HUAWEI P9 SMARTPHONE CAMERA REVIEW
My new Leica camera comes with a smartphone attached!
My Leica Q meets my Huawei P9
I have to put my hands up at the beginning of this article and state I am a Leica snob. If I could I'd own them all: M, S and SL. But realistically as I am not as rich as Croesus I have had to rein in my ambitions.
I am very fortunate to own the Leica Q - a camera which continues to astound and delight me but I like all Leica addicts I lusted for a second Leica body - which brings me to the P9.
I have to admit that about 90% of the decision to obtain a P9 was down to the tie in with Leica. I know from my Panasonic camera kit that Leica does not casually allow its name to be associated with or used by other manufacturers. Leica demands a high attention to quality. Although I have a beef with Leica for failing to support micro43rds more enthusiastically they have in conjunction with Panasonic created some great lenses for the m43rds system - including my all-time favourite - the Lumix Leica DG 45/2.8 Macro - which has been my best macro lens ever (I won a national photographic competition with that lens back in 2010).
Huawei are an established brand but with no real penetration in Europe, let alone the UK so it was intriguing that Leica partnered with this particular company. Leaving aside the reasons the other intriguing aspect of the collaboration is the twin-lens configuration of the camera - but more of that later.
I bought my P9 from Amazon, SIM free. Specifications-wise, it is not the fastest or has the best available screen. However, I have to say it is considerably faster in operation than my previous Samsung S5 and the screen also appears brighter and clearer. I also like the slim rectangular shape although it is slippery. For that reason I purchased a bumper-case which protects it should it slip out of my hands. One feature which is different to many other smartphones is that the fingerprint reader is on the back of the phone. Initially, this is a bit weird but over time it makes considerable sense as when I pick up the phone my index finger seems to naturally gravitate to the sensor.
The Leica tie-in is evident from the moment you receive the phone. The packaging is straight out of the Leica playbook for ensuring the customer feels as though they are purchasing a luxury product. Huawei are very fortunate to get this level of insight into how to treat their consumers.
I wouldn't want anyone to think I am shallow enough to be impressed by packaging but I am impressed that the collaboration with Leica goes this far.
In the same way, the look of devices - especially cameras - is not high on my list of wants. However, just like a Leica camera, the looks are pleasingly minimal. It is a phone. It is shaped to hold in one hand but there are no fancy curved features although all edges are bevelled and the fit and finish is good. If you want to impress your friends with how thin your phone is, I don't think you will be disappointed.
To cut to the chase this is the back of the phone showing the all-important camera.
Seen here clearly are the dual lenses of the camera modules. One for capturing colour the other monochrome. In turn the lenses are linked to two 12MP sensors. It is claimed that the main benefit of twin lenses and sensors is better sharpness and especially at lower light levels. A separate mono module also benefits the creation of pure monochrome images, something Leica pioneered in its Leica M range with the Leica Monochrome rangefinder which is only capable of capturing greyscale images. Of course, a Monochrome will set you back about £5,000 in the UK versus the £400 (approximate) street price of the P9.
You can see that the lens is a Summarit f2.2/27mm ASPH lens. Quite a mouthful and also an interesting name for the Leicarati. Summarit lenses are traditionally the 'lower' end range of Leica optics. They have maximum apertures which are not as exotic as the high end lenses like the Summicron, Summilux and Noctilux lenses which can go down to a widest aperture of f0.95. However, as we shall see the aperture of this lens is a bit of a moveable feast.
The 27mm focal length creates an equivalent 35mm focal length because the tiny sensors create a crop factor. Even then I am not convinced about either the actual focal length of the lens or the crop value but as you will see in the 'Info' screen (below) this is what the camera claims. This is a medium wide angle lens. It is good for landscape and interior shots but not so good for portraits if you get too close to the subject (the old 'big nose' problem and I am not talking about Monty Python's Life of Brian here).
Incidentally, when I first got the phone I didn't realise the indented square on the back was the finger-print reader!
The phone can be operated in a simple point and shoot mode. But - hey - that's not what I bought it for so I immediately set about checking out PRO mode of the camera using my trusty cat as my first model.
The PRO mode is accessed by swiping up and it reveals a number of controls.
As can be seen on the display you have control over the metering (spot, centred weighted, average), ISO, shutter speed, EV, autofocus and white balance. You can also see that I have turned on the grid - which I use extensively when I am composing on my cameras that support it - and in the top left of the photo a small RAW indicator.
There are even more controls available which are revealed by swiping left while in photo capature mode and they cover nearly two pages of options.
As far as I am concerned there is pretty much have every feature I would want (and in this day and age expect to find) on a modern DSLR or compact camera. You can see all the features in the screen shot but I am most impressed by the inclusion of a horizontal level which is another feature I have turned on permanently on my main cameras.
Despite twin 12mpx sensors the dimensions of a JPEG are 3968x2968 pixels (e.g. 12 megapixels) in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The average file size of the JPEGs are 3Mb.
Shooting RAW creates 23Mb files in the Adobe DNG format. That makes sense because the RAW files are a combination of two distinct 12mpx sensors. The RAW file pixel count is 3592x2960 (slightly smaller than JPEGs but still around 12megapixels). When processed as 16-bit TIFFs in Lightroom the resulting file can swell to over 60Mbytes of file storage (but obviously still only 12megapixels). If all this sounds like gobbled-gook don't be worried. You will get deliciously detailed photographs from the either jpeg or raw and embarrassingly so when compared to compact and DSLR digital cameras.
The first photo is the original RAW file converted to JPEG without processing (RAW always results in flat looking files unlike JPEGs) and the second photo is a 100% crop taken from the top centre of the image. Now, this is not pro-quality DSLR imaging but it is certainly good enough for web and social network sharing and you can very clearly read the printing. DNG is a good RAW format choice as Adobe has supported it in Lightroom ever since it was a free programme many, many iterations ago (it is no longer free). This means the format is mature and well understood. I used DNG for years on my Leica digital rangefinder camera to great success and indeed continue to use DNG today on my Leica Q.
In my serious and professional photography I only shoot in RAW and expect to post process in Lightroom, the NIK Effex suite and Photoshop.
However, as far as I can tell RAW comes at the price in that you can only save RAWs to the camera memory. That said, I do not keep photographs on my camera storage cards for long at all. My normal workflow is that I shoot, save to my PC, backup and then format the storage card ready for the next shoot. I will use a similar workflow with the P9 so that I don't fill up the camera main memory.
On the left is the original RAW file processed as a JPEG and on the right the file after I have adjusted for various sliders in Lightroom and then saved as a JPEG.
In fact RAW is not an essential requirement for good photography with the P9. If you shoot photos on your phone for sharing on the phone or social media then you will probably want to avoid using RAW and in any case all the PRO features are available whether you shoot in JPEG or RAW.
The standard camera functions offer a lot of photographic features. As is typical with most smartphone cameras there are settings for different capture modes and styles.
To access the Modes screen you swipe right while in photo capture.
You can see that there are a variety of different capture styles. When you swipe up there is a final line with two more modes: audio note and document capture. I have not tried any of the modes other than the standard PHOTO but it looks to me like there are more than enough features here to keep an inquisitive mind occupied for some time.
On the right is the display in standard PHOTO mode. At the top there are five straightforward icons. From the left they are flash mode, aperture adjustment, colour style, saturation slider and the toggle for changing from the back to front cameras.
The aperture adjustment is probably the most interesting of all these camera features. It simulates adjusting the aperture from f0.95 to f16 (as seen the examples below). Bear in mind - this is only a simulation - the aperture of each of the lenses is fixed at f2.2.
I initially chose an aperture of f0.95 for this photograph. This simulates one of Leica's most famous lenses, the Noctilux. Of course, it is only a simulation so after taking the photo you can still adjust the aperture to any setting as shown by the screenshot on the right. In addition, you can also choose to move the focus point to elsewhere in the frame.
Although this opens up a lot of creative and fun possibilities the actual image quality is impaired but not so much that you wouldn't want to share on social media - and indeed the photo on the left certainly brought me some positive comments amongst my friends on Facebook when I posted it.
There is probably a lot more to say about the camera function of the P9 but this is not an exhaustive review or test. Just playing with the gallery photographs today I discovered a comprehensive 'info' screen which even contains a histogram. A very grown up feature for a smartphone camera!
The P9 lives up to its Leica branding in terms of the presentation, fit and finish of the phone. Compared to the iPhones that my friends own it is not quite there in terms of look and feel but it is certainly a step up from my Samsung S5 and for its price point I think it will be an article you will admire. I have certainly grown to like the P9 a lot during the last couple of weeks. The screen is a big step up from my S5 but I have not compared it to Samsung's current models. I also find that it processes very quickly, especially when browsing the web. In fact the only time I have noticed latency is when I am stretching the camera functions of the phone. Then it tends to slow down but perhaps this is to be expected. Unlike my S5, it does not appear to have heat issues, something which a number of other S5 owners I have talked to have also complained about - it seems to run very cool all the time.
The phone uses the new C-type connector but sadly does not support USB 3.0 which is a bit of a shame (and a waste of the connector). Likewise, unlike the S5 the P9 does not have a replaceable battery, although I am sure aftermarket phone techs will provide a replacement battery service at some point in the future.
The camera functions are extremely rich and I would say logically set out in side-swipe menus and during camera operations. The ability to select RAW is an attractive feature for post-processing and the choice of DNG is very good too. I rarely used the camera on my Samsung S5 as I was not impressed with its quality. I have already been shooting a lot more with the P9 because of its functionality and its image quality.
So, what about image quality? To be completely honest my feelings are somewhat mixed about this and prejudiced by the fact that I have dedicated camera kit which would be my first port of call for any work I do. I would not go out to shoot something specific with only my P9 but then my purposes are beyond casual and social use.
What I do think is that with this generation of camera phone I really cannot see why a casual user would want to purchase a separate compact camera - unless it was a very high-end one (like the Ricoh GR, Sony RX-100, Canon G etc) to take their photography to a more serious level. For all other social and casual purpose the captures from the P9 are going to delight and satisfy users - especially when combined with the camera modes and effects.
I will say that as with all collaborative camera projects between Leica and other manufacturers they have managed to create Leica-like images with strong reds and blues and lots of lovely contrast. The mono work I have seen from other users is also very convincing. For years I have recommended to anyone who asks my opinion the Panasonic line of compacts with Leica branded optics because I know that the JPEGs will be bold and beautiful (indeed my wife maintains two popular gardening websites using my now very old Panasonic Lumix LX3 and I am continually amazed at how bold, colourful and sharp are the photographs she posts).
To finish with I will remind experienced and not so experienced users of one very important maxim when it comes to photography. For months I have been trying to capture a new London Routemaster bus which is tricked out with an advert for Fender Guitars. Lo and behold the other day it pulled up next to me as I walking along the road. Without my P9 I would have missed another opportunity - as the maxim goes "it is the camera you have with you that gets the shot" and as I never leave home without my mobile phone I will never miss another opportunity for want of carrying a camera.
I have placed a small album of sample photographs - including links to full size jpegs here. Please note that all photographs on this site are copyright LouisBerk.com 2016 (unless otherwise stated) and must not be reproduced without permission.