The cameras on OnePlus phones have never been the strong point for those devices. And OnePlus seems to know it. But the solution the company has reportedly focused on for the upcoming OnePlus 9 might be the completely wrong way to fix it.
Reports surfaced recently that the OnePlus 9 will feature cameras made with the help of Hasselblad when the new phone arrives possibly as soon as next month. If this rumor is accurate, then OnePlus may be wasting its time. Camera hardware has never an issue for OnePlus phones, so partnering with a company that specializes in traditional photography doesn't seem the right solution for this problem.
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Do camera partnerships improve phones?
Partnerships between smartphone makers and other companies are fairly common. just look at team-ups such as Huawei and Leica, or Sony and Zeiss. The precise details of how these companies help out vary, but it's usually a joint effort that involves tuning and designing all aspects of a phone's camera hardware and software.
However, these team-ups have not guaranteed success. If you take a look at the phones at the top of our best camera phones list, what they have in common is excellent computational photography, not the name of a famous camera maker on the back of the handset. It helps that all but one of the ten phones on the list are made by Apple, Google and Samsung. These are three companies with enough resources to easily develop their own camera tech, but the rest of the smartphone market has to follow the lead of these well-funded tech giants.
Assuming the leak about OnePlus and Hasselblad is accurate, we still don't know exactly what the two companies have worked out together. But considering OnePlus' track record with camera phones, it's questionable whether Hasselblad can really help.
An underwhelming camera history at OnePlus
Looking back over the past year of OnePlus flagships, such as the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8T, one of the things these phones have in common is middling camera performance. Even the OnePlus 8 Pro, which we praised for shooting high-quality photos, can't produce consistent results when it comes to low-light shots or close-up portraits. That's unlike the iPhone 11 Pro we tested it against — and that phone has since been replaced by the iPhone 12 Pro, which handles photos with even greater aplomb.
It's a similar story on OnePlus' budget Nord line. The original OnePlus Nord has an advantage over similarly priced phones simply by having more dedicated camera lenses and offering a fairly decent Nightscape low-light mode, but it can't match the color you get from the iPhone SE’s single lens. Likewise, the cheaper OnePlus Nord N10 couldn't keep up with the Google Pixel 4a, which relies on some of the best camera software in the business.
It’s no secret what needs work on OnePlus’ different cameras. It’s the software, not the lenses themselves.
OnePlus 9: What we might hope for
The result of the OnePlus/Hasselblad collaboration will be crucial if OnePlus wants to cement itself as a worthy alternative to Apple, Samsung and Google for powerhouse mobile photography. The trick will be for Hasselblad to apply its expertise to the software-led photography that smartphones have to rely on, lest they lose the portability that makes them so useful.
Adding fancier lenses or tuning the sensors will make for a better photography experience on the OnePlus 9, but not one good enough to compete with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or other top phones.
Happily, we have other OnePlus 9 rumors which show that OnePlus is looking into new software alongside this Hasselblad partnership. Tilt-shift, focus peaking and other new photo modes have been spotted in the newest beta of OxygenOS, OnePlus' Android-based launcher. OnePlus has also offered various filters and photo effects on previous phones, and more may prove useful to customers who like having unique-looking photos. However there's currently no evidence of what changes, if any, OnePlus will make to its basic photo processing.
Based on rumors, the OnePlus 9 has a lot going for it outside of its cameras, with the phone expected to feature a 6.5-inch display with a 120Hz refresh rate and a high-end Qualcomm system-on-chip (either the Snapdragon 888 or the Snapdragon 870). Chances are, OnePlus will still be able to position its phone as a lower-cost premium alternative to more expensive flagships.
Whether the camera performance is part of the equation, though, remains to be seen.