The Xiaomi 14 Ultra is a photography nerd’s dream

For most people, the compact camera is long since dead; a camera is a phone and a phone is a camera. But despite all of the technological developments over the past few years, phones still leave something to be desired if you’re the kind of person who likes to go take photos.

Traditional cameras — especially of a certain size and shape — are still alive and kicking, partly because there’s nothing that beats real buttons, dials, and a sturdy grip. They’re things that phones generally don’t have — except for the Xiaomi 14 Ultra. It’s the camera-iest phone camera I’ve used in the last decade (RIP the Nokia Lumia 1020), and I dearly wish it was available in the US.

The Xiaomi 14 Ultra photography kit — an optional accessory bundle for Xiaomi’s flagship — is what really turns this phone into a camera. It’s a follow-up to the photography kit introduced with the 13 Ultra last year, and for the most part, Xiaomi made a good thing better. Like the previous version, it includes a phone case and a detachable grip that snaps on to the case. The grip has a two-stage shutter button and a zoom rocker, now joined by a customizable dial and a video button.

Truly, it’s all killer, no filler — everything on the grip is super handy. The dial is set to exposure compensation by default, and that’s where I left it; I love being able to shift image brightness up and down without tapping around on the screen. This works in the standard camera shooting mode, too, not just manual. My only complaint is that it’s a little too easy to bump it and accidentally knock your exposure up or down a notch without realizing it.

The video button is equally useful; I don’t have to look at the screen to switch to recording video. You can customize all of these input mechanisms. Crucially, you can set the zoom rocker to switch incrementally between lenses rather than using continuous digital zoom between them. It’s a thing of beauty.

This year’s camera grip includes a bigger battery and a USB connector that plugs right into the phone’s charge port. It’s more useful since it can provide some power to the phone if you run low, and it also reduces the control latency over last year’s version, which only connected over Bluetooth. The previous version wasn’t slow by any means, but this year’s version is a hair faster — and every millisecond makes a difference. The only downside is that the battery adds a little weight, and it’s enough to notice the difference when you have the phone balanced in one hand with the grip. Can’t have everything, I guess.

The Xiaomi 14 Ultra uses a 1-inch-type main camera sensor — that’s about as big as they come on smartphone cameras, and all things being equal, a bigger sensor is better. There are 3x, 5x, and ultrawide cameras on the rear camera bump, too. But the big story is that the main camera offers an f/1.63-f/4 stepless variable aperture, building on the 13 Ultra’s dual aperture design. I owe this new aperture an apology for initially calling it a gimmick; having used it a bit, I think it’s only a little bit of a gimmick.

Pretty much any phone camera you’ve ever used has a fixed aperture; only a few of them have ever offered an aperture with more than one setting. That’s fine — most phone camera sensors and lenses are so small that you really want the widest aperture setting at all times to let in more light. But the Xiaomi 14 Ultra, as noted, is not most phone cameras. The 1-inch sensor format is big enough that being able to stop down to a smaller aperture really is helpful in a couple of ways — I like Android Authority’s deeper dive on this.

Basically, a larger sensor and lens means it’s possible to produce shallower depth of field at a wide aperture setting, and sometimes you might actually want more of your subject in focus than that setting allows. Plus, phone cameras with 1-inch sensors often show some ugly lens aberrations at wide aperture settings that disappear when you stop down. Helpful! Still, situations where you’d want to stop down to f/4 seem rare, and the native auto mode sticks to f/2 a lot of the time. But my favorite feature of this new aperture design has nothing to do with any of that: it’s sunstars.

Sunstars are a byproduct of the aperture’s 6-blade design. That’s entirely new to the 14 Ultra since the 13 Ultra used a circular diaphragm: no blades, no stars. It’s kind of a minor thing, but reader, I was absolutely thrilled to discover I could get sunstars on a smartphone camera.

I’ve been shooting with the 14 Ultra for a couple of weeks, and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface — there’s just so much this camera can do. Image quality so far is very impressive, but if I can lodge one complaint, it’s that portrait mode segmentation isn’t as sophisticated as Samsung’s. Even though the 14 Ultra’s camera sensor is big, you’ll still need portrait mode if you want a really soft background and your subject is more than a foot away. It’s a good portrait mode for sure, but it’s not the very best in the game.

At the risk of making an extremely obvious point, it’s worth remembering that this is all available on a phone. I can download a Lightroom app on it. I can post my photos directly to Instagram. I can upload photos to my shared Google Photos albums with a few taps. Sorry to be a weirdo, but I can’t get over the fact that I can have an exposure compensation dial and all of the above on the same device.

To be clear, I don’t think phones can or should replace traditional cameras. But I’m happy to see a phone manufacturer taking smart cues from the world of traditional cameras, and I think traditional cameras could learn a thing or two from phones. I just wish I could buy this particular phone here — it’s a really nice camera.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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