Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra Camera Review: Oh-Mi-Gawd!

Not perfect, but still phenomenal

by: - Last updated on: June 3rd, 2021
Key Takeaways
  • The Mi 11 Ultra has been hailed as one of the most powerful camera phones to have ever been released.
  • The phone not only features an almost one-inch 50-megapixel main sensor, but also two half-inch 48-megapixel sensors, one apiece for 5X zoom and 128 degrees ultrawide snaps.
  • With that sort of hardware, does the Mi 11 Ultra actually beat the likes of the Samsung S21 Ultra and the Vivo X60 Pro+, and well, even the iPhone?
  • Our (relatively) jargon-free review of the camera side of the Mi 11 Ultra.

In sheer spec terms, the Mi 11 Ultra has perhaps the most impressive hardware ever seen on a camera in a proper smartphone (we are not including cameras that were made to act like smartphones, like the Galaxy S4 Zoom or any mod-like attachments). It has the biggest sensor ever seen on a smartphone camera – the 50-megapixel GN2 camera with OIS and an almost one-inch (1/1.12) sensor made by Xiaomi in collaboration with Samsung. If that was not enough, there are two 48-megapixel Sony IMX 586 half-inch sensors (which are flagship level, if a little on the old side) – one a periscope telephoto with 5X optical zoom and up to 120X digital zoom with OIS, and another providing a rather astounding 128-degree ultrawide option (one of the widest views on a phone camera). In video terms, all three can shoot 8K videos. And you can shoot high-resolution 50-megapixel photographs from all three sensors if you so wish.

mi 11 ultra camera review

In simple terms, at a time when most brands are chasing the “one big sensor with less powerful sensors around it” formula, the Mi 11 Ultra is perhaps the first non-Cupertino phone in recent times that lets you switch between three powerful sensors, without any major compromise in image quality or resolution. Xiaomi has insisted on calling all three cameras “primary,” and we can see why. You literally can shoot from any of them and be assured of using very good hardware in phone camera terms. There are no “decorative” 5-megapixel or 2-megapixel cameras here that exist solely to boost the camera population on the phone. We have had phones with multiple cameras with similar megapixel counts, but rarely of this quality. The big question of course is whether all these specs translate into spectacular performance.

Badshah of Bokeh? Yep!

The answer to that, broadly is: they do. The main sensor is frankly a Badshah of Bokeh and makes one wonder why Xiaomi even bothered to have portrait mode on the phone. Get to the right distance from your subject (depending on its size of course), and you will literally see the background blurring in front of your eyes right on that gorgeous 6.81-inch AMOLED display. And there are no edge issues either. The color handling is generally closer to the neutral side and you get reasonably realistic shots, as long as you do not check them out on that slightly oversaturated display. Those who love “punchy” colors will simply have to put up with reality-biting shades here.

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We did find it rather odd that sometimes our pictures seemed a little blurred in the center in spite of us having focused perfectly while taking the shot, but this seems to be more of a random bug. This is a great camera for those who want to take lots of portrait snaps or do some product photography. It is good for other purposes also, but those zones are where it really shines. Low light photography is very good too and thankfully does not try to change night into day. It treats shadows respectfully and handles different shades of light very well. It, however, seems to be based on the Samsung philosophy of blending grains into each other – you end up with less to no noise (grains) in your snaps, but some structures almost end up looking a little “pasty” or like a watercolor painting.

Mr T of Telephoto? Yep!

Terrific though that main sensor is, there are others out there that can match the image quality of that huge GN2 sensor in the Mi 11 Ultra. Honestly, phone camera photography standards have improved so much that in broad daylight, even a Rs 20,000 phone can get close to one that is priced four to five times as much. But bring in the other two sensors and the flexibility they bring to your experience and the equation changes.

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The best example of this was when we spotted a cat sitting on the edge of a slightly open drain or a bird in the local park. Cats are skittish by nature and any movement to get near them drives them away, and the same is the case with birds. Now, I have photographed cats and birds with phone cameras, but in most cases, this has resulted in severely cropped shots with a fair bit of grains (“noise”) leaking in – you learn to compromise on the image quality for the sake of “capturing the moment.” Well, the Mi 11 Ultra, we were able to get some very decent pictures of the bird as well as the cat and did not need to do any cropping whatsoever. Which makes this perhaps one of the best cameras for those who like to snap animals or birds or even indulge in good old street photography (when that becomes possible!). It is not as good as the bigger sensor in low light conditions but does a good job.

Wizard of Ultrawide? Well…a little wobbly, but yep!

We would say that the ultrawide sensor is perhaps the slightly iffy one of the three cameras on the Mi 11 Ultra. Yes, the 128-degree field of vision is fantastic and gives you an amazing view of landscapes. However, the edges of the shots do tend to bend a bit – and very noticeably at that. So we often stopped ourselves from getting too wide a shot to avoid those distortions. Alternately we simply cropped out the bendy bits – oh the joys of a high megapixel sensor. That said, it does come with autofocus and the level of detail you can capture is astonishing. It also seemed to have the most “punchy” colors of the three sensors – the main sensor being the most realistic and the telephoto a bit on the lighter side. Of course, you are unlikely to notice this, unless you actually switch from one sensor to the other with the same subject or scene – the changes are very minor to be even clearly spotted in the results unless you really look for them. In terms of low light performance, you get very good colors but the same slightly watercolor-like details that we saw in the main sensor.

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Given the pandemic, we could not really test the video capabilities of the cameras, but from what we could see, they produce very good videos with surprisingly good audio as well. We would still place it just a step below the iPhone 12 series video quality, but even that is not a bad place to be. Of course, this being a Xiaomi device, there are a lot of shooting modes to play around with, including a Pro mode that lets you tweak settings, the option to use that secondary display on the back of the phone as a viewfinder (pro tip: it is of very limited utility) and a multi-cam mode that shows you six views (0.5X ultrawide, normal view or 1X, 2X zoom, 5X zoom, 10x zoom, and the front camera) and lets you choose two and then shoot video on them simultaneously. There is a Vlog mode too. And yes, while the poor thing gets overshadowed by all the hardware on the back, the 20-megapixel front-facing camera takes good selfies, although we would advise turning down the beauty effects.

A lot of good work, some work-in-progress

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They may be crazy powerful but the Mi 11 Ultra’s cameras are not perfect. Those used to the utterly fast tap and click experience on the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 series might find the Mi 11 Ultra to be very slightly slower. Not noticeably, but very slightly. There is also a tendency for images to get a little blurry near the center sometimes which we mentioned earlier – it is not a regular happening, but pops up from time to time. Some might also complain about how the main camera does not let you take really close-up shots, although we got around that by simply using the 5X zoom camera which allowed us to fill the viewfinder with the subject. The ultrawide shots have a tendency to get distorted on the edges. And well, we really wish phone brands would stop digital zooms beyond 20X – the results are simply unusable, although something very distant without too much around it (like Mr. Moon) can be photographed well enough.

Final word: That D word!

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So how good are the cameras on the Mi 11 Ultra? The answer is: as a combination, pretty much unbeatable at the moment in the Android world. The likes of the Vivo X60 Pro+ and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will run the Mi 11 Ultra’s snappers close in a department or two but frankly cannot match up to the kind of output we get from all three cameras. Are they better than the ones on the iPhone 12 Pro Max? Honestly, we feel the iPhone still has the gift of incredible consistency and speed in its favor, although the Mi 11 Ultra does allow you to take higher resolution images and be more creative right out of the box

We would call the Mi 11 Ultra the most powerful Android camera phone out there. You need to point and shoot? You get great, high-resolution shots from the default sensor. Do you want ultrawide snaps? Tap for the ultrazoom and you get great shots again. Subject too far? Tap on telephoto and you can get 5X optical zoom and up to 10-15X of very usable digital zoom. Want a portrait shot with bokeh? Switch to the main sensor again…

All right, we will use the word that we have avoided using – it is a bit like using multiple lenses on a DSLR. You get different views and options, without compromising on basic resolution and image quality.

Need we say more?

[Click here for full resolution pics + additional samples]

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