Xiaomi 14 Ultra is a photography lover’s dream
Xiaomi 14 Ultra is a photography lover’s dream

For most people, the compact camera is long dead; the camera is a phone and the phone is a camera. But despite all the technological advancements of the last few years, phones still leave something to be desired if you’re the kind of person who likes go shoot

Traditional cameras – especially those of a certain size and shape – are still alive and kicking, in part because nothing beats real buttons, dials and a sturdy grip. These are things that phones usually don’t have – except for the Xiaomi 14 Ultra. This is the greatest phone camera I’ve used in a decade (RIP Nokia Lumia 1020) and I really wish it was available in the US.

Really everything is killer, no filler — everything about the grip is super comfortable. The dial is set to exposure compensation by default, and that’s where I left it; I love being able to change the brightness of the image up and down without tapping on the screen. This also works in standard camera shooting mode, not just manual. My only complaint is that it’s too easy to hit it and accidentally dial your exposure up or down without realizing it.

The video button is just as useful; I don’t have to look at the screen to switch to video recording. You can customize all of these input mechanisms. Most importantly, you can set the zoom button to switch incrementally between lenses instead of using continuous digital zoom between them. It’s a beautiful thing.

This year, the camera grip includes a larger battery and a USB connector that plugs right into the phone’s charging port. It’s more useful because it can provide some power to the phone if it runs out, and it also reduces control lag compared to last year’s version, which only connected via Bluetooth. The previous version was not slow by any means, but this year’s version is a hair faster — and every millisecond counts. The only downside is that the battery adds a bit of weight, and it’s enough to notice the difference when holding the phone balanced in one hand with the grip. Can’t have everything, I guess.

The Xiaomi 14 Ultra uses a 1-inch sensor for its main camera — it’s about as big as smartphone cameras come, and all things being equal, a bigger sensor is better. There are also 3x, 5x and ultra-wide cameras on the rear camera bump. But the big story is that the main camera offers f/1.63-f/4 infinitely variable aperture, building on the dual-aperture design of the 13 Ultra. I owe this new aperture an apology for initially calling it a gimmick; after using it a bit i think it’s just a little gimmick.

Almost every phone camera you’ve ever used has a fixed aperture; only a few of them ever offered an aperture with more than one setting. That’s fine – most phone camera sensors and lenses are so small that you really want the widest aperture setting at all times to let in more light. But the Xiaomi 14 Ultra, as noted, is not most phone cameras. The 1″ sensor format is large enough that being able to stop down to a smaller aperture is really useful in a number of ways – I like it Android Authority’s dive deeper into it.

In general, a larger sensor and lens means it’s possible to produce a shallower depth of field at a wide aperture setting, and sometimes you may really want more of your subject in focus than that setting allows. Plus, phone cameras with 1-inch sensors often show some ugly lens aberrations at wide aperture settings that disappear when you stop down. Helpful! Still, situations where you’d want to stop down to f/4 seem rare, and the native auto mode sticks to f/2 a lot of the time. But my favorite feature of this new aperture design has nothing to do with that: it’s the sun stars.

The sun stars are a byproduct of the 6-blade aperture design. This is completely new for the 14 Ultra, as the 13 Ultra uses a round diaphragm: no fins, no stars. It’s a minor thing, but reader, I absolutely was excited to discover that I can capture sun stars on a smartphone camera.

I’ve been shooting with the 14 Ultra for a few weeks now, and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface — there’s so much this camera can do. Image quality so far is very impressive, but if I can make one complaint, it’s that segmentation in portrait mode isn’t as sophisticated as the Samsung’s. Even though the 14 Ultra’s camera sensor is large, you’ll still need portrait mode if you want a really soft background and your subject is more than a foot away. It’s certainly a good portrait mode, but it’s not the best in the game.

At the risk of making an extremely obvious statement, it’s worth remembering that all of this is available on a phone. I can download Lightroom app on it. I can post my photos directly to Instagram. I can upload photos to my shared Google Photos albums with a few taps. Sorry to be a weirdo, but I can’t get over the fact that I could have an exposure compensation dial and all of the above on the same device.

To be clear, I don’t think phones can or should replace traditional cameras. But I’m glad to see a phone maker taking smart cues from the traditional camera world, and I think traditional cameras could learn a thing or two from phones. I just wish I could buy this particular phone here – it’s a really nice camera.

Photo by Alison Johnson/The Verge

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