to smooth your skin, thin out your face, or change your skin tone. There are all superficial changes and I simply want a good quality experience that lets me take selfies to show my family myself and my surroundings when I travel. The Pixel 3 lets you take wide-angle selfies and portrait selfies that look great, but I don't find the front-facing camera particularly good on the P30 Pro.

CNET: Huawei P30 Pro review: The absolute best camera on any phone

Artificial intelligence

Huawei Kirin processors support a neural processing unit (NPU) with artificial intelligence baked into the hardware. By default, Master AI mode is enabled, but a simple tap on the AI icon toggles this mode off and on. With Master AI enabled, the phone attempts to identify your subject in different categories and then adjusts the lighting and settings to match that category. Categories include cat, dog, food, portrait, night shot, blue sky, flowers, beach, and more. For the most part, I leave Master AI enabled. In the past, outdoor scenes were made too phony for my tastes, but Huawei has greatly improved this area of the software and I've been very pleased with the results.

Artificial intelligence is also used to help train you a bit when you are in Pro (manual) mode by offering on-screen intelligent layout suggestions. For those trying to become better photographers, these tips are helpful in framing scenes.

One of these new Master AI subjects is the moon and the phone goes into Moon Mode when you aim at the moon and zoom in. I was blown away when I captured a full moon while sailing on a 130 foot ferry off the shores of Connecticut in the middle of the night. I pointed the P30 Pro at the moon and at first a bright ball was blown out with glare when zoomed to about 30x and higher. Master AI then kicked on and took the glare away while helping me focus in on the moon and I was able to see details my eye could not and capture the moon in a way I could barely capture with a DSLR.

See also: Full resolution sample images on Flickr

There was a bit of controversy around Moon Mode as some people believed Huawei was replacing the moon images with stored moon photos. Huawei issued the following statement in response. While I could not see the details of the moon that the P30 captured, the darker spots were exactly where I saw them so I believe the camera truly is capturing what is present, but just removing the glare and helping the camera focus on the appropriate details of the moon.

Moon Mode operates on the same principle as other master AI modes, in that it recognizes and optimizes details within an image to help individuals take better photos. It does not in any way replace the image – that would require an unrealistic amount of storage space since AI mode recognizes over 1,300 scenarios. Based on machine learning principles, the camera recognizes a scenario and helps to optimize focus and exposure to enhance the details such as shapes, colors, and highlights/lowlights. This feature can be turned on or off easily while taking a photo. While there is a Moon Mode, the shot can still be taken without AI mode because of the periscope lens.

CNET: The Huawei P30 Pro is banned, so here are four great alternative phones

Camera app

The Huawei camera app has always provided an exensive amount of options and capability. The P30 Pro camera app is improved with an easier swipe to switch between common modes so that those looking for a simpler iPhone-like experience can do so as well. You can swipe between aperture, night, portrait, photo, video, Pro, and more options. More brings you to another display with icons for super macro, monochrome, time-lapse, slow-mo, dual-view, light painting, panorama, HDR, filter, and many more modes. You can edit and move these modes around for your preferred access. You can also download other modes or remove some you never want to use. As you can see, there is a ton of functionality in the Huawei P30 Pro camera software.

Huawei users may recall that Huawei offered portrait mode capability long before Apple made it popular through the use of its aperture mode. This mode lets you control the width of the aperture and change the focal point of your picture. The great thing about using the aperture mode is that you can just shoot the image and then make adjustments later or even make multiple copies with different aperture settings all from the same single image you captured. It's a mode that doesn't get discussed much, but can be a lot of fun and help you create some creative images.

Portrait images can be captured by the front or rear camera with the rear camera even support 3x optical zoom in this mode. Resolution options are available in the settings, along with watermarks, location data, gridlines, audio control, touch to capture, predictive focus, and more.

While you can pinch to zoom in and out, there are four dots in the photo mode to jump between ultra-wide angle, 1x, 5x, and 10x zoom levels too. Similar to Bixby Vision, there is also a HiVision option in the camera to help you identify QR codes, translate text, shop, view calories of food, and identify paintings, architecture, and more.

Gallery app

The Huawei P30 Pro also has a gallery app that provides you with some powerful editing tools. I like when manufacturers include a gallery with these tools since they are more powerful than what Google Photos offers.

Photo editing tools include rotation, crop, filters, splash (turn on select colors in a monochrome image), blur, adjust, mosaic, graffiti, stickers, and labels. You can spend a lot of time editing and enhancing your images with these tools.

Video editing tools are restricted to just simply trimming your videos within the Gallery app.