I've been thinking about the Xiaomi Mi 11 a lot since I reviewed this new flagship phone. The reason? It might be the first smartphone to get macro photography right — something that a lot of other phone makers have struggled with.
Macro lenses often appear to be an afterthought feature tacked on to phones that can't afford more sophisticated cameras. This isn't the case with the Mi 11 though — its macro lens captures good-looking close-ups without the usual problems we've run into on other phones that feature a dedicated macro camera.
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What probably helps the Mi 11 is that its macro camera is more accurately a "telemacro" camera, which is short for telephoto macro. The Mi 11's lens allows you to take close-up shots from further away, which is useful for keeping a subject well-lit, and not scaring off any bug or other wildlife you're hoping to photograph.
Most phone macro cameras want you within 2 inches of the subject, which is often so close that you can't help but cast a shadow on your subject or block its light entirely. In contrast, the Mi 11 is comfortable taking macro shots from about 4 inches away — not that big a gap in size, but a huge difference when it comes to framing a shot.
The Xiaomi Mi 11's macro camera uses a 5MP sensor. When you're taking photos of such small objects, you need all the megapixels you can get to show off the detail and make sure the image is actually bright enough to appreciate. A lot of phones with macro cameras opt instead for 2MP sensors, which makes the problems we've already seen even more obvious.
Xiamoi Mi 11 macro camera in action
Put together, the better sensor and wider range of the Mi 11's macro camera results in some excellent shots, such as this picture of a coffee bean. Although the far edge of the bean isn't in focus, the texture of the closer side and the papery center is shown in excellent detail.
Or this image of my desktop buddy, Smithson the Lion. You can see the loose bits of fur, even the texture of his beady eyes, in stunning detail. I tried to get an equivalent shot with the Mi 11's 108MP main camera, but at this close-up distance, the sensor was unable to focus. Sometimes you can get better shots on a phone's main camera than on its dedicated macro camera, but that's not the case here.
One of the classic macro shot subjects is a flower, even if most phones I've tested struggle with such shots. Even on a professional camera, it's hard to get the focus correct to capture all of the plant's head.
The Mi 11 does better than most here, but it's still not quite got all of the flower in focus. This is partially a limit that occurs with even proper macro photography though, as a result of the limited depth of field needed to focus on small objects.
Xiamoi Mi 11 macro camera outlook
While we've been critical about macro cameras on previously reviewed phones, we've recognized that macro cameras could be a valuable addition to a phone's camera array — if they were able to capture decent photos. Xiaomi has done well in proving how phones are capable of providing worthwhile macro cameras.
I hope that other phone companies take lessons from what the Mi 11 can do, and that we'll see telemacro cameras like this appear on other flagship phones before they trickle down to the mid-range and budget devices that gave macro phone photography a bad name in the first place.