Phone cameras have become more and more powerful since the first primitive efforts arrived more than 20 years ago. A grainy colour picture of his newborn daughter that software mogul Philippe Kahn sent to family and friends on June 11, 1997 was the first known publicly shared photo from a cell phone. Before that, phones were mainly used, well, to phone people.
How times have changed. Today pretty much the first thing people talk about when they see a new phone is the camera. Last year, we saw a device with 50x hybrid zoom, the Huawei P30 Pro, and gave you a look at Paris, France through its eyes.
I have a serious affinity for zoom lenses. For one thing, they mean you’re not loaded down with a zillion lenses of varying focal lengths. But I also love them from a journalistic standpoint because they let me get decent shots at events without having to fight through crowds or disturb attendees by trying to get closer to the subject. All of my original shots at events for the past year and a half have been taken using a Huawei P30 Pro, which provides excellent quality even at high zoom distances. When I heard that both Huawei and Samsung were launching phone cameras with 100x hybrid zoom, I had to check them out.
Two flagship phones offer 100x hybrid zoom: The Huawei P40 Pro+ and the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G. I’ll say upfront that neither is cheap – think well over $2000 (Canadian) worth of not cheap. Both support 5G, which probably adds to the price, but the spectacular cameras are our focus here (sorry).
|Huawei P40 Pro+||Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G|
|50MP wide angle, f1.9, OIS||108MP wide angle, f1.8, OIS|
|40MP ultra-wide cine f1.8||12MP ultra-wide, f2.2, OIS|
|8MP 10x optical, f4.4, OIS||48MP telephoto, f3.5, OIS|
|8MP telephoto, 3x optical, f2.4, OIS|
|3D sensing camera||Depth/vision|
|Zoom modes||Digital, optical, hybrid||10x hybrid optic zoom, super resolution zoom up to 100x|
|32MP selfie f2.2 + depth camera||40MP selfie camera, f2.2|
While Huawei’s partnership with Leica is front and centre (and Leica’s reputation in optics is well-known), Samsung brews all of its camera magic in-house. That makes a certain amount of sense given the company also produces standalone digital cameras ranging from simple point and shoot right up to enthusiast professional cameras.
How we tested
Since most users treat their phones as point and shoot devices, I decided to test that way – no messing with settings, no tripods, just seeing what one can do with the defaults (and the friendly built-in AI), handheld. It challenged the optical image stabilization (OIS) but believe it or not, with a little concentration you can get a shot at 100x without a tripod. It wasn’t easy – the slightest wobble is amplified at that zoom level – but it is possible.
What we saw
Both Huawei and Samsung have addressed one huge problem with zooming – as you close in on your target, you can lose track of what you’re pointing at – by putting a thumbnail of the larger scene in the top corner of the display containing a little box surrounding what you’re zoomed in on. For example, if you want a shot of a flower across the yard, as you zoom in, a slight wobble may have you missing the bloom and merely getting leaves, but a quick peek at the thumbnail will show you which way to shift the image to find it again. I found Huawei’s version somewhat better to use; it was a tad larger and seemed clearer and more accurate – here, in the photo of the screen showing the Samsung version, what’s in the little box isn’t quite what the actual image shows.
These shots, taken in a shopping mall, show what 100x zoom looks like. Here we see the view at 1x, to give a sense of the distance.
And here we have 100x shots of the “O” on the kiosk, taken from the same spot.
This cat was supremely unimpressed with the photographer, but he stayed in one spot about eight feet away to permit these shots. You can see that Samsung’s colours are softer and the fur a bit less defined than Huawei’s.
This little gathering was about ten feet away, and one stark difference is in the background. Samsung captured its colour, a soft pink, correctly.
It was a dreary day when these shots illustrated what the respective AIs made of the clouds and sky and greenery. Huawei’s take, particularly on the trees and the sky, was more accurate, though neither got the house right – that’s siding we’re seeing, not some sort of rippled brick.
Inside a garage under incandescent lighting, Huawei’s colours are a bit over-saturated in the long shot, but pretty good in the closeup, while Samsung does the opposite – the longer view is more accurate.
Here’s 100x with a vengeance – that Hydro tower you see in the distance, as zoomed at it would zoom.
Finally, an oddity. This bottle is zoomed in 9x, and both phones did a not bad job (the text focused better on the Huawei).
But go a smidge above that, and the Huawei perceptibly changed cameras; the image position in the frame shifted as though the lens was lower, and it couldn’t focus properly. Samsung, on the other hand, zoomed right in, keeping the text in focus. Huawei needs to sort that out – it appears a software update is in order, because the Leica optics are up to the task.