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HUAWEI P30 Pro 'Moon Mode' stirs controversy (Update: HUAWEI responds)

"Moon Mode" sounds like just another camera feature, but it's actually embroiled in controversy.

Published onApril 24, 2019

HUAWEI P30 Pro taking a photo

Update, April 24, 2019 (12:30 PM ET): HUAWEI sent Android Authority a statement in response to the article below. The company refutes the conclusions drawn by Wang Yue at Zhihu and claims Moon Mode works as advertised.

An excerpt of the statement is here:

Moon Mode operates on the same principle as other master AI modes, in that it recognizes and optimizes details within an image to help individuals take better photos. It does not in any way replace the image – that would require an unrealistic amount of storage space since AI mode recognizes over 1,300 scenarios. Based on machine learning principles, the camera recognizes a scenario and helps to optimize focus and exposure to enhance the details such as shapes, colors, and highlights/lowlights. This feature can be turned on or off easily while taking a photo. While there is a Moon Mode, the shot can still be taken without AI mode because of the periscope lens.

Although Yue’s photo examples paint a convincing argument that Moon Mode does not work this way, unfortunately, Android Authority was unable to duplicate his results on our own HUAWEI P30 Pro.

The original article on this topic with a few new annotations is below.

Original article, April 23, 2019 (12:55 PM ET): The rear camera system on the HUAWEI P30 Pro is, today, tied for the best overall smartphone camera on the market according to DxOMark. Our own reviews here at Android Authority also peg it as one of the best camera systems we’ve ever used.

However, one feature of the phone is currently mired in controversy: “Moon Mode.”

Using Moon Mode, a HUAWEI P30 Pro owner can take a close-up picture of the moon with no tripod or zoom lens necessary. Reportedly, the feature works by using the phone’s periscope zoom lens combined with an AI algorithm to enhance details in the photo.

As an example, here is a shot from marketing materials for the P30 Pro, which was allegedly photographed using Moon Mode on a P30 Pro without a tripod or any additional equipment:

A photograph, supplied by HUAWEI, of the moon at night, allegedly photographed using a HUAWEI P30 Pro without a tripod or any additional equipment.

Sure, the image is a little blurry, but it’s still pretty incredible when you consider it was taken with just a smartphone from 38,000km (~23,612mi) 238,900 miles away (ED: The original calculations were in error).

However, new testing of this Moon Mode feature suggests HUAWEI’s method of getting shots like the one above is shady at best and unethical at worst, if the testing results are legitimate. (ED: This sentence has been slightly altered from the original to reflect the ambiguity of the test results).

Before we get into that, let’s talk a bit about how the image above is possible.

How the HUAWEI P30 Pro Moon Mode allegedly works

HUAWEI P30 Pro top down back

The official user’s guide for the HUAWEI P30 Pro describes Moon Mode as such: “Moon Mode helps to adequately capture the beauty of the moon along with fine details like moonbeams and shadows.”

Supposedly, this is how the system works:

  1. A user holds the HUAWEI P30 Pro towards the moon and zooms in a bit using pinch-to-zoom on the camera.
  2. The P30 Pro identifies (using AI) that the user is trying to take a photo of the moon, and thus suggests Moon Mode.
  3. The user selects Moon Mode and the camera system then “helps you get a clear shot” using the aforementioned algorithms.

HUAWEI doesn’t go into any specific detail on how the Moon Mode algorithm actually works. From the language in the user’s guide and marketing materials, HUAWEI seems to suggest that the algorithm takes the information in your specific photo and then enhances that specific image by using known information about the face of the moon to clarify, stabilize, and otherwise “fix” the image.

HUAWEI P30 Pro camera review: Next level optics, low-light champion
HUAWEI P30 Pro cameras macro back (57 of 60)

According to anecdotal research by some industrious photographers though, this is potentially not completely true. According to tests performed by Wang Yue at Zhihu, the HUAWEI P30 Pro isn’t just enhancing the image information the user captures but actually placing pre-existing imagery of the moon into the photo.

In other words, the photo you end up with from using Moon Mode might not be “your” photo, but instead a hybrid of your photo and artificial augmentations.

To test out this theory, Yue photographed the moon from several different angles as well as photographed non-moon objects using Moon Mode. You can read his full report here, but the basic gist is this: Moon Mode doesn’t appear to create fully original photographs.

It should be noted that Android Authority wasn’t able to confirm nor deny Yue’s findings. Android Authority has reached out to HUAWEI for comment on the situation but did not receive a response by press time. (ED: HUAWEI’s response is at the top of this article.)

Why is this controversial?

HUAWEI P30 Pro camera array 1

If Moon Mode did exactly what HUAWEI says it does — “help you adequately capture the beauty of the moon” — then there would be no controversy here. The controversy stems from the idea that a user is not capturing the beauty of the moon. Instead, based on Yue’s evidence, it appears the user would be capturing a photo of the moon that is then augmented with artificial elements to make it seem like they captured a beautiful photo of the moon.

In reality, this is not much different from something like a Snapchat filter, such as the one that makes you look like you have cat ears. However, in that case, it’s very clear that you really don’t have cat ears and Snapchat is adding that into the image. With Moon Mode, HUAWEI could be adding in artificial augmentation to the photo without fully disclosing it.

This isn't the first time HUAWEI as fudged the truth to sell a smartphone.

Now, this might not be a big deal for you. After all, artificial augmentation of photos is happening all the time with features such as beauty modes, panorama shots, and night modes. The fact that this mode is called Moon Mode makes it clear that it is designed to work on the moon and not other objects, which also makes it seem like HUAWEI isn’t doing anything wrong.

HUAWEI P30 Pro review: A phone with superpowers
HUAWEI P30 Pro camera array at angle

Frankly, if this were the only time HUAWEI had ever stretched the truth about the photographic capabilities of its smartphones, it might really not be that big of a deal. But HUAWEI has been challenged on matters such as this multiple times before, most notably by using promotional photos it suggested were taken with smartphones but actually taken with high-grade equipment. The company was also caught fudging benchmarks for multiple devices.

When you combine those controversies with this one, it’s hard not to view the company as altering the truth to sell us on its smartphones.

HUAWEI P30 Pro Moon Mode: Our take

HUAWEI P30 Pro downward angle

The thing that’s so bizarre about this Moon Mode controversy is that the HUAWEI P30 Pro camera is already stellar. DxOMark, Android Authority, and many, many other websites all concluded from independent testing that the P30 Pro takes some of the best photos of any smartphone in history.

HUAWEI reacts after it's caught using DSLR photos for its P30 campaign
A HUAWEI P30 promotional image, taken in 2009.

If HUAWEI has truly made such an amazing smartphone, why does it use shady marketing tactics to sell us on it? Furthermore, why does it repeatedly do so, even after getting caught?

You will have to make your own decision about how you feel about the ethics behind something like Moon Mode, but one thing is clear: HUAWEI has created a masterpiece of a smartphone and it shouldn’t need to resort to methods like this to sell us on it.

NEXT: If you live in the U.S., you don’t have to import the HUAWEI P30 Pro

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