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Fast Charge: Can Xiaomi’s concept camera revolutionise smartphone photography?

OPINION: This week, Xiaomi unveiled a camera concept phone that opens up new possibilities for smartphone photography. Is this the path of the future?

Every year, we see smartphone manufacturers try to get one over the rest of the competition with a new photography feature, which often turns out to be a gimmick that gains little interest beyond the first week or two after launch. However, every now and then, we get a glimpse of a genuine game-changer – and Xiaomi might just have given us one this week.

Xiaomi’s big idea is to attach an external Leica lens to a concept version of the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, taking advantage of the huge 1-inch image sensor in order to turn the smartphone into an even more capable camera, in a real attempt to bridge the gap between smartphone snappers and a genuine DSLR.

This feature is claimed to deliver the “resolving ability, permeability, and the authentic depth of field” that other smartphones struggle to recreate. While we’ve seen smartphones boasting ever larger sensors, or more specialised lenses, this is a far more ambitious prospect.

Evidently this feature, which is still only a concept and is not available to buy, would only ever be intended for photography fanatics and not regular smartphone users; for one thing the attachment would surely be prohibitively expensive, and for another, regular users may well find the lens to be a bit clunky to carry around.

But for the right target audience, this kind of development could open up new possibilities of what you can do with a camera phone, taking away the constraints of the traditional form factor and lending an entirely new level of proficiency to the device with just a twist and a click.

I find it encouraging to see these kinds of niche developments taking place, simply because the vast consumer market for smartphones is not homogenous at all. More or less each one of us uses a smartphone now, and of course we each have different means and different desires for its use. While this device would never hope to be a bestseller, if well-executed it could be ideal for a smaller segment of users in just the same way that many have felt well served by the first generations of foldable phones.

More than this, I’m also excited to see the partnership between Xiaomi and Leica actually bearing such fruit. For years I’ve been fairly sceptical that such deals actually change much about the hardware on smartphones; for instance, we failed to see a qualitative increase in camera quality on the OnePlus 10 Pro despite the brand striking an eye-catching deal with Hasselblad. But this example clearly shows that the two manufacturers have indeed worked in tandem to create something new.

Top half view of a light blue One Plus 9 smartphone laying upside down on a wooden table

While we won’t be seeing this concept device on the shop shelves any time soon, more’s the pity, I certainly hope that the first marketable versions of such a device aren’t so very far away. Such developments show that innovation certainly isn’t dead in this industry, and there are still exciting days ahead for the smartphone.

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