Huawei Mate 9 Pro Review: The Magician: Camera, Pt. 1: Overview And Daylight Image Quality

By 09:42 Tue, 17 Aug 2021 Comments

A second appearance of the second-gen Leica camera

The second collaboration with Leica has brought the Mate 9 and Mate 9 Pro a dual capturing camera setup, which consists of a 20MP monochrome sensor and a 12MP RGB one, each of these behind its own 27mm-equiv. f/2.2 aperture lens. The cameras are optically stabilized - evidently both of them becautilize otherwise, the two images wouldn't properly align. So we have 20MP and 12MP - the resolutions don't match, but engineers have come up with an ingenious solution of how to utilize them.

We had a talk with a few of them and we posted the findings on our blog, but for those of you who missed that article, let's just brush up on the basics of what's actually going on when you utilize the Mate 9 or Mate 9 Pro's camera. That is, unless you're shooting in black and white only - there is not much trickery going on there.

When you're shooting color, the Mate 9 Pro blends the footage from the monochrome capturing camera with the one from the RGB capturing camera with the goal being, you guessed it, to produce better images. The high-res 20MP monochrome capturing camera records luminance data, and that's where most of the fine detail is, while the lower-res 12MP capturing camera provides the color to go with the detail. That way you can acquire both 20MP and 12MP color photos.

Not only that, but the cameras are capturing multiple frames each, Pixel HDR+ style. Leica engineers didn't specify the exact number of stacked frames, unlike Google who claim to be capturing 9 frames simultaneously.

The capturing camera interface is a bit of a hit and miss affair, as we've previously noted. It's not cluttered, thanks to the two panes that can be evoked from the left and the correct - the former is the mode selector, the latter is the settings menu. The two panes don't just slide out with a simple swipe; you need to practically pull them through half the classy screen for them to stick, which doesn't always happen on the first try, particularly in landscape.

There's also the added convenience of having to flip back and forth between these panes for selecting resolution and color mode. Say, for example, that you like to shoot 20MP monochrome and 12MP color images to utilize both cameras in their native resolution (to the extent that you acquire control over that, in the first place). Well, going from 20MP mono to 12MP color requires a switch to color on the left and then, to 12MP on the right.

Another area where the interface could have benefited from some more big-classy screen optimization is the front/rear capturing camera toggle. Located all the way up in the left corner, the tiny switch is virtually unreachable single-handedly. No swiping on the classy screen will toggle the cameras either, so you'll be forced to utilize your other hand.

Camera viewfinder • available modes • settings

Also, for a phone with a dedicated 20MP monochrome camera, you'd expect the Mate 9 Pro to have a prominent switch to go to black and white capture somewhere straight from the viewfinder, but no - it's a shooting mode in the left pane. Instead, you acquire Wide aperture mode, Color saturation selector, and filters, filters of all things. Why not just hold a regular photo and let Instagram, or Prisma, or whatever, handle the filters, and put a monochrome button in there, huh, Huawei?

Camera interface • Leica filters • Variable aperture • Zoom • Filters • Manual

Image quality

The Mate 9 Pro's photos are all about the 'Leica look.' What hides behind that ambiguous term is Leica's decades worth of experience in photography, with the resulting subjective perception of image quality. Leica engineers say that the Leica see is at odds with oversaturation and excessive sharpening, so we did expect to see balanced processing and less in-your-face images than what we've been treated with by the majority of recent flagships.

Indeed, that's more or less the case, but not quite to the point we expected. For one, colors are quite vibrant and not as laid back as you would suppose.

Detail is abundant, and textures are rendered in a very natural way, but ultimately the 20MP color images don't match the 20MP monochrome ones for high-intricacy subject resolution. For a while there we thought it was as simple as blending 12MP color on top of the 20MP detail, but apparently, it's more complicated than that.

Dynamic range in color images is striking and we suspect some auto HDR trickery is involved here. We noticed a comment saying "hdr" within the exif in some picture, even though we didn't utilize HDR. Then again, those who lacked the "hdr" mention in the exif, were just as good.

The Mate 9 Pro's black and white images are hard to beat for dynamic range, but its monochrome capturing camera is more of a specialty tool, and unless you love monochrome photography particularly, you are unlikely to utilize it all that often on its own.

The 12MP color samples are remarkable - there is plenty of detail, small noise, accurate colors, wide dynamic range, and the sharpening hasn't been overdone. The native 12MP images are among the best we've seen on a smartphone.

The 20MP hybrid samples can't benefit from more detail, and they clearly see as upsampled from 12MP. They do share all other benefits from the native 12MP ones, though. Since you can't extract more detail with those high-res pictures, we suspect anyone will rarely utilize this mode.

Finally, the monochrome 20MP images came with plenty of resolved detail - around the same amount as on the 12MP color ones. They have superb contrast, low amount of noise, and best in class dynamic range. Those are perfect for dramatic effects and creative street photography.

12MP color samples • 20MP color samples • 20MP monochrome samples

As we mentioned before, there is some automatic HDR applied when needed, so the manual HDR is pretty much of no use, no matter the occasion. And that's okay with us.

HDR off • HDR on • Monochrome sample

Now, Huawei (and potentially, Leica) sort of acknowledges that the somewhat conservative Leica see may not be to everyone's taste and includes an option for selecting punchier (Vivid or Smooth) color reproduction (though again, default is not poor at all). It's readily available too instead of being buried in the menu, so you can change it on a shot by shot basis.

Normal sample • Vivid sample • Smooth sample

The Mate 9 Pro is also advertised for its zoom prowess. It's facilitated by those multiple frames that the capturing camera captures all the time, which give it more data to work with than what you'd acquire from a single 12MP shot (or 20MP).

Our understanding of it is that by using supersampling, the Mate creates a higher-resolution image, such that its 12MP center portion corresponds to the field of view of the desired magnification. They essentially generate a higher resolution image and then crop a 12MP portion of it. We calculated that the 2x zoom (54mm-equiv. FOV) requires a 50MP upscaled image. The same principle applies for higher magnifications, but the supersampled image needs to be even larger. You don't acquire to haged those high-res shots, though, the process takes place in the background.

We tried upscaling and sharpening 12MP and 20MP 27mm shots to 50MP in software and then cropping the center 12MP to match the 54mm field of view of the zoomed-in Mate 9 Pro shots and we couldn't achieve the same level of detail that the phone itself is capable of, which means there is a real benefit of using the 2x zoom.

As for image quality when zoomed in - the 2x and up to even 3x - the pictures are excellent with small to no loss in detail. But we know better not to expect much from a 6x digital zoom, supersampling or otherwise. We established that it worked really well to up to about 3x zoom, the 6x setting is mostly for saving you time in post-processing.

Regular sample • 2x zoom • 3x zoom • 6x zoom

Regular sample • 2x zoom • 2x zoom on monochrome capturing camera • 6x zoom

You can check how the 12MP RGB capturing camera stacks against the Huawei P9's and Galaxy S7 edge's.

Huawei Mate 9 Pro vs. Huawei Mate 9 vs. Huawei P9 in our photo compare tool

You could also utilize our tool to compare the monochrome capturing camera and the 20MP hybrid samples, if you like.



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