Xiaomi 12s Ultron Camera Performance

How should I put it? I feel like I’m no longer excited these days. I’ve become accustomed to being calm and unaffected, just like an old man on the street with a slanted eye and a crooked mouth. He shakes off the ashes from his cigarette and says, “Whatever…” Not to mention material desires, as I have already achieved the freedom of the vegetable market and gained confidence. Moreover, I find it difficult to develop an interest in new things. I feel that knowing the internal logic is enough, and there’s no need to learn more. The same goes for fashion—it’s just a cycle, and I’ve been there before… and so on.

Until I used the 12s for a few days… this… this… is amazing! Oh my… I can’t contain myself!

Firstly, I never saw it as just a phone, and I won’t evaluate any aspect of it other than the camera. Usually, when I buy a phone, I usually go for the flagship models. I don’t play games or tinker with them, and I haven’t noticed any issues with regular usage. Therefore, my perception of phone functions is quite poor. Every time I upgrade my phone, it’s mainly because of improvements in the camera module. I upgraded to the iPhone 7 Plus because of the dual camera, the iPhone 11 Pro because of its unprecedented large sensor, and the 12 Pro for its larger sensor and Leica partnership! I was particularly tempted by Huawei’s Leica, especially with the P40. However, there are some stubbornness and biases that I can’t get past. When the 12s collaborated with Leica, everyone around me thought I would definitely buy it, and they were right.

Secondly, let me first mention the drawbacks: in summary, this phone is still a Frankenstein’s monster. The product manager clearly doesn’t understand photography. They simply packed the lenses, CMOS sensor, and algorithms into a regular phone and called it a day. They didn’t anticipate that this kind of phone would bring about certain changes and that they should have made some modifications to adapt to future changes! Generally, specialized high-end products require specialized design. For example, a camera-centric phone should have a dedicated shutter button. They should consider the grip feel (like the Leitz Phone and the Sony X-Pro1 with enhanced friction patterns on the frame), and they should consider that more camera users would buy it and add a quick-release mechanism for the TF card and a separate storage module… and why not provide 14-bit RAW or at least 12-bit RAW! And it still uses a USB 2.0 interface… completely ignoring the needs for fine photo editing on a computer. Don’t say it’s unnecessary; with a 1-inch sensor, there is already potential for post-processing, and this blocks the further demand for post-processing that naturally arises when people realize that this camera can take great photos. So Xiaomi doesn’t understand photography; it’s still the Frankenstein’s monster that just adds internet connectivity to anything.

Now that I’ve mentioned the drawbacks, I really don’t feel like talking about the advantages… After all, I think the advantages are a given, just like how computational photography has made photos look the same. If it continues this way, there will inevitably be a counter-cultural movement, and it hits the mark perfectly. So I have always believed that technological changes are quantitative, while changes in thinking are qualitative and revolutionary. A humble Frankenstein’s monster, a mediocre brand, and it gained the trust of Leica, and it truly embodied it. It didn’t go to DxO anymore. So it succeeded. The world has suffered enough from computational photography!

This revolution comes

from changing the aesthetic thinking of photos. It shifts from adjusting parameters like “brightness, sharpness, details, clarity” to an aesthetic orientation that focuses on “tones, contrast, layers, and emotions.” It is a shift from the mindset of a science student to that of an arts student, from a scientist to an artist—and photography is art!

So when many people say that Xiaomi is heading in the right direction, I completely agree because no one has ever practiced this approach in the realm of smartphones. It can be called a revolution in mobile imaging. If Xiaomi understands this, they should continue with this tonal approach and lead the way.

Apart from the pure change in image quality, the second biggest surprise is the improvement in shooting experience. The shutter is incredibly fast, even surpassing the iPhone without any lag. This is very advantageous for street photography and especially suitable for someone like me. I usually hold the phone with one hand, with my thumb resting on the volume button. I observe the screen with my peripheral vision and intuitively compose the shot. This method has a high success rate and doesn’t disturb the subject. For example, imagine the wide-angle shot below. You can imagine how close I had to be to take such a photo with a 23mm lens. Most cameras would fail.

But this photo also has a strong computational photography feel, mainly due to excessive detail enhancement, oversaturated colors, and unrealistic skin tones. Even though I have been using Leica classics for shooting.

In addition, metering is also an issue. I haven’t studied it in detail, but the Xiaomi 12s Ultron definitely uses only average metering. In areas with high contrast, I have to manually adjust the brightness by looking at the screen, like in the two photos below. One photo is taken directly, while the other is adjusted with exposure compensation.

The second photo is obviously mediocre. It would be great if Xiaomi could add two EV buttons on the left side frame, so that I can hold the phone with one hand, use my thumb for the shutter, and my index and middle fingers for adjusting the exposure value (EV). Everything would be under control.

Thirdly, there is shutter lag. To be honest, I haven’t measured it yet, but it definitely exists, and it’s not insignificant. However, if you long-press the shutter and swipe it to the side, it activates high-speed continuous shooting. This feature solves the problem of capturing moments, although it may reduce image quality. But for capturing photos, high image quality is not always necessary, and I understand that.

It managed to capture the moment, but the automatic HDR activated in backlit conditions is uncomfortable. The enhancement of shadow details is excessive! I still don’t quite understand it. Adding details to shadows equals noise! And the color temperature is too purplish. In my opinion, Leica colors tend to be greenish and brownish, and a reddish-purple tone is definitely an outlier. Any photo with a reddish-purple tone doesn’t look good.

I applied an OldRoll filter to make it look more comfortable. Of course, now it has transformed into the popular Instagram aesthetic.

The 12s Ultron is designed as a camera specifically for quick snapshots and candid shots, similar to the Ricoh GR. In terms of tone, it has departed from the artificiality of computational photography and is leaning towards the essence of true photography. However, its grip, menu operation, and other aspects are still that of an ordinary and unremarkable smartphone. Nevertheless, it is a significant improvement compared to the 11u, which had truly nauseating colors, like those gaudy velvet landscape paintings that were popular in some people’s living rooms in the 2000s. You must have seen them—overly vibrant and sharp. So, this is a complete shift in thinking and concept, which makes me truly feel the urge to get rid of my Fuji backup camera. Moreover, I can carry it with me at all times, making photography so convenient. Aren’t smartphones always this convenient? Well, no. There hasn’t been a smartphone that met my basic image quality requirements until now. Therefore, the above statements are highly subjective and might only apply to me. As for the fancy features of this phone beyond photography, I haven’t researched them at all, but there’s nothing I find uncomfortable about them. After all, I’ve been using Xiaomi for over a year, and the system is quite stable, although I do think the fingerprint recognition is still poor, probably not upgraded.

There is still a gap between smartphones and cameras, but it’s not huge, just noticeable. Because nowadays, most people watch videos and photos on their phones, and the advantage of cameras in terms of resolution is not significant. The only areas where cameras still lead are color rendition and detail representation, which are physical advantages of larger sensors. However, the color of the 12s Ultron still doesn’t match Leica’s taste. In my opinion, it is still too saturated. This issue cannot be solved by simply reducing saturation; it mainly requires subtle adjustments to the color range under different lighting conditions. The biggest color issue is the excessive saturation in the shadows under backlit situations (see the first photo). It’s to the point of looking obviously artificial.

Another issue is the shadows, or what is commonly referred to as “detail enhancement” (a function found in LR software’s basic adjustments, where increasing this parameter creates a similar effect to the shadows in the 12s Ultron now). It makes the shadows appear very noisy and messy, which weakens the sense of depth and misaligns the originally clear three-level gradation of highlights, midtones, and shadows. This is the biggest drawback of HDR.

That’s why I have always disliked HDR. Having everything means having nothing, and being strong in everything means being weak in everything. How did this processing technique, popular in landscape photography, become an industry standard? Perhaps the developers believed that landscape photography masters are all incredibly skilled and professional. Let’s not argue about it—excellent landscape photographers also consider the coordination between HDR and depth, never using it mindlessly. However, even the most outstanding photographers, once they focus solely on landscapes and start using HDR, can appear vulgar. For example, Sebastião Salgado, his most famous work “Genesis” is inferior to his previous series of human migration in terms of humanity. It’s because HDR was excessively applied, especially in the photos of animals. It’s frustrating to talk about it, so I’ll stop here.