It’s a harsh truth, but rarely any company other than Samsung, Apple, or Google makes it to the top spot in the best smartphone camera leaderboard. Chinese phone makers have often attempted to breach this triopoly with special partnerships, such as in the case of Huawei-Leica, Vivo-Zeiss, and OnePlus-Hasselblad. Now, after ending its partnership with Huawei, Leica joins hands with Xiaomi for the Xiaomi 12S Ultra.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is one of the few smartphones with a large 1-inch camera sensor. Sharp’s Aquos R6 and the Sony Xperia Pro-I also feature 1-inch sensors, but Xiaomi claims it is the first to use the large sensor without any cropping. Besides the large sensor, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra benefits from the company’s newfound union with camera giant Leica, which has designed special lenses for the phone and tech that tunes the colors. Do these attributes give it enough dexterity to outstrip the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra? We attempt to find out in a series of direct comparisons between the two Ultra stalwarts.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra brings four camera sensors to the battle of wits against the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, which has three cameras at its disposal. On the former, you see a 108MP primary camera, a 12MP ultrawide-angle camera, a 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom, and a 10MP periscope camera with 10x optical zoom — which can further be extended to 100x zoom with digital cropping. For sharper focus, the Galaxy S2 Ultra features an autofocus laser.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra features a 50MP primary camera with a 1-inch sensor. Xiaomi says this is the first smartphone to feature a 1-inch sensor without any cropping. Along with it, you will find a 48MP ultrawide-angle camera and a 48MP periscope with 5x magnification. It gets a time of flight (TOF) sensor for crisper focusing.
Both Xiaomi and Samsung come prepared in the arena with optical image stabilization (OIS) and autofocus enabled on all (but ultrawide) cameras. Xiaomi, which appears to be a heavyweight on paper, also features special Leica lenses and comes with presets to emulate Leica’s iconic monochrome and noir tones. The colors, as you would expect, are also tuned by Leica.
Samsung misses out on such attainment simply because it does not require one. It has been a leading force in mobile cameras, which is why the stakes are higher for Xiaomi, which isn’t typically acclaimed for its cameras.
Real battles can’t be fought on paper, and we took both phones out for a real test for a spin in the beach town of Pondicherry in India. Here is how both phones compete in a showdown.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s 1-inch sensor has a 70% larger surface area than the 1/1.33-inch sensor seen on the Galaxy S22 Ultra (a 1-inch sensor measures 13.2mm x 8.8mm while a 1/1.33-inch sensor measures 9.6mm x 7.2mm). This gives the Xiaomi flagship a significant advantage over the S22 Ultra. The larger camera sensor theoretically allows more light to come in, giving room for more details to be captured. The larger sensor also allows a more realistic shallow depth of field, making the images look like they come off a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra use pixel-binning to produce images that are 12MP and 12.5MP when they finally come out. The 108MP ISOCELL HM3 sensor on the Galaxy S22 Ultra is also made by Samsung’s optoelectronics division, and the company claims it is optimized for better color retention. Meanwhile, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra uses a Sony IMX989 sensor with special lenses developed by Xiaomi and Leica.
The following images show how the two smartphones stack up against one another in a head-on comparison. Here is the first one:
Visibly, the image taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra feels more vibrant, has better highlights, and a more aggressive HDR. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra does not have dull tones, but they don’t pop out as on the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Superficially, both images appear sharp, but the more intense HDR on the Galaxy S22 Ultra makes its image look like it has more details. The assumption is soon challenged when we zoom into the images and see how well the Xiaomi 12S Ultra retains details, even at 2x magnification.
The white bougainvillea flowers can be seen more distinctly in the image taken with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. At the same time, they tear up into pixels as soon as we pinch into the photo taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Not just the frontal elements of the property but the balcony in the background and its handrails appear much crisper in the image taken with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra.
We see similar trends in our next set of images. The image taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra appears more vivid, while the richer HDR makes the clouds more distinctive. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra, on the other hand, manages to capture the texture of the log more elaborately, making it a better pick for anyone who prefers to preserve the raw essence of a scene.
The next set of images compares the depth of field produced by both cameras. Because of the larger sensor (but comparable aperture sizes), the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has a much smaller focal range. This allows it to not only capture objects better from a closer distance but also results in a more intense natural bokeh in close-range shots. The Galaxy S22 Ultra treats most parts of the wooden log as one object, but the Xiaomi flagship can sharply focus on just one area. When we zoom in to the part in focus, we see the image taken with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra retains more details of the grains of the sand that the wood is sparsely coated with.
The next image, too, emphasizes the shallow depth of field produced by the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. However, it also underscores the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s ability to focus better on objects in front of similarly-colored backgrounds, owing to a better scene optimization algorithm. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra has a softer focus around the petals and instead focuses on the stem in the front.
One common characteristic of all the images is that despite a much smaller sensor size, the Galaxy S22 Ultra captures images at a much shorter shutter but takes longer gaps between images. So, while the S22 Ultra appears to be the better choice while capturing non-stationary objects, the Xiaomi 12S Ulta is more suitable for taking a burst of shots in one go.
Next, we compare the images taken with the secondary and tertiary cameras on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra and the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
Winner: Xiaomi 12S Ultra
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra uses a large 48MP sensor for its ultrawide camera compared to the Galaxy S22 Ultra, which only uses a 12MP sensor for this purpose. This allows the Xiaomi phone to utilize 4-in-1 pixel binning and produce images that are 12MP in size. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra also outweighs with its 128-degree-wide field of view compared to the 120-degree-wide span that the Galaxy S22 Ultra captures.
Besides the lower megapixel count, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s sensor is also smaller (1/2.55-inch) in size compared to what is available on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra (1/2.0-inch). Let us see how that impacts the quality of the images of the performer of the Indian classical dance form, Kathakali.
This is a challenging scene for both smartphones as it is captured against a light background, in this case, the sky. Here, the image taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra outshines the one taken using the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. The Galaxy S22 Ultra aces here with brighter shadows, which result in better illumination of the dancer’s face and palms.
The patches of golden embroidery over the purple strip are much more visible in the image taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra. On the other hand, the purple is lost within the shadows on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s image — and so are the dancer’s eyes.
As we zoom into the jewelry and the headgear, we see no major differences in details — unlike the comparison involving the primary sensors. Surprisingly, however, the tall grass in the background appears to be a tad bit sharper on the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s image, but that does not remedy the overall poorer shadows on the performer.
Winner: Samsung S22 Ultra
Galaxy S22 Ultra vs. Xiaomi 12S Ultra telephoto camera
The Galaxy S22 Ultra uses two different telephoto cameras — one 10MP camera with a 3x magnification and another periscope with a 10x optical zoom. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra, on the other hand, just uses a single 5x periscopic setup to take long-range shots. Given this disparity, we may not be able to find conclusive results about which is the better phone, but we still strive to compare both phones.
The following images are taken at 5x zoom using both devices. Because the Galaxy S22 Ulta’s first telephoto camera only supports 3x optical zoom, zooming any further than the 3x mark involves digital zooming — basically cropping the image that the 3x sensor captures. In contrast, the image taken with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is without cropping and results from direct optical zoom.
Although the image taken with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is visibly darker, it retains more details on the brick post and the granite beams that run through it. But when we look at the far-off boat sailing in the sea, there isn’t much difference between the two, suggesting Samsung’s scene optimization salvages some of the details.
Galaxy S22 Ultra vs. Xiaomi 12S Ultra night mode
Besides images taken with different sensors on the two Ultra phones, we look at how these perform in low light. The first set of images is taken with the primary cameras without any Night mode. In principle, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is expected to produce better results, with the larger 1-inch sensor capturing more light than the Galaxy S22 Ultra. The actual results do not waver much from our expectations.
The lower light results in the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s image appearing bluer and thus offering a more dramatic effect. But the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s image is visibly brighter and captures the boulders, the tiny seashells on them, the people, and even the distant waves with more veracity. Xiaomi’s flagship preserves the highlights and shadows much better.
Next, we compare how the two phones perform with their Night mode presets, and the results are rather amusing. The Night mode on both devices uses a combination of long exposure and superimposition of shots at multiple ISO levels. Contrary to our findings above, the Galaxy S22 Ultra captures a better-lit image despite the smaller shutter duration and lower ISO. The shadows appear far more enhanced, leading us to see people instead of only their silhouettes which the Xiaomi 12S Ultra captures.
However, when we look at the pier in the background, we see the broken section. Further, the lampposts are captured with relatively higher clarity by the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, albeit with darker shadows. The image from the Galaxy S22 Ultra produces halos behind the beams and the lampposts due to HDR. Once again, we do not have an easily calculable winner, but the images taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra appear more pleasing. That is because, unlike the day shots, we can only recover a little detail by editing the images.
Meanwhile, the images taken with the other cameras on both devices turn out too dark, both with or without night mode, due to the smaller aperture values compared to the primary cameras.
A big sensor isn’t everything
The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra have phenomenal capabilities as camera phones. Out of the four sections, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra win one each, while the remaining two tests come out as a draw.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra benefits significantly from its large 1-inch sensor that captures details to a tee. The images from the primary camera come prepped up to head straight to a photo lab for life-size prints. The 1-inch sensor’s performance is especially commendable in low light.
Unlike Xiaomi, images from the Galaxy S22 Ultra feel better optimized for use without post-processing. That is especially useful for those who want to take a bucketful of images and post them to social media without having to pay much heed. Samsung’s scene optimization algorithms are far superior to Xiaomi’s and help in ensuring objects of importance are in focus, but the artificially saturated colors can put off purists.
Leica’s color science, on the other hand, was hit-and-miss in my limited experience with the phone, and that could be because it was a pre-production unit. In fact, Xiaomi does not sell the phone outside of China, which can be disappointing for any photography enthusiasts who want to acquaint themselves with the latest innovations in smartphone photography. Even if someone plans to import the device from China, there are other challenges — such as the lack of Google Play Services and system apps that default to Chinese as their default language.
For secondary and tertiary cameras, the Galaxy S22 Ultra performs better, making it the overall better choice. Its global availability and Samsung’s excellent track record with software updates in recent times make it a more practical device. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra, on the other hand, is, at best, a great secondary phone for those who romanticize the overpriced smartphone with DSLR-like photography in a more compact form factor and are awe-struck by Leica’s signature vintage colors.