For some years the prospect of mobile phones making cameras obsolete has been claimed but never quite achieved. Maybe until now.
Huawei's global launch of their P30 and top-of-the-line P30 Pro phones, in a lavish unveiling in front of 4000 journalists in Paris today, has signalled a breakthrough in mobile phone camera technology strongly suggesting that, if standalone cameras are not already extinct, their grave is certainly being dug.
Things were already grim for camera sales – in 2018 cameras shipped were down 24 per cent from the previous year, according to the latest global annual report on the industry by Lensvid. That is part of an eight-year tumble that has seen camera sales plummet from a high of 121 million in 2010 to 19 million last year – an 84 per cent drop.
Huawei's launch of the P30 and P30 Pro seems likely to hasten that fall. The main reasons some people, usually serious photographers, have preferred standalone cameras up until now have been picture quality, zooming, lens versatility and better battery power. Mobile phone cameras have previously scored heavily on convenience (no bulk to carry) but not on quality.
But the P30 and P30 Pro, in particular, are being marketed as a "super-camera phone" and have made huge advances in all those areas for a mobile phone with some striking functions, at a price ($1099 for the P30, $1499 for the P30 Pro) which way undercuts competitors' flagship devices.
At the launch, professional art and fashion photographer Erik Madigan Heck said the P30 and P30 Pro were "really the first time mobile phone technology has transcended into studio-class photography".
Huawei has called it "re-writing the rules of photography". The big advance is in zoom, particularly for the top-of-the-range P30 Pro. Zoom has often been a weakness in mobile phone cameras, with most unable to magnify significantly without distortion. The P30 Pro has a 5x optical zoom, a 10x hybrid zoom and a 50x digital zoom, the most powerful yet seen - and photographs seen at the launch show back up the claims of new levels of clarity with the "periscope" system.
What all that means is zoomed shots keep their edges sharp, retain their colours and don't blur out as regular smartphones do in similar circumstances. It and other advances were enough to attract thousands of hosted media to Paris, some flown in on specially chartered Huawei jets.
The P30 Pro has four cameras on the back, a first, which enable not only zoom but a host of other photographic features. The Leica Quad Camera system includes a 40 megapixel main camera with Huawei's powerful SuperSpectrum sensor, a 20MP ultra-wide angle camera, an 8MP telephoto camera, a Time-of-Flight (TOF) camera, along with a 32MP front camera which Huawei says ushers in a new level of selfies.
Another key feature is the phone's ability to take pictures in poor light – a previous weakness of mobile phone cameras. The P30 and P30 Pro's low light capability is so boosted by the SuperSpectrum sensor that even night scenes become "crystal clear", with vivid colour surpassing even the ability of the human eye to discern, said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's Consumer Group. Optically stabilised main and telephoto cameras steady the shot, night or day, without a tripod … another nail in the camera coffin.
The time-of-flight camera captures depth-of-field information to give sharper focus and depth in photos. The camera system also boasts enhanced bokeh – the way the camera deals with the out-of-focus blur in the background to bring more accurate clarity to the subject in the foreground and a more professional background effect.
Video also makes a significant breakthrough with Huawei claiming "cinematic videography capabilities". Low-light video capture is again a feature while camera shake – long a problem with phone cameras – is addressed by Huawei's AIS and OIS support stabilisation for a steady shot every time for all video settings, including 4K videos at 60fps.
The SuperZoom Lens allows for crisp close-ups; a movie editor function automatically identifies action highlights and gives users tools to add background music and special effects, such as time-lapse and slow motion.
Not here yet – but coming – is a Huawei update to dual-view mode which allows the operator to use two of the rear cameras to record different videos simultaneously. Dual-View mode will capture both an ultra-wide angle and a zoom shot – a panorama on the right and a close-up on the left of the screen, new possibilities for scenic videos, for example. Single lens standalone cameras cannot do this.
Battery power is maintained by a 40W SuperCharge and a heavy duty 4200MhA battery on the P30 Pro, (22.5W and 3650mAh on the P30) – meaning these devices will power more than a full day of intense work.
The screen on the P30 Pro is almost seven inches (over six for the P30) and has a definite big screen feel enhanced by AI bringing a better composition and screening process; its design and looks will attract many to its three colours – black, "breathing crystal" and aurora. Fingerprint ID is said to increase unlock speed by 30 per cent.
There are many other features – the Kirin processor which powers the phone is one of the beefiest yet seen and the P30's new photographic abilities are also boosted by replacing the green pixels used by the industry for the past 40 years with superior yellow pixels, taking in 40 per cent more light.
- Paul Lewis attended the launch event courtesy of Huawei.