After the Huawei P30 Pro launch in Paris, the internet was shocked by seeing incredible low-light, or we should say “night-vision” photos from the Huawei P30 Pro’s camera.
We have experimented with its extraordinary capabilities since then and here’s a dedicated report to supplement the P30 Pro Camera Review because there’s just too much content for a single article.
For those who have not seen such pictures yet, let’s start by showing you what the Huawei P30 Pro is capable of.
P30 Pro ‘Night Vision’ vs. ‘Classic Low-Light’ Modes
With the P30 Pro, Huawei has introduced a whole new class of Night Photography which we call Night Vision, because it kicks in when you eye can no longer see properly. In extreme low-light (less than ~0.3 LUX), the P30 Pro automatically switches to a different mode. If you don’t have a light meter with you, when you are having a hard time perceiving colors and details, that’s ~0.5 LUX (LUX is a Brightness metric).
These two modes are fundamentally different use cases. In a classic low-light shoot, you see an interesting scene and probably desire to capture something close to it, for controllability. In Night Vision mode, you litterally can’t see, so the camera should “enhance the light” beyond reality to give you night vision."FUNDAMENTALLY TWO DIFFERENT USE CASES"
It’s REALLY IMPORTANT to understand that low-light performance is NOT LINEAR. Do not assume a great performance in 0.3 LUX makes the camera hyper-great at 5 LUX. In this instance, you can think of this night vision capability like a 5X optical zoom which may not help at 2.5X zoom.
Night Vision / Extreme Low Light (< 0.3LUX)
This vase photo is interesting. The Pixel 3 photo shows best the actual brightness of the scene but has the least details and the highest noise levels. Surprisingly, the Galaxy S10 fares unexpectedly well as it seems to have its own auto night mode. But you know what’s coming next: “what about with Pixel 3 + Night Sight?”…
When Night Sight kicks in, the exposure time of the Pixel 3 is multiplied by ~100X and image quality goes up. The P30 Pro’s auto mode is much faster and the colors are more life-like. The Pixel 3’s image is “brighter”, but is it “better”? Let’s take a look at a cropped view.
Don’t fall for the oldest trick in the book when it comes to low-light: brighter is NOT always better. It’s clear that the P30 Pro has better details and much less noise. It is “better” by objective metrics as the results are stunning. As for the brightness, a simple image filter will do the trick:
If we decrease the lighting even more to the point that a Digital Light Meter can no longer perceive light (model LX1330B, 0.1 LUX maximum sensitivity), the difference is even more drastic shown in the comparison below with the Galaxy S10. And keep in mind that S10 is the non-Huawei competing phone that fared the best, Pixel 3, iPhone XS and pretty much every other camera would just see nothing.
There are two reasons for such a dramatic difference:
- Sensor sensitivity capabilities (high ISO)
- sensors are normally optimized for low-ISO and many simply don’t have such a high ISO
- Another example of Huawei thinking outside the box
- sensors are normally optimized for low-ISO and many simply don’t have such a high ISO
- Camera tuning
- Even if high ISO is available, this is not a use case that was covered
- Cameras are tuned to match human vision, so they might not even try
A broad overview of LUX numbers
Now that we have your attention, let’s go over what these different “LUX” numbers are. LUX is a metric for illuminance (brightness), and it’s important to have some context of how LUX numbers correlate with everyday life, so here’s a quick table:
|Office desk lighting
Classic Low-Light Photography
In “normal” low-light situations (where your eyes can see just fine), the Huawei P30 Pro night shots also produce very good images with fine details but does not “slay” the competition like it does in Night Vision. To compare it to the only low-light competitor, the Galaxy S10 captures more realistic colors and is able to sense subtle hues better than the P30 Pro.
- Main differences in Classic Low Light
- P30 Pro: better noise levels, “brighter” filtering style
- Galaxy S10: more realistic colors, better predictability
In general, the Huawei P30 Pro night photos have better noise reduction than the Galaxy S10 in low-light photos. Below, you can see that the artifacts and noise are visibly lower, while the level of detail remains comparable.
P30 Pro is better than Mate 20 Pro when it comes to color accuracy. With Mate 20 Pro, “meat” is sometimes “too Red” and colors were frequently overly exaggerated. Huawei has changed the tuning to better match reality, but it is still using a lot of processing in many instances and makes the mood, texture and lighting depart from reality.
The above crop of this scene shows that even P30 Pro can significantly modify the mood of the scene in some shots. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen as often as with Mate 20 Pro, but it is definitely there.
That’s likely a camera-tuning style which is shared across Huawei phones (including Honor) and it’s possible that the high-end Huawei phones would need their own tuning to lessen the over-processing.
In the red scooter photo (below), you can see that the P30 Pro noise level is a bit better than S10. We’ve also noticed the appearance of artifacts in the form of pink spots in highlights edges. It’s not clear where it’s coming from, but it’s something that could probably be removed with a camera update. To be fair, the S10 has a couple of weird green spots as well, but we haven’t seen the issue as often.
In soft lighting conditions (no HDR), the P30 Pro falls back to a “natural” photo style, closer to Galaxy S10, and away from Mate 20 Pro. The quality difference with Mate 20 Pro is very noticeable both in noise and color (0.4 LUX Scene):
For more night shots with the Huawei P30 Pro, take a look at the gallery below. Of course, all the photos have been taken handheld. Stay tuned for our final analysis and Night Photo score.
No P30 Pro Night Mode Needed
For half a year, any low-light photo comparison discussion would yield the inevitable “what about with Night Sight / Night Mode”? Night Mode was a great innovation but removing it is an even bigger one.
The beauty of P30 Pro is that everything happens in auto-mode. Users don’t need to switch to a dedicated mode (they rarely do). Also, P30 Pro can capture better photos than the Pixel 3’s night sight in a much shorter time (sub-second vs. 4-6 seconds), making it that much more natural as a point and shoot.
Ultra-long exposures can be a valuable tool, but they felt like a temporary solution, and that’s why we never included Night Sight/Night Mode our benchmark tests. We’d love to have a true long exposure mode that mimics DSLR behavior, though.
The P30 Pro Primary Camera Hardware is World Class
The Huawei P30 Pro reaches the goal that P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro had been aimed at. The Mate 20 Pro was the overall most powerful camera of 2018, but it didn’t overcome the Galaxy Note 9 as the best low-light camera. You can read our Mate 20 Pro Camera Review and Galaxy Note 9 Camera review (and S10) to see the data for yourself.
P30 Pro solves it this with three fundamental improvements that make this handset an extremely potent low-light camera: Lens + Sensor + extreme-high ISO.
A Much Better f/1.6 lens design
Most reviewers are focusing on the new RYYB (Red Yellow Yellow Blue) camera sensor, and it is key, but the new f/1.6 lens design is also responsible for a lot of the low-light performance, if not more than RYYB itself. We estimate that the new lens lets 60% more light enter the camera.
One of the reasons why OEMs don’t use large-aperture lenses is cost. As the aperture (hole) grows, so is your need for having a larger, perfectly-shaped, lens glass surface. It’s harder to do, generates more factory rejects and costs a lot more money.
We’ll point out that although others have f/1.5 lenses, their sensors are ~40% smaller than Huawei’s and so is the amount of incoming light (f-stops are relative to the lens+sensor combo).
In its quest to beat Samsung in the low-light camera race, Huawei has spared no camera hardware expenses.
High-Performance RYYB Sensor (Sony IMX650)
The Mate P20 Pro and P20 Pro already had sizeable sensors (~40 mm²) that are much larger than Google (Pixel 3), Samsung (S10) or Apple (Xs): all are around ~24 mm².
The new better P30 Pro f/1.6 lens might have been enough for Huawei to gain the lead, but the company pushed everything to the limit: it has also embarked into replacing the green filter with a yellow filter. We see RYYB as a long term investment that should pay off handsomely in the coming years.
Huawei knows that cameras modules are constrained by the phone’s chassis, so RYYB gives Huawei an extra edge, even without a sensor size increase."WE SEE RYYB AS A LONG TERM INVESTMENT"
In the visible light spectrum, Green occupies a smaller range than Yellow. Capturing Yellow light allows the sensor to “see” more light because of that broader band. Huawei says that it can increase sensitivity by 40% over capturing green.
The concept of using yellow isn’t completely new: it has been attempted by Nikon between 1996 and 2002 in the form of a CYGM filter (Cyan Yellow Magenta Green), but it ultimately didn’t hold. Kodak also tried the CYYM filter in the same time frame. Most likely, both companies ran into color conversion challenges, and it was simpler to increase the sensor size to get more light.
Today, everyone else is using RGGB (or RGB for Red Green Blue) because everything is built around it. Actually, the human vision is based on a trichromic stage in which specific cone receptors in the eye perceive these RGB colors. Human eyes are most sensitive to green, but camera sensors don’t have to be.
Every single piece of imaging software has used RGGB, so Huawei had to do some heavy lifting to make this work.
P30 Pro Extreme ISO: 409,000
High ISO or “gain” is a way to amplify the light that was captured by the sensor. Usually, it also amplifies noise, but we are very impressed with Huawei’s noise reduction algorithms, even at extreme-high ISO.
Although High ISO has a bad reputation in classic photography, it is a very valuable tool in this case. These extreme ISO capabilities are in fact at the heart of Huawei’s Night Vision capabilities, and that’s why the company started to integrate them last year.
Huawei’s Night-Vision Secrets?
Let’s speculate a bit on “why” the P30 Pro can achieve such an NV performance and why other handsets will have a hard time competing until they adopt similar technologies. Huawei doesn’t share how exactly its cameras work, but here’s our take on it.
P30 Pro Turns Night Into Day
Thanks to the extremely high ISO (~400k), the P30 Pro camera can “see” and function in near daylight conditions. To the human eye, things may look “pitch black” but if there’s a faint light (you still need SOME light), ISO can amplify it greatly. We’ve shown it earlier, but here’s what the camera “sees” with high ISO:
Huawei is solving the problem upfront by turning night into day at the electro-optics level, well before the data arrives into the software stack. Obviously, there are noise-reduction and color gauging challenges, but this solves a huge problem that others still have to crack."HUAWEI SOLVES THE NIGHT PHOTO PROBLEM BY TURNING NIGHT INTO DAY"
Because mobile photography heavily relies on image-stacking (multi-frame photo), and therefore on perfect re-alignment of those images, camera algorithms need to “see” scene’s features to re-align. Without proper re-alignment, modern algorithms break down and that’s when high ISO saves the day.
You’ve heard adjectives such as “Miracle” or “Sorcery” to describe how Huawei pulled this off. It’s neither, but it’s definitely audacious thinking and smart engineering combined with expensive hardware."AUDACIOUS THINKING AND SMART ENGINEERING COMBINED WITH EXPENSIVE HARDWARE"
Auto-Focus When Others Cannot
All of the above helps with autofocus (AF). In these extreme conditions, most cameras can’t even focus because autofocus systems have to “see” the scene to confirm that things are in focus (or not). By turning night into day, AF systems can operate as if they were in daylight.
The secret here is the 409,000 maximum ISO of the camera. While this number might sound ludicrous in normal photography, it is not in the context of allowing AF and algorithms to operate as if they were in daylight.
I heard people laughing when they heard about the 409,000 ISO, but they’re not laughing anymore…
ToF Is Not Used For Low-Light AF
Some have speculated that Huawei was using the ToF camera to autofocus, but that’s not the case. ToF measures distance with infrared (IR) and can work in total darkness. Although it could be used as a very loose approximation for AF, A Huawei representative has confirmed that ToF is not currently an AF sensor.
Ultrawide + Low Light: Could Be Better
In ultrawide photography, the P30 Pro is very good in daylight, but at this time, it is still lagging the Galaxy S10 in this particular discipline. Note that the S10 is “wider”, so the framing is not a perfect match. However, it is easy to see how the S10 capture colors much more naturally, and how noise and details are better.
Huawei and Leica’s relentless pursuit of Night-Vision style photography is paying off. Although the ball got rolling with last year’s P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro, our tests and Camera IQ scores of the Mate 20 Pro camera indicated the 2018 low-light performance was not yet on target.
The Huawei P30 Pro has the hardware and software it needs to fulfill Huawei’s Night Photography ambitions and the P30 Pro photos are impressive even for seasoned reviewers. The P30 Pro uses less image-filtering than its predecessors and has more accurate colors in low-light, thus improving upon two key weaknesses the last generation had."THE P30 PRO PHOTOS ARE IMPRESSIVE EVEN FOR SEASONED REVIEWERS"
As far as low-light is concerned, it is the Night Vision mode that gives P30 Pro a definitive edge over the competition. How much will it contribute to the overall experience? How many photos in 0-0.3 LUX will you take? That’s the $1000 question.
As it stands, P30 Pro is poised to score very well in our Uber-G Camera IQ mobile camera benchmark. Stay tuned for the results!