Smartphone cameras have replaced the point-and-shoot cameras. There is just no two-way about it. Now, they are already embarking on the idea of replacing entry-level DSLR cameras. Apple, Google, Huawei and Samsung are betting big on image sensors and artificial intelligence to get there. While each company is taking a different approach to this, Huawei has set the ball rolling in a big way. The real advantage of a DSLR is the choice of different sensor size and array of lenses. With the Huawei P40 series, the Chinese company seems to be addressing that very point. The series, which has three different models, offer between three and five cameras on the back. Also Read - Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra ranks sixth on DxOMark; falls short of Huawei P40 Pro and Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro
However, in the world of photography, the more the merrier does not always work. A street photographer might not need a number of lenses to work with. All they would need is one lens calibrated with absolute precision. Vineet Vohra, an ace street photographer and Leica brand ambassador, once said that for him, everything now looks like 28mm focal length. This is because he has mastered that focal length on his Leica camera. Since Huawei works with Leica to engineer the camera on its flagship smartphones, the company is taking a similar approach. While one size fits all is not true, it wants to turn photography into an experience where you pick your own poison. Also Read - Huawei P40 Pro Plus comes with Samsung OLED panel; P40 Pro uses multiple suppliers
Huawei P40 Series Blended Camera Experience
With the P40 Series, Huawei is claiming to offer “Visionary Photography” experience. Peter Gauden, Global Senior Product Marketing Manager, Huawei Consumer Business Group, told me that Huawei P40 Pro and P40 Pro+ are designed to offer blended camera experience. He says the camera system has been designed with the idea of pleasing every kind of smartphone camera enthusiast. To understand what Peter means to say by blended experience, we will need to look at the mobile photography landscape. One end of the spectrum is Google, which is using fewer lenses and squeezing more computational algorithms into them.
In simple terms, Google is putting complete onus on computational photography to get the best result. Apple, on the other hand, is choosing relevant numbers of sensors and using AI to produce best results. With the iPhone 11 series, the company has proven how it can champion the art of night photography with its superior processing and neural engine. Samsung is taking the most diverse approach among all major smartphone makers right now. The Korean smartphone maker is taking an approach that can be described as “small-pixel, high-resolution sensor”. It is doing so with the help of its own image sensor division called ISOCELL.
Huawei P40 Series vs Samsung ISOCELL
On the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung deployed an 108-megapixel ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor, with proprietary Nonacell technology. This increases light absorption of pixels by using a 3×3 pixel structure and fusion nine 0.8 micron pixels into one 2.4 micron pixel. It even envisions launching a 600-megapixel sensor soon with the help of this small-pixel, high-resolution sensor trend. Huawei’s approach involves brevity of these other players matched with excellence of science and physics. It is applying basic physics by introducing larger sensors with every new model. It is showing brevity by designing a new type of sensor altogether for use on mobile devices.
On the Huawei P40 Series, the Chinese technology giant is introducing a new 50-megapixel sensor co-developed with Leica. This is a 1/1.28-inch sensor, which is the biggest sensor yet on any smartphone. In comparison, the ISOCELL Bright HM1 from Samsung is a 1/1.33-inch sensor while most flagships use a 1/2.55-inch sensor. A big sensor will naturally absorb more light and produce better details. Huawei, with the help of German camera pioneer Leica, has been pushing for better sensors for sometime now. Last year, it found a breakthrough in the form of RYYB color filter array. A traditional sensor has an RGB pixel array.
By replacing green sub-pixel with a yellow sub-pixel, Huawei proved that it can maintain the same color accuracy and yet absorb more light. With Huawei P40 series, it is flexing its muscles further by making that sensor even bigger. However, there is a trade-off and Peter Gauden told me that the company is mindful of them. During a Zoom call, he told me that Huawei’s approach to camera systems has been like that of “baking a cake”. While everyone has the same ingredients, he says Huawei is setting a new benchmark with its approach. While the new 50-megapixel sensor has 25 percent more pixels than the sensor on Huawei P30 Pro.
Big Sensor vs Small Pixel
You might be wondering how this sensor is different from the one used by Samsung on Galaxy S20 Ultra. While he can’t speak for Samsung’s implementation, Gauden says Huawei has factored issues like fringing during the development of the sensor itself. One of the key changes being that Huawei P40 Series’ primary sensor has a wider focal length and narrower aperture. When I asked about its effect on night photography, Gauden said the result will be true to Huawei’s characteristic colors. He says the bigger sensor and use of RYYB color filter array eliminates the need for a wider aperture. This could technically also help with metering and thus less distortion at the edges.
I want to make one thing clear here. I haven’t had a chance to try Huawei P40 Pro or P40 Pro+ for myself. It is thus impossible for me to gauge the results myself but I’m looking forward to the day when lockdown is over and I can start clicking pictures once again. For now, Peter Gauden has a lot of interesting tidbits for a photography enthusiast like me. He says the primary focus with the P40 Series was to deliver the best photography experience. However, the company got the ball rolling literally in the zoom department. It has been on the forefront of telephoto imaging for quite some time. The 5x optical zoom on the Huawei P30 Pro is still one of the best in the industry.
Catching with DSLR Cameras
The zoom on that phone and the Pixel 4 XL were so good that Samsung had little choice but to go for 100x zoom with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Gauden says 10x optical zoom on the Huawei P40 Pro+ is not peer pressure from the industry. He says it is a natural progression from the 5x optical zoom seen on last year’s P-series. The P40 Pro does 5x optical zoom like its predecessor but has an improved 12-megapixel shooter. Huawei P40 Pro+ includes two telephoto shooters. It has a standard 8-megapixel telephoto lens for 3x optical zoom and equivalent focal length of 80mm. Then there is another 8-megapixel periscope lens that offers 10x optical zoom and equivalent focal length of 240mm.
I asked Gauden why the company chose such an implementation. He says the company chose regular 8-megapixel telephoto because a lot of photographers use short length zoom to get closer to their subjects. He added that the periscope lens is mainly for those who want to have a mobile camera with zoom akin to some entry-level DSLR kit lenses. Peter Gauden also noted on the call that it is difficult to make a periscope lens that can do 10x optical zoom on its own. Huawei, which was the second largest smartphone brand globally last year, is using Huawei P40 Pro and P40 Pro+ as a proof for its ability to innovate on the mobile photography front.
Huawei P40 Series ultrawide experiment
While the main camera and the duo of telephoto lenses are the main attraction, Huawei did something different with the 40-megapixel ultra wide-angle lens. The main Ultra Vision camera has an equivalent focal length of 23mm, which is wider than most other camera phones. The ultra wide-angle camera, on the other hand, has an equivalent focal length of 18mm. This makes it not as wide as the iPhone 11 Pro or Galaxy S20 Series. Some critics have even termed this sensor to be soft at its edges. “Although the large size of a wide-angle lens is important to capture more scenes into the phone screen, however, it is not the only thing important for creating a premium photography device,” Gauden said in an email response.
Huawei says the camera sensor alone is not the way to look at this implementation. The company says the best result will be delivered via synergy between multiple lenses, sensors, processor, software and other technologies. One of the reasons behind using this Cine Lens is to enable low-light photography and good video capture. “With ISO51200 Ultra Low-light Video capabilities, the large sensor increases light intake for crisp clear low-light video,” Gauden said. “The Ultra-Wide Cine Camera supports SedecimPixel Fusion Technology, producing 4.48 μm sized binned pixels for video capture, greatly improving the light gathering capability, resulting in improved quality on low-light videos,” he added.
Huawei P40 Series Face Unlock
This ultra wide-angle camera is the same as the one used on Huawei Mate 30 Pro. Again, I will have to try this for myself to know how it performs in the real world. For now, we know that Huawei is trying to exhibit it’s leadership in camera technology, thanks to Leica partnership, with the new models. Gauden also told me that the company is confident about the new front camera setup. It includes a 32-megapixel selfie camera with an IR depth camera for face unlock. It is not as sophisticated as the face unlock on Apple iPhone X and newer models. Gauden says while some brands use Face ID with 3D structured light for face unlock, Huawei is using a secondary IR camera in addition to the main camera for the same application.
“Although 3D structure light is widely considered the safest way to do face unlock, both have their own unique advantages,” Gauden said.
Both the systems use an infrared enabled depth map with over 30,000 dots to unlock. Gauden explained that a higher number of dots means more detail and more secure application. While there are no research out yet certifying or testing the accuracy of this face unlock on Huawei P40 Pro and P40 Pro+, the company says it will work fine. “With deep-learning algorithm-assisted facial recognition, Huawei’s competitive feature, is equally effective and more accessible to the masses,” Gauden added.
Huawei P40 Series India Launch
The new flagship P-series smartphone comes loaded with features but the camera is the showstopper. However, there are other elements vying for attention at the same time. For instance, it has a new 90Hz display with higher resolution compared to P30 Pro but it is not industry benchmark. OnePlus, Oppo and Samsung have jumped to 120Hz panels while some gaming phones even have 144Hz refresh rate. Gauden says over indulgence is never a good thing. He explains that 90Hz offers the right balance between screen and battery life. He notes that despite higher resolution and faster refresh rate, the 4,200mAh battery on the P40 Pro will offer similar endurance as that of its predecessor.
At this moment, Huawei is not talking about the launch of P40 Series in India. With the lack of Google Mobile Services, it will be a tough sell in a market dominated by YouTube and cheap data plans. However, it does seem like the Huawei P40 Series will come to India nonetheless. For now, we will have to wait until the lockdown gets lifted to know for sure. It will be one of the most expensive smartphones yet from the company. The question will really be about whether that camera justifies the cost. Secondly, we will need to see if year-on-year improvements warrant this upgrade.