The Xiaomi 14 Ultra is every photography nerd’s dream

For most people, the compact camera is long dead; a camera is a phone and a phone is a camera. But despite all the technological advances in recent years, phones still leave a lot to be desired if you’re the kind of person who likes that go take pictures.

Traditional cameras – especially of a certain size and shape – are still alive and well, in part because there’s nothing better than real buttons, dials, and a firm grip. These are things that phones generally don’t have, except for the Xiaomi 14 Ultra. It’s the most camera phone camera I’ve used in the last decade (RIP the Nokia Lumia 1020), and I really wish it was available in the US.

Seriously, it’s all killer, no filler – everything on the grip is super useful. The dial is set to exposure compensation by default, and that’s where I left it; I love being able to shift the brightness of the image up and down without tapping the screen. This also works in standard camera recording mode, not just manual. My only complaint is that it’s a little too easy to bump into it and accidentally turn your exposure up or down without realizing it.

The video button is equally useful; I don’t have to look at the screen to switch to recording video. You can customize all of these input mechanisms. Crucially, you can set the zoom toggle switch to incrementally switch between lenses rather than continuously digitally zooming between lenses. It’s a beautiful thing.

This year’s camera grip includes a larger battery and a USB connector that plugs directly into the phone’s charging port. It’s more useful because it can provide some power to the phone when you’re low on battery, and it also reduces control latency over last year’s version, which connected only via Bluetooth. The previous version was not slowly anyway, but this year’s version is a hair faster – and every millisecond makes a difference. The only downside is that the battery adds some weight, and holding the phone in one hand with the grip is enough to notice the difference. I can’t have everything, I guess.

The Xiaomi 14 Ultra uses a 1-inch main camera sensor – which is about the same size as on smartphone cameras, 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 a continuously variable aperture of f/1.63-f/4, building on the dual aperture design of the 13 Ultra. I owe this new aperture an apology for initially calling it a gimmick; Now that I’ve used it a bit, I think it’s just a little bit of a gimmick.

Pretty much every phone camera you’ve ever used has a fixed aperture; only a few of them have ever offered an aperture with more than one setting. That’s fine: most phone camera sensors and lenses are so small that you always want to have the widest aperture setting to let in more light. But the Xiaomi 14 Ultra, as noted, isn’t most phone cameras. The 1 inch sensor size is so large that being able to stop down to a smaller aperture is really useful in a number of ways – I like it Android Authority delve deeper into this topic.

Basically, a larger sensor and lens means it’s possible to produce a shallower depth of field at a wider aperture setting, and sometimes you may even want to have more of your subject in focus than that setting allows. In addition, there are often phone cameras with 1-inch sensors exhibit some unsightly lens aberrations at wide aperture settings that disappear as you stop down. Helpful! Still, situations where you might want to stop down to f/4 seem rare, and the native auto mode often stays at f/2. But my favorite feature of this new aperture design has nothing to do with that: they are sun stars.

Sunstars are a byproduct of the six-blade aperture design. That’s completely new for the 14 Ultra, as the 13 Ultra used a circular aperture: no blades, no stars. It’s a small thing, but reader, I absolutely was excited to discover I could get sunstars on a smartphone camera.

I’ve been shooting with the 14 Ultra for a few weeks now and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface: there’s so much this camera can do. The image quality is very impressive so far, but if I have one complaint it’s that the portrait mode segmentation isn’t as advanced as 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 three feet away. It’s certainly a good portrait mode, but it’s not the very best in the game.

At the risk of making an extremely obvious point, it’s worth remembering that this is all available on a telephone. I can download a Lightroom app on it. I can post my photos directly to Instagram. I can upload photos to my shared Google Photos albums with just a few taps. Sorry to be a weirdo, but I can’t get over the fact that I can 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 world of traditional cameras, and I think traditional cameras can learn a thing or two from phones. I wish I could buy this particular phone here; it is a very nice camera.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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