Putting a Type 1 image sensor in a phone is bound to get interesting, especially when it comes to Leica. So what’s next for the company’s presence in the mobile space?
Leica dabbled in making a phone, the Leitz Phone 1, albeit a rebuilt Sharp Aquos R6 that was limited to Japan only when it launched in July 2021. It wasn’t the first time a camera brand tried to make its own smartphone. The Panasonic CM1 comes to mind and it too had a 1 inch image sensor with a Leica lens when it was released in 2014. It was ahead of its time based on the limitations imposed by the smartphone chipsets and software calculations available at the time. With that in mind, one wonders what a Nokia Lumia 1020 could look like with today’s technologies.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra, which was exclusive to the Chinese market when it launched in July 2022, is not only an intriguing partnership, but also builds on Leica’s previous collaboration with Huawei’s mobile business. In both cases it was more a matter of incorporating Leica’s photographic pedigree into the software and optics so they worked seamlessly with each other’s hardware.
Leica’s phone doesn’t come with that kind of give and take. It wasn’t about combining the imaging with the expectations of another brand, it came out (for me) as an experiment of what an otherwise unrestricted Leica device could do.
Plant the seeds
Although the phone is a finished product, the only thing Leica could get my hands on was a pre-production unit. They warned me that it would be flawed and unpolished, and I’m sure they were right about that. Portrait mode buckled the moment I selected it. I couldn’t get any exposure compensation changes actually set using monochrome Leicalooks mode (Leitz Looks), so I had to make those adjustments later in post. Regular photo mode had a bug where parts of the image were missing red and blue pixels and only showed green ones instead. This also affected the manual picture mode in a similar way.
I didn’t want to fully check out the phone’s camera, so I just rolled it around with it as it was. Turning around in Wetzlar for a day, I at least got a feeling for what the cell phone can do. From the colors to the contrast and white balance, the output wasn’t like other phones. For one, the sharpening isn’t as pronounced and retains a softer tone that’s been lost on many smartphone cameras in recent years. It didn’t saturate colors, nor did HDR push too hard on lightening shadows, as has been the trend in mobile photography lately.
There aren’t any film simulation modes in the phone, although it could be argued that the entire camera app is just a bunch of film simulations unto itself. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra has something similar in its two modes, Leica Vibrant and Authentic, both aiming to mimic the brand’s iconic look. The black and white 35mm mode in Portrait also looks and feels like something straight out of a Leica lab.
Mind you, the Leitz Phone 1 is not without its problems. Even as a pre-production unit, what I experienced reflected what others found in the final product. There are no macro shots. In fact, the camera struggles to focus on anything less than half a meter away. Autofocus is slow and there’s an obvious lag between tapping the shutter button and taking the picture. It’s not the kind of phone I’d want when filming action.
With no ultra-wide and telephoto lenses, the single 20-megapixel wide-angle (19mm equivalent) lens does it all. To get closer, everything is digital zoom. Bokeh is entirely computational as there is no depth or telephoto lens to help with it. Since the portrait mode was unusable for me, I can’t comment on how good it is.
moving the needle
Leica doesn’t make phones, they work with those who do. That’s why the Leitz Phone 1 probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day without Sharp. Xiaomi and Leica announced their “long-term strategic collaboration” in May 2022, hinting that it won’t be about one-and-done devices. The two have previously collaborated on the Mi 11 Ultra, and the 12S Ultra should be the start of a deeper integration of Leica’s optical and photographic know-how into Xiaomi’s flagship phones. Whether this partnership will help the Chinese brand break into other markets like North America remains to be seen.
Huawei was just getting started, having already gained a foothold in Canada and Mexico, until US regulators decimated its ability to continue outside of select markets where Google Mobile Services aren’t as popular. The letter was on the wall for his work with Leica and a split was made official in March 2022.
The Type 1 sensor in the Leitz Phone 1 is significantly larger than the first smartphones Leica developed with Huawei, and seven times smaller than the full-frame sensor in a Leica M. While it was physically possible to have a much larger sensor in the phone the associated lens must protrude a few centimeters further.
To compensate for this, Leica has its own computer software that uses multi-frame fusion, basically a similar bracketing technique that others use to merge multiple images with different exposures to increase dynamic range and reduce noise. The Phone 1 needs seven frames to try to capture the same amount of light as a full-frame camera, which coincides with the phone’s sensor being seven times smaller.
In doing so, Leica not only tries to find the right balance through tone mapping, but also tries to emulate what connoisseurs of the brand would recognize as their visual style. White balance, color correction, noise reduction and sharpness play a role in creating a good photo.
“Leica smartphone look”
The reality is that Leica cannot bring in its entire software package and replace another brand’s existing software features, explains Florian Weiler, technical director for mobile cameras at Leica PetaPixels.
“We rely heavily on our partner’s skills as a lot of programming also comes from Xiaomi. We control these processes, we define the processes and we are involved in certain aspects of optimization, but we cannot do everything on our own,” he says in an interview.
A recording with the Leitz Phone 1 should deliver established parameters in the “Leica smartphone look” that stand out from the rest. That means natural colors, cropped highlights, properly exposed shadows, fine detail, and no serious image artifacts. In short, photographers using the phone should be able to take photos good enough to turn into large format prints.
I can’t say for sure it could, given the short time I’ve had with an otherwise crippled device, but the images are impressive, similar to the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. With limited focal lengths and other caveats, the Phone 1 could be interesting if there’s a sequel of sorts.
“Software is really a huge and complicated field,” Weiler said. “You need a lot of efficiency, because power consumption and heat are absolutely limiting factors. We could cram a lot more into a smartphone than it can, except that the limiting factor is actually power consumption. It depends on what type of processor and what type of image signal processor (ISP) you have. We have to choose what kind of process we’re going to use in hardware and software, dynamically deciding how many frames to capture in different scenes and which ones to process or not to process with multi-frame HDR. All of that feeds into the quality of the final image.”
Nowadays, the largest smartphone manufacturers compete for such processes. Camera performance and image processing play a huge role in launching and marketing a phone today, as keynotes over the last few years clearly demonstrate. While discussing any upcoming phones, Leica brand or otherwise, Weiler said that the Xiaomi partnership is “strong” and “more are coming” in the mobile space.
Leica isn’t in the phone business and its cameras aren’t aimed at the average phone user, but its software could still prove influential, which the rest of the market is doing once eyes can see what it can again. As the fifth largest smartphone company in the world in 2021, that could well be Xiaomi’s mission as it plans to position itself in key markets like the US and take on the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google.