I recently critiqued the OnePlus 11, but it’s time to give the Chinese phone maker its flowers…
In short, OnePlus has never been known for making the best camera phones on the market. Whether we’re talking about the company’s “flagship killers” or the premium flagship phones (OnePlus 9 Pro, OnePlus 10 Pro), they’ve always lagged slightly behind the competition, just enough to be considered… underdogs . But those days are almost over! Despite years of effort and many “nice try” attempts, the OnePlus 11 finally gives us a camera fit for a true “flagship killer”. That being said, the OnePlus 11 also undercuts the Galaxy S23 Ultra, iPhone 14 Pro, and Pixel 7 Pro in price, which means you shouldn’t expect the latest and greatest hardware that really expensive phones might offer. Manage your expectations.
Anyway! The OnePlus has managed to squeeze amazing performance from conservative hardware, and the OnePlus 11 can take more balanced photos than some of the best camera phones in the world! But how?!
Let’s take a look at OnePlus’ incredible advancements in the camera department!
The OnePlus 11 camera brings “Chinese” HDR to the global market, setting a new photography bar for the iPhone, Galaxy and Pixel
Although the whole debate about what is and isn’t a “real” photo has been particularly hot lately, I’ve been a vocal advocate of “authentic” photos for ages. That’s why in photography I tend to prefer phones like the Xiaomi 13 Pro.
However, how I want my photos to look is one thing and what would be considered a “great photo” by a wider audience is quite another. And surprise, surprise, most people like “Instagram-ready” pictures, and that’s where phones like the iPhone 14 Pro, the Galaxy S23 Ultra, and our main hero, the OnePlus 11, come in!
Phone manufacturers want to make phones that people want to buy. So, tailoring a phone’s camera to the preferences of its core user base is…crucial. Apple and Samsung could care less about what I want from their cameras. excuse me
Before I get to the main reason I’m even writing this story, I have to address our recent blind camera test between the iPhone 14 Pro Max, Galaxy S23 Ultra, Pixel 7 Pro and the OnePlus 11 to prove… the point I make to try (about the whole HDR thing). Sure, the iPhone 14 Pro Max won our last blind test, but one of the key takeaways might actually be that the OnePlus 11 beats the Pixel 7 Pro, coming super close to the phone at number 2, the Galaxy S23 Ultra. This is the same OnePlus that struggled to even be named in the same camera category as the Pixel, Galaxy, and iPhone just a year ago.
Granted, any camera comparison is only as reliable as the photo examples within, but take a look at the examples below where the OnePlus 11 managed to easily outperform the Pixel, iPhone and Galaxy for people’s choice. The category? Night mode – the usual specialty of Google and Apple.
“Chinese HDR” – the key to amazing OnePlus 11 photos
Galaxy S23 Ultra (left), OnePlus 11 (middle), Pixel 7 Pro (right) – notice how the lights in the background are best preserved on the OnePlus 11, while the subject is also better exposed by the Chinese phone. Image courtesy of Versus.
Why “Chinese HDR”? Well, because precisely China-exclusive flagship phones like the Vivo X70 were the ones that doubled down on aggressive HDR processing to reveal the bright buildings and neon signs typically seen in China and Hong Kong. Much like how some Chinese phone makers have introduced a soft-skin effect that’s appealing (apparently) in some Asian countries where they’re sold.
However, “Chinese” or not, the OnePlus 11’s aggressive HDR in photos often nails difficult scenes with different light sources, while the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Pixel 7 Pro and especially the iPhone 14 Pro Max (due to Apple’s conservative HDR) have problems (and often do).
OnePlus 11 takes far better photos than OnePlus 10 Pro and OnePlus 9 Pro – is the new phone that good, or are old OnePlus flagships too bad? but independent photo comparisons also seem to prove that OnePlus has come a long way compared to its old self! OnePlus managed to go from a “B” camera to an “A” shooter in about two years! Just look at the examples above that show the difference in night photography between the OnePlus 9 Pro, OnePlus 10 Pro and the new OnePlus 11 (which, remember, is cheaper than its predecessors). We see a massive improvement in every aspect of the photo – detail, exposure, HDR, noise, colors and so on and so on. But what’s the big secret?
Given that the OnePlus 11’s camera hardware isn’t much better (in fact, it’s a bit less impressive than that of the OnePlus 10 Pro), credit has to go to the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and OnePlus’ great post-processing/tuning (which some other phone manufacturers have also achieved). The company squeezed every drop of performance out of these relatively small Sony sensors. So Google from OnePlus.
The OnePlus 11’s camera isn’t perfect, but it finally brings peak performance to the “flagship killer” phone; Selfie camera takes great selfie photos
Unfortunately, the OnePlus 11’s camera has a weaker link, and that’s video performance, which ramps up at 1080p for the selfie camera. While the OnePlus 11’s rear cameras capture good video, they’re not on a Galaxy S23 Ultra or iPhone 14 Pro level.
Finally, I have to give some well-deserved credit to the OnePlus 11’s selfie camera, which I described as “barely acceptable” at launch. I wasn’t wrong about that, as the sample photos I saw at the time were from the Chinese version of the phone running (clearly) pre-production software.
Our 2023 selfie camera comparison now tells us that the OnePlus 11’s selfie camera is actually pretty good at taking photos (video is another story) and is capable of outperforming what the Galaxy S23 Ultra does, the iPhone 14 Pro and the Pixel 7 Pro can afford the right conditions. OnePlus 11 relies on Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and magical software to take great photos
Anyway, to answer one of the key questions here, OnePlus relies on aggressive image processing to create some stunning high-contrast and low-light photos that rival, and sometimes surpass, the most expensive camera phones on the market. Which phone makers like OnePlus which we’re doing now is super impressive but it’s worth noting that Google achieved something similar a while ago, sticking to a couple of very basic Sony sensors while working on their processing magic, to get the most out of the cameras on Pixel 2 – Pixel 6a. But not all credit goes to “magical processing”.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip powers the algorithm that helps the OnePlus 11 take great photos. So it’s not all software. Again, the OnePlus 11 uses a very conventional set of camera sensors that would be unremarkable without the power of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and the magic of the software.
In the end, the OnePlus 11 is now a very easy phone to recommend – even if you want to take great photos! And we shouldn’t take that lightly, considering how many previous OnePlus flagships have failed to impress in this increasingly important category.
The unedited sample photo used for this story’s thumbnail was kindly provided by Parth Kohl (Twitter).