Roughly half of Huawei’s P20 Pro launch event this week was dedicated to the new device’s camera capabilities, reflecting the great deal of time and attention the company has dedicated to mobile photography. And the results, now that I’ve had a few days to try out the P20 Pro, aren’t far off from the lofty hype. Huawei has crafted a formidable contender for the crown of best smartphone camera. I’m not yet convinced that it deserves that accolade, but I can say with certainty that the P20 Pro’s night mode is a groundbreaking innovation that produces some of the best night shots ever taken with a phone. Even the lauded Google Pixel 2 XL struggles to keep up with the P20 Pro.
Touring around the city of Paris, the venue of Huawei’s P20 announcement, I shot a bunch of casual photos with the Pixel 2 XL and the P20 Pro. Below you’ll find a selection of the most notable ones, starting off with the most challenging situation: nighttime photography.
The way Huawei’s night mode works is a technical marvel. The camera’s shutter is open for a full four seconds — during which time I get to see the image exposure steadily rising until night scenes start to resemble daytime — and then all the information gathered is intelligently used to render a clean and sharp image. I expected the results from this process to turn out soft and blurry, but in the above pair of photos, you can see the Huawei phone outdid the Pixel. With the P20, you can still discern tree branches in the background, there’s more color (and a lot less graininess) in the sky, and just better saturation throughout the frame.
Another example where the P20 Pro offers better saturation and a much cleaner night sky than the Pixel 2 XL. The Total logo and the background buildings are much more defined in the Huawei shot. That does come at a price, though, as Huawei isn’t shy about throwing in extra layers of sharpening and noise-reducing blur to make an image pop more. So you lose some of the naturalness of the Pixel photo, but you gain a crisper picture for sharing across mobile devices where pixel-level detail isn’t that crucial. The notable thing about this capture is that the gent in the P20 Pro foreground kept walking throughout the four seconds of capture — Huawei’s algorithms are clever enough to account for such moving objects and keep them reasonably fixed in place.
These are both amazingly good photos, given the scant amount of light available for the cameras to work with. Huawei once again wins the comparison by presenting a beautifully noise-free sky, judging the exposure better, and giving a more faithful representation of the reflective surface of the pyramid.
This is the scene that I just can’t get over. The P20 Pro sky is a freaking masterpiece compared to the Pixel 2 XL sky, which serves as a good example of the trouble most phones have with nighttime photography. Not only is the Pixel blotchy and ugly, it also blows out the luminous signs on the buildings. Then again, it does retain enough sharpness for the “hauts de seine” sign on the right side to remain readable — whereas the P20 Pro’s aggressive noise reduction destroys that along with plenty of small details in the frame. Ultimately, though, for the most common goal of casual tourist snaps, Huawei’s solution is just going to produce more pleasing results for its user.
Zoom in real close on this one, and you will rightly declare the Google Pixel 2 XL the winner for its higher degree of detail preservation. The people in that photo still look human, whereas in the Huawei shot, they look like they were painted on with a thick brush. But it’s not a total Google victory because the P20 Pro does a better job of accurately exposing the red bar sign and the street light at the top of the frame. The Huawei photo also has a more saturated look, with the red reflections in the foreground catching the eye more readily than those in Google’s image.
Distinguishing between these two in good light would be impossible, except for one thing: Huawei’s Master AI processing. It auto-detects the sort of scene you’re trying to capture and aggressively processes the photo to pretty it up. In the above example, the P20 Pro caught a sniff of blue sky and decided to double down on that at the expense of foreground exposure. You can see how problematic that becomes when shooting the Eiffel Tower, especially because Huawei doesn’t offer the option to remove its processing for a more natural look. So you’ll have to be careful about letting the AI make all the decisions.
For the most part, Huawei’s AI-assisted image alterations are for the better. Here’s an example where the P20 Pro camera detected the scene as “greenery” and boosted contrast and saturation accordingly. I can’t say that this is the most realistic shot ever taken, as the leaves before me were not quite as lush as the Huawei phone presents, but it’s undeniably a pleasing, clean, and extremely sharp capture. The Pixel 2 XL shot looks flat and lifeless by comparison.
I’m starting to feel bad about the Pixel being bullied at its favorite game, so here’s a clear-cut Pixel 2 XL win to balance matters. Google’s signature HDR+ processing exposes the buildings in the distance better and keeps them far sharper than Huawei’s offering. I also favor the warmer color balance that the Pixel provides, even though the P20 might have been a touch more true to life on that occasion.
Coming back to the Huawei side of the ledger, this shot really shows off the P20 Pro camera’s strength in basic everyday situations. It once again looks less natural than the Pixel’s, owing to its greater reliance on artificial sharpening, but then it is in fact much sharper all around. What Huawei is doing is somewhere between the typical oversharpening that less accomplished companies like LG do to their pictures and Google’s approach of trying to remain faithful to the old ways of film photography. Sometimes that pays off in spectacularly crisp images like the above, which lands just shy of having too much processing.
My conclusion, which I’m sure you’ll find unsatisfying, is that there’s no conclusive winner in the contest between these two cameraphones. I think that the Huawei P20 Pro, Google Pixel 2 XL, and Samsung’s latest Galaxy S9 are in a league of their own when it comes to capturing low-light scenes. As usual, I wish I’d brought along a less awesome phone just to show how far ahead the Pixel and these two new flagship contenders are from the rest of the Android field and Apple’s iPhone X. For now, all I can declare with surety is that Huawei’s P20 Pro has one of the top three cameras on the market and it legitimately tempts me to put down the Pixel for a while and try life the Huawei way.