To a degree none of this would have been much of an issue before half the world started working from home on their laptops. For most people video conferencing was something of a nice-to-have after thought until now.
Suddenly we all notice the poor picture quality. What makes this worse is we now have much more bandwidth, so the internet connection is no longer the limiting factor. We also tend to have much higher resolution screens, so camera flaws are more noticeable.
Opportunity for better webcams
There is a huge opportunity for the first laptop maker to get this right. Apple is the most likely candidate here. It’s noticeable how much better the front facing camera is on a iPad Pro when compared with, say, the MacBook Air.
The 2020 12.9 inch iPad Pro has a seven megapixel front facing camera with all the trimmings. It handles 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second. In contrast, the 2020 MacBook Air camera is only 720p.
No doubt there is room for improvement now the laptop camera specification matters in ways it didn’t.
The most curious thing about Stern’s video story is that Apple put a better camera on MacBooks ten years ago. Of course they weren’t as thin then.
Of course there is a trade off between thin and camera performance. Laptop lids are thinner than phones or iPads. Apple’s obsession with thin meant laptop keyboard problems until recently. Now it has to rethink where cameras fit in this.
Apple’s iPhone 11 is all about the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a phone and said much the same thing. So let’s put it another way: Apple’s iPhone 11 is even more about the camera.
You can’t miss the cameras on Apple’s iPhone 11. Two lenses and a camera bump dominate the phone’s rear.
Not so long ago camera bumps were controversial. People fretted they spoiled the clean lines of otherwise near pure metal-glass slabs.
Bump baby bump
Apple’s earlier camera bumps were small. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the entire bump, including the non-bump flash, measures around 30 by 10mm. On the iPhone XS Plus the bump is more like a 25 by 10mm strip. The iPhone 11 bump is 30 by 30 mm and squarish.
This physical dominance reflects the camera system’s importance. Yes, that’s what Apple calls the collective photography components in the iPhone 11. Camera system may be marketing, but it makes sense.
Speaking of marketing, Apple’s iPhone 11 message is all about the photography.
While the hardware is clever, it’s clear from the size and depth there is more to picture quality than optics. A lot of smart software does the heavy lifting.
iPhone 11 photography in practice
What does this mean in practice? To understand take a look at this example shot I took one night in December from a Coromandel Beach.
It’s stunning, but it shouldn’t be. I’m no photographer. Before we go on, let’s make one thing clear, I wasn’t making an effort to take a great picture to show off the iPhone 11. This was a casual shot taken on the spur of the moment.
While walking home from dinner, I noticed the moon coming out from behind the clouds. I took the camera out, stood on the beach and that was it.
The iPhone did all the hard work. My role was choosing the scene, holding the camera and timing my click to take the shot between the flashes of the lamps on the harbour buoys. It was that easy.
Sure, it wasn’t pitch black at the time, but it was dark. The naked eye couldn’t pick out the plants in the foreground, let along the individual blades of grass.
It looked more impressive when I got back to my room and looked again at the shot. It seemed like a professional picture. Sure, experts can nitpick this statement. Over the years I’ve edited newspaper sections and magazine. I’ve hired professional photographers. From my editor’s point of view it looks like a professional photo.
What I didn’t know at the time, I only had the phone a few days, is Apple’s camera system includes a night mode. It is automatic and kicks in when needed.
Night mode simulates long exposure: one, two or three seconds depending on conditions. In the case of my picture, that’s important because the navigation buoys in the harbour flick light on every second or so. The window between them is shorter than the camera needs for a long exposure shot.
Night mode isn’t to everyone’s taste. There may be times you don’t want or need it. That’s cool. It’s possible to turn it off. This works in much the same way as the automatic flash, which can kick in as needed. Again, you can use a manual setting to turn it off.
When I take night time pictures with my digital SLR, I need a tripod to keep the camera still. My hands shake too much for a traditional long exposure shot. That’s not necessary with the iPhone 11. Look again at the example, it’s crisp and clear.
iPhone 11 makes bad shots harder
As my trip went on, it became clear. The iPhone camera system makes it hard to take bad shots. Of course, you can still take terrible shots if you work at it. My point here is that casual, off the cuff snaps often come out looking great.
For a second example take a look at the shot of three chilli bottles. I made no effort to compose something artistic. All I did was line up the bottles so I could remember what sauces to buy later.
It’s not art, it’s an aide-mémoire. And yet somehow it’s also a bit, well, artistic.
The iPhone 11 has been my day-to-day phone now for about four weeks. Before that I was using the iPhone XS Max. The 11 is a little smaller, but otherwise on a par with the XS Max. It costs about $1000 less. With iPhone 11 prices starting at $1350, it compares well with Android flagship phones.
The two other big brands in New Zealand: Samsung and Huawei, also have great cameras on their top phones.
Each brand has its own set of camera strengths and weaknesses. They are all good.
That said, for my needs, Apple’s iPhone 11 (and 11 Plus) have the best all-round mix of features, function and usability.
Soon, I’ll write a more comprehensive overview of my iPhone 11 experience. There are other surprises worth sharing.
Like most, but not all, product reviews on this site, I didn’t buy the iPhone 11. Apple gave me a loan unit. It’s a bright red model and will go back to the company. For the record I own an iPhone 7 Plus.
It may not do everything my digital SLR can do, distant wildlife close ups remain tricky, but it can handle most of my work photography needs and then some. ↩︎
More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.
Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.
That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.
All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.
Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date
When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.
This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.
Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.
The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?
Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.
Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.
Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.
The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.
Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.
The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.
What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.
What the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.
Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.
It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.
Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.
Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.
There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.
At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.
Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.
In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.
Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.
Huawei P30 Pro verdict
At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.
If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.
Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.
When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.
While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.
Apple, Samsung and Huawei all want you to know their phone cameras are better than before. It is always true.
They’d also like you to think their cameras are better than their rivals. That’s a losing game. They are all excellent. But each excels in different ways.
You wouldn’t be disappointed with the camera in any premium phone. You might find one phone misses a camera feature you’d like, or is a touch weaker in some department. You might find one suits your style, works the same way you do or has a user interface that’s easier to understand. Either way, they are all good.
Phone cameras good, getting better
Indeed, phone cameras are now exceptionally good. So good that the stand alone camera market looks doomed for everyone except professionals and serious amateurs willing to part with lots of money.
Forget whinging about a NZ$2800 phone, the starting price for a full frame mirrorless camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon is about twice that. And then you buy extra lenses.
The low-end camera market is already dead. The mid-range is struggling. There is almost no casual stand-alone camera market these days.
It’s still worth buying a standalone camera if you want consistent great pictures
There are good reasons to buy a high-quality standalone camera if you want to take great pictures.
The physics of camera optics means that, in general, you get better images with a bigger and better lens along with a big sensor array. You also need some distance between the lens and the focal plane where light hits photosensors.
None of this is possible in a phone which is often less than 10mm thick. Phone cameras have small lenses. There is almost no distance between the lens and the sensor array. Sensor arrays are also small, usually smaller than a fingernail while a more traditional digital camera might have an array the size of a matchbox.
Phones have plastic lenses, which, on the whole, are not as good as the glass lenses in cameras. Plastic can distort images. Phone makers spend millions developing better materials and techniques to reduce this, but glass still beats plastic.
Phone cameras get around physical shortcoming with heavy duty computer processing. Upmarket phones have two or even three lenses. They combine their images to create better pictures. Most of the time this gets around the distortion.
Software does the heavy lifting
They do a hell of a lot of this in software. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point: Are they capturing reality or are they making it up?
You may wonder why phone makers keep putting faster and faster processors in their phones. After all, none of the last three or four generations of flagship phones have been slouches when it comes to handling most computing tasks.
The main reason for the extra grunt is to handle image processing. It’s a data-intensive task and phones have to do it in microseconds.
Phone makers love to tell you their models use artificial intelligence. Most of the time phones use the results of earlier AI work to inform their brute-force image processing. They don’t do on-the-fly artificial intelligence to process your pictures.
The results are impressive. When Apple gave me a demonstration of the iPhone XS Max, I was struck by how much like a digital SLR the results can be, in the right hands.
As much as I try, my iPhone or Huawei shots are never as good. I still get far better results from my ageing but trusty digital SLR. The pictures are often good enough to use in print.
If I was to buy a new camera, I’d go for a modern mirrorless design. Until recently this would have meant a Sony Alpha, but Nikon and Canon now have tempting alternatives. I can’t put my finger on it, but to my eyes Canon images look better, so the Canon EOS R would be my probable choice.
Mirrorless means the camera doesn’t have a traditional optical viewfinder like an SLR or digital SLR. Instead you see the same image that the sensors see. This makes the cameras simpler, smaller and lighter.
For consumers stand alone cameras are on a path to becoming a retro-tech thing like vinyl records or analogue music synthesisers. Professionals will go on using standalone cameras. But the market is slowing.
I still take a camera along when I travel overseas or cover a conference as a journalist. The more traditional controls easier to use, even if I spend most of the time on automatic setttings. When I need to fiddle, it’s easy to tweak dials and press buttons than hunt for controls on a phone screen.
Having said that, often I find myself on a reporting job where the only camera to hand is my phone. If I take a little time, I can get good pictures with that too. I’ve already noticed I’m less likely to pack the standalone camera when heading out to cover a story. I no longer keep it handy, charged and ready to go. That’s not the case with my phone.
The Huawei P20 Pro is 2018’s top Android phone by a healthy margin. You won’t find a better combination of camera, hardware, performance and value for money.
Anyone who has watched the razor market will recognise what’s going on with phones. First phone makers added a single camera to handsets. Then it was two; one front and rear. In recent years premium phones had two rear cameras making three cameras in total. With the P20 Pro, Huawei has upped the ante. It has three rear cameras for a total of four.
Adding extra cameras has a remarkable effect on the way the phone shoots images. Phones are too small and too thin to have big lenses and image sensors. So instead of going that route, phone makers use software to combine camera output.
Huawei stretched that idea from two to three rear Leica cameras plus one on the front.
The three work together in a multilayered way. It could go wrong, but doesn’t. That it doesn’t fail seems more like alchemy than science. The P20 Pro hardware and software keeps everything together.
Camera number one is a large, 40-megapixel colour camera with an f1.8 lens. A 20-megapixel monochrome camera with a f1.6 lens and a f2.4 telephoto lens acts as support.
Huawei has used a secondary monochrome camera in earlier phones. It adds extra light to the image, which means more detail and depth information. You can take crisp pictures with the two lenses. The telephone lens is there to handle zooming.
Photos that don’t look like they came from a phone
In practice you get shots that don’t look like they came from a phone. When conditions are right, which is not all the time, the results are amazing. The combination works well in low light conditions too thanks to image stabilisation.
Like most other premium phones, the P20 also has image stabilisation. Huawei seems to have this working well with the three camera arrangement.
What will surprise anyone who has bumped up against the limits of camera phones in the past is the way the P20 Pro handles zooming. It’s a hybrid zoom, which combines optical and digital zooming. You’ll find the optical 2x and 3x zoom pictures are excellent. Even the hybrid 5x zoom pics are, on a good day, impressive.
All phone makers like to tell us their premium models include artificial intelligence. What they use often isn’t AI in the sense that systems learn how to do their tasks better over time. But it sounds good in marketing.
Huawei’s Master AI technology attempts to identify what you are shooting in a picture. It then adjust the various parameters to suit the subject and the conditions. There are 19 options.
This works well up to a point. On the whole the AI does a good job with colour balance. That’s something phones often struggle with.
Sometimes Master AI makes a poor guess at the subject or maybe it makes the right guess but odd choices of setting. At times images look tinted or otherwise filtered with Photoshop or similar software.
In practice, you usually get good results if you let the camera make all the decisions. When that doesn’t work, turning all the settings off and clicking often fixes things.
Moving away from these options and using manual adjustments is possible. But it means work. By the time you’ve got on top of the camera software it will be time to upgrade your phone. It’s easier to take lots of shots and sort through them afterwards.
Something similar applies to the AI system that helps you frame shots. It takes time to get use to it in the first place and it takes time to use when you take a picture. If you’re unhurried, say taking a landscape picture, this can be OK. If you need to move fast and capture something that won’t last, spending time tinkering could lose the shot.
And anyway, you can frame things afterwards with decent photo software.
There are many options and settings available. Anyone interested in photography will have a ball. Prepare to lose an afternoon or a few days if you want to try everything.
My favourite is the monochrome mode, this feels more like real photography.
Long exposure at night
A standout is the camera’s ability to take long exposure night pictures. It works best if you can use a stand to keep the phone still. Yet, thanks to the image stabilisation even handheld shots are impressive.
In normal use the P20 Pro takes 10-megapixel images. You can, if you wish, crank this all the way up to 40-megapixels.
It says a lot about the Huawei P20 Pro that at 700 words into this review, I have only written about the camera. That’s because, in a sense, the P20 Pro is more camera than phone.
Away from the camera, the P20 Pro feels like a premium phone. It is better finished than, say, the Galaxy S9. It feels more on a par with the iPhone X.
The smoothness that feels so good in your hands can be troublesome if you park the phone on a soft surface, say a sofa, where it will slide away.
At the launch the face recognition software impressed the journalists. It’s fast and can recognise the same face even when the person wears glasses. While it works for me, I’m uneasy about this being the phone’s main security feature.
Also impressive is the battery life. I manage to get two days between charges, although these are not two heavy use days. If I push hard all day I find there is still enough there to get me home late at night.
One quirk is the Apple iPhone X-like notch. Huawei was quick to point out its notch is smaller than Apple’s. It seems to have made the choice to have a notch as a nod toward’s being more like an Apple phone than, say, a Samsung Galaxy.
Android phone software is often disappointing. It’s rare for anything added by the phone maker to improve on raw Android. That’s still true with the P20 Pro, but less so than in the past.
The EMUI 8.1 software runs on Android Oreo 8.1. That’s up-to-date now. Yet Huawei has a poor history upgrading its software, so don’t expect much change. EMUI attempts to make Android more like Apple’s iOS. This says something about Huawei’s intent. You can choose to make it act less iOS-like.
Verdict: Huawei P20 Pro
It may not be as pretty as the Samsung Galaxy S9 , but the Huawei P20 Pro is at least its match. I found I liked it more. That’s for two reasons, first it feels better in my hand. This is a subjective measure. Less subject is the camera. Not only does it outperform the Galaxy S9 camera, but it is easier to get good results. Battery life is good too.
For these reasons, the P20 Pro is the best premium Android phone on sale at the moment. The fact that, at $1300 it costs $300 less gives it a bigger lead over its rival. You’d have to be a Samsung fan to think otherwise.