OnePlus has come a long way since the 2014 OnePlus One. At the time, it was just a rambling start-up (and a subsidiary of Oppo) that made a name for itself by delivering an affordable phone that could almost go along with the big boys in the tech industry. Nowadays, it makes real flagship phones (with flagship prices), offering some of the best performance in the market.
There’s just one thing that kept OnePlus from achieving the kind of mind sharing that Samsung, Google, Huawei, and Apple have: the camera. The company has made major improvements every year, but it always seemed to be a step back from the competition, despite using some of the best hardware available. The OnePlus 8T got really close to the top, but I still ended up preferring the photos from my Pixel 5, despite the latter’s much inferior hardware.
With the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro, the company has finally penetrated my personal S-level of phone cameras – as one would hope, given that the latter starts at $ 969 (the OnePlus 9 starts at $ 729). After using the phone for two weeks, I think it takes better photos than the Pixel 5 in a vast majority of scenarios. I would go so far as to say it takes the most DSLR-like photos I’ve seen from a smartphone.
You probably have the company’s partnership with Hasselblad’s medium format camera experts to thank for the improvements this year. The original ad sounded disappointing; I had assumed the partnership was primarily a marketing initiative, as OnePlus said Hasselblad’s contributions were mostly to fine-tune colors and image processing. Custom hardware like lenses won’t arrive until years later.
But then I realized: it’s exactly the science of color and image processing that sets big cameras apart from good ones. Google and Apple are still considered to have some of the best cameras in the business, despite using camera sensors that are inferior to most of their competition.
Likewise, it’s precisely the image processing that gives the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro their edge, except that they also use the best of sensor technology. The IMX789 in the OnePlus 9 Pro and the IMX689 in the OnePlus 9 are top notch sensors, larger than what you’ll find in most smartphones, at 1 / 1.43 “in size.
A few caveats: In case you can’t tell right now, this article mainly focuses on the camera. You can read more about the phone’s specs here, and my full review will follow. But for now, I just want to talk about the quality of this shooter.
Also note that the photos in this article are all taken with the 9 Pro, but you can expect similar results from the 9, which uses the same ultra-wide sensor and a primary sensor similar to the Pro. None of the images in this article are altered or even cropped in any way. They were shot using automatic settings, with occasional pressure to expose them.
The first thing that stood out to me about the new phones was the way they handled extremely high contrast scenes. OnePlus has always nailed exposure and retained enormous dynamic range.
In the photo above, although my dog Ozzie is massively backlit in direct sunlight, the phone manages to keep details in the sky without crushing shadows. It also does this while maintaining a nice amount of contrast, where previous OnePlus phones might have led to a more washed out image in order to maintain dynamic range.
Here’s another photo of Ozzie:
The camera nails the delicate colors of the golden hour. Also note the incredibly shallow depth of field without the need for portrait mode.
The camera also manages to handle skin tones well in this difficult lighting:
Time and time again, the camera has delivered punchy, true-to-life colors:
And the photos of the ultra-wide are just as beautiful:
OnePlus implemented a special “ free-form ” lens for the ultra-wide that helps minimize fisheye distortion in optics, rather than post-processing, helping to maintain sharpness at the edges :
I’m a fan of the good blues, and the 9 Pro has always delivered a precise but vibrant sky:
The sky was always perfect:
And did I mention these colors?
Images are crisp without being exaggerated as follows:
Even the telephoto lens, which I think is disposable on most cameras, takes some pretty good photos:
OnePlus’ Nightscape mode is also incredibly good, no doubt aided by the huge sensor:
It’s not all perfect though. Unlike the Pixel 5, you have to remember to activate Nigh Scape manually. Otherwise, the 9 Pro can still take decent photos, but they’re nowhere near what Night Scape is capable of:
The selfie camera is also very good, but not particularly noteworthy. The colors seem to be a step behind the main camera. For example, here is the selfie camera (with portrait mode enabled):
And here’s the main camera (with portrait mode turned off):
Besides the general sharpness improvement, the white balance, skin tone, and sky tones are much more accurate on the main camera (in fact, the selfie camera reminds me a lot of the old OnePlus color calibration. , then I wonder how many inputs from Hasselblad for this sensor). The Pixel 5, on the other hand, is significantly more consistent between its rear and selfie cameras.
Although the camera delivers some punchy images, it sometimes leads to slightly crushed shadows:
The phone also tends to give darker-toned blue tint in some high contrast scenarios:
Finally, I still think OnePlus still has some work to do to improve the actual shooting experience.
- Again, Nightscape should work automatically.
- OnePlus has revamped its “ Pro ” mode to model it on Hasselblad cameras. But as far as I’m concerned, pro mode, even with RAW photography, is useless if it doesn’t include HDR processing like Google and Apple do. No amount of post-processing of a single RAW photo will make it better than the typical JPEG shooting in HDR.
- The camera turns off the pressure function to expose much too quickly.
- Portrait mode is still a bit more complicated than on some other devices, requiring subjects to be in a specific “depth effect” area.
- Not so much of a review as something I miss in the Pixel 5, but I wish I could adjust the highlight and shadow exposure separately.
But it’s nitpicking. The OnePlus 9 Pro takes the best photos straight out of the camera of any phone I’ve used to date, and what you don’t see in the photos above is how coherent the phone takes great photos. Any phone can take a great photo with careful composition, exposure, and editing, but the OnePlus 9 Pro means you don’t have to work so hard for them.
I still prefer the Pixel 5’s camera app and shooting experience, but the OnePlus 9 Pro may have just won me over with pure image quality. Your move, Google.
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Published March 23, 2021 – 16:22 UTC