Can the Huawei P20 Pro really replace a digital SLR?

Photo: Composite created in-house at Digital Arts
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Photographer Tigz Rice spent a few days on the Amalfi coast in Italy to discover if the leading phone for photography can match up to her usual travel companion of choice, the Fuji X100T camera.

When it comes to cameras, I have one on me at all times. My Canon 5D Mk4 is my go to camera for work, my Fuji X100T is my travel companion and, in all other scenarios, I have my trusty iPhone 8 in my pocket. If you’d asked me at any point in the last few years, I’d have told you that I had my camera situation down. That is, until last week, when Huawei invited me to Italy to get hands on with the new Huawei P20 Pro.

The aim of the trip, in Huawei’s words, was 'to demonstrate that thanks to the P20 Pro, you no longer need a DSLR to take professional grade photographs on land, sea or air.'

While in all honesty I was a little skeptical about such a bold claim, the fact that Leica had partnered with Huawei to create the 40MP AI triple camera had my attention, and so I was prepared to give it a fair and unbiased try. I packed my Fuji X100T with fixes 35mm equivalent lens as a comparison camera – my go to for this kind of trip – and headed off to the airport with an open mind.

Photo: Dominik Tomasewski

On arrival, I was given a P20 Pro to use for the week, along with a quick demonstration of its camera features. From panorama mode and aperture priority mode, to Night mode and 4k Video capabilities, the camera features of the Huawei P20 Pro are extensive. Whilst I had fun trying out all of the shoot modes over the course of the week, its worth mentioning that only the F1.8, 27mm equivalent, 40MP lens is capable of shooting RAW files – and only when utilising the Pro shooting mode. With this in mind, the rest of this article will focus only on this lens and shooting mode. (However, if you want to know a little more about the other lenses and features, Neil has covered them here)

Day one of our excursions took us to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, where we were joined by model Jasmin Brunner and Leica ambassador/photographer Alex Lambrechts. It was a beautiful sunny day with hard natural light, intermixed with areas of shade between the beautiful architecture – the constantly changing environment made it the perfect place to get stuck into Pro mode and really push the Huawei P20 Pro’s capabilities. The harsh sunlight made it quite hard to see the screen on the Huawei P20 Pro’s glossy screen at times, which was frustrating in comparison to looking through a viewfinder on any other DSLR or mirrorless camera.

However, with Pro mode offering both auto and manual options for shutter speed, ISO, aperture, exposure compensation and white balance at a very easy touch of a screen, I was able to set the P20 Pro to ISO priority (50) and set an exposure compensation of -2 (where I usually sit on a DSLR) and concentrate my efforts on focus and composition.

From SLR to phone

Having shot with my Canon and Fuji bodies for many years, they both feel like an extension of my arm these days, so setting up the camera and taking a series of shots is fast and seamless. Whilst I found setting up the first image on the P20 Pro took a little while – mainly due to the focusing taking a little more effort than you’re average back button focusing – once the phone had it’s focal point and metering set, it was able to track the subject in AF-S mode, making processing time between shots equally as seamless as a DSLR.

The time between shots was really decent too, especially considering the file size and RAW processing on something that fits in your back pocket. The other key thing worth mentioning is the refresh rate of the screen, which appears to have no lag at all. This has always been a key issue for my with mirrorless cameras, and the Huawei P20 Pro smashes that criteria.

Comparing similar shots between the Huawei P20 Pro (below right) and the Fuji X100T (belowleft), I was really impressed with the amount of detail in Jasmin's skin, which can often look quite flat in images taken on phone cameras.

All other photos: Tigz Rice

It's not quite to the same level of detail as the Fuji, but it's still impressive. The sharpness wasn’t quite to the same level either, but with the 40MP images coming in at 7,280 x 5,456 pixels, by the time you’ve resized down for your average blog or social media post it is hardly noticeable. Its probably worth mentioning at this point also that the DNG files the Huawei processes are around 80MB each, so theres masses of data to play with too.

The P20 Pro also struggled with the skin tones in Auto White Balance mode against the orange wall – making the skin appear a little green – but it didn’t take too much effort to fix this in Adobe Lightroom once downloaded into my computer via Huawei's HiSuite transfer software.

The P20 Pro does offer its own in camera editing software, which has a fair few features, but for a full set of editing tools, I’d recommend popping the Adobe Lightroom CC Mobile app on your phone and using that instead. I’ve included an edited version of the P20 Pro image below, which took about five minutes in Lightroom and Photoshop correcting the white balance and a quick and dirty heal of my shadow on the wall.

Adventures at sea

The P20 Pro really started to come into its own in the middle of the week, when we took to the Tyrrhenian Sea with a boat cruise of the Amalfi coastline. We all know that water and technology do not mix well and I spent a fair chunk of time worrying about getting my X100T wet.

The water lapping up at the side of the boat was enough to make me put it away – so there are photos with the Huawei P20 Pro that I didn’t manage to get anywhere else. This alone makes it a worthy contender towards the claim of being a DSLR replacement in my opinion. In comparison the phone – which is water resistant to IP67 and can handle submersion in one metre of fresh water for 30 minutes – was in its element.

The only thing I had to worry about was dropping the phone and losing it at the bottom of the sea. Several people actually took their phones into the sea with no problems whatsoever. I’d like to say I did the same, but knowing how clumsy I am – and without a safety strap to keep the phone attached to me – I decided it was best to play it safe on this occasion.

In extreme lighting conditions, the Huawei P20 Pro produced really impressive, high contrast images of Jasmin on the boat, picking up the nuances of skin highlights and shadows so there was plenty of contrast in the images. However, it was the shots of Jasmin in the water that really blew me away. The fact that the phone was able to perfectly expose for skin tones, as well as capture the depth of tones in the darker water and the highlights of the water reflections blew me away. I think these are up there with my favourite images of the trip.

I did also manage to get another comparison shot during the day, featuring Jasmin against a blue door in the port. Comparing similar shots between the P20 Pro (below right) and the X100T (below left), the image is still a touch softer that the Fuji version, but sharp enough to pick out individual strands of Jasmin’s blonde hair.

Again, it is also lacking a little contrast, but nothing that can’t be fixed quickly in editing. The skin tone was also a major improvement on the previous day’s efforts, leading me to believe the orange wall/ green colour cast was more situational than a trait of the P20 Pro.

I thought at this point, I’d also include this edited shot taken in the same place, where, I’d set the focal point to the door in the foreground rather than on Jasmin. Considering how small the lens technology is on a camera phone, I was expecting a lot of AI blurred backgrounds in place of actual depth of field, but here’s a great example of what the Huawei P20 Pro is actually capable of in terms of it’s F1.8 aperture: beautiful soft focus worthy of a DSLR shot.

On the final day of the trip, I decided to try out some landscape shots in the morning. Comparing similar shots between the P20 Pro (right) and the X100T (left), I have to say they are pretty comparable in terms of tone and sharpness, the only difference being a hint of grain close up on the phone image.

I think I’d find it hard to point out which one was the phone shot without seeing them close up at full resolution.

By the afternoon’s helicopter shoot and street photowalk, both led by Alex Lambrechts, I have to admit my Fuji X100T had been disregarded to the bottom of my bag. There was a part of me that wanted to give the phone a chance to shine on its own without comparison, but equally I was really enjoying the freedom of shooting with the lightweight Huawei P20 Pro. It did an amazing job capturing Jasmin by the vintage Alfa Romeo as well as around the streets of Sorrento – and I feel that slight softness actually worked in favour of the images.

Battery life on the P20 Pro was impressive too. Most days we were leaving the hotel at 8:30am, shooting continuously for about four hours – plus two additional hours of reviewing the images and trying to edit on the go whilst travelling. Every night the battery still had life left in it without the need for a portable charger. That said, the phone didn’t have a SIM card in it so there was a lack of cellular data being processed and I don’t know how much of a difference this would have made.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was rather skeptical about the bold claims Huawei were making about the P20 Pro and was expecting to only have one or two images worthy of publishing, but I ended up having over 100 edit-worthy images from the week to choose from and 41 making the final cut to be used on my own blog and social media channels over the next few weeks.

Can the Huawei P20 Pro really replace a DSLR? I won’t be selling my DSLR or Fuji X100T mirrorless anytime soon, but… I’m not ready to put down the P20 Pro yet either. I’m off on another work trip this week and have actually packed the phone instead of my Fuji, so there’s definite potential for this brilliant little camera phone.

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