The second collaboration with Leica has brought the Mate 9 and Mate 9 Pro a dual camera setup, which consists of a 20MP monochrome sensor and a 12MP RGB one, each of these behind its own 27mm-equiv. f/2.2 aperture lens. The cameras are optically stabilized - evidently both of them because otherwise, the two images wouldn't properly align. So we have 20MP and 12MP - the resolutions don't match, but engineers have come up with an ingenious solution of how to use them.
We had a talk with a few of them and we posted the findings on our blog, but for those of you who missed that article, let's just brush up on the basics of what's actually going on when you use the Mate 9 or Mate 9 Pro's camera. That is, unless you're shooting in black and white only - there is not much trickery going on there.
When you're shooting color, the Mate 9 Pro blends the footage from the monochrome camera with the one from the RGB camera with the goal being, you guessed it, to produce better images. The high-res 20MP monochrome camera records luminance data, and that's where most of the fine detail is, while the lower-res 12MP camera provides the color to go with the detail. That way you can get both 20MP and 12MP color photos.
Not only that, but the cameras are capturing multiple frames each, Pixel HDR+ style. Leica engineers didn't specify the exact number of stacked frames, unlike Google who claim to be capturing 9 frames simultaneously.
The camera interface is a bit of a hit and miss affair, as we've previously noted. It's not cluttered, thanks to the two panes that can be evoked from the left and the right - the former is the mode selector, the latter is the settings menu. The two panes don't just slide out with a simple swipe; you need to practically pull them through half the screen for them to stick, which doesn't always happen on the first try, particularly in landscape.
There's also the added convenience of having to flip back and forth between these panes for selecting resolution and color mode. Say, for example, that you like to shoot 20MP monochrome and 12MP color images to use both cameras in their native resolution (to the extent that you get control over that, in the first place). Well, going from 20MP mono to 12MP color requires a switch to color on the left and then, to 12MP on the right.
Another area where the interface could have benefited from some more big-screen optimization is the front/rear camera toggle. Located all the way up in the left corner, the tiny switch is virtually unreachable single-handedly. No swiping on the screen will toggle the cameras either, so you'll be forced to use your other hand.
Also, for a phone with a dedicated 20MP monochrome camera, you'd expect the Mate 9 Pro to have a prominent switch to go to black and white capture somewhere straight from the viewfinder, but no - it's a shooting mode in the left pane. Instead, you get Wide aperture mode, Color saturation selector, and filters, filters of all things. Why not just take a regular photo and let Instagram, or Prisma, or whatever, handle the filters, and put a monochrome button in there, huh, Huawei?
The Mate 9 Pro's photos are all about the 'Leica look.' What hides behind that ambiguous term is Leica's decades worth of experience in photography, with the resulting subjective perception of image quality. Leica engineers say that the Leica look is at odds with oversaturation and excessive sharpening, so we did expect to see balanced processing and less in-your-face images than what we've been treated with by the majority of recent flagships.
Indeed, that's more or less the case, but not quite to the point we expected. For one, colors are quite vibrant and not as laid back as you would suppose.
Detail is abundant, and textures are rendered in a very natural way, but ultimately the 20MP color images don't match the 20MP monochrome ones for high-intricacy subject resolution. For a while there we thought it was as simple as blending 12MP color on top of the 20MP detail, but apparently, it's more complicated than that.
Dynamic range in color images is striking and we suspect some auto HDR trickery is involved here. We noticed a comment saying "hdr" within the exif in some picture, even though we didn't use HDR. Then again, those who lacked the "hdr" mention in the exif, were just as good.
The Mate 9 Pro's black and white images are hard to beat for dynamic range, but its monochrome camera is more of a specialty tool, and unless you love monochrome photography particularly, you are unlikely to use it all that often on its own.
The 12MP color samples are great - there is plenty of detail, little noise, accurate colors, wide dynamic range, and the sharpening hasn't been overdone. The native 12MP images are among the best we've seen on a smartphone.
The 20MP hybrid samples can't benefit from more detail, and they clearly look as upsampled from 12MP. They do share all other benefits from the native 12MP ones, though. Since you can't extract more detail with those high-res pictures, we suspect anyone will rarely use this mode.
Finally, the monochrome 20MP images came with plenty of resolved detail - around the same amount as on the 12MP color ones. They have superb contrast, low amount of noise, and best in class dynamic range. Those are perfect for dramatic effects and creative street photography.
As we mentioned before, there is some automatic HDR applied when needed, so the manual HDR is pretty much of no use, no matter the occasion. And that's okay with us.
Now, Huawei (and potentially, Leica) sort of acknowledges that the somewhat conservative Leica look may not be to everyone's taste and includes an option for selecting punchier (Vivid or Smooth) color reproduction (though again, default is not bad at all). It's readily available too instead of being buried in the menu, so you can change it on a shot by shot basis.
The Mate 9 Pro is also advertised for its zoom prowess. It's facilitated by those multiple frames that the camera captures all the time, which give it more data to work with than what you'd get from a single 12MP shot (or 20MP).
Our understanding of it is that by using supersampling, the Mate creates a higher-resolution image, such that its 12MP center portion corresponds to the field of view of the desired magnification. They essentially generate a higher resolution image and then crop a 12MP portion of it. We calculated that the 2x zoom (54mm-equiv. FOV) requires a 50MP upscaled image. The same principle applies for higher magnifications, but the supersampled image needs to be even larger. You don't get to keep those high-res shots, though, the process takes place in the background.
We tried upscaling and sharpening 12MP and 20MP 27mm shots to 50MP in software and then cropping the center 12MP to match the 54mm field of view of the zoomed-in Mate 9 Pro shots and we couldn't achieve the same level of detail that the phone itself is capable of, which means there is a real benefit of using the 2x zoom.
As for image quality when zoomed in - the 2x and up to even 3x - the pictures are excellent with little to no loss in detail. But we know better not to expect much from a 6x digital zoom, supersampling or otherwise. We established that it worked really well to up to about 3x zoom, the 6x setting is mostly for saving you time in post-processing.
You can check how the 12MP RGB camera stacks against the Huawei P9's and Galaxy S7 edge's.