Good images, but not a Leica replacement: Photographer review of the Xiaomi 13 Pro
This isn't Leica's first collaboration with a phone, but does it make a difference this time around?
Xiaomi's newest line of phones features a close collaboration with Leica, one of the most renowned brands in the photography world. As long as you have any interest in cameras, you will eventually be exposed to (and be tempted by) Leica lenses.
Pictures taken by those lenses have a unique 'Leica look'.
I always thought that was a myth because camera technology has advanced so much in the last 30 years, but when I finally bought my first Leica Q camera, I became a believer.
The 'Leica look', otherwise known as the Leica 3D pop, really does exist but more on that later.
So, when Xiaomi introduced the Xiaomi 13 Pro featuring Leica's lens, I got intrigued. Can a smartphone replicate the 'Leica look' too?
What's in the Xiaomi 13 Pro?
The main camera of the Xiaomi 13 Pro is a Sony-made IMX989 1-inch sensor, and it comes with a 23mm full-frame equivalent f1.9 Leica wide angle lens as well as HyperOIS (Optical Image Stabilisation).
1-inch sensors are biggest camera sensors on a smartphone right now, and is also present in phones like the Sony Xperia PRO-I, another phone geared towards photography.
Compared to your mainstream offerings, the iPhone 14 Pro has a 1/1.28-inch sensor and the Google Pixel 7 Pro has a 1/1.31-inch sensor.
If you don't understand the numbers, all you need to know is that they're all smaller than the sensor in the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
So, what exactly does a bigger sensor do? I'm glad you asked.
A bigger camera sensor usually means better low-light performance, as well as the ability to achieve a shallower depth of field (i.e. blurrier out-of-focus area or bokeh on a picture).
Let's be real, a 1-inch sensor is still a very small sensor, compared to something like a full-frame 36mm camera sensor found in an actual professional mirrorless camera.
The other 2 cameras present on the phone however, do not have 1-inch sensors, and are smaller sensors similar to that of other typical smartphones.
The iconic 'Leica look'
What is the 'Leica look'? Let's say you're taking a picture of a person's face on a Leica camera with a Leica lens. You will have to shoot in such a manner that only the person's face is in focus.
The image that then comes out will have the person's face looking more realistic and 3-dimensional, hence the term "3D pop" you will hear Leica users rave about.
This "3D pop" is not entirely exclusive to Leica lenses, but they're mostly associated with Leica because of the sheer quality of Leica lenses produced over the years.
Based on my definition of the 'Leica look' above, it is time to closely examine the Xiaomi 13 Pro with the latest Leica M11 camera breathing down its neck. Yes, I am comparing it to a professional camera.
Xiaomi 13 Pro’s 1-inch sensor wide angle camera
Comparing the Xiaomi 13 Pro main 1-inch sensor camera to the ridiculously expensive over S$25,000 combo of the Leica M11 full-frame camera and a Summilux 21mm f1.4 wide angle lens is quite the unfair competition, and the results are obvious.
Do note that these JPEGs come straight out of both cameras, and are unedited. The M11 captures images in a more traditional 3:2 aspect ratio, while the Xiaomi 13 Pro does a more squarish 4:3 aspect ratio.
At the settings above with both cameras sharing a similar 'f' (aperture of the lens) value, the M11 has more things behind the cone which are out of focus and blurrier compared to the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
This is an example of the limits of an 1-inch sensor, in addition to having a wide angle lens.
When the the M11 is adjusted to match the background blurriness (or lack of) of the Xiaomi 13 Pro, the Xiaomi 13 Pro begins to stand on its own.
However, the cone in the Xiaomi 13 Pro image still looks rather flat and not 3-dimensional, while the lens on the M11 still makes the cone pop out more.
I guess this is also the result of some computational photography at play, which can aggressively reduce contrast and make the image look flatter.
In Xiaomi's defence, the differences are not significant, and definitely not worth a difference of a few thousands dollars to achieve this look (considering how expensive Leica is).
Xiaomi 13 Pro’s other cameras
When it comes to the telephoto lens on the Xiaomi 13 Pro, I was generally not too impressed with it.
Comparing the pictures straight out of the two cameras above, the M11 just melts the background behind the railing into a beautiful blur compared the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
While the disparity between the phone and M11 is expected, the 75mm telephoto lens on the Xiaomi 13 Pro renders images that are, in my opinion, just flat and boring.
There is no 'pop' to it, and even the bokeh looks too busy for my taste.
The 75mm, however, is pretty decent at doing some macro photography, and I had quite some fun with it.
Its ability to closely focus on a subject is something users can utilise to chase bees on a Sunday morning.
Leica colours on Xiaomi Pro 13
The Xiaomi 13 Pro also claims it has incorporated Leica colour science into its images.
Users can choose between two different photographic styles, 'Leica Vibrant' and 'Leica Authentic', in the camera app, and these styles seek to recreate the colours of modern day Leica cameras.
Looking at the photo comparisons above, the Xiaomi 13 Pro and the Leica M11 have obviously different colours when it comes to the same scene.
So, I took the liberty to slightly edit a raw file from the Leica M11 in an attempt to match a similarly shot picture from the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
Xiaomi is not exactly exaggerating when they claim they have Leica colours now. The colours of both images now look very similar after some minor tweaks to the white balance of the M11 picture.
There are still some differences, but they are close enough that you can easily overcome them in a photo editing app.
Frankly, I have never really thought that Leica colours are great, compared to say, Fujifilm or Canon, but if you dig it, it is definitely good enough.
The Xiaomi 13 Pro also offers four filters that are similar to the film simulation styles in the Leica M11, and the two black and white ones (natural and high contrast) are the most intriguing.
These black and white filters are absolutely gorgeous without much effort, and they might just be my favourite way to shoot with the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
Xiaomi 13 Pro’s ultrawide angle camera
While the Xiaomi 13 Pro has some similarities with other Leica cameras besides the badging, it has to be said that the phone is definitely not going to replace a Leica M11 or Q2 any time soon.
Instead, its competition lies with the rest of the smartphone world, so I decided to test the ultrawide camera of the Xiaomi Pro 13 against my very own Pixel 6 Pro.
Yes, I know that my Pixel 6 Pro is now two years old and its ultrawide camera is not its strongest suit, but the Pixel 6 Pro was Google's flagship phone with an amazing camera system, and it still has one of the best cameras around on a smartphone.
If the Xiaomi cannot beat a camera on a model that is now a senior citizen in phone terms, that larger sensor would have some questions to answer for.
To be honest, I think they are both equally good, and it is hard to choose between them — although I would think that the Xiaomi 13 Pro looks a little better because the image has more shadows and looks more naturalistic.
Google introduced Night Sight to the Pixel 3 a few years ago. It changed the way smartphones took pictures when there is little to no light using multiple takes of the same picture and some AI computational magic.
The question then is if the 1-inch sensor of the Xiaomi could stand out against the main camera of a current-gen Pixel phone in darker scenarios?
At a glance, the Xiaomi 13 Pro takes pictures with brighter highlights compared to the more-natural Pixel 6, but it really depends on how you want your pictures to look. Both phones perform admirably in low-light.
Is there really a tangible benefit to the 1-inch sensor compared to the smaller sensors in other smartphones? Sadly, these pictures don't seem to show it.
Video capabilities of the Xiaomi 13 Pro
Besides taking photos, the cameras on the back of the Xiaomi 13 Pro are also capable video recording machines, and the main 1-inch camera can *gasp* record up to 8K 24fps.
I do not know why anyone will need 8K video recording on a smartphone, but you can watch and determine for yourself if the video quality of the Xiaomi 13 Pro is good enough for you.
Video quality is still the same at lower resolutions like 1080p.
I personally think they are decent, though there is nothing ground-breaking about the video quality on the phone. The bar to beat is still the iPhone 14 Pro Max.
After extensively using the Xiaomi 13 Pro's camera, I personally do not think any user can expect the full-fledged 'Leica look' out of this camera. Nor should day, again, given the difference in price of the equipment.
I had some fun with the phone, but the limited 'phone-sized' sensor along with the reliance on computational photography are essentially the biggest limitation to achieving any sort of 'Leica look'.
From what I've observed, too, the 1-inch sensor also does not stand out in any significant way which makes me want rethink about the cameras in my trusty Pixel phone.
However, this does not mean the Xiaomi 13 Pro has a mediocre camera system. The cameras still produce good images one would expect out of a smartphone.
It is just that with the iPhones and Pixels around, the Xiaomi 13 Pro faces some really tough competition, and the 1-inch sensor or Leica badging might not be able to sway users to the Xiaomi platform.
Jay is a content creator who likes to hoard vintage photographic lenses, and loses too often in Dota 2 and Magic: The Gathering after work.