At Huawei’s Mobile World Congress event on Sunday, CEO Richard Yu couldn’t stop saying one particular phrase when talking about the P10’s camera: “Leica-style portraits.” Huawei has put portrait modes into its cameras for a while, and started its Leica partnership last year, but with the P10 the company is making a concerted technical and promotional effort to push the feature.
Like the iPhone 7 Plus, the P10 uses a combination of software and a dual-camera array to simulate the shallow depth of field you typically need expensive gear to achieve. I find this technology fascinating, and it’s clear that similar techniques are going to be a big part of photography’s future. But Huawei and Apple’s implementations are actually very different, each with pros and cons.
Apple and Huawei use very different techniques — each with pros and cons
The Huawei P10 has two camera sensors on the back: one 12-megapixel chip with a traditional color filter array and a 20-megapixel unit that only captures monochrome images. Both are behind a 27mm-equivalent f/2.2 lens, branded “Summarit” in dubious Leica nomenclature. Both cameras operate together to produce a single image with more data than would otherwise be possible to work with; the monochrome sensor is used to pick up on more detail. In portrait mode, the two lenses create a 3D image of the subject’s face, and use this to work out which parts of the image should be in focus.
That’s how the iPhone 7 Plus system works, too, but the camera setup is very different. Apple paired one 28mm-equivalent f/1.8 lens with a 12-megapixel sensor for the primary camera, while the secondary camera has a 56mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens without stabilization over a slightly smaller 12-megapixel sensor. This means that the iPhone can switch to a longer lens to capture more subject detail at the expense of light-gathering ability; its dedicated portrait mode requires you to use the longer lens.
So, which approach works better? Let’s find out. iPhone 7 Plus shots are on the left, and Huawei P10 samples are on the right; all but one are straight out of the camera without any post-processing.
For this outdoor picture of James in sunnyish Barcelona, the iPhone 7 Plus is the clear winner. The longer focal length of the telephoto lens makes for a much more flattering perspective, and the color reproduction is far more natural than Huawei’s overly saturated image.
Step inside, however, and the iPhone starts to show its limitations. It still produces the more pleasing portrait from a compositional standpoint, but the slower aperture and lack of stabilization make it hard to match Huawei’s exposure. The P10’s shot does a pretty good job of smoothing out a busy background without looking too unnatural — it’s a wide-angle lens, after all, so things shouldn’t be too out of focus.
The color treatment is still heavy-handed, but I actually think it works well here — it almost looks like cross-processed film, whereas the iPhone shot is flat. Also note the artifacting around Vlad’s head where the iPhone finds itself confused by all the cabling and scaffolding behind him.
This shot at a dimly lit restaurant is much the same. Tom looks better in the iPhone photo, because you physically have to get much closer with the Huawei’s wide-angle lens, which ends up distorting your subject. But the lack of light makes for a grainy result on the iPhone.
This night picture is the most extreme example of the difference between the two cameras. Again, the iPhone portrait is compositionally better, but the P10’s just blows it away on a technical level, with really nice exposure, color, and background separation. (Look at what the iPhone did to the side of Tyler’s head, too.)
The iPhone picture also took much longer to take; the shutter won’t even fire in portrait mode if there isn’t enough light, and it can require a lot of fiddling to coax the phone into eventually taking a photo. Basically, Apple doesn’t want you using portrait mode in situations like this, and it’s easy to see why. The P10 has a considerable advantage in low light.
Unlike the P10, the iPhone’s portrait mode doesn’t have a dedicated monochrome mode, so for this comparison I took the photo and later applied the one-touch “Mono” filter built into the camera app. With that caveat out of the way, the iPhone picture is just wildly better here. The P10 photo is unusually soft, the wide-angle distortion is particularly prominent, and the camera failed to accurately blur out much of the detail around Vlad’s ear and cheek.
The longer iPhone lens is flattering to the subject, and monochrome is flattering to the lens’ weaker light gathering ability. Huawei’s monochrome portraits don’t always look this bad, though — here’s a good one I took while shooting the comparison photos of Tom above, with impressive detail and dynamic range.
Ultimately the Huawei P10 suffers from the unrealistic expectations set by the “Leica-style portraits” selling point. A 27mm lens wouldn’t be ideal for portraits even when attached to a Leica M rangefinder, after all. But that's really the P10's biggest flaw — the portrait mode generally works well if you know what to expect out of it.
Apple, meanwhile, has taken a more focused approach. The iPhone 7 Plus portrait mode is deliberately restrictive, and you're really only supposed to use it to take pictures of people in good light — when it works, the results are often amazing. And portrait modes aside, the 7 Plus' ability to approximate basic telephoto capabilities without resorting to lossy digital zoom is a major selling point. But Apple's portrait technique is much less versatile than Huawei's, and probably less useful for most people. It's not like concerns over wide-angle lens distortion stopped the iPhone from becoming the most popular camera in the world in the first place.
But what all this back and forth really shows is that this is a seriously exciting direction for mobile photography, and we're only at the beginning of what's going to be possible with multi-camera designs. No-one's gotten it exactly right just yet, but you can expect to see a lot of development in this area over the next few years.