Is Huawei’s P10 Plus the peak smartphone for photography?

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Above: Closeup of Sorghum seeds shot with a P10 Plus and the limited edition accessory P10 PhotoKit, which includes clip-on lenses and filters for the P10 smartphone series. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1099 for June 27, 2017

The P10 Plus from Huawei is the most advanced iteration of its photography focused series of smartphones and the latest product of its rewarding collaboration with German camera manufacturer Leica.

It follows the P9 and P9 Plus, which introduced the twin-lens approach to the limitations of smartphone photography and the updates to the technology that were built into the company’s large form factor handheld, the Mate 9.

There are some features that are required for entry in the premium smartphone market. An attractive case (Huawei has introduced a nifty sandblasted metal finish on the new P series), a bright screen, fast processor and up-to-date OS have to be stamped on the ticket for anyone to take you seriously.

First let’s look at what the P10 Plus offers anyone already pleased with the capabilities of the P9 series.

The Huawei P10 is available in a range of colours. Image courtesy Huawei. Click to enlarge.

The P10 Plus is incrementally larger than the P9 Plus, growing from 5.72 x 2.73 x 0.28 inches to 6.00 x 2.96 x 0.28 inches, but it’s dwarfed in the “Plus” space by the iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung 8 Plus and its stablemate, the Mate 9.

It isn’t even that much bigger than its companion P10, which clocks in at the same size as last year’s P9 Plus.

The Mate 9 measures 6.18 x 3.11 x 0.31 inches, and you feel that difference in practical use, so what earns the plus designation for this new top of the line P10 device?

For one, you get double the internal memory at 64GB, and there’s a special version (designated L29) that doubles that again to 128GB. You can add a 256GB MicroSD card to the device as with other recent Huawei models.

The battery in the Plus version of the P10 gets bumped from 3200MaH to 3750MaH, and with similarly sized and specified screens and processors, that translates directly into longer battery life. Both P10 versions improve on the P9’s 3000MaH battery.

The decisive feature that the P10 Plus brings to the table is a decidedly nerdy improvement, a switch from the photographically slow f2.2 aperture Leica designed lenses that the company introduced with the P9 to new versions that are rated f1.8.

This brings them into alignment with the capabilities of the most aggressively developed smartphones competing in the pocket picture-making market.

This chart illustrates the relationship between f-stops and lens apertures. Click to enlarge.

If you haven’t been busy trying to buy fast light-gathering lenses for a DSLR, the little f, which represents F-Stops, will mean nothing to you, but every full fstop, say from f4 to f5.6, represents a doubling or halving (bigger number, smaller aperture) of the light gathering capacity of a lens.

Smartphones use fixed aperture lenses, so you’ll only ever have one effective optical aperture on these devices, though Huawei has used the plenoptic capabilities of its dual lens system to effectively mimic the look of much wider lenses, all the way down to a simulated f.95.

The look is sometimes persuasive, sometimes not, but there’s nothing to beat true optical light gathering and Huawei has done remarkably well to fit much faster lenses, capable of gathering double the light of previous models, into the same sleek double dot space at the top left of the smartphone.

Optical design gets very tricky when you get to wider apertures, not to mention vastly more costly, as any DSLR owner with a desire for faster glass will tell you.

That’s not all that’s been improved in the photographic aspects of the P10 series.

Leica’s influence on the camera app continues to improve control over the picture making experience. For one, the selfie mode no longer defaults to a rather strong beauty filter (disturbing if you’re a dude) and more popular photo options are available right at the top of the camera capture window.

A user will still need to sweep left and right to get to more settings, but since that style of managing deeper controls was introduced with the P9, it’s become more pervasive in Android devices and is becoming an expected aspect of the interface.

Tool tray with hex keys. P10 Plus, dedicated grayscale sensor. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

The P10 Plus isn’t perfect. Serious photographers will continue to lament having a sensor that’s dedicated to capturing 20MP worth of pure grayscale data with no option for a RAW capture. That remains a lost opportunity, but one that can and should be fixed.

The 2017 reality of smartphones, particularly at the high end and priced at more than US$500, is that homogeneity is death in the marketplace.

Successful devices, particularly on the volatile and highly competitive Android shelves, must have a unique selling proposition to attract a decisive segment of potential consumers.

Since it introduced the P9 in early 2016, Huawei has been aggressively exploring the possibilities of digital photography in a smartphone form factor. The P10 Plus is a robust advance on the innovations introduced with the P9.

All of Huawei’s smartphones have benefited from the approaches of the P series, but photographers will find that the newest innovations in the P10, and particularly in the P10 Plus, do not disappoint.

A video discussing some of the points in this column is here.