The new ZTE Axon 40 Ultra smartphone is no different from many others just because it has a 35mm main camera, instead of a 24 or 26mm it also has 64MP sensors on ALL cameras. Great!
All the smartphones I’ve used so far have different sensors for different cameras, which is a bit of a problem if you’re coming from regular photography and are used to having the same sensor and the same pixel resolution for all your purposes. The two smartphones I use now for photography and video have a variety of cameras for different purposes, and even if you get used to it, it doesn’t make sense.
The Xiaomi Redmi Note 10 Pro has a main camera, 26mm, with 108MP – grouped together for 12MP final images – them an 8MP ultra wide-angle and finally a 5MP macro. The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, which is a versatile smartphone with 16mm coverage up to 230mm, has a similar 26mm main camera, with 108MP – again lumped together for 12MP final images – an ultra large 12MP, 16mm angle, a 70mm telephoto with 10MP and a 230mm telephoto with the same 10MP. Yes, I know it’s confusing, it’s like having a smartphone that thinks it’s Ricoh’s GXR system, from 2009.
Ricoh’s modular system and smartphones
Yes, in 2009 Ricoh imagined the future would be modular and introduced its GXR camera system. Rather than following the trend and using interchangeable lenses, Ricoh decided that its new system would use sealed modules that combine a lens and a sensor. One initial module offered a 50mm-equivalent f2.5 macro lens paired with a 12.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS, another a 24-72mm-equivalent f2.5-4.4 lens paired with a 10-megapixel 1/1 .7 inch sensor… and there was more to come. One of the main advantages of the system was, Ricoh said, that no dust would ever reach the sensor, something that photographers were VERY worried about at the time.
Well, the whole idea ended up gathering dust on a shelf, because what Ricoh was trying to do was reinvent the wheel, ending up with a “square wheel” that never moved the system anywhere. Smartphone cameras look a bit like Ricoh’s modular system, without having the dust issue as an excuse, as everything is sealed inside the smartphone case. But there is hope!
I recently wrote here at ProVideo Coalition that the Xiaomi 12 Pro smartphone, with its 50MP triple camera array, may signal a possible new standard for the industry. As I noted then, “having all the cameras offering the same resolution, 50MP in this case, you don’t have to think about resolution when going from ultrawide to telephoto” which means that it’s the closest you get to a conventional camera when using a smartphone.
A triple berry trend
The Xiaomi 12 Pro’s camera array is built around a state-of-the-art Sony IMX707 ultra-wide main sensor, with 50MP 1/1.28″ 2.44μm, with 4-in-1 Super Pixel grouping for 12.5MP final images, combined at a wide angle 24 mm. The 7-element lens has an aperture of ƒ/1.9 and features OIS or Optical Image Stabilization. The ultra-wide-angle camera, also 50MP, is a 16mm f/2.2 that offers a 115-degree field of view and has free focus meaning it has no AF, while the latest 50MP sensor is paired with a 48mm lens (equivalent to 35mm) opening at f/1.9, which is a humble 2x solution, more of a normal lens than a telephoto lens, not even stabilized.
As I wrote then “the two cameras in addition to the wide angle are based on the Samsung JN1 sensor and are clearly not in the same league as the Sony IMX707, but Xiaomi’s decision to create a triple array around 50MP sensors may be something to keep, although it would be good to see a telephoto lens with more power – 5x is a suggestion, which would mean a 120mm telephoto lens.
A 35mm f/1.6 lens instead of the usual 24mm
Now, as I hoped, the industry may be moving towards this kind of solution, and ZTE is back with the new and improved ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, an evolution of its predecessor, the Axon 30 Ultra. While others may look at smartphones from different angles, I’m mostly interested in exploring what they can do as cameras, and this model is something I’d love to get my hands on.
Why? Because the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra doesn’t have a primary camera…because ALL of its cameras are primary. The triple camera array is built around Sony sensors, with 64MP ultra wide-angle, 64MP wide-angle and 64MP telephoto…meaning you get the same resolution – 16MP final images after binning – regardless of camera /lens you are using. It’s almost like we’re back to photographic normality!
Introducing the smartphone, ZTE states that “the camera is one of the main determining factors in whether your attention is held or not, right? Well, even if the answer is no (which it never is), this model didn’t skimp on the high-quality camera. The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra has some other surprises in store, one of them being the use of a 35mm f/1.6 lens instead of the 24/26mm wide-angle lens used in most smartphones. In my opinion, this makes it a more versatile system, as 35mm has long been a standard for photographers. Although wider lenses, like the 24mm – the 24-70mm f/2.8 has become a key zoom for photojournalists – have become popular, the 35mm is considered a good focal length and one more reason why the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra looks so interesting. It can be a trendy solution.
A 91mm f/3.5 telephoto lens with a 64MP sensor
The ultra-wide-angle lens is a 16mm f/2.4, which provides ample coverage for landscape photography and is similar to the wider focal length used in many full-frame cameras. It doubles as a close-up lens with AF provided. On the other hand, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra offers a 91mm f/3.5 telephoto lens, which without being very powerful can be a good long lens and it’s better, at least on paper, than the 48mm of the Xiaomi 12 Pro… or the 70mm paired with a 10MP sensor on the Samsung S22 Ultra. I guess the power of the 64MP sensor and some cropping of the final 16MP image can allow users to go up to a 120mm field of view or even beyond. It’s something I’d love to test out if I get my hands on the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra.
Much more could be written about the photo and video features included in the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, but for now I think the information regarding the choices ZTE made in terms of cameras, lenses and sensors is enough to interest ProVideo Coalition readers in a smartphone for photo and video research for more details on this new model, which I hope to have the opportunity to test.
Photographically speaking, this new smartphone looks like something photographers and videographers should explore. ZTE claims that “among the wealth of professional-grade photographic capabilities are features such as AI-based computational photography and machine learning and various nighttime settings for those ‘night before’ memories”, which means the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is “an adaptable and highly detailed camera for fine-tuning your media”.