Xiaomi and Leica write the latest chapter of smartphone camera chronicles


Smartphone cameras are serious business. Behind all those megapixels, there has to be substance. More often than not, it is the key to tilting the favour for or against, once the buyer is ready with the credit card. And it has always helped to have an established name in the photography space adding weight to what a smartphone maker may be claiming. It isn’t new though. That said, Xiaomi is just writing the latest chapter, by announcing that they’ll be working with Leica, a brand that’s well-known in the photography space. The partnership will lead to the production of a new flagship phone in July – that is a bit more than a month away – that is being described as the “first imaging flagship smartphone”. That’s a big call, whichever way you look at it, and delivering on it won’t be easy. Xiaomi and Leica will have to pull something really special out of the bag, on this one. A cursory glance at its potential rivals leads us to the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra (that has a 108-megapixel camera) and the OnePlus 10 Pro (the Hasselblad direction always helps). Globally, there’s also the Sony smartphone line-up, which too takes advantage of the Zeiss optics.

What exactly will the partnership focus on, for cameras? The spectrum is potentially wide. “During the cooperation, from optical design to tuning aesthetic orientations, the innovative technologies, product philosophies and imaging preferences of both parties have experienced unprecedented in-depth collision and fusion,” said Lei Jun, founder, chairman and CEO of Xiaomi Group. Theoretically, Leica may provide Xiaomi with critical pieces of the jigsaw, including colour tuning, algorithms for image processing and perhaps additional photography modes too.

Will the upcoming flagship be the Xiaomi 12 Ultra? Even before Xiaomi factors in the competition, there’s a significant generational step-up to contend with.

The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra – Mi branding is no longer a part of Xiaomi’s phones- gave a triple camera setup (50-megapixel + 48-megapixel + 48-megapixel) and was generally among the best camera phones of its time. The new phone will join the Xiaomi 12 series, the current flagship being the Xiaomi 12 Pro, which has a triple 50-megapixel camera configuration.

Who else is doing what Xiaomi is now trying to achieve with Leica? OnePlus is the most vocal example of a camera phone being made better with the help of a camera company – Hasselblad being the one in question here. They’ve worked on last year’s OnePlus 9 series, and this year’s OnePlus 10 Pro as well (gains are arguable, but the X-Pan photography mode is a definite bonus). The larger brand synergies mean Oppo also takes advantage of this partnership.

The trend started by Nokia many years ago (they can’t be credited enough for something phone makers are following through on today), and it was with Carl Zeiss, a brand that’s now working with Sony and Vivo for their smartphones. At the same time, Samsung has done everything in-house, including the ProRAW mode that the new phones have. And these are, arguably, the best camera phones in the Android smartphone space – and they have been, year on year, with every Galaxy S flagship series. So far, Xiaomi had done the same, to a fairly consistent effect. Those are the two sides of the same coin, with no clear winner yet.

It must also be noted that camera performance, for photos and videos as well as additional features such as HDR processing, improved night photos and video frame rates, also depend on improvements that chipsets bring over time. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chips, for instance, have their own underlying improvements over the previous generation, the Snapdragon 888 chip. That gives software, AI and feature layers, a better foundation to work with.

For Leica, this is definitely not its first tryst in the smartphone camera space. The company themselves have made a smartphone – that is called the Leitz Phone 1, and for the time being, is exclusive to Japan. Also, the company has worked closely with Huawei. It is too soon to say if the new partnership will work, but the success (or not so much) will depend on how deep these camera tuning efforts go. Will it be just a filter for Xiaomi’s camera app, or work with the camera hardware to develop the core of the image processing software? The answer lies in there somewhere.

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