Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Shattering iPhone and Galaxy computational photography camera dreams into pieces?

As I wrote in my previous story about the Xiaomi 12S Ultra (before the phone was released), Xiaomi’s collaboration with Leica was going to be very real. That’s what the reports said, and as it turns out, they got it right!

Xiaomi has collaborated closely with Sony on the making of the 1-inch IMX 989 sensor that’s found in the Xiaomi 12S Ultra (reportedly a joint 15M investment for both companies), but also with the German camera and lens manufacturer, Leica.

Unlike the lens crafter’s previous affair with Huawei and the rest of the questionably significant marketing partnerships of this kind, this time, Leica’s experitse and flavor can be seen all over the Xiaomi 12S Ultra (and 12s and 12S Pro).

Unfortunately, as of now, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra will only be released in China, so we’ll have to be patient before being able to get our hands on a unit for testing (we’re working on it). However, we don’t need to wait to see the early photo samples that are making the rounds on Twitter, Weibo, and YouTube. A special shoutout goes out to Twitter leakster and photography enthusiast Ice Universe or The Cat.
I’ve compiled over 50 samples, which pit the Xiaomi 12S Ultra against phones like the Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max, but also Xiaomi’s previous flagship – the Mi 11 Ultra, which had a very strong camera system.  The good news is that the samples shot by fellow tech enthusiasts from China are more than enough to give us a general impression of what Xiaomi is going for. Spoiler: I’d describe it as “a real camera experience for smartphones”.

Let’s take a look!

Xiaomi 12S Ultra bets on an authentic “real camera” image processing – unlike Samsung and Apple

Xiaomi 12S Ultra vs Galaxy S22 Ultra photo samples

Xiaomi 12S Ultra vs iPhone 13 Pro Max photo samples

As you can tell by the pictures, compared to phones like the Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra takes more camera-like photos, and make no mistake – that’s all thanks to the 1-inch Sony IMX 989 and the Leica-inspired image style.

Photos from the Xiaomi 12S Ultra are crisp, vibrant, and dramatic. Notice – I wouldn’t say they look necessarily “realistic”, but they still manage to look very authentic, as if they came out of a dedicated camera. When it comes to close-up shots that’s almost entirely thanks to the bokeh that the huge 1-inch sensor and wide f/1.9 aperture deliver.

On the other hand, a phone will always be a phone, and you can tell that Xiaomi and Leica have decided to keep some of the “smartphone image processing” tricks to get the best of both worlds. For example, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra still delivers a super high dynamic range (often better than Samsung and Apple’s phones), and it goes without saying – aggressive HDR is a trait of “computational photography”.

However, the big difference here is that Leica’s Authentic image style lets the shadows be as dark as they need to be (or even darker), while still letting Xiaomi’s impressive HDR balance out the highlights without going overboard, and the result is… cinematic.

Furthermore, photos taken with the Leica Authentic Mode on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra are super detailed but not oversharpened like images coming from Samsung and Apple flagships that heavily rely on artificial sharpening (it’s their choice).

Noise control also appears to be exceptional on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, thanks to the massive 1-inch sensor, instead of computational softening, and seems to leave Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra far behind, especially in mid-low light scenes (the iPhone 13 Pro actually keeps up well).

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra rarely needs to use Night Mode in low light

What also stands out from the comparison samples and artistic shots that you’ll see in a bit is that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra rarely needs to use Night Mode at night.

As you might know, the modern Night Mode as we know it was “invented” in 2018 by Huawei for the Huawei P20 Pro flagship, which took long exposure photos without the need to use a tripod. The Night Mode on the P20 Pro blew my mind back in the day and also managed to change smartphone photography forever.

However, the 1-inch sensor that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra brings doesn’t seem to need it all that often, if at all. It often allows Xiaomi’s flagship to snap a photo immediately, while phones like the Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max might need a 2-3 second Night Mode to complete the same task in low light.

Then again, because of the fact that the big sensor lets in a lot of light, pictures with dark skies can sometimes appear too bright (with increased shadow detail), which doesn’t always look good. Thankfully, that’s where Night Mode can come in handy and pull out a much better photo, with deeper blacks – reminiscent of an iPhone 13 Pro.

All in all, my secondary research leads me to believe that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra isn’t just a phone with a great camera but with a great Leica camera. It’s probably the first time I’m inclined to say that about a phone, but it looks like if you’ll be buying this one, you’d need to find Leica’s approach to photography tasteful. I do.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Leica Authentic vs Leica Librant modes explained – Xiaomi found a way to please everyone

It’s important to note that while the German-Chinese-Japanese coalition has produced a very Leica-inspired camera phone, Xiaomi and Leica haven’t totally forced their understanding of photography onto users.

You get two shooting modes on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. The first one is Leica Authentic, and I’d describe it as cinematic and even moody sometimes if your scene is darker. You’ll either love it or find it a bit too much.

The Leica Authentic shooting mode’s properties are:

  • Darker shadows (with some vignetting around the edges)
  • Exceptional level of detail, almost without a trace of artificial oversharpening
  • Balanced highlights and shadows, which result in images with very high dynamic range, but without shadows that are too bright and highlights that are too flat (which is a trait of modern smartrphone photography)
  • Vibrant colors, especially when it comes to greens, yellows, and reds

Then we have the Leica Vibrant shooting mode. As the name suggests, photos taken with the Leica Vibrant mode will look more vibrant, but there’s more that the name doesn’t tell you…

Compared to the Leica Authentic mode, shooting with Leica Vibrant will result in:

  • Brighter daytime photos, with lifted shadows and slightly flatter highlights (some would say the dynamic range is higher in this mode)
  • Some artificial oversharpening, reminiscent of a Galaxy S22 or iPhone 13, but probably not as aggressive
  • Brighter night photos which often won’t need to use Night Mode to look bright

In other words, Leica Authentic is what you get when you combine the mighty Sony IMX 989 with Leica’s approach to images, while the Leica Vibrant puts a smartphone camera filter (not literally!) on top of that to make it more social media-ready and much more similar to the image processing of phones like the Galaxy S22 and iPhone 13.Which one do I like more? The Leica Authentic mode, of course. However, I won’t be surprised if the average Joe finds the Leica Vibrant mode more appealing. People generally tend to find brighter photos more pleasing, especially when viewed on their phones. Remember that I’m evaluating these samples on a pretty color-accurate MacBook screen.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra boasts the three largest cameras sensors on the market – primary, zoom, and ultra-wide – how good are they?

Sure, the primary sensor on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is the star of the show, but the flagship also has two other cameras, which happen to be… excellent. For one, yes – the Xiaomi 12S Ultra now officially has the camera system with the largest camera sensors on any phone – wide, ultra-wide, and zoom cameras:

  • Ultra-wide camera: Sony IMX 586 1/2-inch,13mm, f/2.2
  • Wide camera: Sony IMX 989 1-inch type, 23mm, f/1.9
  • Zoom camera: Sony IMX 586 1/2-inch,120mm, f/4.1

And although the zoom and ultra-wide-angle snappers on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra have remained unchanged compared to last year’s Mi 11 Ultra, they are still amongst the best ones out there, and the image quality from the early samples I see confirms just that.

It goes without saying the Galaxy S22 Ultra will comfortably outperform the Xiaomi 12S Ultra when it comes to long-range zoom (Anything beyond 15x). However, the 12S Ultra puts up a really strong fight at those 2-10x zoom shots, and thanks to its powerful sensor cropping techniques and dedicated 5x camera, it often outperforms the Galaxy. Some 10x shots are much closer than you’d expect, given the hardware differences.

What’s very interesting is that despite the fact that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has just one 5x zoom lens, Xiaomi lets users pick between three different focal lengths that fall between the 23-120mm range of the primary and zoom cameras. They will be cropped from the big 50MP 1-inch sensor and offer:

  • 35mm black and white Leica Portrait Mode
  • 50mm colored Portrait Mode images
  • 90mm Portrait Mode

The results look fantastic, especially when you know they are cropped from the main sensor and don’t use dedicated zoom lenses. The range is brilliant for all kinds of portraits, and Leica’s filters on top are the cherry on top.

Then, the ultra-wide-angle camera is very strong too, and shines in low-light (thanks to the big sensor) but also in close-ups because it has autofocus for Macro Mode. The big sensor makes shooting close-ups with natural bokeh possible, which is almost unseen in ultra-wide-angle cameras.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra teaches us that iPhone and Android camera issues start and end with “computational photography”

In the end, I’ll leave you with a little teaser photo (above) for one of my upcoming stories, which will discuss how and why “computational photography” turned modern phones into great but not necessarily authentic cameras. And I’m not making this reference by coincidence.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s job seems to be exactly focused on solving the “computational photography vs authentic camera” imbalance that’s been bugging modern smartphone cameras for years now. It’s quite literally the first phone on the market that combines a full 1-inch type sensor with modern smartphone image processing (and Leica’s flavor on top).

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’d be hesitant to draw any final conclusions based on the samples we’ve seen here until we test the 12S Ultra for ourselves. However, what I know for sure is that Xiaomi spent nearly a whole year working only on the camera of the 12S Ultra (it was mentioned during the launch of the phone), which is why the big flagship was delayed and didn’t come out earlier (as the “Xiaomi 12 Ultra”).

What I also know is that Leica is a German company, and as someone who happens to live in Germany, I can tell you that Germans are… strict and demanding. All the rumors are true. You can also tell that by looking at the short film that shows Xiaomi and Leica’s teams getting together to work on the 12S Ulta’s camera. It’s a lot of back and forth.

On the other hand, Xiaomi is a phone maker, and computational photography has been a big part of the company’s understanding of how to make phone cameras.

The two different approaches to imaging seem to have provided an opportunity to find the best balance between Leica’s Authentic image style and Xiaomi’s people-pleasing processing, and it seems like the Chinese and Germans might have figured it out by giving users a choice. You know – Leica Authentic or Leica (Xiaomi) Vibrant.

Is the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s camera the End Game?

All that being said, is the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s camera perfect? Is that the end? Have we perfected the phone camera? Not quite.

From the countless samples I’ve seen, the 12S Ultra delivers brighter and more detailed videos than the iPhone 13, but it still falls far behind Apple’s phone when it comes to HDR (specifically in video).

Then, when it comes to zoom, despite having a brilliant 5x periscope lens, which keeps up with the Galaxy S22 Ultra up to 10x zoom, it starts to fall behind once you get to those 15-50x Creep Mode shots.

So, in its current form, I wouldn’t call the Xiaomi 12S Ultra “game-changing”. However, it does change the rules of the smartphone camera game. Now that Xiaomi and Sony’s co-developed 1-inch IMX 989 is out, it’ll be up to other manufacturers to choose to use or ignore it. And by the looks of it, it will be difficult to ignore. It does look like the future.

Now that the 1-inch type sensor modern flagship is finally here, I’ll take a moment to be cheeky and wish for a Xiaomi 13 Ultra with a 1-inch type sensor and continuous zoom – like Sony’s Xperia 1 IV. Please.