As long as there have been smartphones, there have been goofy-ass mashups between phones and cameras.
We’ve had cameras that clamp to your phone or attach by magnets. We’ve had accessory lenses and shutter grips to make your phone act more like a camera. We’ve had cameras that were also kind of phones. None of them have been good enough to convince the masses, and everyone seems to have settled into an agreement that phones can just look like phones and cameras can just piggyback on your mobile data as needed. A sane world is a just world, etc.
I was ready to close that particular chapter of the digital photography history book when Xiaomi announced its 13 Ultra with a camera accessory kit for an extra 999 yuan (about $137, though eBay resellers are asking for around $200). “Oh ho ho!” I chuckled smugly. “Not this old chestnut again!” Six months later, the joke’s on me because it’s actually really good — it’s just a shame that the camera and kit aren’t officially sold in the US and likely never will be.
The key to this particular phone / camera mashup’s success — and I can’t overstate the importance of this feature — is that you don’t look like an absolute dingus using it. It’s all relatively low profile, at least until you start using the filter holder, but that’s on you.
At its core, the kit includes a normal-looking phone case and a shutter grip that slides on when you want it and clicks into place. It’s easy to take the shutter off when you want to use your phone like a normal phone. The grip’s two-stage shutter connects to the camera via Bluetooth. There’s also a wrist strap attachment, and if there’s a single most underrated camera accessory, I think it’s the humble wrist strap. I want one on every phone.
There’s a mostly ornamental screw-on lens cap and the aforementioned 67mm filter adapter. I snapped the grip into place and headed to one of Seattle’s favorite tourist destinations to Do Photography for a couple of hours.
I once heard a description from a mushroom forager that you need to “get your eyes on” when you’re on the hunt. You go to your foraging spot and start looking, but at some point, another sense kicks into gear. You start spotting the morels or whatever you’re after more easily.
In my experience, photography is like that, too. Anytime I go into a situation intent on Doing Photography, I’ll struggle for a bit, and then I “get my eyes on” and start seeing better photos. And there’s something about having a camera-shaped thing in my hand that helps me get my eyes on.
That was the case at least when I walked around Seattle Center on a sunny Tuesday afternoon with the Xiaomi 13 Ultra. Sure, the camera grip makes it more comfortable to hold the phone while you take a photo. And the physical shutter button helps you keep more attention on your subject rather than on the screen. But at least 50 percent of the kit’s utility — at least for me — is straight-up in my head. It helps put me in a photography mindset faster, much like a dedicated camera does.
Crucially, the 13 Ultra is also an absolute unit. There are four rear-facing cameras, one of which features a huge one-inch-type sensor. There are 5x and 3.2x telephoto lenses, plus an ultrawide. The main camera also includes a 2x crop zoom. It’s a smorgasbord of camera hardware, and the software backing it up ain’t too shabby, either. It’s all Leica-branded, down to the color processing, which you should take with a grain of salt. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t take some of my favorite portraits of the past year with this thing.
Of course, the 13 Ultra suffers from the same problems that trip up even the best modern phone cameras. It has a hard time freezing moving subjects in dim light, occasionally goes HAM on color saturation, and doesn’t always hold onto fine detail as well as a camera with a bigger sensor. (Take a look at the kiddo’s hair in the shot above.) And the vignetting in some of the portrait mode settings goes a little hard for my taste. But it’s easily one of my favorite mobile cameras of the past year, and I dearly wish we could buy it in the US.
You don’t need a top-of-the-line camera to take nice photos. You certainly don’t need a fancy camera grip for your phone to enjoy taking photos with it. But Xiaomi’s take on the old phone-is-a-camera concept is the smartest one I’ve come across, and I think it helped put me in a mindset to take better photos. If there’s an accessory — magnet, clamp, grip, or whatever — that helps you enjoy taking photos with your phone, then that’s a pretty good thing in my book. It’s just a nice bonus if it doesn’t make you look like a huge dingus.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge