Huawei P9 Camera Review: Chinese smartphone maker Huawei turned heads when it pulled its latest flagship, the P9, out on stage; not least because through a partnership with famed photography brand Leica, it packs a unique dual sensor 12-megapixel camera.
We’ve seen dual lens systems on a myriad of smartphones in the past, from 2011’s HTC EVO 3D to 2016’s LG G5. Depending on how they’re utilised, dual cameras can add all sorts of unique functionality to a device, but in the case of the P9, it’s implemented in the pursuit of taking better photos.
As denoted on the back of the P9, Leica has included a pair of its Summarit ASPH (aspherical) lenses, likely chosen for their ability to preserve sharpness right into the corners of the frame, despite their compact size.
Behind the lenses are two separate 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensors: an RGB sensor and a monochrome sensor that helps add greater depth and detail to colour photos or can be used to shoot superior quality black and white photos versus similarly-specced smartphones. The sensor’s 1.25μm pixel size also helps with the P9’s low light performance and they pack an f/2.2 aperture.
A big component of the photographic experience offered up by P9 is its ability to include professional-grade depth of field in shots, which is achieved through the combination of a laser autofocus array, the depth data provided by the dual lens arrangement and a dedicated depth image signal processor (ISP), which the company claims is 200 per cent faster than relying on software alone.
Read next: Huawei P9 unboxing and hands on
The interface and camera modes
The most obvious aspects of Leica’s involvement are more cosmetic than anything else, with the P9 packing a completely reworked camera UI compared to its predecessors, influenced by Leica’s own camera software.
Swiping right brings up a range of 14 shooting modes, all dressed in Leica’s signature UI font. Signature Huawei modes like Light Painting are present on the P9 as are new offerings like Beauty Video mode and Monochrome shooting.
Irrespective of which mode you’re in swiping left grants you access to all of the primary settings to tailor the P9’s imaging experience, whether it’s controlling the resolution, setting up a timed shutter or enjoying one of the three new film modes – designed to simulate different types of film stock by pushing colours and contrast to varying degrees.
From the viewfinder swiping on the pill-shaped element near the on-screen shutter opens up manual control over focus, ISO, shutter speed, exposure and white balance, whilst at the top of the viewfinder you have access to filters and simulated depth of field shots that you can refocus after capture – a trick we’ve seen with Google’s own camera app and the likes of the HTC One (M8).
Camera experience and photo samples
One of the notable differences to many other smartphone camera experiences is that the P9 always remains in the last mode used and doesn’t revert back to standard still photography mode once the camera app has been closed or the device restarted.
The app takes a second to launch and in Photo mode, the shutter fires after just over half a second, once the camera has found focus. On the whole picture quality and camera performance still aren’t up there with the likes of the iPhone 6S, Galaxy S7 and Xperia Z5 but the P9 unquestionably packs the best camera Huawei’s ever put into a phone and the gap between it and its leading rivals continues to narrow.
In natural light, the P9 copes admirably with high contrast elements, even more so when shooting in high dynamic range (HDR) mode. Macro shots do offer up attractive bokeh, just as the company promised and the ability to refocus and alter the amount of blur after the fact is a nice bonus too, although similarly to Sony’s technology, the software sometimes has trouble defining elements in the foreground and background, blurring areas of the subject, rather than what’s behind it from time to time.
Low light images suffer from expected levels of grain comparable to that of the Z5 and Z5 Compact’s snaps, but despite the relatively closed f/2.2 aperture, the phone retains enough information to push out usable shots.
Whether it’s at capture or through the standard image processing, depth and detail take a slight hit at 100 per cent crop, but in most conditions the P9’s camera is very good. Monochrome snaps look particularly special and manual mode gives you plenty of creative control over snaps if you’re looking to achieve a specific aesthetic or effect. As mentioned earlier – long exposure photos are best left to the dedicated light trails mode.
Front facing camera
There’s an impressive level of functionality afforded to the front facing camera on the P9. The 8-megapixel sensor comes with a wide-angle lens making group shots of up to three or four abreast possible without the aid of a selfie stick.
As well as a default beauty mode, the P9 also possesses Perfect Selfie mode, which captures three shots to give you fine-grain control over everything from skin tone to eye size and brightness. The hardware is even powerful enough to render the same effects in real time with the new selfie video mode, something we’ve not come across on another handset before.
Unsurprisingly photos lack the colour depth and detail of the main snapper and as there’s no front-facing flash, it’s more at home in natural light than artificially lit or dim conditions, but nonetheless the P9 can take a decent shot whichever camera you’re using.
Arguably the most polarising results come out of the P9’s video experience. Whilst you could argue that the phone doesn’t need such functionality, the lack of 4K video recording places it one step behind its primary competition, with Full HD capture at 60 frames per second being the highest quality option available to users.
By default the P9 records in Full HD at 30fps and whilst there’s no optical image stabilisation (OIS) system, the digital stabiliser does a remarkable job of smoothing things out without the visible ‘wobble’ of older Huawei devices, placing it on a level peg with Sony’s SteadyShot technology.
Fine detail and colour depth are a little lacklustre but the P9 produces usable footage, unless of course, you switch to slow-motion video recording, which pushes contrast to unsavoury levels and lacks the detail of standard footage, giving the impression that it’s actually being upscaled to 720p HD, but captured at a much lower resolution – a trait we’ve seen with previous Huawei and Honor devices too.
As we said already, the P9 packs the best camera that Huawei has ever put into a smartphone; whether that’s through its partnership with Leica or as a result of its own efforts is unclear, but the resultant user experience, functionality and picture quality all speak to the idea that Huawei isn’t messing around, looking to be taken as seriously as the current smartphone camera elite (namely the latest iPhone, Samsung and Sony flagships).
It lags behind in the video department, but even if the P9 hasn’t got it completely right, we have a sneaking suspicion that Huawei won’t let such a drawback remain come the launch of its next major device.
You can see full resolution photo samples from this article here.