At launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro failed to live up to the hype that OnePlus had created around it. In our testing, we found the camera to not just be similar but also worse in some ways to the OnePlus 8 Pro, and we just couldn't see the promised improvement in color performance that the collaboration with Hasselblad was supposed to bring.
Far forward seven months, and a lot has changed. OnePlus has been issuing regular updates to the OnePlus 9 Pro camera, and it's now in a much better place than it was at launch.
For one, the oversharpening that we had pointed out in our review has been dialed back. The OnePlus 9 Pro had heavy sharpening applied at launch to make up for the fact that the images were now softer due to the increased field of view of the new lens despite having the same 12-megapixel effective resolution of the OnePlus 8 Pro. This has now been fixed in newer firmware, and the sharpening looks much more natural now with significantly reduced ringing and haloing, especially in areas of high-frequency detail like grass.
OnePlus has also reduced the noise that we had noted in our review. At launch, the OnePlus 9 Pro tended to have quite a bit of noise in the shadows. With newer updates, this is not a concern anymore, and the images are quite clean.
Moving to the all-important color performance, OnePlus has definitely made some subtle but noticeable improvements across the board. The white balancing performance is now very good, resulting in very consistent and reliable results in most lighting conditions, especially outdoors during the day.
Comparing the OnePlus 9 Pro now with the OnePlus 8 Pro, the OnePlus 9 Pro now consistently outperforms its predecessor in most areas. The OnePlus 8 Pro is still quite good, but the OnePlus 9 Pro generally has better color accuracy, especially in terms of white balance.
The OnePlus 8 Pro does still have slightly better detail, however, as its lens is not as wide as on the OnePlus 9 Pro and can thus capture more fine detail with the available sensor resolution. The OnePlus 8 Pro also usually renders flowers more accurately, as the OnePlus 9 Pro tends to consistently oversaturate flowers.
The overall image quality of the main camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is now quite good, although there's definitely room for improvement. OnePlus still has a tendency to crush shadow detail. This is not even a hardware limitation, as the RAW files have adequate detail in the shadows. It's just an artistic decision from OnePlus that has plagued its phones for a while.
OnePlus also needs to better tune its HDR processing as it has a tendency to flatten highlights, removing any natural gradient and reducing them to one or two shades. It also tends to overexpose midtones and make them brighter than they should be. Once again referencing the RAW files, we can see a much more gradual natural dynamic range, gradation, and contrast captured by the sensor, but the processed JPEG file looks flat and unnatural.
The ultra-wide camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the better ones around, with surprisingly good performance in most lighting conditions. The color reproduction, however, is not as accurate as on the main camera and white balance in particular tends to be on the cooler side.
The telephoto camera is easily the worst of the three. It seems to be the same as the one found on the OnePlus 8 Pro and has seen no improvement at all since. The images are soft, the colors are often off from what they should be, it struggles to focus on closer objects, and if something gets within two feet of the lens, the phone just switches to the main camera with a 3.3x digital zoom applied. Also, while the other two cameras can shoot in 8K, the telephoto camera can't even record in 4K and is only functional if you set the resolution to 1080p.
Speaking of video, the video performance on the main and ultra-wide cameras is really good. You can shoot up to 8K 30p on both, but 4K 120p only works on the main camera. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do with the 4K 120p video on the phone, as there is no way to slow it down and get slow motion 24p or 30p footage from it.
Even if you export it to a desktop, you need a premium client like Adobe Premiere Pro or the paid version of DaVinci Resolve to edit it. A simple slow-motion option in the main Gallery app would have been nice as otherwise, the videos you get from this mode are useless to most people other than just playing it in 4K 60p on the phone (yeah, the phone can only play videos up to 60fps).
The camera app otherwise is a nice improvement over the older OnePlus camera app. The pro mode, in particular, has actually usable sliders and not the annoying infinitely spinning wheels of before. Unfortunately, locking focus/exposure is still done by an impossibly small lock icon that requires a microscope and a neurosurgeon's precision to tap. You still can't capture RAW files with the ultra-wide or telephoto cameras, and the video mode basically has no manual controls whatsoever.
OnePlus also recently added the XPan mode, which is inspired by the Hasselblad XPan camera from the 90s that was known for using a really wide 65:24 film for capturing panoramic shots. The XPan mode on the OnePlus 9 Pro just crops the top and bottom off, and you don't actually get any extra width, but the aspect ratio is still pretty cool and can produce some interesting shots.
Unfortunately, OnePlus has saddled the mode with an abysmally slow animation that is designed to "reproduce the ritual sense of film developing" or some such nonsense. Every shot you take in this mode is followed by a nearly five-second long animation, and you have no choice but to wait for it to finish before you can capture another image. This is the worst sort of skeuomorphism and should have been left behind in the early 2010s where it belongs.
Some of these annoyances make you forget at times that the camera on the OnePlus 9 Pro is actually really good. It may have taken OnePlus some time but it seems they have finally achieved what they set out to do. If they just iron out the niggles in the software and replace the telephoto camera with something actually good for the next version, then the company may finally have the flagship-grade camera that people have been asking for years.