Date:7 July 2016
I’ll come right out and say that the Huawei P9 is using the most advanced camera hardware and software ever deployed on a smartphone. Let’s forget the Leica partnership for a moment and just celebrate the genius of the dual lens system and software processing.
On the back of the P9 is two 12 MP camera sensors, a dual-tone flash and a laser blaster for close range auto focus gathering. Only one of the sensors has an RGB colour filter, which relegates the other to monochrome capability. But that’s kind of the point. You see, without a filter Huawei claim the monochrome sensor can absorb three times more light – which is an accurate claim because there’s no red, green or blue colours to create (3×1=3…).
The purpose behind brandishing a monochrome sensor is partly because the company wanted to capture those classic Leibovitzian black and white Leica moments, but mostly because of the light advantage.
Let the light in
I’ve seen all manner of camera trickery in my career, but when I realised that each colour picture taken on the P9 is a composite of data from both sensors, I was absolutely blown away. Using the monochrome sensor as a base, the software fills in the colour detail over the contrast and light data, reproducing an astonishingly detailed image.
Not only does this method preserve all the subtle light and shadow textures, but it also allows you to then go back to the image in the gallery and do some interesting editing. My example above was inspired by Shindler’s List. See how the software fills in all of the red colour data? There’s an eraser tool that allows you to delete the unwanted colour splashes.
While these kinds of effects are available in many apps and baked into other devices, the P9 captures the image in a unique enough way to make it more of a special feature than a gimmick. There are gimmicks abound though.
Flaws, but not deal-breakers
The current trend in high-end smartphone cameras is to go smaller on pixel number, but bigger in pixel and sensor size. Huawei chose a relatively minute 1,25 µm pixel from Sony’s 12 MP sensor line-up (exact model details have yet to be published) which lags behind its immediate Android-based competitors (Galaxy S7, HTC 10).
Another misstep was then to give it a narrow f/2.2 aperture to capture light through. While many of the low light issues this set up is prone to is negated by the light data coming from the monochrome sensor, it does compromise the background blurring “bokeh” effect that’s so hot right now. Not to worry though because Huawei threw software at the problem, allowing for aperture adjustment after effects that capatalise on the depth-gauging benefits of the separate cameras’ two perspectives.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of using software to overcome a hardware oversight, but the feature works well. I preferred to simply get closer to the object and using the pretty good natural depth of field characteristics of the camera.
Deciding to not endow the P9 with optical image stabilisation could also prove costly in the camera shoot out, but I suspect it was a cost-saving measure to keep the price in line with the competition.
The Leica conundrum
Huawei make an understandably big fuss about the company’s partnership with Leica and the tech industry is equally skeptical. If it was a poor camera experience then I would chalk it up to pure marketing relations, but this is one of the best camera systems on a smartphone at the moment and benefits from impeccable lens construction.
While Huawei has definitely demonstrated its camera making skills on the Mate 8 and last year’s P8, the P9 is a leap forward that I would credit to Leica’s engineering prowess. There is also software features like picture effects and “film” modes that have been credited to the partnership – and a distinctive shutter tone that I immediately silenced.
This is a special achievement that will go along way in moving the industry forward. It loses some ground to the high-ranking competing smartphone cameras as a casual snapper, but enthusiasts will find a lot of joy in the depth of features and the dramatic benefit of the monochrome sensor is hard to ignore. I don’t like to venture too far into manual camera modes and was pleased to find a well-conceived offering when I did test the P9’s limits. You will make beautiful images with the P9.