Sony has some of the best camera sensors on the market. That is why most smartphone manufacturers use sensors from Sony in their smartphones. While Xiaomi’s upcoming flagship smartphone, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, has been developed in collaboration with Leica, the smartphone manufacturer has decided to go for a camera sensor developed by Sony.
Xiaomi 12S Ultra will be using Sony IMX 989, the same sensor that Sony uses in their RX100 Mk 7 point-and-shoot cameras. The RX100 Mk 7 is one of the best point-and-shoot cameras in the market and is massively popular among budding YouTube celebrities and content creators.
Xiaomi 12S Ultra features the Sony IMX989, Sony’s largest image sensor to date. The 1″ ultra sensor captures a greater amount of light, allows for faster focus speed, and better dynamic range. #Xiaomi12SUltra officially ushers in a new era in imagery technology. pic.twitter.com/45lza1N1vQ
— leijun (@leijun) June 29, 2022
Xiaomi’s decision to use a properly developed, large camera sensor for their upcoming flagship is a massive moment for smartphone photography, provided they calibrate the sensor properly. Here’s why.
More data to play with
Most smartphone camera sensors are barely half the size of a 1-inch sensor. It does not matter how many pixels a manufacturer shoves inside a sensor. Samsung’s 200MP camera sensor may sound impressive on paper. Still, had it not used some pixel binning to group the individual pixels and make a larger pixel, images taken on the ISOCELL HP1 or HP3 sensors would have a lot of artifacts and noise, thus making the image grainy and ultimately unusable.
More than the number of pixels, the size of pixels matters. A larger pixel can capture more light and, therefore, more data. This means that a camera’s processor has more data to work with and will eventually be able to put out a better image.
This is one of the reasons why, for a long time, smartphone cameras have been almost as good as proper full-frame cameras but also lacked some basic functionalities that professional photographers rely heavily on. If Xiaomi calibrates the sensor correctly and uses quality glass elements for lenses, photos and videos taken in the dark should be phenomenal. This is where Xiaomi messed up with their Mi 11 ultra, which had a 1/1.2-inch camera sensor.
A better dynamic range
Another advantage of having a bigger sensor is that the camera has a more extensive or better dynamic range.
Dynamic range refers to the ratio between the maximum and minimum signal that is acquired by the sensor. At the upper limit, pixels appear to be white for every higher value of intensity (saturation), while pixels appear black at the lower limit and below.
This means that in the same photo or video, the sensor can handle a varied level of brightness and darkness in such a manner that it is very little or preferably no distortion of the colors.
Better depth of field or bokeh
A large sensor makes the most visible difference for amateur photographers is the bokeh or “blur” in a photo. Smartphone camera sensors have always been small, because of which, no matter how wide an aperture you use, there isn’t enough space for background and foreground separation. That is why smartphone cameras have had to process images and create a fake bokeh effect. This won’t be a problem with a larger sensor.
Having said all of this, it depends on how Xiaomi and Leica have calibrated the Sony sensor. Also, it would be not very smart for anyone to say that smartphone cameras have become better than proper, full-frame or medium format cameras; they haven’t, and for the foreseeable future, they won’t, at least for a couple of decades. What Sony and Samsung, with their sensors, have been able to push smartphone manufacturers ever so close to the ultimate goal they all have been aiming for, by some distance.