Xiaomi 12S Ultra presents an amazing camera with a 1″ sensor

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra camera is a great achievement: it is one of the few smartphones to offer a 1-inch type sensor. In relative terms, this is a bulky sensor for a phone, and larger sensors generally result in better image quality.

Putting the 12S Ultra side by side against some of the current class leaders in smartphone cameras, there are clear situations where the larger sensor makes a difference. But more than anything, it highlights how advanced imaging systems from Apple, Google and Samsung have come, even with smaller sensors. The future of mobile photography will not be won by better hardware alone.

First, let’s get rid of some housekeeping. A 1-inch sensor is often referred to as a 1-inch sensor to make life easier, but that doesn’t mean the sensor measures literally an inch or diagonally. It’s an old naming convention related to TV camera tubes. What matters here is that the 1-inch sensor is a lot smaller than what you’ll find in a full-frame camera but much larger than the sensor on nearly every other smartphone camera. It’s the same size as the sensors used by Sony’s RX100 series cameras – so putting a 1-inch sensor in a smartphone camera would probably put it on a level playing field with the best pocket-friendly conventional cameras.

There are three rear cameras: a 50MP main camera, a 48MP ultrawide camera, a 48MP telephoto camera, and a 5x camera.

As for the other specs, the 12S Ultra main camera offers a 50.3MP resolution with a fixed f/1.9 lens. By default, it creates 12MP photos from 50MP ones. There’s also a 5x stable telephoto lens (120mm full frame equivalent) with a 48MP sensor and 48MP ultrawide. Xiaomi says it co-designed the camera with Leica, and the camera app offers two Leica-branded color processing profiles: Leica Vibrant and Leica Authentic. Video recording up to 8K/24p is supported, and there is a 32MP front camera.

Oh, and there’s a connected phone, but we won’t get into that here. It’s only sold in China, and as such, I haven’t really been able to test it as a phone.

Why is sensor size important? For starters, it allows for larger pixels, which are better at collecting light. The depth of field is also a bit shallow, so it opens up more creative control over the amount of focus in the background of the shot.

This also means that the lens attached to it can be larger, and the two together will collect more light than the smaller lens/sensor assembly. Smartphone cameras use multiple frames and algorithms to compensate for the relatively small sensors and cameras. However, starting with more image information collected by a larger sensor can make a big difference in very low light or how the camera handles moving subjects in low light – huge challenges for smartphone cameras.

The placement of a large sensor combined with the advantages of computational photography is a kind of promised land for smartphone photography. The Google Pixel 6 Pro already takes great photos in very low light with Night Sight, but it might look better if the system had better data to work with than a larger sensor. The 12S Ultra can take some amazing photos, but it’s not quite the promised land.

By taking a look at some comparison photos of the iPhone 13 Pro Max, Pixel 6 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, I have to look closely to see where the 12S can capture more details. It’s easier to see in areas of shadow detail, especially in the scene below, where more leaves appear in greenery rather than losing shadows. I also prefer how the 12S Ultra’s image is exposed; The ground level lights do not turn off as they are in the Pixel 6 Pro image. The images in the sliders below are 100 percent crops for comparison.

Xiaomi (left) shows more detail in the water feature and in the darker parts of the green than the Pixel (right).

The 12S Ultra does slightly better than the iPhone 13 Pro Max, too. It’s subtle but the finer details in the bottles are a bit more noticeable. The 12S Ultra also retains the color detail in the shadows where the 13 Pro can’t quite hang and crush in black.

The image of Xiaomi (on the left) shows more subtle detail and retains more color in the shadows than that of the iPhone (on the right).

The Samsung S22 Ultra uses a 108MP sensor for its main camera, which is also used to produce 12MP photos. Even when competing with Samsung with twice the pixel resolution, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra does a better job of resolving very fine details, like the chain link fence in the background image below.

The links in the fence are shown in the Xiaomi photo (left) but are mostly smoothed over in the Samsung photo (right).

This is all very impressive, but to see a noticeable difference, I have to look at the two at 100 percent magnification. If you only take snapshots and share them on social media, you will never see the difference. Furthermore, the 12S Ultra faces many of the same challenges as all other smartphone cameras. Mixed lighting can sometimes lead to strange exposure choices.

Good portrait mode picture, good baby.

The 1-inch sensor is larger, but it won’t naturally give you the kind of blurry background images that larger sensor cameras can really get close to. So it uses portrait mode, just like any other smartphone camera, and the results are inconsistent.

Sometimes they look great. In moderate indoor lighting, I snapped some of my favorite 10-month-old’s selfies that I’ve taken with any smartphone. To be clear, I take Much From my baby pictures with many different phones. Portrait mode is cropped by default, but you can choose from three different “pro lenses” with different preset color profiles to quickly change things up: 35mm black and white, 50mm “round bokeh,” and 90mm soft focus. I thought it would be weird, but I like it more than I thought. If this is a product of Leica’s influence, I think I’m impressed.

In a different case with two people in the background, portrait mode photos look much worse. I had trouble distinguishing my subject from the people in the background and picking up a stray arm and leg in focus. The Samsung S22 Ultra does better in the same situation, although its results are certainly not perfect. Portrait mode is a mixed bag for the 12S Ultra, as is every other smartphone camera we’ve seen so far.

The 12S Ultra had some problems with my objective identification.

Not perfect, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra does better.

Overall, though, I really liked shooting with the 12S Ultra, and allowed myself to trust it in more situations than I would with another smartphone camera. It may not be entirely fair either. I think knowing that I was working with a larger sensor convinced me to use it in more ways than using another phone’s camera. However, it has held up surprisingly many of these use cases, like taking a picture of my husband tossing our baby in the air or using portrait mode in less than amazing lighting with a moving subject. I got more guards than I expected either way.

This may partly be due to the color processing, which is really cool. I wouldn’t associate it as a Leica obviously, and there are hundreds of ways you can get a similar color on another phone’s camera through processing or third-party apps. But I usually just take what I get from the native camera app, and I like what’s here.

It’s a great set of camera.

But the biggest impression I got from the experience is how good the cameras are like the iPhone 13 Pro Max, S22 Ultra and Pixel 6 Pro with much smaller sensors. It transfers most of the 12S Ultra’s advantages to 100 percent visible pixel-level detail. What other phone cameras are doing with computer imaging to make this narrow gap so impressive. If this 1-inch sensor makes its way into Pixel and Galaxy phones with powerful computing imaging chips, that’s a very exciting prospect.

Photo by Alison Johnson/The Verge

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