Huawei P20 review
Daylight image quality
Huawei's Master AI is enabled by default from Settings and the maker wants you to use it. As we established in our Huawei P20 Pro review, the "smart scene recognition" is quite good but the "smart camera adjustment" - not so much. While the camera recognizes the scene properly and turns on the right mode accordingly, its presets for each scene go overboard with the colors and contrast.
Take the Blue Sky mode and the Greenery mode, for example. The Master AI overdoes it with the blues and greens to some extreme levels, and in the meantime, it applies some unnecessary vignetting. At first, we thought we might have the Vivid Leica mode on accidentally, but no, it's the Master AI that goes all-in for those eye-popping looks.
On a positive note, the super vivid approach works brilliantly with food, and you won't need any extra filters to make the best out of your plates next time when you are at a fancy eatery.
We will return to explore more of the Master AI for the low-light shots. For general photography, we prefer to switch it off completely.
The regular 12MP snaps (no Master AI) turned out very good. The dynamic range is impressive, but we already expected that as Huawei has been doing the multi-camera stacking for a few years now. The resolved detail is plenty for the most part, even if not that impressive on foliage.
The colors are accurate, the white balance is spot on, the noise levels are low, and the contrast is excellent. The samples suffer from over-sharpening here and there, but nothing too extreme.
Leave it to the Master AI, and you'll get less boring and more colorful shots at the expense of some detail, blown highlights, excessive oversharpening, and darkened corners.
The Huawei P20 can do the 2x lossless zoom we have already seen on the P10 and Mate 10. It's possible thanks to those multiple captured frames giving more data to work with than what you'd get from a single 12MP shot (or 20MP). We tried some shots, and those indeed turned out pretty good with enough detail, same colors and dynamic range as the normal samples, but a little bit noisier. We wouldn't go as far as calling this optical zoom, but it's much better than any digital zoom we've seen elsewhere.
Even though it packs a 12MP color sensor, the Huawei P20 can do 20MP hybrid color images. These don't match the 20MP monochrome ones for detail. It's always best to use the 12MP color images.
The monochrome images have even more impressive dynamic range, but as usual, taking black&white photos is more of an artistic endeavor rather than a mainstream thing. The monochrome 20MP images came out with a great amount of resolved detail - we noticed much better-defined foliage and other high-intricacy detail when compared to the color images. Noise is pretty much non-existent, while the contrast is simply amazing.
It's a bit annoying to switch from 12MP to 20MP from settings each time you go from color to monochrome camera and vice versa, so we'd advise for leaving everything to 12MP. The monochrome shots at 12MP are simply one of the most detailed images you can get from a smartphone camera, and they have a smaller memory footprint than the 20MP ones. Plus the lower resolution comes with the added benefit of lower noise levels.
And now for the million-dollar question - is the P20 camera as good as the P20 Pro's? Short answer - Yes! Shooting with both phones on default settings (12MP with Master AI for P20, 10MP with Master AI on P20 Pro) revealed pretty much identical results, sans the image resolution that is. The resolved detail seems about the same, the Master AI is equally overboard, and the contrast and dynamic range are on par.
So, at the end of the day - if you opt for the P20 instead of P20 Pro, you won't miss anything in quality. You'll just be limited to 2x lossless zoom instead of 3x optical but that's about it.
Low-light image quality
The camera's Night is your go-to place when the light gets low. If you still haven't turned off the Master AI, it would even switch the camera to this mode automatically after dark. This special low-light mode is near-magical and can present you with some stunning results in spite of the few limitations it comes with.
The Night Mode creates pseudo long exposures by stacking multiple frames gathering light along the way. We're talking three-, sometimes five-second, hand-held exposures which would otherwise result in a blurry mess. This is what Huawei claimed as tripod-free long-exposure shots and while somewhat correct, the Night Mode can't be used for blurring car lights or similar. There is another mode for that, but a tripod is a must there.
Anyway, not all of the samples you take with the Night mode will be keepers and you still need to have a reasonably steady hand, but you'll be getting usable photos in situations you'd otherwise get none. The phone also does a remarkable job of retaining color where other phones would capture lifeless underexposed photos with subdued colors.
The only caveat of Night mode is that if your subjects move, they will get blurred. That's to say, the algorithm will successfully cancel out camera shake, but there's little it can do against motion blur. This is how long-exposure pretty much works, so this is not a criticism, we're just making this clear.
You can also increase the time for capturing the shot manually if the 2-3 default seconds fail to produce a well-exposed shot. However, with longer shooting times, you have a higher probability of getting the photo blurry due to more excessive camera shake.
If you don't use the Night Mode, you would still get an impressive photo. There is plenty of resolved detail, impressively low noise levels, preserved colors, and overall sharp images with lots of detail in the shadows.
We also snapped a few monochrome samples at night. Those turned out impressive for sure, but the autofocus with the monochrome camera is terrible for some reason - it misses more often than not.
When using the manual mode you can select a shutter speed up to 32s with ISO up to 6400. The viewfinder image will change as the exposure develops, so if you figure you've gathered enough light you can stop at any time.
And with this freedom, you just need a small tripod to get wonderful images. If you lock the ISO to 50 and use the longer shutter speeds, you can get some stunning long exposure shots come nighttime.
Then there's the Light painting mode, which includes four sub-modes: Car light trails, Light graffiti, Silky Water and Star track. You'd need to have the phone perched on stable support for shooting in these modes (a tripod or a beanbag) as these extremely long exposures can't be done handheld without camera shake. These are nothing new so we won't go in too much detail here.
Picture Compare Tool
Finally, you can head over to our Photo compare tool to see how the Huawei P20 handles the controlled environment of our studio. We've pre-selected the Huawei P20 Pro and P10, but you can replace those with any other two phones you feel like.
Portraits and Variable Aperture
The Huawei P20, just like other multi-camera Huawei phones, has a couple of faux bokeh modes - Portrait and Aperture. The Portrait mode is the one meant for people, complete with bokeh toggle, beautification and simulated lighting.
The Aperture Mode, on the other hand, lets you do post-shot re-focusing and simulates apertures in the f/0.95-f/16 range. We've been clamoring which mode is best for taking photos of people, and we haven't reached a consensus, so samples from both will follow. Note that you can shoot with both color and monochrome camera in wide or regular (telephoto) portrait views.
Subject separation is similarly non-perfect in both modes, but given the right subject and background you can have some usable and convincing portraits.
The Variable Aperture mode is recommended for non-human subject.
The P20 does well with the subject isolation with simpler forms, but it's not too proficient when things get more complex.
The Huawei P20 captures great panoramic shots with a vertical resolution around 3,200px. Stitching is flawless, and there are no issues with varying exposure. The dynamic range is quite impressive, as is the resolved detail.
Huawei P20 has one of the highest resolution selfie cameras on a smartphone - a 24MP snapper with a fixed-focus lens. We'd gladly trade half those megapixels for autofocus, or at least a focus plane further from the phone, because as it, you need to shoot your face from pretty close to be in sharp focus.
Once you get the distance right, the level of detail is quite amazing. Colors are faithfully represented, and dynamic range is good for a selfie camera.
There's also a portrait mode. In fact, it's the mode the selfie camera defaults to when you switch from the main cam - a bit weird. You can turn the blur on and off, there's also beautification (a 0-10 setting).
Various Simulated Lighting effects are available for the portraits because that is a thing now.