Phones

That is my favourite cellphone as a photographer

If you’ve already seen my writing about Pocketnow, you’ll know that I love using smartphones to take photos, especially when I don’t want to carry around the big cameras. I was a big fan of the old Nokia Lumia 1020, which was my daily driver from 2013 until the Huawei P20 Pro was released in 2018, as nothing else matched the Lumia 1020’s photo capabilities in those 5 years.

For 2020 and most of 2021 I have a new favorite smartphone in photography and that is the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra. That’s right … NOT the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra and not the Huawei Mate 40 Pro and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, the transparent version of the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra is damn great! That was a big attraction for me. Its very unique appearance.

It’s also reasonably priced. I got the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra for around $ 900 while the higher-rated Huawei Mate 40 Pro + is a lot harder to get and a lot more expensive. Also, Xiaomi can still use Google services where the Huawei phones don’t. But really, we’re here to talk about photography.

4 focal lengths = long range

The main reason I like the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra is its camera array. It has 4 cameras on the back and they are all useful. Unlike some phones that add rarely used things like macro photography lenses … or terrible quality gimmicks like time-of-flight depth sensors with fake background blur … the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra has 4 different focal lengths on 4 different cameras. This means that I can get 4 different fields of view without changing my physical position and that is a huge benefit.

Better than optical zoom

Some people who don’t know better (like Apple) call this “optical zoom”, but it really is switching between different cameras with different focal lengths and different fields of view. With optical zoom, the lens elements move to change the focal length and field of view. In other words, the optics zoom in. With multi-camera zoom, we actually switch cameras and lenses while we combine the holes in the area with the digital zoom. It’s like having a camera with a prime lens that you put down and another camera with a different prime lens.

The problem with optical zoom is that we are constrained by the physics of light within the physical movement of the optical lens. Switching to a completely different lens and camera gives you a lot more flexibility.

Support for RAW output

Another big advantage is that all 4 cameras can output digital RAW negative file formats. This is not always the case with these multi-camera arrays. Often times, the phone manufacturer thinks they’re smarter than you and only outputs processed JPG images or only outputs one of the cameras in RAW format. I’m sorry, but since 2013 the first Nokia cell phones have been outputting images in RAW format, I have been taking RAW photos with my cell phones. I love to have full control over how the image data is processed afterwards. 50% of the photography is in process.

The widest ultra-wide

The lens-camera combination with a 12mm focal length on the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra is the widest wide-angle lens on a phone. It’s so wide that you can see your fingers holding the phone when you put your hand around the back instead of just holding the edges. I love having an ultra wide angle like this, and that kind of prime lens is really nothing that a real optical zoom lens can do. Sure, there is some distortion, but in some cases it looks really cool.

Group portraits

Another great feature of the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra is the timer burst shot function, which could also be called time lapse. With this option I can set up the camera anywhere on a tripod or a rock or fence, set 5 seconds between photos, and have any number of photos taken in a row. This is great for posed or open group photos while out with friends. In contrast to the time-lapse function of other phones, this also works with the RAW format options, so that there is still plenty of space on the desktop for post-processing later.

All Xiaomi phones have this feature in the software, but combine it with the 4 different focal lengths and we have a fantastic range for group photos. Some of the following shots were taken with a 70mm or 120mm telephoto lens while the phone was placed quite a distance away. I can take group photos with them from across the pond!

Telephoto

The Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra has both a 70 mm equivalent and a 120 mm equivalent telephoto lens-camera combination. I like the 70mm focal length range for portraits, and the 120mm range is great for portraits farther away with a little shallower depth of field. In contrast to many other smartphone cameras, the “5X” 120 mm telephoto camera has a 48 megapixel sensor. Sure, this is Quad Bayer which really means it’s a 12 Mp picture, but it will be a nice and clean 12 Mp picture. The 70mm focal length range has a 12 megapixel lower quality sensor and there are some chromatic aberrations with this combination, but since it supports RAW I can get rid of these problems very easily. Still, I love having two telephoto lenses that can be switched between for different compositions in RAW, as the telephoto lenses have less distortion than the 24mm and 12mm ultra wide-angle lenses. Many phones rely on digital zoom for the range between lens focal lengths, but this always degrades the quality of the picture. It is therefore a great advantage to have dedicated lens / camera combinations for different focal lengths.

48Mp normal recordings

The “normal” camera combination with a 24mm focal length has a second 48Mp quad Bayer sensor, which is also pretty great.

Video

The Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra does pretty well with video too. It can reach 8K resolution at 24 frames per second or 4K resolution (and lower) at 60 frames per second, depending on which camera I’m using.

The competition

Last year, the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra topped the list of the best smartphone camera phones on DXOmark. Today it was surpassed by the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, Huawei Mate 40 Pro + and Huawei Mate 40 Pro … but I still like the Mi 10 Ultra better. The Huawei Mate 40 Pros are nice, but their RAW processing at 50Mp is slow and the RYYB sensor has a lot of chromatic aberration issues with reflective highlights outdoors. The Mate 40 Pro only has 3 focal lengths and the Mate 40 Pro + has 4 focal lengths, but with a less attractive range for me. The Mate 40 Pro + has a 23mm normal lens, 14mm wide angle (not as wide as the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra), a 70mm lens (well, I like that) and a 240mm focal length (much too long). The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra only has 3 focal lengths instead of 4. The Mi 11 Ultra has a similar combination of 12 mm ultra wide angle, 24 mm wide angle and 120 mm telephoto focal length, but it lacks the lens / camera combination with 70 mm focal length and that is it something i would really want Using digital zoom on a 24mm lens to get a crop with a 70mm focal length is going to degrade the image quality too much and certainly won’t give me a decent RAW image at that size (unless I crop that RAW later manually).

The Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra also only costs around $ 750 to $ 900. That’s a pretty good price, while the Mi 11 Ultra is in the $ 1000-1400 range and the Huawei Mate 40 Pro is well over $ 1000, if you can get it at all. The Huawei Mate 40 Pro Plus is even rarer and could cost you between $ 3,000 and $ 5,000 on eBay, for example:

Sorry, but I think I’ll go for the model that is under $ 1000 and has so many other benefits. Huawei phones can’t even use Google services anymore!

Of course, the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra also has disadvantages. It only has one focal length on the front camera and THIS camera does not support RAW output. So this is not so good. It’s also not waterproof so I have to avoid taking it with me on the river. Nevertheless, I am very satisfied with the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra as a photographer even now, after its successor, the Mi 11 Ultra, has appeared.


Adam Z. Lein

Adam has been interested in the combination of technology and art since he first used a koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently works as a graphic designer, photographer, system administrator and web developer for a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology also extends to software development companies, who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they launched in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!

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