Xiaomi may not be a household name in North America, but the brand is a rising force around the world and now sits in third place behind Apple and Samsung. One reason it hit those heights is the way it continues to innovate on the camera side of things, which is what the 12 Pro is supposed to illustrate.
Much of this started with last year’s Mi 11 Ultra, a device that turned some heads with its camera output, though didn’t impress as much in other respects. It was one of the first phones to use an image sensor close to 1-inch, along with newer computation software to render images. All that to serve notice that there was a new player to reckon with.
In other parts of the world, Xiaomi isn’t so much an upstart, but rather a trendsetter. That outlook may not be as clear with the 12 Pro, where camera output and battery charging do most of the heavy lifting on reputation.
Design and Build
In a previous story, I went over some of the details of the new Xiaomi 12 lineup, and the 12 Pro is the flagship of that trio. It has a somewhat understated design — or at least the grey review unit I tested looked like it did. It’s also a little heavier than I expected at 205 grams, and I suspect part of the reason for that is the glass on both sides, coupled with the weight of the camera modules.
What’s odd is that, despite Gorilla Glass on both sides, the phone comes with no official IP rating. While testing it, I was reticent about using it near water because it was impossible to tell whether it had sufficient resistance to that environment. That alone negates any photos or videos while in the water (unless you use a clear pouch or something), which is a shame given how prevalent that already is with the competition. Unless, of course, Xiaomi is pulling a OnePlus and saving money by not getting that IP designation, even though the phone could actually handle some water.
Xiaomi includes a thin silicone case in the box to at least offer a modicum of protection, but if you plan to go a little rugged with this thing, you will need to dish out some cash for tougher skin. As much as I liked the vibrancy of the 6.73-inch AMOLED display and its excellent mix of color and brightness, I wasn’t overly thrilled with the curved edges on the side. I just find flatter screens better and hope more phone manufacturers abandon those curves going forward.
The camera bump stands out from the rear, and with a mere three lenses, isn’t as big or pronounced as others have been in recent memory. The silicone case naturally has a cutout for the bump, but its real utility for photos and video is the improved grip. Holding the phone to take photos with it on was far easier, and that was equally true when mounting it on a tripod.
The 12 Pro is also among the current crop of phones running on the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, a 4nm chipset that delivers more powerful performance, including for camera rendering. There are a couple of variants with either 8GB or 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. There is no memory card slot, though you do get a dual SIM in the tray, which is nice for travel.
The centerpiece here is the 50-megapixel main wide camera (24mm equivalent), courtesy of a Sony IMX707 1/1.28-inch sensor. It’s the first phone to use Sony’s newest mobile image sensor, and while an upgrade from the IMX700, I went in thinking that it likely wasn’t going to be a leap forward.
There is a distinction here, which is that the wide camera also uses pixel binning. The regular Photo mode will always shoot in 12.5-megapixels and make use of the larger 1.22 Micron pixels. All the other modes using the wide camera do the same. To get the full resolution, you need to use the 50-megapixel mode, which does make each individual pixel smaller. This is ideal if you want to crop in later, but not as good for low-light and night shots.
Despite also shooting at 50-megapixels, the other two lenses weren’t so lucky, as Xiaomi went with Samsung’s more mid-range Isocell JN1 sensors instead. The ultra-wide (15mm equivalent) shoots at a 115-degree field of view, and with a reasonable f/2.2 aperture, whereas the telephoto offers a 2x optical zoom (48mm equivalent) with a solid f/1.9 aperture. On paper, it’s hard to see those two lenses as upgrades, simply because the telephoto doesn’t go as far as it did in the Mi 11 Ultra, and the ultra-wide may only be marginally different.
Xiaomi talks up its proprietary AI algorithms as a secret sauce to make images look even better than before. One of those is called ProFocus, which can see and track objects with improved precision, including face and eye-detection capabilities. Some of that tends to play a bigger role for video recording, but they can also apply to still images.
Night mode is no longer exclusive to the wide camera, with Xiaomi opening it up to all cameras and other modes. That not only means you can shoot with the ultra-wide and telephoto lenses, but also use it in Portrait mode. Night mode now includes a video setting to shoot in low-light and night situations.
Low-light shots are one of the anchors to the whole camera array, which is why Xiaomi doesn’t waste an opportunity to showcase it. Its Ultra Night Photo is designed to use upgraded HDR and computation to deliver a suitable shot in really dark conditions. It’s not quite as advanced as removing all the noise or grain that comes with that, but it is an improvement.
The camera interface is otherwise going to look the same. Settings offer a lot of variances, with plenty of ways to customize the layout and add the modes you want on your main screen. Certain things still feel siloed, like how you can only shoot in RAW in Pro mode, but otherwise, it is worth exploring the settings to see what you can tap into to get more out of this camera.
What impressed me most about the wide camera was the color in the overall output. Admittedly, I haven’t tested a Xiaomi phone camera before, so I don’t have a frame of reference that I’ve taken myself, but when I looked at the results, I came away liking the composition. It didn’t take rich colors and tones and ridiculously skew them with all the processing that takes place right after the snap.
Contrast is good, particularly with scenes where daylight actually works against you, like shooting in the early afternoon with a bright sun, for instance. Xiaomi seems to have dialed back some of the processing to let the photo turn out more the way you saw it, which I found pleasing to my eye.
There’s some versatility in how the 50-megapixel mode shoots, though it just won’t match the night and low-light output the regular Photo mode delivers. It just boils down to the size of each pixel, and no matter how Xiaomi tries to spin it, a 12.5-megapixel shot with the wide camera will look better. In brighter settings, though, I found the 50-megapixel shot to look quite good, with a decent level of cropping available to boot.
It’s not all perfect, mind you. Throw a couple of variables, like harsh lighting, darker skin, and a lot of shadows, and you may not find an ideal balance. I find that in a lot of phone cameras these days, playing around with the exposure slider is a necessary step to getting a better shot, and the 12 Pro illustrated that for me, yet again.
Ultra-wide and Telephoto
The gap between the wide lens and these two becomes obvious after a short while when capturing the same scenes. It’s great that Night mode works with both, only the results won’t necessarily come off with the same detail. Where light sources might look nice on the wide, the ultra-wide and telephoto are more likely to blotch them — a consequence of using an image sensor that just can’t pull in light to the same degree.
It’s not all bad, of course, but I just want to measure expectations because the real stud of this camera array is the wide lens, and that’s where much of Xiaomi’s investment clearly shows. The telephoto has a very limited range, so getting closer to a subject poses a challenge when trying to maintain a higher quality level. You can try shooting hybrid shots at 5x, and they’ll look okay, but this lens is one of the corners the company cut to keep the price down.
Night Mode and Special Modes
The 12 Pro has a solid Night mode. While I do wish it would at least allow more manual control over composition, the results are still admirable. The mode is highly automated, with a point, tap-to-focus, and click the shutter type of sequence. You can’t delay or speed up the exposure, nor alter the ISO or shutter speed.
One alternative is to use the regular Photo mode in the same situation. Night mode will pop up on the screen, though you will have access to the same settings and controls Photo offers, including HDR, Tilt-Shift, and Timed Burst. That’s why I noted earlier that this is the kind of camera array you should experiment with. Night mode won’t let you shoot in Tilt-Shift, whereas Photo will. Even better if you prop the 12 Pro on a tripod or flat surface to keep it all as steady as possible.
Long Exposure is a lot like that, too. It reminds me of how Vivo does its own special modes, where you can set the length of the exposure from three, five, or 10 seconds. It’s best with a tripod, and it lets you capture moving crowds, light trails, light painting, starry skies, and turning a scene into an oil painting.
I didn’t get to really try out Clone mode, but it’s very much what it sounds like. It works best with people and lets you capture a subject in different positions within the same frame. While a little gimmicky, I can see people liking it, so long as they have a static background to work with.
It’s always nice to shoot in RAW, and Xiaomi does try to sweeten the deal by adding a few other useful elements. I liked that both focus peaking and exposure verification are available, and that parameters came with a few choices: saturation, contrast, and sharpness.
Xiaomi also wisely includes an excellent glossary within the mode to help newbies figure out what the various features in Pro actually do. Don’t know what metering is? Never heard of exposure compensation? No problem, simple explanations should at least get you started.
Xiaomi even saw to it to include the 50-megapixel mode within Pro, so if you want to shoot at full resolution with manual controls, have at it. This negates shooting in RAW, so it is a binary choice that way, but at least you’ve got some flexibility if you want the extra pixels for whatever you have in mind. That also goes for the other two lenses, by the way, so if you want to shoot at 50-megapixels with the ultra-wide or telephoto, just make those selections.
My review is focused on still photos, but there’s a lot to work with on the video side here. The standard video mode lets you shoot in 1080p, 4K, or 8K. With 8K, however, you’re limited to 24fps. Movie frame gives your footage a letterbox look, with black bars above and below, somewhat emulating a Hollywood director sort of thing.
Movie Effects adds another layer of creativity to your shots, like with Magic Zoom and Time Freeze, among others. Tutorials within these modes also help you figure out what to do, so you hit the ground running. Vlog mode had me a little confused, though it looks like you can capture quick clips with music in the background that you can then splice together for footage you can post or share later. Short Video is clearly for the Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat crowd, where you can take quick 15-second snippets, either with regular, fast, or slow frame rates, and then upload them directly to social media accounts or messaging apps without leaving the camera app.
Staying in Contention
Xiaomi didn’t try throwing a Hail Mary to score a win, it made incremental improvements to ensure that it stays in the conversation among the best mobile photography options out there. If you didn’t know anything about Xiaomi, you might consider it if you like the quality of images the 12 Pro captures. It’s a solid shooter, and offers the kind of variety many of the bigger names don’t necessarily bother with.
To do this, the company tries to sway both seasoned shooters and novices into the same funnel, perhaps under the impression that its camera array is good enough to teach those who don’t know the stuff the other cohort already does. It will be interesting to see how Xiaomi tries to improve the 12 Pro’s camera with future software updates, especially since competitors will be gunning for the top crown again in 2022.
Are There Alternatives?
Incremental improvement is exactly where the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra lies, so Xiaomi isn’t alone. The difference is that Samsung has higher visibility in North America, so I believe newcomers to Xiaomi will weigh performance and output that way. “Is it better than Samsung,” is already a question I heard when showing off the 12 Pro.
The Vivo X70 Pro+ is no less formidable, including its sheer depth in both features and performance. I would argue Xiaomi may best it on overall night and low-light shooting, but there’s a lot to like there. The Google Pixel 6 Pro is outstanding, especially for anyone who doesn’t want to think too much about how to take photos. The heavily automated camera setup does a lot of the heavy lifting. On the other hand, I would also argue the Xiaomi 12 Pro can do better than the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max in certain conditions, like night and bright light scenarios, though the latter holds an edge in video quality.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, because it’s a solid phone with a good camera at a competitive price. Starting at $999, it’s on par with other flagships, and offers way faster charging speeds than other brands do.