RAW – is it worth the effort with the Huawei Mate 20 Pro? Oh yes!
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro can record DNG RAW files. In this article we find out why endowing the Mate 20 Pro with this feature not just a cynical spec. tick-box ploy to grab the attention of discerning photographers. It’s a valuable option that has great potential. This article also applies to the Huawei Mate 20 X and P20 Pro, which have the same 40 megapixel main camera module as the Mate 20 Pro.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and its illustrious P20 Pro stablemate, have a 40 megapixel main camera. Its Leica-certified lens sees what a 27mm full frame wide angle does. Its 1/1.73-inches sensor measures 7.76 x 5.82 mm and is generously large for a smartphone. Indeed, it’s about the same size as a premium Canon G10 compact camera’s.
An Apple iPhone Xs makes do with a significantly smaller sensor; the Mate 20 Pro sensor has around 75% more area. Huawei and Apple have approached things differently. In standard Photo mode Huawei uses ‘pixel-binning’ (combining pixels) to produce a high quality lower resolution result. Apple relies on its natively lower resolution sensor that has bigger and more sensitive photosites.
In effect, Huawei turns its 40 million pixels into a ten million pixel image. Apple’s native resolution is 12 million pixels. DxOMark, which is widely regarded as the benchmark for rating smartphone camera quality, reckons Huawei’s strategy works better.
However, what if you use all of the 40 million pixels to their fullest potential? The Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the P20 Pro can record RAW files in DNG format at full 40 megapixel resolution. The files are huge at almost 80 megabytes each. If you use RAW mode you forego some of Huawei’s neat in-camera real time image enhancement functions, like Night mode and hybrid zoom, but in certain situations the sacrifice is well worth it.
Below is a shot I took of a remarkable trumpet lady during the recent People’s Vote March in London:
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro can record both RAW and JPEG versions of your shot simultaneously. Above is the camera’s JPEG version. It looks good, but there are some blown highlights and the colour is not particularly vibrant. If this had been taken in 10 megapixel Photo mode with the camera’s AI kicking in the result would probably have been punchier.
When you load a RAW file into a program like Adobe Lightroom, the software automatically prepares the image view so that the basic tonality and colour is in the right ball-park. Below is what yout get as a starting point Lightroom:
Compared to the camera JPEG, the contrast is lower, it’s less colourful and the corners are darker. The latter is an effect known as ‘corner shading’ caused by a compromise with the optics being compact for a mobile phone. The camera brightens the corners to compensate, but in Lightroom there is apparenmtly little ot no compensation by default. However, you can see more detail in the brighter areas of the scene that were lost in the camera JPEG. Remember, this is just the starting point.
The Lightroom adjustment panel above is shown before any changes are made. The RAW file records that the white balance was set to 5450K by the camera, but we can change this and all the other variables to produce a version of the picture that we prefer.
And here (above) are the adjustments I made. I warmed the colour balance to 5800K, increased contrast and exposure, while darkening the highlights to bring even more detail out of the bright areas and I also brought the shadows up as well. Not shown here is that I also brightened the corners slightly using Lightroom’s vignette adjuster. Some sharpening was also applied and surprisingly little noise reduction was required.
I also used one of my favourite adjustments, Dehaze, which is a quick and easy way to add contrast and punch to an image, even one that isn’t hazy to start with. I also boosted the saturation. I concede that the final result might be on the limit for saturation with some folks, but I’m personally comfortable with it as I feel it’s a good match with my recollection of the actual scene.
And above is the result. Just compare it with the camera JPEG version and the vibrancy, colour and revival of the burned-out highlights are, to put it mildly, significant.
The nice thing about working with more pixels is that you can crop right down when you need to. Above is a 1200 pixel wide crop, making the area about 1/40th of the total original image area. I’m certainly impressed considering this was a hand-held shot taken during less than ideal conditions.
The moral of the story is, if you really want to push your Huawei Mate 20 Pro (and the Mate 20 X, which has the same camera module) or your P20 Pro, then using DNG RAW mode and customising the image quality to your own taste is definitely no gimmick.