There's one thing we need to get out of the way from the start - right now Huawei's Master AI is barely apprentice-level at its craft. It's adept at recognising the scenes, but the color settings it chooses to apply all too often are way too exaggerated - like Instagram filter all the way to 100 exaggerated.
The Blue sky mode, for example, amps up the contrast, cranks up the blues and introduces a fair bit of vignetting - lens makers try to engineer it out, Huawei AI adds it in software. 'Greenery' is the same, only with grass - of course, no one likes dull foliage, but there's probably a middle ground to be reached somewhere. Oh, and these two are often clashing with each other so a slight change in framing on a landscape scene could result in a dramatically different image.
Granted, this review unit is still running on an early software so we hope to see an improved approach once the first updates start coming out.
One exception where we'd pick the AI's interpretation of the scene is food. If you're the type to document or share your meals, or you're just impressed by the presentation this one time, do enable Master AI.
Another benefit to using it is that it would automatically switch to Portrait mode or Night mode based on the scene and these are not some color profiles but entirely different camera modes.
What we're trying to say is that while we wish the Master AI wasn't as heavy handed with the color effects it is, after all, a headline feature of the P20 Pro, so we kept in on for most of our samples. With that in mind, let's go ahead and look at some 40MP images shot in full auto with Master AI enabled. As you can tell, the ultra-sensitive Blue sky has kicked in on most of them, resulting in that characteristic over-the-top look. It's hard to talk about colors or dynamic range, or anything, on such overprocessed images.
What we could mention, is the heavy, and we mean heavy, purple fringing. A likely result from the large sensor and subsequent compromises in optics, plus the specific way in which the sensor operates, the chromatic aberrations are nearly ubiquitous, and are obviously not fixable in processing - we can't imagine Huawei has missed them.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to judge the 40MP images, as they weren't meant to be used that way. For a more technical perspective you can check out our article on the topic, but let's just say that the entire point of the 40MP camera is to get good-looking 10MP images, not full-res 40MP ones. And there's good news. Shoot in 10MP and there'll be no purple fringing, so you'll be left with just the dramatic colors.
When resolution is set to 10MP, you also get one of the P20 Pro's best features - zoom. The tele camera is only 8MP, but the 40MP one lends a hand, and the '3x' shots turn out great - sharp and detailed, bringing your subjects closer. And it's not like you can replicate the results by cropping the center portion of the 40MP image to match the '3x' FOV and upscale - no, it is a team effort by the two cameras. The phone even complains if you cover the monochrome cam.
Speaking of, there isn't much new about the monochrome camera. It's once again 20MP, with the updated f/1.6 aperture optics introduced with the Mate 10. We've said it before, but let's reiterate - a dedicated monochrome camera is and will always be a specialty tool. As these go, the one on the P20 Pro is great - it has excellent dynamic range and captures plenty of fine detail.
In low light, the near-magical Night mode will produce some pretty stunning results, even if it has its limitations. It 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.
We're not saying you'll be getting 100% 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 others would lose saturation.
Depending on the scene, you may not need to go into Night mode to get good low-light results. Here are the same scenes captured in the regular photo mode.
One caveat of Night mode is that if 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. But let's say we don't mind the occasional ghost if it means capturing photos like these.
With the 40MP camera supposedly doing HDR all the time, we didn't encounter a scene where the AI would trigger a similar sounding mode (Sony's is called 'Backlit'). You can enable HDR manually from the More position of the mode selector, and it does produce quite different photos. The midtones get a boost and images overall look livelier, though zoom in to 1:1 magnification and you'll see increased sharpening and loss of fine detail.
The P20 Pro captures good panoramas with a vertical resolution around 3,000px. Stitching is flawless, and there are no issues with varying exposure.
The P20 Pro, like other multi-camera Huawei phones has a couple of faux bokeh modes - Portrait and Aperture. Portrait is the one meant for people, complete with bokeh toggle, beautification and simulated lighting. Aperture, on the other hand, let's you do post-shot focus and simulate apertures in the f/0.95-f/16 range. We've been clamoring which one actually is best for pictures of people, and we haven't reached a consensus, so samples from both will follow.
Separation is similarly non-perfect in both modes, but given the right subject and background you can have some usable and convincing portraits. A lot of that is due to the fact that you can shoot zoomed in to the 3x position for an 80mm equivalent focal length - an actual portrait focal length in classic 35mm photography.
An added benefit is that you don't have to be up your subject's nose thus making them feel more comfortable in the process. Yes, you can also shoot in '1x' magnification, but we found the '3x' setting more liberating.
As for subject isolation of non-human subjects, the P20 Pro will do, but it's not too proficient.
The selfie camera of the Huawei P20 Pro has an excessive 24MP resolution and 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 is you need to be pretty close to be in sharp focus.
Once you get the distance right, there'll be plenty of fine pores for you to marvel at - the level of detail is quite amazing, but then you're also quite close to the camera. 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 beautification (a 0-10 setting) and 3D lighting with a handful of simulated lighting modes.
The P20 Pro surprisingly offers you a choice between the h.264 and h.265 codecs (the P10 only used h.265). Even more surprising is the small difference in bit rate for 4K videos - it's 24Mbps vs. 20Mbps so h.265 doesn't really give us the huge file size reduction benefit we're used to seeing elsewhere. So unless you have specific reasons to go for h.265, we'd recommend using the h.264 codec for its inherent compatibility with all platforms and devices.
The final surprise was that this sort of bit rate more akin to 1080p videos and not 4K. 1080p videos here are recorded in a bitrate as low as 5Mbps.
There are also framerate peculiarities. Our 1080p/30fps videos ended up at a little under 29fps most of the time, while 1080p/60fps ones were around 51 frames per second. Still, it's worth reminding that we're dealing with early software here - literally the first version the phone ships with so there is definitely room for improvement and we'll keep an eye on that.
Anyway, despite all odds 4K footage is nice and detailed, with pleasing colors and plenty of contrast. Dynamic range is a bit tight, and we do feel videos are a little underexposed, but more irritating is the occasional exposure pulsation. Not bad overall though, especially given the small file size of the videos.
1080p/30fps still manage to retain a decent level of detail. Shooting at 1080p/60fps doesn't come with any penalty on the resolved detail unlike what we've seen on other phones, so that's nice.
Stabilization is only available in 1080p/30fps and not in 4K or 1080p/60fps. It is super effective and you can see the difference in the viewfinder as you're shooting. What you can't see is that the stabilized 1080p footage is much softer and less detailed than regular 1080p - it's looking more like upscaled 720p. Non-stabilized footage, on the other hand, is extra jerky, so we're not sure which side we're leaning on. In any case, shooting video while walking is not a good idea with the P20 Pro.