The single main camera in the Huawei P30 Pro is a fairly interesting one. It’s using a 1/1.7″ chip, which is larger than the chips found in very low-end P&S cameras. The 40 megapixel resolution is kind of a crock, because the lens, even at f/1.6, isn’t necessarily wide enough to avoid some diffraction.
But the main reason it’s 40 megapixels is because it’s a weird hybrid color sensor. Most color sensors use Bryce Bayer’s color filter, which allows each pixel to have a single filter, the missing colors from each interpolated by 2–4 neighbors. The P30 Pro’s quad Bayer allows color interpolation from only a single neighbor in 40 megapixel mode, but it also allows the sensor to configure as a 10 megapixel sensor, for low light use.
The P30 Pro’s sensor is weirder still, in that it doesn’t have green pixels, but yellow. A green filter will block red and blue, as you might expect. A yellow filter only blocks blue, allowing both red and green light through, in RGB terms. So it’s allowing a bit more light in, but the interpolation is more complex and more noise prone, as a neighboring red has to be subtracted from each yellow value to establish green values. Things get a bit better in the 10 megapixel mode, but trading light for color is probably the right move for a tiny phone sensor.
Ignore the other sensors in the P30 Pro. The 20 megapixel wide angle chip is hampered by an f/2.2 lens, and the 1/4″ sensor with f/3.6 “periscope” lens is a real mess. Better than digital zoom, sure, but that’s about it.
Better Compact Digitals
Just about any 1″ sensor (or better) compact digital camera made today will outperform the P30 Pro. Most smartphones have a main sensor at around 17–24mm², while the P30 Pro’s sensor is 43mm², nearly twice the area (1EV in terms of light sensitivity). The 1″ sensor is 116mm², nearly 3x the area of the P30 Pro’s sensor.
The 1″ camera is epitomized by the Sony RX100. There are about seven different versions of this, and the original was just taken off the market last summer. All RX100s have zoom lenses, most of them fast and relatively short at about 3x, but with a lens that’s dramatically better than anything in a phone. Every 1″ camera you can still buy new has a 20 megapixel sensor. Unlike phones, a 1″ sensor is large enough to allow for an actual variable aperture without diffraction blurring, so you can have your real exposure pyramid when shooting (shutter speed, aperture, ISO). All but the very early RX100s have an electronic viewfinder as well as the back panel screen. The top RX100s today run around $1200, older models go below $500. Other compact 1″ cameras include:
Pansonic ZS100/TZ100. These roughly the same size as the Sony, but with a slower f/2.8 lens that offers a 10x zoom optical zoom ratio. About $500.
Panasonic ZS200. The same idea as the ZS100, but with a somewhat slower 15x zoom lens. About $700.
Canon Powershot G7X Mark II. No viewfinder, but a fast f/1.8–2.8 lens with a 4.2 zoom. About $650.
Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II. A somewhat scaled-back G7X, with a shorter, slower f/2.0–4.9 zoom. About $425.
Leica C-Lux. It’s basically the ZS200, with a red dot. About $1,000.
Now, it’s true that while all of these compacts offer a lens minimum a bit wider than the P30 Pro main camera, they don’t offer the ultra-wide lens of the second camera. You would need a wide angle adapter for that sort of view on any of these. However, you have a pure optical zoom across the range, rather than “software tricks” as on the P30 Pro, and you’re always of course shooting with the main, top-notch sensor, not some lesser chip.
Canon, Panasonic, and Sony also make larger “Bridge Camera” class 1″ cameras, which offer up to around 25x zoom lenses, more advanced features, etc. But they’re not exactly small. The Sony RX10 Mark IV, probably the best bridge camera yet made, is larger than my Micro Four Thirds cameras with most lenses.
There are also some compact digital with larger-still sensors. The Panasonic Lumix LX100 Mark II offers a 17 megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor with a 3x zoom lens and f/1.7–2.8 aperture, at around $900.
Next is the Fujifilm X100F, which incorporates a 24 megapixel APS-C sensor, the same size you’ll find in Fujifilm’s X-series mirrorless ILC system. The lens is a fixed focal length 23mm lens at f/2.0, maybe a slightly less-wide view than your smartphone’s main camera, but similar. This sensor is about 370mm², about 8.6x the area of the P30 Pro’s main camera sensor.
You’ll note I left out cheaper compact cameras. That was, of course, intentional. And it’s because the P30 Pro, with its main camera, will often take a better main camera shot than many $100-$250 cameras. That’s not the whole story, though. Most of those cameras today will have a 5x zoom, and compared to the Huawei’s 5x zoom, you can expect a better image. Some have absolutely nutty long zoom lenses — easy with these tiny chips — and while they won’t be confused with professional cameras, producing rather fuzzy shots at the long range, they’re still far, far better than digital zoom out to 10x-25x ranges.
The ‘Photographer’s Brain’ Factor
Now, the next factor is you. If I hand you the world’s finest chisel and the best possible block of marble, you’re probably better off with a 3D printer when it comes to making a sculpture. It takes decades to master stone sculpture, and while a master will benefit from a better tool, a beginner won’t find the tool to be their problem.
It’s a bit like that with photography. Every digital camera will have modes that do some of the work of photography for you. But a serious camera is designed primarily to offer tools for knowledgable photographers to help them better get the shot. Sometimes that’s a variety of exposure automation, sometimes focus automation, sometimes none of those things.
A smartphone, on the other hand, is designed to do nearly all of the work to deliver an ok, maybe even a good photo. It’s letting you concentrate only on composition, automating every other aspect. These days, the top phones have AIs that analyze what you’re doing, what your subject is doing, etc. in order to adapt the camera to both the subject and the shooter. They also have computational modes that let them shoot and “stack” multiple photos for a better result — a trick that most serious photographers know and have used for decades, even going back to the film era. In short, the phone replaces the photographer’s “shooting brain” to deliver a better capability to people who don’t care about learning photography.
The other part is “finishing” an image. When I shoot on my serious cameras (even the 1″ kind), I shoot raw images — uncompressed shots left untouched by software. I need to do some editing on these to make sense of them. Usually, that’s not a great deal of work, but at other times, it can get involved. In fact, at this very moment, I’ve been processing a stack of about 40 images of an Antares rocket in order to smooth out the distortions inherent in shooting at 3.2 miles away over water on a windy day with a 500mm f/8 “mirror” lens from the 1980s. You need some knowledge to work on images this way, but it’s also as important a source of creative input as the shot itself. This is, of course, a perfect example of where a smartphone would be completely useless as a camera for a particular event.
On a phone, you have AIs doing 2/3 of the creative work. You still control the composition, but the AIs are controlling the exposure settings and all of the finishing. What that means is that any fool can pick up a modern smartphone and get a pretty good shot, as long as they press the right part of the screen and successfully keep fingers off the lens. But it also means that you have less input on your photo than an experienced photographer does on a good camera.
Unfortunately for novices, these days, particularly if you’re using a good smartphone as your main camera and you’re interested in maybe getting a good camera to boost your game, you have some homework. When you pick up that good camera and set it to AUTO everything, you’re not going to get as good an image as you would on your phone, most likely. It doesn’t have the same class of AI in there making all these decisions for you. And at least some of the advantages of shooting with a much larger sensor chip are lost when your output is an unedited JPEG.
Is It For You?
So I recommend real cameras, whether compact digital or ILC system cameras, for two classes of shooters, with of course natural overlap. The first is those people who have become kind of serious about photography on a smartphone and have bumped up against the limits of that smartphone. You will be free of those limits when you get the right camera. But you have to understand what those limits are, and use that to inform the kind of camera you ought to be looking for.
The other are those who really want to become serious about photography, whether advanced amateur or professional. You will need to learn to do all of those things your phone software does for you now. But that’s a big part of the fun, if you’re up for it. And it’s never been easier: there are free classes online, pay classes, etc. You can even take a class with Annie Leibovitz these days! And because of the immediate feedback and low cost of digital, you can progress very fast, if you’re dedicated, once you have the right gear. This can even start with a phone camera, but you’ll bump up against limits.
Here’s the other thing about phone vs. camera: value! Yeah, everyone these days wants that nice pocket computer that we mysteriously still call “phone” in their pocket, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have one myself… it tells me what to eat, it’s a universal communicator, it stores my notes, etc. The camera was pretty good back in 2015 when I bought it, one of the best of that year. If I wanted the best camera every year since then in a phone, I’d have spent another $3500+ by now. I can get into a high-end compact digital or an ILC system for under $1000, and if I bought that 5–6 years ago, it’s still far better than any of today’s phones. Your camera bought today will probably still be pretty good in 5–6+ years, and any lenses you buy might be things you hand down to your kids or grandchildren… they essentially don’t go out of value unless you break them… thus the lens from 1982 I was using on one of two cameras to shoot that rocket.