How Huawei and Leica made me love mobile photography

Brand partnerships are a part of every industry, from cars to fast food. But how many end up having a lot, if any, effect on people? In 2016, Huawei and Leica signed an agreement to reinvent smartphone photography, and in May 2022 that multi-year partnership came to an end, ending an era worth celebrating.

Together, Huawei and Leica have created a series of great cameras and massively advanced mobile photography. They also changed the way I think about taking pictures with a phone. Leica is about to embark on a new photography venture, and history shows that this could be the start of something amazing.

Simple beginnings

Let’s start with a little history lesson. The The P9 was the first Huawei smartphone to feature Leica branding on the back. The two 12-megapixel cameras were co-developed with camera experts, and Leica was also involved in creating the camera app software. It immediately felt like a collaboration. Something special – not a boring marketing tactic. Then came the Mate 9, P10 and P10 Plus, refining the formula before the Mate 10 Pro and P20 Pro arrived in 2018.

Huawei smartphones with Leica cameras.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both of these phones used Huawei’s Neural Processing Unit (NPU) to add AI technology to cameras, scene recognition enhancing Leica camera lenses and its modified software. Both also had monochrome cameras and, in the case of the P20 Pro, 3x optical zoom. After those two, Huawei and Leica worked together on the P30, P40, and P50 series, as well as the Mate 20, Mate 30, and Mate 40 series. The P50 Pocket arrived this year without a Leica camera, and the Mate 50 still unofficial shouldn’t have one either.

The P30 Pro may have been the pinnacle of Huawei’s partnership with Leica, but the P20 Pro and Mate 10 Pro were transformative and felt like the start of something great. The use of AI was innovative and exciting, while the optical zoom and monochrome camera – a feature that helped tie it directly to Leica – set them apart from the competition. There were other great cameras back then, but none were as inspiring and creatively unleashing as Huawei’s.

Not the first, but certainly the most collaborative

The partnership between Huawei and Leica wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a collaboration between a phone maker and a camera expert. Nokia and Zeiss (known as Carl Zeiss during the relationship) have teamed up to produce popular camera phones. But that happened at a time when phones themselves were neither thin nor light, camera modules contained a single camera, and AI was still mostly science fiction. Prior to this, Sony capitalized on its own camera expertise with CyberShot-branded phones.

Huawei P20 Pro and P20 Pro in leather, showing Leica cameras.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

None were the same as Huawei and Leica. Back in the days of the P20 Pro, it was obvious that this was a very different kind of partnership with the tech industry. Why? Neither company treated it solely as a marketing exercise. Leica and Huawei took cameras, features, software and overall quality very seriously. The original press release confirms the depth of the partnership, saying it would “cover research and development, design, co-engineering, user experience, marketing and retail distribution”.

In addition to the extended technical reach, the two companies also had a clear goal: “to deliver professional-grade camera gear with true mobile usability.” This high level of involvement and clearly defined and reasonably achievable goal helped from the start, allowing Huawei’s understanding of smartphone business and UI design to meld with the deep understanding and Leica’s passion for photography.

An inspiring formula

The results were revolutionary. Huawei’s Leica-powered phones took low-light photography to a new level, presented us with spectacular bokeh effects, pioneered AI for scene recognition, and showed that optical zoom on a smartphone could be done without enlarging the phone itself. We take many of these features for granted today, and while some aren’t strictly Huawei’s first inventions, Huawei and Leica were the first to make them. usable and accessible to everybody.

At the very least, it was a partnership that required inspiration and creativity. When I started using Huawei and Leica cameras regularly, back in the days of the Mate 10 Pro and P20 Pro, it was the first time I was going out especially to take pictures. I had never been creatively encouraged by a product like this before, and looking back, I know it was because of the quality of the partnership. Huawei and Leica delivered on the promise of delivering pro-level gear to the everyday person, and having access to it made me want to exploit it. I wasn’t the only one either.

To take advantage of the camera’s capabilities, I had to get better at taking photos. The difference was that I wanted to improve myself and I wanted to see if the cameras could really inspire me artistically. I have hundreds, if not thousands of photos that I’ve taken with all Huawei and Leica camera phones to prove that they really sparked my creativity.

I’m by no means a great photographer, but it was these cameras that got me to where I am today, where I think about taking a picture before taking it. Before the P20 Pro, I would point the camera at something and press the button. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the pleasure I get from taking photos is amplified many times over these days, and I attribute that to smartphone cameras from Huawei and Leica.

Today’s partnerships don’t come close

Today, the closest the mobile industry has to a similar partnership is that between OnePlus and Hasselblad, but so far it hasn’t delivered the goods. Hasselblad only works on the software side, and while there’s been a definite progression in the impact Hasselblad’s expertise has had on OnePlus’ cameras, the companies have stopped short of greatness.

Some fancy features didn’t help convince us there’s any real depth to the partnership. And now that Hasselblad is also working with Oppo on its smartphone cameras, the camera maker may be overwhelmed and unable to give either brand the attention that has made Huawei and Leica such a force to be reckoned with.

Vivo and Zeiss are a pair to watch, however. Zeiss provides both software and hardware for Vivo’s cameras, and Vivo itself broke new ground in image stabilization with its weird gimbal system in phones (such as the X70 Pro and X80 Pro). So far, however, these partnerships haven’t had the same effect as Huawei and Leica, but that could happen in the future.

Leica’s mobile photography work continues

However, rather than one of these teams continuing to rival Huawei and Leica, it’s possible that Leica itself will once again set the bar for camera phones with its recently announced partnership with rival Huawei Xiaomi. Rumors link the pair to a flagship camera phone named the Xiaomi 12 Ultra expected in the coming months. To really whet our appetite, there is a familiar-sounding statement from Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun in the official press release regarding the new deal:

“During the cooperation, from optical design to adjusting aesthetic orientations, the innovative technologies, product philosophies and imaging preferences of both parties have experienced unprecedented deep collision and fusion.”

Leica CEO Matthias Harsch adds:

“We are confident that the first jointly developed imaging flagship smartphone makes visible the pioneering progress of both companies. We will provide consumers in the field of mobile photography with exceptional image quality, classic Leica aesthetics, unlimited creativity and usher in a new era of mobile imaging.

Huawei smartphones with Leica cameras.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The mission statement’s similarity to that shared by Leica with Huawei in 2016 suggests this could be the start of another rich, collaborative and exciting partnership. Xiaomi’s cameras have always been decent, but never quite reached the level where they truly inspire – much like Huawei’s cameras before they worked with Leica.

Together, Huawei and Leica have delivered several amazing camera phones by combining the right hardware with state-of-the-art software, as well as sharing a complex understanding of photography as an art form. Equally important, there was mutual respect for each other’s areas of expertise.

We’re regularly spoiled with amazing camera phones today, but I’ve yet to find one that truly matches how special the early Huawei and Leica cameras were. I’ll miss seeing the Leica name on the back of a Huawei phone, but I’m really fascinated to see where this goes with Xiaomi.

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