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What’s with Chinese phone manufacturers and famous photography brands?

What’s with Chinese phone manufacturers and famous photography brands?

Marketing tricks won't cut it if expected results are not there, here's where things stand right now
It seems that every year a major Chinese smartphone manufacturer works with a Western photography brand on… something. What that is, exactly, is — for the most part — unclear in practice. (Image: One Plus)

Let’s face it: competition between smartphone manufacturers is so fierce nowadays that it’s hard to fault them for trying to find potential advantages in an effort to differentiate themselves. What’s more, since smartphone photography has evolved into one of the most important aspects of these devices (especially flagships), it’s only natural that manufacturers would lean hard into that when promoting their handsets. It’s still uncanny, though, to watch some of those companies fall over themselves to convince consumers that their smartphones are special in that regard — and even follow pretty much the same strategy to do it.

Take, for instance, Chinese manufacturers: Xiaomi just announced that it’s forming a long-term partnership with legendary camera brand Leica in order to deliver superior photography with its upcoming Xiaomi 12 Ultra. Does that ring any bells? Well, of course it does: Leica was precisely such a partner of Huawei for half a decade, going back to that company’s P9/P10 series. The same kind of partnership was formed in 2021 between another Chinese smartphone manufacturer, One Plus, and another legendary brand of the traditional camera world, Hasselblad. The same happened with Hasselblad and Oppo in the same year. Another such partnership was formed in 2020 between Vivo and Zeiss.

Huawei was the first Chinese company to collaborate with Leica on its smartphones, the latter now working with Xiaomi. Will reviewers be impressed this time around? (Image: Huawei)

Is this a pattern? It most certainly is, but Chinese manufacturers are hardly the only ones partnering with renowned photography brands for marketing purposes. Sony, for instance, has been promoting certain functions and apps found in their Xperia 1 series of smartphones as tech borrowed from their legendary Alpha DSLR cameras. Chinese aren’t even the first ones to do so: the first phone yours truly can remember making a fuss about its Carl Zeiss optics was the weird Nokia N90 — not even a smartphone — all the way back in 2005, while Nokia and others have been doing the same with various models since 2009.

There’s a telling insistence, though, in the way Chinese manufacturers strive to form partnerships with Western traditional photography companies such as Leica, Hasselblad or Zeiss. They seem to believe that such alliances lend weight or some sort of street cred to their devices, which may not be far from the truth… on a marketing level. Conversely, the fact that Apple or Samsung don’t feel the need to do the same is equally telling: not only are the brands of those companies strong enough on their own, but their way of thinking about mobile photography is different from that of the Chinese altogether.

Incremental steps forward that bring about actual value in mobile photography are rather preferable to marketing-led, vague promises that do not seem to pan out. (Image: Sony)

Appearances are not the main problem regarding these partnerships, though. The real problem is that these alliances invariably turn out to be little more than promotional tricks. Prestige by association is the name of the game here: these companies can make all the announcements they want about the “color science” or the “imaging approach” they supposedly work on together, but reviewers never seem impressed by what these collaborations bring to the table in terms of results and practical value. The companies themselves might beg to differ, of course, but the truth is this: if these alliances truly worked, then we would all have enjoyed way, way more differentiation in smartphone photography over the years. We did not. We still don’t.

So excuse yours truly or other cynical journalists if we put on a sad smile whenever we read about the latest collaboration between a Chinese smartphone manufacturer and a Western traditional photography legend. We would love for these alliances to mean more, we really do. But as things stand today, it’s hard not to be dismissive of these PR stunts. Not when there are a number of other developments in the mobile photography world — from Google’s and Apple’s ongoing efforts in computational photography to Sony’s recent breakthrough in variable focal length, for instance — that really can make a difference. But hey, we’re not averse to pleasant surprises. Xiaomi, One Plus, Vivo, prove us wrong!

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