The Huawei P20 Pro is perhaps the first smartphone camera to properly pique the interest of traditional interchangeable lens camera photographers. Thanks to its triple-camera design and 40-megapixel images, the Huawei P20 Pro is more than just a camera for nice snapshots: it’s a serious photographic tool.
As well as its big-number specifications, the P20 Pro also boasts a sophisticated AI engine that determines your scenes and adjusts the camera settings accordingly.
However, you don’t have to accept these scene modes. Next to the mode name when it pops up is an X icon, which shuts off the recommended setting and reverts you back to the default Photo mode.
To make use of the P20 Pro’s AI engine, leave the phone’s camera in the standard Photo mode. Then, when it recognises a familiar scene it will switch to the corresponding scene mode.
What are the Huawei P20 Pro scene modes for photography?
The Huawei P20 Pro has 19 different scene modes: cat, food, group, natural colors, close-up, night shot, text, greenery, portrait, dog, fireworks, blue sky, flowers, stage, document, sunset, snow, waterfall, and beach.
When in Photo mode the P20 Pro camera will load the corresponding scene mode when it detects a composition or light levels consistent with these subjects.
Shooting landscapes with P20 Pro
I recently took the Huawei P20 Pro on a two-week journey camping across Scotland. Since it came in for testing I’ve been using it more and more as my primary camera for everyday stuff. But I was keen to see if it had the chops to serve as my primary camera on holiday.
In short: I wanted to see if the P20 Pro could shoot the landscapes I wanted to capture and save me having to lug my ‘proper’ camera body and its lenses in a campervan that was already packed to the gills.
When shooting wide-open vistas with big, blue skies, the Huawei P20 Pro’s AI engine makes note of the bright expanse of cyan and flashes a notification that it’s enabling Blue Skies mode.
You’ll then notice your scene’s tones shift on-screen. The blue in your sky will get richer, but equally your foreground will reveal more detail.
In essence, the Huawei P20 Pro produces an HDR effect in Blue Skies mode. The camera manages to avoid that common problem of overly dark foregrounds when shooting a scene with a big, bright sky. This typically happens because your camera’s metering system is exposing for the sky, thus rendering the foreground and land below as shadow.
The P20 Pro manages to balance a bright, deep blue sky with a foreground that is also well-exposed. I will say that most of the time the colours are nice and vibrant, but on a few occasions the blue in the sky looked a little garish.
In these instances I just opted out of the AI scene mode and shot manually.
When shooting forests, fields or other landscapes with lots of foliage, the Huawei P20 Pro recognises these tones and switches to its Greenery mode.
In this mode the P20 Pro accentuates the greens, as you may expect, but also lifts the browns and other darker tones.
If you like to shoot low-light landscapes or even pure night photography, the P20 Pro’s Night mode works a treat. The AI engine determines the light levels in your scene and will send you into Night mode if it detects low light.
Night mode might, in fact, be the most impressive feature on the P20 Pro’s camera. What it does is shoot a trio of 4-second exposures, exposing for highlights, midtones and shadows.
It then combines the images and stabilises them to ensure you get a sharp, well-exposed image with a wide dynamic range. What this means is that you can shoot nighttime scenes handheld and get a sharp image from the P20 Pro.
There are some limitations, though. Anything obviously moving in your scene, such as people or a boat, will show motion blur in your final image. This means it works best with scenes such as urban architecture or beach scenes at sunset. I found that most scenes I shot were rendered sharp and well-exposed.
I was using the Huawei P20 Pro to shoot landscapes on the Isle of Skye, and one of the striking features of its landscape are the stunning waterfalls on every hill and mountainside.
When framing these scenes the P20 Pro’s AI detects the water movement and launches the Waterfall scene mode. Here the P20 Pro aims to take a slightly longer exposure in order to capture some of the movement in the water.
Overall, I felt the P20 Pro did a great job, even shooting handheld. Once I composed a photo and pressed the shutter, even if my hands jittered the phone’s stabilisation corrected the shake and produced a sharp image with a nice level of motion blur, but restrained enough to still freeze some of the dramatic movements.
It would be nice in future iterations of the Huawei camera to choose the level of blur you would like in your images. But the simple fact that I am making images like this handheld on a smartphone is simply astounding.
Shooting at the coast or even along one of Scotland’s many lochs, the P20 Pro was able to recognise the juxtaposition of water and land and send the camera into its Beach mode.
The P20 Pro’s Beach mode does a number of things. First, it saturates the colours to bring out the blue in the sky and enrich the golden browns in the sand.
It also attempts to counteract that common exposure problem with shooting beaches where light reflected off the sand tricks your camera into under-exposing. The P20 Pro appears to increase the exposure slightly to give some more light and detail to the sandy foreground areas. And it did this with success, producing very natural-looking images that were very close to what I saw in the moment.
Where it ran into issues is that, with sand and water you also typically have big skies. So sometimes, if it wasn’t cloudy (rare in Scotland, but it did happen!), the P20 Pro would serve up Beach mode or Blue Skies.
I found the Blue Skies mode produced colours that were just a little too garish for a beach scene. It’s fine when shooting a wooded landscape, for instance, and framing for a big sky. But when the P20 Pro enriches the blues in the sky, it does so in the water as well and the effect doesn’t look very natural.
Some may like it, but it wasn’t to my tastes. It reminded me of the early days of HDR.
Huawei P20 Pro landscapes
How good is the Huawei P20 Pro AI engine?
In practice, over the two weeks I spent shooting with the Huawei P20 Pro as I traveled across Scotland, I found it recognised my subjects and loaded the appropriate scene modes almost without fail.
The only instances where it ran into difficulty was when some scenes triggered multiple modes. For instance, shooting a sandy beach along a loch in the middle of woodland triggered Beach mode, Blue Sky and Greenery at different angles.
Or I might be shooting an expanse of treetops from a mountain peak and the P20 Pro would load the Greenery mode. If I changed my composition slightly to include more sky, it might switch to Blue Sky and produce colours I didn’t necessarily want.
In these instances I usually just opted out of the AI scene mode and shot in normal Photo mode or shot manually.
Taking manual control
The flexibility of the Huawei P20 Pro means that while I could let the camera do all the work most of the time, freeing me to keep up with my family on woodland walks, the option to take manual control was always there when I needed it.
You’ll find the manual controls under the Pro mode, which is to the right of the standard Photo mode in the menu on the bottom of your screen.
I found I shot manually usually when the AI engine was outsmarted by multiple elements in the scene competing for its attention, such as I described above.
In manual mode you have the option to adjust all of the usual exposure controls you’re used to on your traditional camera. You can even shoot raw files.
Is the Huawei P20 Pro worth it?
In a word: hell yes. The P20 Pro blew me away in nearly every respect. Its camera and AI engine produces exceptional images and eliminates many of the minor hassles and delays out of taking photos that can annoy the families of photographers on holiday. In the past I’ve stopped every so many yards, set up my tripod, swapped lenses, reset the White Balance, grabbed a couple shots, wash, rince, repeat, all to the chagrin of my frowning family that just wants to get further down the trail.
With the P20 Pro, I could work quickly and discreetly and not slow down the day’s activities. For example, we went on a cycle ride around a loch one morning. I kept the P20 Pro tucked away in my breast pocket. When I passed a scene that looked nice, I stopped quickly grabbed a shot and was back on my way. No one knew I’d stopped for a photo!
What’s more, the P20 Pro’s impressive stabilisation meant that even in low light levels I was able to get sharp images with crisp detail without using a tripod.
Let’s be clear, though: the P20 Pro is no replacement for a Nikon D850 or Sony A7R III for the serious landscape enthusiast. If you make your living from your images or want supreme quality, stick with your interchangeable lens camera. Phone image quality isn’t there… yet.
But for nice family memories, images for sharing online or printing to hang in your home, the P20 Pro excels. And let’s not forget it produces images with 40-megapixel resolution. So while it may not be at the D850’s peak of quality, it’s not that far down in the valley.