The Xiaomi 12T Pro is one of the first smartphones with a 200-megapixel camera. Unless you’re making wall-sized gallery prints, that’s about 150 megapixels too many. I took the 12T Pro to Seattle’s spacious Central Library to put every one of those pixels to work. Many gigabytes later, I’m here to tell you that you’re not missing much with your 12 or 50-megapixel smartphone camera.
Why would anyone want a 200-megapixel camera in the first place? There are two things you can do with a very high-resolution image. First, you can make a high-quality 40 x 60-inch print. I highly doubt any of you are doing that, so the second option is more relevant: crop.
With 200 million pixels at your disposal, you can make some very aggressive crops and still maintain plenty of resolution. This is the feature that Xiaomi is leaning into with a tool called ProCut, which analyzes your 200-megapixel images and suggests alternate crops in the phone’s image gallery app.
Here’s the problem, though: this is still a relatively small sensor with a small lens, and when you view a 200-megapixel image at full size, the shortcomings are obvious. Sure, you can see stuff that’s barely visible when you’re fitting the image to whatever size screen you’re using. But details look like smeary watercolors, and even a 12-megapixel crop viewed at a small screen size doesn’t look quite right: too much noise and noise reduction smoothing, which is an ugly combo.
And since you’re using every available pixel, you also won’t get the benefit of pixel-binning. In the standard 12-megapixel mode, the camera groups data from multiple pixels to improve low-light image quality. You can’t do that when you’re using every single pixel individually. Not surprisingly, dynamic range in high-res mode is also limited since the camera doesn’t appear to use HDR the same way as it does in regular shooting. You end up with areas of very dark shadow detail. I’m not a fan of going wild with HDR, but in moderation, it’s a useful thing. The 12T Pro’s standard shooting mode does a good job of applying HDR with a light hand, and it takes nice photos overall: colors are vivid without looking cartoonish, albeit with a slight tendency to overexpose.
Don’t expect to get amazing portraits out of its 200-megapixel images
Xiaomi’s idea with the 200MP mode seems to be that you can shoot now and crop however you want later. It doesn’t always work out. If you go in for really aggressive crops, you’re dealing with a lot of noise and smeary details. On the other hand, if you’re just cropping to a different aspect ratio — like turning a landscape photo into portrait — 200 megapixels is overkill to start with, and the resulting image file is still massive. I took one of Xiaomi’s crop suggestions, which turned a 200-megapixel landscape photo of my cat into a… 100-megapixel portrait photo of my cat. I don’t need that kind of thing chewing up my phone’s storage space.
In any case, the “shoot now, compose later” ethos feels counterintuitive to how I take pictures on a phone. I’d rather see the image on the screen the way I want it. Being there, in the moment, in the space I’m photographing is a big part of the joy I take from photography. I want to choose what is or isn’t in my shot and whether it’s a landscape or portrait-oriented photo, and outsourcing that stuff to AI sounds like no fun.
Xiaomi also promotes ProCut as a good tool for photographing people, but don’t expect to get amazing portraits out of its 200-megapixel images. Because the lens and sensor are so small, you’re going to get a lot of your background in focus rather than blurred away like a big, dedicated portrait lens would. You can’t use the camera’s portrait mode effect after the fact with ProCut, either. One of the reasons why Apple and Google’s 2x crop modes are so effective is that you can use them in portrait mode as you take the image. Plucking subjects out of a wide-angle shot and turning them into individual portraits just isn’t going to look the same.
The more I pore over my 200-megapixel images, the more convinced I am that 50 megapixels is the sweet spot for high-resolution photography, at least with the technology we have right now. Xiaomi might actually agree. 50-megapixel mode is the default setting in the Ultra HD section of the camera app, where the high-res modes live. It bins four pixels together and offers generous leeway for drastic cropping, but with better noise control and sharper details than the 200-megapixel mode. It’s the mode I’d keep using if I was going to continue shooting with the 12T Pro. For now, 200 megapixels is just a few more than I need.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge