Xiaomi is gearing up to steal the 'best camera phone' crown from Huawei

Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun speaking at a conference
(Image credit: Shutterstock / zhangjin_net)

There was a time when the newest Huawei flagship was a shoo-in for the top spot in our list of the best camera phones. But when the Huawei ban reduced the appeal of the company's mobiles, other companies descended like predators smelling blood to devour its market share, and Xiaomi is proving itself the most brutal.

After spending several years trying to be the hungriest hippo, Xiaomi, which has been jostling with Apple to hold the #2 spot for global phone sales, has just made a move that feels inspired by the plot of Game of Thrones (or a high-school drama).

For years, each Huawei flagship was designed alongside camera company Leica, which gave the phones a photography edge - however not long after reports suggested that Leica and Huawei were parting ways, Xiaomi has officially announced that it has started its own partnership... with Leica, of course.

This partnership will truly kick off in July, when the first Xiaomi-Leica phone will be launched - fans think it'll be the Xiaomi 12 Ultra. It's not exactly clear how this partnership will manifest - we could see an improvement in the phone camera lenses, or sensors, or even bespoke new modes - however Xiaomi's CEO, Lei Jun, said it would improve "optical design to tuning aesthetic orientations" (which is admittedly lots of meaningless jargon).

We can make a guess based on Huawei and Leica's team-up though - that partnership didn't just bring bespoke lenses but also sensors and tuning, so it was a pretty complete package. Unlike Hasselblad's collaboration with Oppo and OnePlus, though, there weren't many bespoke camera modes that appeared over the five-year alliance.

It's likely, then, that we'll see the same strategy used with Xiaomi - though don't expect everything at once. Usually, these camera and phone brand team-ups start small, with some little tuning tweaks and changes, and take a few years to build momentum.

The sound of si-lens

For now, though, it doesn't really matter what the Xiaomi and Leica collaboration will bring, as it's more interesting to focus on the power shift in mobile-maker dynamics.

Huawei's dominance of the camera phone space seemed linked to its Leica partnership - when you picked up a P-series device and saw that Leica logo on the back, you knew you were getting a good deal. And now that logo will show up on Xiaomi phones instead.

So expect Xiaomi's mobiles to start taking higher billing on our ranking of the best camera phones - it's typically made some decent devices, but without the nuance that let Samsung, Apple and Huawei sit right at the top. With Leica to guide it, we could see the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max play second fiddle to the next Xiaomi flagship when it comes to photography.

And what about Huawei? Well, the ailing Chinese has-been is poised for a comeback, and we all love an underdog - though the brand's loss of the Leica name, and the meteoric rise of its ex-sub-brand Honor, certainly stack the odds against it. But isn't that how all redemption stories begin?

Tom Bedford

Tom Bedford was deputy phones editor on TechRadar until late 2022, having worked his way up from staff writer. Though he specialized in phones and tablets, he also took on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness, mobile gaming and more. He is based in London, UK and now works for the entertainment site What To Watch.

He graduated in American Literature and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Prior to working on TechRadar, he freelanced in tech, gaming and entertainment, and also spent many years working as a mixologist.