Phone makers’ obsession with partnering with camera brands must end

Some of the world’s biggest phone makers seem keen on partnering with established camera brands in hopes of dressing up their latest smartphones with an extra level of prestige. But do these partnerships help or hinder the camera phones they adorn and the people who buy them?

On July 4, Xiaomi launched its recently updated series of flagship phones – the Xiaomi 12S line – and introduced us to the first of the company’s handsets to feature camera hardware bearing the Leica name.

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Leica – the German optics specialist known for its expensive but capable cameras – is one of many established camera brands that have joined forces with various phone makers over the years. More recently, he kicked off a freshly formed relationship with Xiaomi after his long-running contract with fellow Chinese phone maker Huawei ended.

Although Leica is one of the most prominent names involved in these partnerships, it is not the only one. Hasselblad and Zeiss (formerly Carl Zeiss) also formed a relationship of a similar nature.

Hasselblad previously worked with Motorola on an optical zoom camera module for its Moto Mods line of accessories, and more recently has partnered with siblings OnePlus and Oppo (as well as DJI in the drone market). Zeiss’ history goes back even further – to Nokia’s pre-iPhone market dominance – alongside more recent work with Sony and Vivo.

#No filter

Rather than offering components or technical expertise to a phone maker’s imaging team, the most common manifestation of a camera brand’s involvement comes in the form of proprietary filters, dedicated shooting modes and lightweight in-camera branding.

Huawei’s first Leica-branded smartphones – 2016’s Huawei P9 and P9 Pro – offered a series of Leica-developed color modes (intended to echo the company’s own cameras) and Leica-designed lenses (although are still plastic and not made by Leica).

OnePlus 10 Pro

OnePlus’ 10 Pro features prominent Hasselblad branding (Image credit: future)

Fast forward to today and OnePlus’ current flagship – the OnePlus 10 Pro – sports both “Hasselblad Master Styles” (read: more filters) and something called XPan mode: a shooting experience view inspired by the company’s unique 65:24 format cameras, integrated with the native OnePlus camera app.

An instant win for mobile photography enthusiasts everywhere or a selling point that only the most avid Hasselblad fans would use to justify their purchase of OnePlus’ latest phone? I let you be the judge.

Curious to see what will follow at OnePlus? Check out our OnePlus 10T hub for all the latest details.

Let’s talk numbers

While reading brand forums, coupled with anecdotal conversations with users, suggests a general indifference to camera brand partnerships on phones, a recent survey of 1,100 readers conducted by Android Authority (opens in a new tab) revealed that more than half of respondents (53%) didn’t think such integrations led to better final photos. A further 30% said the benefits were only “sometimes” tangible.

In the case of the deal between OnePlus and Hasselblad, the partnership cost $150 million, which begs the question: why didn’t OnePlus just invest that money in research and development of its own? camera system? The OnePlus 10 Pro would have offered an even more competitive camera system at the expense of XPan mode, a few filters, and the Hasselblad name on the back of the phone – which, if you ask me, is a valid trade-off.

In the case of Xiaomi’s new trio of high-end devices, one of the most significant imaging advantages came not from the company’s team with Leica, but rather from efforts with the Adobe Help; adding deep Adobe Camera RAW support that allows color correction metadata to remain embedded in DNG files captured with the phones powerful camera.

It’s a more meaningful partnership for those who are serious about mobile photography but are sidelined by the Leica brand’s preferential treatment over Adobe when it comes to cameras.

The best of both

While it’s not the only brand to do so, Sony has perhaps struck the most encouraging balance with its smartphone camera systems (most recently represented by the Sony Xperia 1 IV). Sony is in a unique position as the manufacturer of some of the best cameras on the market, as well as being one of the leading suppliers of mobile imaging hardware used by some of the best camera phones on the market.

While delivering what is still considered a more involved mobile photography experience compared to competitors, Sony has established a cycle of investment and refinement with the camera technology found on its flagship Xperia 1 range which offers features a lot more meaningful to users. Not to mention that its ongoing brand partnership with Zeiss is thoughtful and understated. The company’s T* lens coating improves image quality without the need for unnecessary filters or modes stuck in the camera’s UI.

Companies like Xiaomi will likely continue to try to turn heads with the promise of camera prowess, backed by trusted names in the imaging industry. However, I hope they end up spending the same amount of energy and money that they would have used to make such deals to improve their camera phones on their own terms – by building, rather than by buying, the direct trust of users.

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