January 17, 2022

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Smartphone Test Photos


When any new high-end smartphone is first shown to the world, it’s often quickly followed by a set of carefully-shot test images, showing off the capabilities of its latest and greatest camera sensor and lens. One jarring example over the last few days shows why you should be sceptical of these photos.

Image credit: Scott Barbour / Getty Images

It’s either an unfortunate mistake at best or an exercise in deceptive marketing at worst, but Android Police explains the situation: yesterday, Huawei Mobile posted a photo on its Google+ page that was implied to be from its new P9 smartphone, but that was actually shot on a $4000 Canon 5D Mark III with a $3000 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II LM zoom lens mounted.

The reason this was discovered? Google+ prominently displays the EXIF data from images that are uploaded to it, including the camera, lens, focal length, ISO and exposure, and this one was clear as day:

1467900821-2843-fVGQ6gtImage credit: Imgur

Huawei responded to the situation in a comment to Android Police: “It has recently been highlighted that an image posted to our social channels was not shot on the Huawei P9. The photo, which was professionally taken while filming a Huawei P9 advert, was shared to inspire our community. We recognise though that we should have been clearer with the captions for this image. It was never our intention to mislead. We apologise for this and we have removed the image.”

The wider problem, though, is that most sample photos purporting to be from new smartphones don’t have a clear chain of custody — it’s not easy to tell that, without a doubt, they’ve come from the phone in question. EXIF is very good for tracking this, but it’s not perfect — it can be altered and replaced. The only solution is to be sceptical until you’ve got a phone in your hands to see what it can do in the real world.

Many photos online have no EXIF data. Every phone brand does this — giants like Samsung, mid-market players like Motorola and Sony, and more enthusiast-oriented brands like OnePlus. Image galleries sharedon sites like GSMArena and on manufacturers’ own websites are rarely easily provable to have definitely come from the smartphone cameras they are suggested to, with EXIF data stripped out or Photoshop used at some point during the file’s digital life.

It’s also widely — if quietly — talked about within the industry that there are some smartphone makers that bend the (unofficial) rules when taking test photos with a new phone. Heavy tripods to steady phones’ cameras, complicated lighting setups that let phones capture photos at the lowest, cleanest ISO, custom firmwares that capture RAW data for later editing when consumers’ phones don’t have RAW shooting modes. The only solution is to be sceptical.

The Huawei P9 already takes great photos, and has the unique selling point of a dedicated monochrome imaging sensor for true-to-life black and white shots. That’s really cool on its own, even without the Leica branding, and it’s worth celebrating. By all accounts, it takes very good photos for a smartphone, putting it on par with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus as the best smartphone cameras out there.

So, we’re saying this was just a mistake by Huawei — a misguided attempt at sharing some beautiful photography and implicitly linking that photograph to its new P9, without being explicitly clear that the photo wasn’t taken on the P9. With some luck and effort and RAW processing, smartphones can take pretty impressive photos these days: just show those instead, and show us how you took them.

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