Friday 24 May 2019

Get the picture? How new hybrid (and camera) technology provide snapshot of future at Le Mans

In focus: Le Mans

Le Mans
Le Mans
Le Mans
Huawei was keen to demonstrate that the camera technology in its latest P20 Pro smartphone

Cathal Doyle

Even for people with no interest in motorsport, the Le Mans 24-hour race is likely to resonate. It's one of the big three of motor racing, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500.

It offers a compelling spectacle and challenge for competitors and spectators alike. A combination of car classes competing on the same track, the dramatic nature of the 13.7 km La Sar, the circuit with its famous Mulsanne straight (a normal road for the rest of the year) and the fact the race encompasses a full calendar day at the height of summer prompt unique visual and audio experiences.

It also presents an unrivalled opportunity for carmakers to demonstrate the performance and reliability of their motors.

Following the withdrawal of Audi and Porsche from the World Endurance Championship, Toyota was the only works manufacturer competing in the top LMP1 category at Le Mans this year.

Le Mans
Le Mans

As such it was their event to lose, with the privateer opposition ranked against them competing to different regulations.

That said, Toyota would have been too aware of the heartbreak of two years ago when its leading car stopped on the final lap.

So the fact the two TS050 hybrids ran pretty much faultlessly for the 24 hours to finish 1-2 well clear of opposition will have given the Japanese giant much satisfaction. The result is also vindication of the car-maker's long-term commitment to hybrid technology. If the adage 'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday' still applies, there can be no better marketing tool than a Le Mans' victory.

And just as hybrid engines are changing the face of motorsport, so too is technology redefining traditional assumptions of what constitutes the right equipment for the job.

I was at Le Mans at the invitation of phone manufacturer Huawei, which was keen to demonstrate that the camera technology in its latest P20 Pro smartphone is capable of producing really good images in one of the most demanding fields of sports photography.

Having dabbled a little in motorsport photography over the years, it's a given that to get good results you need the best equipment. State-of-the-art DSLRs combined with lightning-fast lenses are de rigueur in this field.

Huawei was keen to demonstrate that the camera technology in its latest P20 Pro smartphone
Huawei was keen to demonstrate that the camera technology in its latest P20 Pro smartphone

Certainly you couldn't expect reliable and consistent results from a mere smartphone . . . at least up to now.

Huawei's new flagship product may have camera experts re-evaluating the need for expensive standalone camera equipment.

In a first for camera phones, the P20 Pro features no fewer than three lenses co-engineered with renowned manufacturer Leica. These are combined with artificial intelligence, which helps eliminate problems such as camera shake.

The technology results in genuinely impressive photographs. Apart from a strong battery life, two things stood out for me. Firstly, the P20 Pro's ability to shoot stunning images under low light. Secondly, its speed. Initially I was constantly missing cars in my shots because, assuming the camera phone would take time to react, I was pressing the shutter early. No need: get the car in frame, press button and instant shot taken.

Its limitations are the same as with any smartphone camera - the ergonomics. My biggest fear was dropping it, and compared to a bulky DSLR, holding a small, thin device is more of a challenge when trying panning shots or taking from unusual angles.

However, limitations in the photographs taken were on the photographer's side, not the cameras.

While it probably won't replace DSLRs in professional photographers' kit bags, it's probably the first smartphone that can produce comparable results. And proof that just as hybrid engines are becoming standard, camera phone technology is seriously changing the way we view things.

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