Product Reviews

Is the Huawei P9’s dual-lens camera worthy of the hype?

It’s clear that Huawei want to be remembered alongside the best high-end phones in the market with the release of the Huawei P9. Everything from the phone’s classy and polished look down to the way it’s being marketed points to that. And yet, does it really do as well as the Samsungs and the Apples?

We all put value on our smartphones in different ways, but speaking from a blogger and photography enthusiast’s standpoint, camera capability is one of the most important considerations to me when buying a phone. Since the biggest selling point of this phone is its dual camera technology, I was expecting for me and the Huawei P9 to get along right off the bat.

This review will revolve around how I’ve been using the Huawei P9 as a blogger, so a big chunk will be devoted to the camera. I’ve been using the Huawei P9 for over a month now as my secondary phone, but I’ve been using it exclusively to shoot photos and for social media stuff for the blog. In fact, here’s a really good example of what I’ve been up to with this phone: Vietnamese Spring Rolls, anyone? 🙂

All the sample images taken with the Huawei P9 that I’ll be showing in this post are unedited, and I hope they can give you enough of an idea to make your own conclusions. But first, let’s take a general look at the phone itself, which is definitely a thing of beauty.

Hello, beautiful thing, you

This well-constructed phone is literally one of the thinnest smartphones I have ever seen, but I really like the grip the phone provides. It doesn’t easily slip from the hands, and it looks soooo stylish when you’re holding it. The one I received is in the Haze Gold colour, and it just screams elegance.

The front boasts a 5.2-inch 1920 x 1080p display. The LCD on default setting comes off more saturated and dimmer than I’m used to, though you can easily change the screen settings including for brightness and contrast. Looking at the same photo on the iPhone 6s (which is my primary phone) and the Huawei P9 gives off some differences in colour and mood. However I find myself liking both displays anyway.

Let’s talk a bit about the different parts of the phone. Right beside the earpiece is a light that flashes signals in blue, green, or red depending on what’s going on with the phone or if you have notifications and such. There’s also the typical front camera and sensor.

The bottom of the phone is where the loud-speaker, charger jack, and earphone jack is located. The speaker is nice and loud but it doesn’t sound like it’s coming out of a can. In fact I actually like listening to music from the Huawei P9 on loudspeaker.

The right side of the phone has the screen lock and the volume controls, while the right holds your sim card and microSD card tray. Indeed, apart from a decent 32GB/64GB internal storage, you can add an SD card to up your phone’s capacity.

I read somewhere that the LCD for the Huawei P9 is just made from ordinary glass as opposed to non-scratch Gorilla glass type things. This is probably why Huawei included a screen protector film in the package, along with a clear case for the back of the phone.

Even though I clearly suck at putting the screen protector (thus the air bubbles), I appreciate these additions A LOT. I get ballistic when it comes to scratches on any of my devices. So yeah, be careful with this phone and definitely get some protective gear on it before taking it to town. Also included inside the classy and clean packaging of this phone are earphones, charger/USB connector, and the manual of course.

Let’s take a look at the equally gorgeous backside of the phone. There’s a lovely glass band that houses the two camera lenses, which lay flat and do not protrude from the back at all. The phone itself has a metallic finish that makes it look very upscale, but again, put a cover on this part because getting scratches on this beauty will definitely be heartbreaking.

Below the glass panel is the fingerprint sensor, which is the fastest one I have ever had the pleasure of using to this day! Lo-lo-love.

This phone runs on Android 6.0 Marshmallow via a Kirin 955 2.5Ghz 64-bit processor, if you cared to know. It also has a 3GB/4GB RAM and 32GB/64GB expandable storage. The battery is a 3,000mAh one that has given me some decent hours of usage, but that’s only because I don’t like to play games on my phone.

Fully charged, it lasts me pretty much the whole day if I use it for pictures (snapping and editing), and going through my social media accounts. But if I keep the apps running on the background, the phone keeps prompting me about energy consumption so I just swipe the app closed to make it stop.

Going snap-happy with the Huawei P9

I love my iPhone 6s fiercely, so when the Huawei P9 fell into my hands it was in for some tough competition. With all the things I’ve been hearing though, I was excited to see how impressed I would be once I started using it.

Slapping on the well-respected brand of Leica certainly gives the phone a premium impression, but there’s been a lot of debate as to the extent of Leica’s involvement in developing the camera technology for the Huawei P9. Regardless, I really don’t think Leica will just randomly allow their good name to be plastered on a high-profile device like this, so in my opinion this co-branding is legit. #Trust

The two 12 MP f/2.2 cameras on the back of the phone provide different functions: one has a monochrome sensor while the main sensor is RGB. This dual lens set-up lets in more light compared to a single-lens camera, and the two different functions of the lenses work together to promise sharper and clearer images, even in low light. (More on that later!)

The dual lens set-up also allows shallower depth of field, making your subject stand-out from the background especially when it comes to macro photography or close-ups, whether you’re shooting in Auto Mode or Manual Mode.

Similar to other smartphones, you can open the camera app from the lock screen or home screen. The shutter for the camera can be found on the screen as well as on the volume control, but I did notice that it is just a little slower than the iPhone’s.

Before we talk about the two main shooting modes, I wanted to show you the other options available in the camera app of the Huawei P9. Swiping from the right gives you a slew of options for changing up your camera settings. Here you can switch on the grid, or turn on the tap-to-capture option. You can also adjust image resolution, among others.

A swipe from the left reveals the Mode tray, containing a wide array of image modes to play with. I tried out the Monochrome mode and have to say I was slightly disappointed due to overly high expectations. Not that it’s bad by any means… I was just expecting it to be mind-blowingly good.

With a monochrome dedicated lens, this became one of the more raved-about features of the Huawei P9 camera. I was expecting a rich and sharp monochrome photo, but the images came out a little soft while I was looking for something striking. A little bit more contrast between the blacks and whites would’ve been nicer, but I suppose that’s something you can fix in post.

In the photo below, I went in really close to capture the rain droplets on the leaves. There’s some really nice bokeh in this picture that adds to the overall feel. I wonder if shooting in macro like this pushes the camera to pull all the stops, producing a more striking photo.

Creating Depth of Field magic in Auto Mode

So let’s talk about shooting in AUTO MODE first because I feel like a lot of people will get a kick out of the Aperture feature, which you can only find in Auto Mode. It’s that little lens icon on top! This feature replicates aperture adjustments you can make in real cameras, allowing control over your image’s depth of field.

Depending on how blurry you want your background, you can go through a good range of “apertures” in this mode by moving the dial. The higher the number, the less background blur you will get and the more even your picture will look. This is if you want everything in your pic to be in focus.

Some people enjoy tinkering with depth of field to get some good background bokeh, and I think that is achievable with this phone. Here are some sample photos to demonstrate the performance of the Aperture feature:

Taking the two pictures above, I focused on the same spot. As you can see, at f/2.4 only the area in the foreground is sharp, while everything else in the background fades into a blur gradually. At f/4, nearly all the toppings on the cake are sharp.

In the second pic below, you can very clearly see the solid shape of the cake in the background with the “aperture” set to f/6.3. The picture at f/2.8 has turned the cake in the background into an almost unrecognizable thing.

I’m actually very impressed by this feature since using depth of field in certain situations can give your pictures more… soul, I suppose you can say. Of course the background blur or bokeh is not as smooth as with real cameras, but for a phone camera it’s pretty good!

Another impressive feature is the Manual Metering option, available even in Auto Mode. Compared to other phones where the camera automatically meters at the area where you focus, you can actually activate independent focusing and metering on this phone.

You just tap on the screen a second time after focusing (orange circle). Hold down on the area where you want to meter until a second icon with a sun appears (white circle). That means, you can tap to focus on one part of the scene while metering on completely another area to help keep the photo’s exposure balanced right from the start! This proves to be one of the most useful features for me, alongside the Depth of Field adjustment options.

Shooting in Pro Mode gives you more freedom

Switched to Pro mode (aka Manual Mode), I was very happy by how much you could tinker with the settings. Just flick it up from the bottom of the screen and go crazy! This is probably the mode most people who shoot with a DSLR in Manual (like me!) will feel comfortable in.

You can set up the ISO, shutter speed, exposure, and white balance. You can also do manual focusing. This opens up endless possibilities for mobile photography, despite the fact you cannot legitimately set the aperture. I guess they’ve addressed that enough with the Aperture feature in Auto Mode.

What’s really great is that despite the abundant amount of options and modes you can tinker with on the phone, the arrangement of the buttons aren’t overwhelming and confusing. Well, to me anyway.

And again, I really appreciate the ability to meter photos to get good exposure straight from the camera. This minimizes the need to make drastic edits after taking the shot.

If you really have to, the Huawei P9 provides your usual tools: cropping, rotation, brightness, contrast, colour correction, etc. There are also filters with dials you can fine-tune. To make a long story short– I highly enjoy shooting with the Huawei P9!

The adjustments in Pro Mode and the built-in editing tools do help a good deal, especially when you’re taking photos in low-light conditions. I tried shooting at a relatively darkly lit restaurant and you can still see many of the details of my bowl of Karaka-Men. Those ceramic spoons behind my brothers also look nice and sharp. The photos below were not altered or edited in any way.

Shooting at night is a different story, but it’s always difficult depending on the circumstances for every camera phone, and even real cameras. I remember shooting a picture using the Light Painting mode but I can’t find it anywhere. You’ll have to watch out for it on my Instagram I guess. 😀

Weirdly enough, all the customizable options on the Pro Mode do not rotate when you change the phone’s orientation to landscape. Adjusting the settings like this is kind of awkward, but it’s a pretty minor thing to me so I don’t mind too much.

In my opinion, Huawei P9’s dual lens does improve overall camera phone experience for the user, while providing some great quality images. In fact, the experience of using the camera itself was a really pleasant surprise!

Comparing pictures from the iPhone 6s & Huawei P9

I’m making this comparison just for the heck of it. With camera phones, finding good natural lighting is one of the most important things, and I feel that the manual setting on the Huawei P9 allows you to take the fullest advantage of that light whether outdoors or not. Here’s a good example of a photo shot indoors with light coming from the left:

In my general observation, the photos the Huawei P9 capture come out more saturated, bright, and warm toned compared to the iPhone. Since the iPhone is pretty much Auto all the way, the Huawei P9 does have an advantage since it provides a lot more control over the camera settings.

Switching back to Full Auto Mode for the Huawei P9, here’s where the differences become a little less obvious:

There’s still greater vibrancy to the image shot with the Huawei P9, while the images from the iPhone tend to look a bit more natural. The picture above was shot in an outdoor setting, focused and metered on the same area.

For close-up shots, this is where it gets interesting. In the below picture I focused on the same area, which is that spot of water on the leaf. Both photos are sharpest at the point of focus, but if you’ll notice, the Huawei P9 tends to overexpose certain details a bit more compared to the iPhone 6s. It also looks more saturated, most obvious when you look at the colour of the soil and the tree behind it.

At 100% crop, you can see the Huawei P9 working hard to keep the image sharp. This close, it looks like someone cranked up the degree of sharpness as they were editing the picture, causing some unnatural graininess.

In terms of performance, I can’t really pick a clear winner. I’m lucky enough to get to use both, but there are certain aspects where I prefer the performance of the iPhone 6s over the Huawei P9, and vice versa. In particular, I like how photos look zoomed in on the iPhone 6s more because they seem more natural. However I like the punchy colours of the Huawei P9’s pictures.

The rich colour profile of the Huawei P9’s images will probably suit certain types of users, and in my case, since I mostly take food photos I do prefer these vibrant colours. Of course, you can adjust all of these things in post-production using VSCO or Photoshop, but when your phone can do the work straight up it saves a lot of time and energy!

Before I forget…

The phone has an 8-MP f2.4 front camera with an adjustable Beauty Mode. Much appreciated for days when I haven’t gotten much sleep! I don’t use the front camera often, but still, tuning Beauty Mode to the right number does wonders smoothening out the skin. Here’s a pic I shot of my brothers using the front cam haha!

I wasn’t a fan of how the phone takes videos. Focusing isn’t smooth moving around, and it takes a little while before the camera can shift focus. The colours onscreen kind of feel like they’re clashing between being overexposed or saturated. I definitely like my iPhone’s video mode a thousand times better.

The downside

The one thing that troubles me when I use the Huawei P9 for snapping photos is that it heats up, and really quickly at that. When I was doing the shoot for the Vietnamese Spring Rolls post, the phone started heating up in about 5 minutes. (Do you need to shoot in a cold place or something?) If you stop using the phone for a little bit, the heat goes away in around 3 minutes or so. I’m just concerned that this will affect battery life in the long run.

I’m not sure if this is a quality in most Android phones since my brother complains about this same thing with his older model Samsung phone, but I’ve shot video footage with my iPhone 6s before (while we were eating hot pot no less) and it never really got as warm.

So I imagine the Huawei P9 might not be Pokemon GO friendly, and since I don’t play that game I will never know how long it might last on the live mode. For the unit that I have, since it is still quite new, battery life is still good.

Another strange thing about this phone is how it sometimes sputters and lags when I’m swiping from camera to gallery to Instagram to Facebook, and that’s not even doing much. The length of time depends, but sometimes it’s a long lag. It’s not as fast as how the iPhone responds when you’re swiping between apps.

To sum it all up

I would say that if your main priority is to have a good camera dedicated phone to work alongside your existing one, you should seriously consider the Huawei P9. Do I think it can replace a real camera? Of course not! But for a phone camera it is very good.

The saturation and warmth of the images could either be good or bad depending on the user, but I tend to like rich and punchy colours on my own photos. There are situations where I notice that images become a little too sharp around the edges; they look as though they’ve gone through editing in the hands of a newbie Photoshop user or something.

HOWEVER, I don’t feel that the overall workings of the phone are powerful enough to withstand multi-tasking and user wear-and-tear. So while I will agree that all the hype surrounding the Huawei P9 camera capabilities is indeed warranted– it’s a real standout for sure!– I can’t really call this a solid all-around phone. Just the part where it heats up quickly and lags every once in a while tells me that you probably cannot use this phone quite heavily.

The huge leap in price versus other Huawei phones is kind of justifiable though, because the Leica dual lenses on the Huawei P9 really perform. So at the end of the day, it all boils down to how you plan to use this phone. I’m certainly grateful to have it in my mobile photography arsenal. I’ve been loving all the food photos I get from this!


Full disclosure: Huawei Philippines kindly sent me a review unit, but all thoughts and opinions stated above are my own.

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