Monday, January 30, 2017

Huawei Mate 9 Pro Review From A Photographer's Perspective

UPDATE: I have recorded myself using the Huawei Mate 9 Pro for street shooting in a video! You may check out the video here (click). 

Huawei has launched their new flagship smartphone series, Huawei Mate 9 and Mate 9 Pro just last month. I was approached by Huawei Malaysia with a loaned unit of Huawei Mate 9 Pro for review purposes. The reason I am excited to try this phone out is the Leica involvement with the development of the camera module of the Huawei Mate 9, which is the second collaboration effort since the Huawei P9 (I have reviewed here and here).

I am not a tech junkie, and I am sure at this time of writing, there are dozens of tech-oriented reviews focusing on the smartphone aspects of Mate 9 Pro published on the net, everywhere in the world, offering in depth look and informative opinions. Therefore, there is no reason for me to add another review of a smartphone, which I believe that most of these sites have done a wonderful job reporting. On the other hand, as I have done a quick online research specifically for the camera review of Huawei Mate 9, not much information came up. The most extensive review I have come across was a video review done by Pocketnow focusing on just the camera on the phone, which I thought was exceptionally well done. As a photo-enthusiast who is obsessed with image quality, camera performance and creating beautiful looking images as a hobby, I shall take a good look particularly at the Huawei Mate 9 Pro's camera imaging capabilities in this blog review. 

The Huawei Mate 9 Pro loaned to me from Huawei Malaysia was a Champagne Gold edition. The shiny exterior was a breath of fresh air, since most of my gadgets and photography gear are in monotonous black color theme. 



Here at the back of the phone, is the dual camera module, which Huawei claimed to have been developed in collaboration with Leica. 

A closer look at the dual camera module. 

ABOUT LEICA DUAL CAMERA

The stand-out feature on this phone surely is the Leica dual camera. First implemented in Huawei P9, Huawei claimed that the dual camera used in the new Huawei Mate 9 and Mate 9 Pro is an improvement over the P9, and this is now the second generation Leica camera. Based on the product descriptions and specifications (you may find the full list here), the following are the highlights:

1) Two Camera Modules Utilizing Two Image Sensors and Two Lenses
Two separate imaging modules were used with each module having its own image sensor and lens. One of the modules features a 12MP full RGB color image sensor, while another one has a monochrome 20MP image sensor. I honestly do not know which one of the cameras (either top or bottom) is the color or monohrome unit. This was the first difference with P9 which had two similar pixel count image sensors of 12MP. The lenses were both using a 27mm equivalent perspective, with aperture opening of F2.2 each. Since Huawei did not claim to make any improvements in the lenses, I would believe these were the exact same lenses used in the P9, which is a good thing, because the lenses were excellent based on my previous review. 

2) Pixel Binning Improved Resolution And Low Light Performance
Having dual cameras, the Mate 9 Pro benefits from Pixel Binning, allowing more image details to be captured from the secondary monochrome sensor to generate a higher resolution image. For JPEG option, 20MP resolution can be selected. For the purpose of this review, This option however is not available when shooting in RAW. I shall stay with only the 12MP native option since it is the true resolution, and 20MP is an up-scale processed image from the 12MP native image. Remember, for photographers, it is NOT how many Megapixels you have that matters, but the quality of each pixels that truly count. 

3) Optical Image Stabilization
One of my main complains back in my review of P9 was not having image stabilization, which could have made a world of difference in real life shooting conditions, both for still photography and video recording. This time, for the Mate 9 and Mate 9 Pro, optical image stabilization system is included. I am also not sure how the image stabilization works with the dual camera module, either it is only stabilizing one of the lenses, or both lenses have its own stabilizer built in. Synchronizing two stabilizers is no easy feat, so as curious as I was, no information is available at this point. I shall explore the effectiveness of the image stabilization in this blog review. 

4) Wide Aperture Mode
Another advantage of having dual camera mode is the ability to generate "bokeh" effect. I simply loved the rendering of the simulated bokeh effect from the Huawei P9, and I am expecting the Mate 9 Pro to be able to produce similar quality output. 

5) PRO Mode With Manual Controls
I find that the Pro mode on the Huawei Mate 9 Pro is still in the same arrangements and layout as the P9, which is a great thing for me, since I am already accustomed to the settings and controls. The full control is available for manual exposure shooting, this includes shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, focusing modes (can manual focus too) and white balance controls. 


Having a 5.5 inch 2K Amoled screen, the phone is not exactly small, and reminds me of my time using the OnePlus One. The Huawei Mate 9 Pro fits nicely into my not so large Asian hand. If you have a larger hand than me, than you should have no issues. I cannot say if you have smaller hands though!


For dedicated photographers, we already have our own specific gear of choice, perhaps even having multiple cameras and lenses to perform specific tasks and to meet certain photographic needs. Whether a full DSLR system or a compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system, photographers both professional and hobbysts mostly know their way around the cameras and have their own expectations when it comes to pure imaging performance. However, having a high performing smartphone camera is also crucial and fits perfectly into today's modern photography. A smartphone is an item that we carry with us everywhere we go to regardless of what we do, and as the great Chase Jarvis once said "the best camera is the one you have with you". From my experience as a photographer, best photography opportunity often happens at unexpected times, and there are times we just do not have a camera with us. In such situations, a great camera in a smartphone can be a life saver. 

Besides, if you are just going to hang out with friends in a cafe, taking quick snapshots, selfies, and food shots (that coffee art and that layered colorful cake are just so Instagram worthy), you would't use your 10,000 dollars worth of gigantic DSLR and lenses, would you? A high quality smartphone camera should be able to satisfy such needs, unless you intend to do a billboard size print of that coffee and cake image you just took. Even for small prints, and high resolution web applications, most high end camera smartphones can deliver. 

I think smartphone cameras are getting better and better, with implementation of daring, fresh technologies that could make it into mainstream imaging products. Having dual camera module have positive outcomes, and that simulated bokeh rendering may have future applications in more serious photography products. Will the day come that the smartphone shall replace traditional cameras? Maybe, but if it happens, there is still a long way to go. However, it is also extremely important to view the smartphone as being a smartphone, and treat it as such. This is the main emphasis of this blog review, looking at the camera on this Huawei Mate 9 Pro, and how does it perform when I took it out for my usual shutter therapy sessions?

For those of you new to this site, shutter therapy is a phrase I personally coined: it simply means, go out with your camera (in this case, your smartphone) and have fun shooting anything you find along the streets. The key words are "having fun". Photography should be enjoyed, and is a form of personal therapy to many. 

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/475sec, F2.2, ISO50
Dynamic range of the camera on Huawei Mate 9 Pro is quite impressive. I can pull details from the shadows and recover blown out highlights. 

Pro Mode, RAW
1/60sec, F2.2, ISO50
The image rendering from the JPEG engine is pleasing, and natural looking with plenty of punchy contrast and color saturation. 

Pro Mode, RAW
1/33sec, F2.2, ISO160
The most important thing I look for in images is the "natural" look, and Huawei Mate 9 Pro delivers in this area. 

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/871sec, F2.2, ISO50
Another example of challenging lighting condition, and Mate 9 Pro excels in balancing the light and shadow areas. 
  
HDR Mode
1/100sec, F2.2, ISO200
HDR mode was used for this particular shot to balance the dark inner cave parts against bright light from an afternoon sun. 

IMAGE QUALITY

I am thoroughly pleased with the image quality from the Huawei Mate 9 Pro, both in JPEG and RAW quality. 

I shot everything in both JPEG and RAW. I used mostly JPEG images, and in cases when I processed from RAW, I shall mention separately at the image descriptions. 

JPEG quality is excellent, both in maintaining high level of fine details, overall sharp look and true to life color reproduction. The help from the secondary image sensor boosted the structure of the images, having more texture and much finer look when it comes to areas that have plenty of details (fabric, hair, etc). The white balance engine does a great job in producing good looking colors and to me that is important. Skin tone comes out pleasing and smooth. Shooting in good lighting condition (outdoor in the sun), with ISO numbers used being low (ISO50-200), the dynamic range recorded is impressively wide for a smartphone camera.

RAW option is available directly from the default camera app, which was an added bonus. Shooting RAW opens much more flexibility, especially when it comes to pulling out details from the shadow regions or recovering details in blown out highlights of an image. I have a few examples later in post illustrating how much highlights could be recovered with RAW processing. I generally would not recommend shooting RAW when it comes to mobile photography, but it does come in handy in some difficult shooting conditions, or if you simply want to maximize the potential of your images. Do bear in mind, if you are not photography-savvy, and you just started delving into the world of photography, do not shoot RAW. You must know what you are doing and how to effectively do post-processing, or else you are going to end up with shitty results shooting RAW. Stay with JPEG if you are uncertain with what you do. 


LENS QUALITY AND SHARPNESS

The sharpness from the Huawei Mate 9 Pro continues to impress me, I see similar signature lens rendering from the earlier Huawei P9. I believe similar optical construction was used for these smartphones.

I think these lenses (whether truly designed and made by Leica or not, is another discussion, which I shall not get into) are some of the best lenses out there for smartphone cameras.The distortion level is low (not sure how much software correction is involved) and sharpness is more than good enough for smartphones application. The images captured show impressive amount of fine detail and good contrast levels. 

At F2.2 wide open aperture, it is bright enough for a broad range of shooting needs. I have heard some online reviewers complained that at F2.2 the lens is not as bright as other available smartphone cameras that opens up to F1.7 or F1.8, claiming that the F2.2 on Mate 9 is inferior. Dude, seriously? That is only about HALF a stop difference in terms of exposure value, and you say it makes a world of difference? Do you even know what half a stop of aperture means? This is my problem with some online tech reviewers who review cameras on the smartphones, these claims are often made without much research or context when it comes to real life photography applications, and comparisons are made and immediately concluded based on paper specifications. F2.2 is perfectly fine as long as the optical quality is optimized and in all honesty, is still more than bright enough for smartphone photography applications. If you want a stark difference, maybe creating a high quality lens at F1.4 aperture or larger will accomplish significant difference worthy of comparison!

I have also heard several reviewers concluded the camera in the "cons" of their conclusions. They summarized the camera as being mediocre, not impressive enough, or not even as good as other smartphone cameras. Cameras of reference are Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel. While I have not used any of these two "reference" cameras, I do not find the camera on the Huawei Mate 9 Pro to be mediocre at all. The proof is not in the specification war, or analyzing technical data. For a camera, the proof is in the images that the camera captures. 


Pro Mode, RAW
1/10sec, F2.2, ISO50
This may seem like a studio quality shot, but if you know how it was taken you would be surprised by how easy it is. I used my old LED light (bought at RM50 at clearance sales) diffused by an A4 paper from the left of the frame, and a weak flash light from OnePlus X smartphone beaming from the right. Black background in a dark room (lights turned off) of course. 

Crop from previous image. 

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/500sec, F2.2, ISO50
One of the best ways to torture the camera to test the resolution prowess is to shoot animals, revealing the fine details of fur or feathers. 

Crop from previous image

Pro Mode, RAW
1/500sec, F2.2, ISO50

Crop from previous image

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/15sec, F2.2, ISO50

Crop from previous image

 WIDE APERTURE MODE

One of the crucial highlights, which I think separates Huawei from competition is the wide aperture mode, ability to create simulation of out of focus area, blurring background off into beautiful, smooth and creamy bokeh. Basically bokeh itself is a Japanese word meaning blur, and in photography term, it refers to the QUALITY of blur in the out of focus areas in an image. A good bokeh should be smooth, not harsh, and pleasing in look without being distracting from the main subject in sharp focus. I personally was satisfied with the simulation of bokeh in Huawei P9, and in Mate 9 Pro, the wide aperture mode continues to work beautifully.

I also must put a disclaimer here that a simulated bokeh is still a simulated bokeh, and doing any comparison to real bokeh generated by wide aperture real lenses is truly pointless. Surely, the real bokeh is still better and more realistic looking, because, well, it is real. Having the ability to generate wide aperture mode, though software processed can come in handy when subject isolation is needed, and you have got to admit that the rendering from Huawei is the best out there when it comes to smartphones cameras. There are other similar offerings from other smartphones but none came close to what Huawei can do with their wide aperture effect. As I mentioned, it is not the amount of blur, but the quality of blur.

To fully maximize this mode, it is best to have just one subject and one background, and the subject should be as simple as possible. There is a chance of false blurring (areas in focus to be incorrectly blurred) and wide aperture mode still needs improving to be used flawlessly. However, if you take extra care in your shooting process, and understand how it works, you can actually make some convincing images with beautiful, bokehlicious background.

Trust me, I have had a handful of friends who spend crazy amount of money getting into DSLR system, just so that they can have "bokeh" in their photography. Bokeh is a huge thing, and the thought of the simulation getting better and where this is going is quite exciting!

A useful tip to share here, when using wide aperture mode, be a little conservative with the amount of blurring applied. Do not ever go overboard at F0.95, and I recommend using F2 or narrower. At F5.6 the image rendering looks very natural, and often I set the aperture number to the range from F4 to F5.6. 

Wide Aperture Mode
 1/33sec, F2, ISO160

Wide Aperture Mode
1/50sec, F4, ISO80

Wide Aperture Mode
1/60sec, F4, ISO50

Wide Aperture Mode
1/100sec, F6.3, ISO64

Wide Aperture Mode
1/33sec, F2, ISO250

Comparison to Wide Aperture background rendering at different values. While F5.6 may have less background blur, but it produces the most natural looking result. 

Pro Mode, RAW
1/100sec, F2.2, ISO100
When used in close up shooting, the camera can generate great amount of background blurring, and the natural bokeh looks good too. 


AUTOFOCUS SPEED AND CAMERA OPERATIONS

Huawei mentioned that they used sophisticated "Advanced 4 Hybrid Autofocus" system. It is a combination of PDAF (Phase Detect Autofocus), CAF (Contrast Detect Autofocus), Laser and Depth auto focus. I have no idea what Depth autofocus means. Also, I have no idea how the hell Huawei can combine ALL four AF systems together. 

The Mate 9 Pro is perhaps a little faster than the P9, but it will not make a big difference in real life shooting situations. For my shooting needs on the streets, I find that the AF responds fast enough for most of my shots. The response is not blazing fast and as instantaneous as high level DSLR or Pro mirrorless cameras, but hey, you are also not going to shoot sports or action photography with a smartphone are you? My point is, for general, not fast moving subject, you do need an appropriate expectation from what the camera can do, and for me, the Huawei Mate 9 Pro does more than a satisfactory job in nailing the focus just in time and I have very high hit rate for my shots. Sure there are misses there and here, but nothing to blame the Mate 9 Pro for. 

In low light, the Autofocus does struggle a little bit, it takes a while longer to lock focus, but here is the thing, when it does lock focus, it locks perfectly. The focus was spot on, and the images are always, always in accurate focus, and I have never encountered a situation that the Huawei Mate 9 Pro has failed to focus. Of course I was not shooting a black cat in a dark alley, but if you do need that kind of performance from a camera, seriously, you using a smartphone? The most important thing to me when it comes to autofocus is ability to nail the focus as accurately as possible, so that I know no matter how slow the camera focuses, as I wait, it will get the shot, and it is worth the wait. What I cannot forgive, is some camera trying too hard to lock focus quickly and while the camera tells you it managed to lock focus you get away with blurry images. That is a big sin in my books. 

Another point worth noting, is the absence of camera lag in response when waking up. It was a big problem as I used P9 for street photography, and I have not encountered this so far on the Mate 9 Pro I am using. Also, shutter lag seems to have been reduced too. 

In case you are confused between shutter lag and autofocus speed, you have some of the online tech reviewers to blame, as they often mix these two phrases up. Autofocus refers to the camera calculating the distance between the camera and subject, focuses the lenses so that the image will appear sharp and crisp, hence autofocus happens BEFORE a photo is being taken. Shutter lag refers to the delay between the press of shutter button to the actual capturing of image, as the phone receives a signal from your tap to shoot, the phone then needs to process the signal and directs the camera to take a photo. This happens DURING the image capture. A fast autofocus does not gurantee there is no shutter lag, and vice versa. In ideal situations, we shall have fast autofocus, with short shutter lag. And in realistic situation, ALL cameras, and I mean ALL, will have autofocus speed (how fast or how slow) and shutter lag (how long, or how short). 


Auto Mode, JPEG
1/900sec, F2.2, ISO160
This jumping cats shot is the perfect sample to illustrate how fast the camera on Mate 9 Pro responds to action situation. 

Auto Mode, JPEG, Converted to Black and White in post-processing
1/4000sec, F2.2, ISO50

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/255sec,F2.2, ISO50
As I saw the man in yellow shirt was about to step out from the bus, I thought the yellow shirt complements the yellow bus perfectly, something that we street photographers look for. The Mate 9 Pro reacted just in time for this shot. 

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/100sec, F2.2, ISO80
The stripe of the man's shirt matches the stairs. For shots like this, you have to be super quick in your shooting execution so that you can remain in "ninja" mode, without your subjects being aware of your shooting presence which could pollute the scene. The natural, beautiful expressions on the faces were perfectly captured, which the Huawei Mate 9 Pro was fast enough to do so before they noticed me shooting them. 


MONOCHROME MODE
Just like the P9, the Mate 9 Pro has one camera which has a dedicated monochrome image sensor, which means it only records in black and white. Yes, only in black and white and I know many people may not be able to comprehend the logic of this. Allow me to explain. 

You see in the traditional RGB image sensor, each pixel can only record either red, green or blue information, meaning the overall image sensor's resolution is greatly reduced at the expense of capturing full color information. When it comes to pure black and white recording, the pixels do not need to be filtered into separate colors, hence it can record to its full pixel capacity and potentially result in superior sharpness and fine detail rendering. 

If you want to find out more about how the monochrome image sensor works, I have written lengthily about it and even explored the difference and benefits of a monochrome mode in my previous blog entry on the Huawei P9 here. 

Similar concept and technology is being used, the only difference is that instead of using a 12MP image sensor, the monochrome mode in Huawei Mate 9 Pro uses a 20MP image sensor. 

I absolutely love the monochrome mode in Mate 9 Pro, and I believe there is a special look to the black and white images, with smoother gradations, finer details and more organic, life-like look in the rendering. I shall do one more blog entry, an extension to this review, dedicated to shooting only purely in black and white mode. After all, black and white photography is a huge thing and having a dedicated monochrome mode is a huge thing for photography lovers. 


Monochrome Mode
1/50sec, F2.2, ISO64

Monochrome Mode
1/218sec, F2.2, ISO50

Monochrome Mode
1/50sec, F2.2, ISO80

Monochrome Mode
1/310sec, F2.2, ISO50

Monochrome Mode
1/1/100sec, F2.2, ISO100

Monochrome Mode
1/898sec, F2.2, ISO160

LOW LIGHT SHOOTING PERFORMANCE
One of the biggest worries when it comes to camera performance, is shooting in low light conditions. 

Before we go in too far, if you are new to photography, let me introduce to you the concept of lighting, and why lighting is superbly important for any photography. There is the amount of light, and there is the quality of light. Amount of light refers to the light intensity and exposure level, for example, being outside in a cloudless day in afternoon you get a large amount of sun. When you go into a cave, you have much lesser amount of light in comparison to being outside in a sunny day. However, quality of light differs. Being under a bright, harsh, direct sun does not mean you get high quality light, when it is directly afternoon, you get harsh sun creating deep shadows and bright spots on human skin, causing problem with uneven exposures which most professional portrait photographers would prevent by using light reflectors and even flash. Similarly, shooting in a dark cave does not mean that the quality of light is bad, if you have a diffused, directional light, while it is dark, you can get interesting results. 

It is more important to emphasize on the quality of light, than obsessing over how the camera performs in low light situation. 

Here is the truth, if your lighting sucks, no matter what you do, no matter what camera you use (whether it is a smartphone or a high end DSLR) your images will still suck. 

A great camera cannot perform a magic to transform badly lit scene into a studio like quality images, regardless it is bright or in dark situation. There is a reason why flash light (or any sort of lighting) is so popular, to counter such problems. 

So how does the Huawei Mate 9 Pro perform in less than favorable shooting conditions? 

From ISO20-400, the image quality is well controlled, with plenty of fine detail and good sharpness. From ISO800 onward, the noise reduction kicks in, smearing useful image details, but I can still accept the image quality up to ISO800, and maybe using ISO1250 and ISO1600 in case of emergency with lower expectations on what the images can deliver, and of course, ISO3200 should be avoided at all costs. That ISO3200 is just simply unusable, I am not sure why it is there. 

While at ISO800 and ISO1600 is nothing revolutionary when it comes to today's modern imaging standards when the highest level camera can have clean ISO25,600 images, well please be reminded that the Mate 9 Pro is still a smartphone. There is only so much that a small image sensor can achieve. Managing expectations is crucial, as I mentioned, it is more important to take care of your lighting, understanding characteristics of light and how it works in photography, that will surely guarantee you much better results than complaining that the camera in the smartphone is not doing well in bad light. 

I do however, wish that Huawei has included noise reduction settings that we can tweak. I guess there is a reason RAW is available, so we can process the images ourselves if we do not intend to rely on JPEG. 

Pro Mode JPEG
1/30sec, F2.2, ISO1250

Crop from previous image

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/100sec, F2.2, ISO1600

Crop from previous image

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/229sec, F2.2, ISO3200
This ISO3200 image is so bad that it may induce photography nightmare if I show you a 100% view crop. 

HIGHLIGHT RECOVERY

The RAW mode comes in really useful, when dealing in difficult shooting conditions, such as shooting in an uneven lighting environment. I find the RAW files to provide an impressive amount of recovery headroom for highlight blown-out areas in a photo.

This is however no excuse for you to purposely over-exposing our images. As a reminder, you must know what you are doing if you want to shoot RAW, else shooting with JPEG should be your recommended option all the time.

Pro Mode, RAW
1/15sec, F2.2, ISO50
This image was purposely overexposed, using slow shutter speed manually to capture the motion blur which adds drama to the shot. Unfortunately, the drawback of using a smartphone camera module is a fixed aperture at wide open F2.2, which is too bright for sunny day situations. I shot this in RAW, and the exposure was corrected, with highlights recovered successfully in the following image. 

Post-processed to correct exposure and recover highlight to produce a balanced image. 

Pro Mode, RAW
1/60sec, F2.2, ISO50
Due to the multiple, varying brightness spotlights being used, the top left part of the image was overexposed. This was the JPEG image which could no longer be salvaged. 

Thankfully the RAW mode helped. 



IMAGE STABILIZATION

The newly added image stabilization benefits shooting with slower shutter. I find that the image stabilization effectively compensates between two to three stops of advantage when it comes to shutter speed steps. The slowest shutter speed I can shoot with is 1/3sec. I can confidently shoot at 1/5 sec or faster. That simply provides much better reassurance when dealing with slower shutter speeds, as I constantly get blur results with the previous P9 with anything below 1/20sec.

Why is this important? I can use slower shutter speed, so that I do not need to increase the ISO setting. Technically, for hald-held shooting for 27mm lens, a minimum shutter speed should be about 1/30sec. That would mean that I need an ISO of 640 to 800 to create a well exposed image, if I want to use 1/30sec. But shooting at ISO50 only, I can get the optimum image quality, by shooting at 1/3sec slower shutter speed.

Pro Mode, JPEG
1/3sec, F2.2, ISO50

Crop from previous image


PRO Mode

I think Huawei Mate 9 and the P9 series have the best implemented camera interface. The quick shortcuts to get into the most important exposure controls are efficiently placed and can be accessed easily. One swipe up reveals all the crucial settings in Pro mode: shutter speed, ISO, Exposure compensation, focusing modes and white balance settings. Operating these settings and controls are easy, quick and smooth in operation without any hiccup during my three days course of shooting with the Mate 9 Pro.



So far I have covered what I have liked about the Huawei Mate 9 Pro's camera capabilities. 

To summarize what I love:
1) Excellent JPEG rendering with very usable straight out of camera images. 
2) Good flexibility of RAW files, provided directly from the default camera App
3) Image quality is richly detailed, sharp with pleasing, natural looking color balance. 
4) Wide Aperture Mode creates realistic looking bokeh effect, good for subject isolation. Care of use is needed. 
5) Camera is responsive, autofocus is fast enough for general application and shutter lag is well managed. 
6) Inclusion of Image Stabilization helps shooting in low light conditions
7) Monochrome mode produces beautiful, great looking black and white images. 
8) Pro mode unlocks all necessary manual exposure settings for creative photography, and is easy to use. 

Now, what do I wish could be improved in the Huawei Mate 9 Pro's camera?

1) 2x Hybrid Zoom
Huawei claimed that 2x zoom can be achieved without losing resolution and details in a 12MP shot. However, that is not the case, and I have even tested the images shooting with a tripod to mitigate any image shake, yet images still come out softer than the default non-zoomed images. 

2) Wide Aperture Mode cannot work with Pro Mode
When Wide Aperture Mode is used, you are basically using the camera's auto mode. I would like to be able to control my ISO settings and shutter speed controls, for some shots that require tinkering in both parameters! I am sure this limitation can be overcome in future products. 

3) 20MP mode vs 12MP images
There is an option to select 20MP for JPEG images, as the Mate 9 Pro uses the secondary monochrome image sensor to increase the perceived resolution by software upscale processing. I have tried the 20MP images, and was not impressed. I highly recommend staying with the native 12MP images. 12MP is still a lot of Megapixels when it comes to smartphone photography. 

4) Touch to capture mode not fast enough. 
Firstly the touch to capture is not available for Pro mode, which is a shame, because I think it is crucial to quickly touch the area on the screen you want to be in focus and quickly have the camera immediately capture the shot too. Secondly, at full auto mode, the touch to capture still is not instantaneous enough, and using the touching "shutter" is faster. 

In all honesty, I am being nitpicking here. These complains that I have listed above should not affect the experience of most smartphone users, but may be a concern worth noting for photography-enthusiasts like myself. 

Hybrid Zoom 2x used. The mandatory coffee shot. 

My first selfie using the Mate 9 Pro. Red because it is Chinese New Year. 

So what do I think of the Huawei Mate 9 Pro, as a photographer?

I think this is possibly the BEST smartphone camera you can find in the market now, despite what some the other tech-reviewers are saying. 

In terms of image quality, the JPEG straight out of camera is actually on par with the modern more sophisticated cameras out there, and I did not have to do much processing to them.  RAW files are extremely versatile when you want to get down to serious business. The Mate 9 Pro creates the best looking bokeh effect in wide aperture mode, and the monochrome mode is just breathtaking. Pro Mode is designed with the photographer in mind, and is so easy to use, with smooth, lag-free operation. These few reasons are enough to justify the Mate 9 Pro being the best available camera for smartphone out there, because I do not see the same level of implementation from other smartphones. If there are, please do point me to the right direction. 

At the end of the day, the most important question I must ask myself is, do I enjoy using the Huawei Mate 9 Pro as a photographers' tool? Did I enjoy it using my shutter therapy sessions? Strangely, I have enjoyed using it a little more than I should! Having a camera that I truly love using is just as important as all the other considerations, because a camera that inspires and encourages you to go out and shoot is a better camera than one that you do not feel like using most of the time. 


If you have any questions on how I took any of the shots shown in this blog entry, please do not hesitate to ask, I am all about sharing and I hold nothing back when it comes to photography knowledge sharing. 

If you disagree with me in any part, I will gladly listen to you, but please do write in a polite and constructive manner. 

Do you own a Huawei Mate 9 or Mate 9 Pro? Do let me know what you think of the camera's capabilities. I want to hear from you!

I hope this review of the Huawei Mate 9 Pro's camera is beneficial to those who want to find out specifically how the camera performs. 

Please do support this site by liking my Facebook Page here (click)

29 comments :

  1. Did you find it most of time you need to minus EV to get the right exposure? Coz most time it gave me brighter exposure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi joshua,
      I tinker with the exposure compensation all the time, in whatever camera I used, since DSLR days, any brand it does not matter. The camera simply gives you an average calculated metering, which may not be what you want. What the camera sees is not what your eyes see. therefore, it is crucial for you to take a good look at each image and judge the metering, if you think it is underexposed, you may compensate it as you wish. These days we can see exactly what the exposure is previewing live as we shoot in high resolution screen. there is NO excuse on not getting your exposure right while shooting.
      I used the exposure compensation for almost ALL my shots, ranging from +2EV to -2EV. It is just a way for you to take full control of your image.

      Delete
    2. Being S7 & iPhone user before I can say both of them don't require compensation at outdoor or under good lighting condition at most of time. Their metering just nailed it. I would assume Mate 9 metering is much pleasing for fair skin lover (ladies). I do enjoy the color, jpg quality & bokeh but feel annoying everytime when I need to dial EV to -0.7 or -0.10 to get the pleasing exposure.

      Delete
    3. For those without photography knowledge might get unexpected result using this phone..

      Delete
    4. Hey Joshua,
      The reason why Exposure Compensation was there in the first place is for you to fine tune the exposure, if you disagree with what the camera/phone calculates for you. Like I said, the camera does NOT overexpose or underexpose an image, it basically just calculates an average value. You may feel like your S7 and Iphone give you what you want, I sure cannot say if they will give me what I think is "correctly" exposed. From my experience, using ANY phone or ANY camera requires user intervention to a certain extent. Exposure compensation is such a basic, easy to apply function that no one should complain about using.

      Delete
  2. Great review, Robin. I have a P9 which I bought when I broke my previous phone, at least in part based on your review. It's great! Just wanted to mention a feature I discovered recently (and never saw mentioned in any review):
    If you touch-hold in the image area you get two circles which you can move independently. One for focus, the other for exposure - so you can set the focus point different from the metering area. Very handy feature!
    Andy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Andy.
      That sure is useful, having metering and focus being measured separately. Nevertheless I seldom use that feature, and prefer to just use exposure compensation on the fly and judge the exposure from the screen directly.

      Delete
  3. Hi Robin. Thank you for this great review. I've read many reviews that complain of the mate 9 camera without any exemple. Perhaps none of the reviewers were able to shoot correctly...
    Can you tell us which software did you use to process the raw files.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Lionel,
      for this particular session I was using Capture One. I think using any software is fine, Lightroom seems to be a popular choice. The RAW file is DNG.

      Delete
  4. Hi. Very nice review. I was curious when you are shooting in RAW/JPEG in 12 MP color pro mode, does it use the monochrome camera? Or if you want it to use the secondary camera you have to select 20 MP, and does it work in RAW?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is one question which I may not be able to answer, as there are no official answer from Huawei. I would like to think that the monochrome sensor does benefit the RAW shooting as well.

      Delete
  5. Hi Robin. I did some brief testing of the Mate 9 (which uses the same camera hardware) at my home against a Pixel XL, LG V20, and iPhone 7 Plus (for 2x zoom comparison). I placed each phone onto the same tripod at the same location and took shots on each phone, one after another, in different scenarios, then compared the images back to back and cropped areas to observe fine detail as well. Some of my observations were:

    -20 MP mode, at times, produced a sharper image than 12 MP. This was really only noticeable during pixel peeping, and sometimes the image was actually worse.
    -2x Hybrid Zoom actually did seem to improve detail versus a standard photo crop. You may want to revisit this again. And in low light, the Mate 9 actually produced better detail in 2x zoom than did the iPhone 7 Plus with its 2x optical zoom! I attribute this to the 7 Plus' smaller sensor used in the 2x zoom mode, as well as not having access to manual controls for ISO and shutter speed (I did not test with a 3rd party camera app). In daylight conditions, the iPhone's zoom was clearly superior. Again, all shots were taken on a tripod, but Apple seems to prioritize getting a clear shot over attempting to preserve detail.
    -HDR mode was practically worthless. Maybe a software update will change it, but taking a standard photo followed by an HDR photo produced almost no difference.
    -The Mate 9 almost matches the detail level of the Pixel XL. The Pixel XL was the best phone for capture detail in most conditions. But in lower light, I can actually preserve more fine detail with the Mate 9 or LG V20, even with handheld shots, by using manual control. I noticed that the Mate 9 would pull more shadow detail in daylight shots than the Pixel or V20 though.
    -No phone matches the Pixel's dynamic range, especially when setting HDR+ to ON (not auto, as that works totally different and is a lesser version of true HDR+). The Pixel XL would noticeably boost color, but also seemed to grab some colors better that the Mate 9 totally missed at times.
    -When using Pro mode on the Mate 9, the viewfinder is deceptive in low light especially. The image appears darker in the viewfinder than the actual produced photo will be, due to the pixel binning from the 20 MP sensor capturing more light. I think this verifies Huawei's claim that f/2.2 is not an issue (also as you mentioned), because you have 2 lenses gathering light together!

    For point and shoot photography on a smartphone, you can't beat the Pixel. I highly recommend you get your hands on one to check it out. With that said, I would probably prefer to have another phone when taking manual photos. The Pixel can work with manual camera apps, but those always seem lackluster in function and in quality compared to the native camera app when it offers manual control. For my needs, it works quite well. I actually bought and returned an RX100 IV because, although I enjoy taking artistic photos and using manual control, I couldn't justify the cost compared to what my smartphone could do. My phone actually produced much better dynamic range and more pleasing JPEGs so long as it was not in very low light. I know the RX100 is far, far more capable. But for me, today's smartphones work incredibly well if you learn to use them properly (Jared Polin's videos on YouTube come to mind where he shows just how capable smartphone cameras are).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Robin, I've just been reading different articles about smartphone's cameras and came across with your review, it's really accurate and the samples are just amazing, congratulations for your work!
    However, I'd like to know if the auto mode of the P9 or Mate 9 is as good as the iPhone's, G5's or Galaxy S7's, for example, taking random pictures on casual situations, no matter the light conditions. I couldn't find any other trusted review with a photographer's perspective as this one using another smartphone.
    Many thanks,
    Fede

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, perhaps I can offer my opinion as the owner of a Mate 9 Pro for one month now. I usually leave the phone in Wide Aperture mode (to play around with focus and bokeh later)with smooth colour setting, which is as auto as it gets. Day-time images are equal to iphone (my wife has iphone 7 so we compare pics all the time) and Samsung. But that's before I start fiddling with the image. Once you consider adjusting bokeh, focus point, and other image processing features that come with the phone it's no contest. For low-light settings, i can't speak for the Samsung but the Mate 9 pro blows the apple away. To the extent that my wife is a little pissed at Apple haha. The 20MP B&W lens really helps with the fine detail. I'm not a professional photographer, but I do work in advertising and have a lot of experience with layouts, and I have to say that my Art Director friends are all pretty impressed with the camera on this phone. Hope this helps a little.

      Delete
  7. Thank you for a very nice and informative blog about my new favorite mobile :) I'll followed you for some time with your Olympus photography, nice "meeting" you again with the Mate 9 Pro :) Keep this blog's coming!

    ReplyDelete
  8. nice, honest and informative review!!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for the review! Very well done! I think I will pick up the Mate for myself tomorrow! I was getting tired of hearing techies who have never held a DSLR in their life reviewing smartphone cameras... Pet peeve of mine. You saved the day!

    ReplyDelete
  10. hello and thank you for all your work, i'm a big fan.
    I'm really curious to know, in you first picture, what is the camera there look like a leica, with the blur i can't read the name.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  12. it's really amazing, I can't wait to get one. Even my mate 8 picture quality is exceptional how much more mate 9 pro. I am definitely going for my new Huawei Mate 9 Pro. Thank you Huawei for a ground breaking in the smart phone revolutionary world.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I bought A Mate 9 Pro last month and was initially absolutely blown away by the picture quality. I can now confidently say after a month of picture taking and comparing shots with my iphone 7-carrying wife, that the Mate 9 Pro and I'm sure the soon-to-be-released P10 have the best smartphone cameras in the world right now. Like Robin said, the camera UI is also extremely intuitive. This is a phone that MAKES you want to take pictures. A real 5-star job. The phone itself is also great btw, especially since I was a 3-year HTC One M8 user before this. Seamless transition.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi! Robin,

    Loved your photos since your Olympus blog days. My question to you is how much photography improvements can be had coming to the Mate 9 Pro from a P9?

    I absolutely had a great time with my P9 camera, yeah it's more like my mobile camera now. As I use my Galaxy S6 Edge more as my telephone.

    So for me, the Mate 9 Pro must really offer quite a step up in terms of camera quality before I do my next upgrade purchase.

    Do you think the upgrade is justified?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Buen Dispositivo Pero su Pantalla Es Débil, No Fuerte Como Los Dispositivos AGM , Se Los Recomiendo Ya Que Es Mucho gastar , Y Con Estos Móviles Tienen Resistencia Ip68 y Aprueba De Golpes

    ReplyDelete
  16. Exelente Dispositivo pero No Es resistente Muy fácil De Romper, Y Su Pantalla Es Muy Frágil, Mejor Es El AGM A8

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sifu, I wish you can do comparison between P10,P10 plus and Mate 9pro. Thx in advance.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Great review, choosing between S7 and Mate 9, but prefer LCD-screen, and this deep review is just what I need, a lot of points for Mate 9!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Same here, I like the look of the Mate 9 when i look at them all in the store together. Something about the phone just stands out or appeals. After reading this in depth review the camera seems awesome. Everyone pushes the S7 camera and the Pixel but this review certainly seems to show that it can compete and have fun doing so. Learning and wanting to take photos! My only concern was that the phone may be too big to carry around but i suppose you probably get used to it like everything else :)

      Delete
  19. Hi Robin,

    Thanks for doing such an outstanding honest review. I have been tossing up what to get for my next phone, Mate 9, LG V20, etc.. Agree a lot of tech review sites kind of complain that the camera is mediocre or not good compared to Pixel or Galaxy S7. However, after seeing your review now I am confident to get the Mate 9. It is the one phone that seems to keep drawing my attention even when I look at others. The pictures in your review are awesome and i will be more than happy if i can get that type of quality from my own experience. It is a beast of a phone but phones now are more than just a phone. More a multimedia center than a phone call device. More is done with messaging, emails and social media etc than actually talking on them. Great review!! I can`t wait to get mine now :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hey Robin Wong,

    Thanks a lot for your review and particularly for the angle you made it from: original and uniquely useful! 2 thumbs up.

    ReplyDelete