Plenty of phones released over the past six months have impressed us with their photographic chops.
The Sony Xperia Z1 is the latest handset to do so, with a 20-megapixel sensor and bright lens to its name.
It's time to put the Xperia Z1 through its paces, with photography in mind. There's room to store plenty of photos, with 16GB of built-in memory and the option to expand out with microSD cards up to 64GB. The aluminium frame is water resistant up to 1.5 metres as well, so it can be used to document underwater adventures.
Design and features
The Z1 uses a 1/2.3-inch Exmor RS sensor, which is the same physical size as that used on other Sony cameras, like the compact WX300. On the back of the phone sits an f/2.0 Sony G lens, flush with the rear panel.
With a solid rectangular shape and flattened edges, the Z1 is easy enough to hold firmly for photography purposes, whether your orientation of choice is portrait or landscape. The only ergonomics issue to be aware of is the lens, which can be covered accidentally if you use several fingers to grip the top edge.
Taking a photo is as simple as pressing the on-screen icon. Alternatively, the physical camera button on the side panel can be used as the shutter release when holding the camera in landscape orientation.
Anyone who has used a Sony camera before will feel immediately at home with the Z1. The camera app interface shares many elements with the company's stand-alone photo range, including the same naming conventions and icons. The consistency is particularly nice because it feels like the Z1 is an extension of Sony's photography world rather than a separate device designed by another division.
Most users won't feel the need to move beyond the superior automatic mode, denoted with the gold icon at the bottom of the screen. This takes care of all the exposure options for you and offers only a few selections from the settings screen, including output resolution size. For the record, by default, the camera is set to produce 8-megapixel images rather than the full 20 megapixels — make sure to change this if you want the maximum resolution the sensor can deliver.
Touch the intelligent auto icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen to bring up the other photographic options that the Z1 offers. Included here are manual, timeshift burst, picture effect, sweep panorama, AR effect, social life and info-eye. We will touch on each of these options later on.
Although the Z1 calls its other shooting mode "manual", it does not provide the level of control you might anticipate from a traditional camera. There is, however, a nifty slider that lets you adjust exposure compensation and the white balance on the fly. Results are immediately visible on the screen. From within the settings menu, changes to the ISO, metering and focus selection options can be made. The digital image stabiliser can also be found here — yes, that's right, digital stabiliser, not optical, like on phones such as the.
There is no manual focus override for the Z1; however, you can achieve more precise results with the touch-focus option, also found within the settings menu.
Apart from launching the camera app from the menu system in a conventional way, the Z1 also lets you swipe directly into the camera app from the lock screen. With this method, the start-up time is 2.6 seconds. Shutter lag is approximately 0.4 second in good light.
Other shooting options that are carried across from the Sony range of cameras include features like sweep panorama, which intelligently stitches together photos taken as you move the camera along an axis. Smile shutter does exactly what it says on the tin, snapping images when it sees a smile enter the frame. Info-eye is an augmented-reality feature that overlays the image on the screen with information about surroundings.
Picture effect brings nine filters for creative results, including nostalgic, miniature, vivid, fish-eye and kaleidoscope. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Instagram or other such photo apps will have an idea of what each of these effects can achieve.
Photographers have long been aware of the benefits that high dynamic-range (HDR) imaging can bring, including the ability to preserve more detail in shadow and highlight areas when in a tricky lighting condition. The Z1 boasts both HDR still and video capture, which is a very pleasant surprise. HDR photos can only be captured in the 8-megapixel resolution or lower, not the camera's full 20-megapixel output. Fortunately, the Z1 lets you take HDR video in 1080p mode.
Shooting at a lower resolution also opens up a few more image settings, such as scene modes when you are in manual mode. Scene settings include: backlight correction HDR, soft snap, landscape, night portrait, high ISO, gourmet, pet, snow and sports just to name a few. The offerings are reasonably comprehensive, although we would love to see them available for the 20-megapixel output resolution.
Like some other camera phones, the Z1 does not keep any of your previous shooting settings active when closing and reopening the app. For example, when locking the screen and booting back into the camera, even if you were taking photos in manual mode five seconds earlier, the app will load back up into superior auto mode anyway.
AR effect is one of the most fun features we've seen yet on a smartphone camera. With this mode activated, users can choose from a number of different effects to appear over the image on the screen in real time. Calibrate the effect by pointing the camera toward a flat surface and then lift to compose your shot. Magically, dinosaurs, butterflies or disco hair effects appear over images. Move the handset around to see how they change dynamically depending on the content of your shot. Even though it seems like a novelty, it is a lot of fun to play around with. Watch the video above for more of a demonstration on how this effect works.
Timeshift effect is actually a lot more useful than you might first think. Hold the shutter button down to take a burst of thirty frames either side of the button press and then select the best image from a sliding scale. It's particularly useful for action photography.
Inspecting images at full resolution shows that the Z1 still has some niggling issues that plague smartphone photography more broadly. Even though the image sensor is physically larger than those found on some competing smartphones, the image processor shows some over-zealous correcting, especially on areas where there is lots of detail. Images start to look crunchy, even at low ISO levels.
The lens is reasonably sharp, with some drop off toward the edges as to be expected. It is, however, susceptible to lens flare because there is nothing to shield the lens. Fortunately, this shows up as rather pleasing light streaks rather than purple halos or other unwanted renditions.
To Sony's credit, the Z1's photos look amazing on the 5-inch Full HD screen, and to be fair, this is where most users will be viewing and sharing photos anyway. Unless you need the extra resolution for cropping or printing purposes, it is best to use the camera's 8-megapixel output. It also makes sense because some of the camera's best features (like HDR and scene modes) are only available when you shoot at the lower res.
An example of the over-processing produced on images from the Z1, seen best through the 100 per cent crop (inset). Click the photo for the full-resolution version.
Chromatic aberration was not particularly noticeable on any of our test shots — a welcome change from the results many other smartphones deliver.
In low light, you do need to hold the Z1 as still as possible because there is only so much that the digital image stabilisation can compensate for. Also, we found that automatic white balance on low-light and night shots was a bit too yellow to be accurate — best results are obtained when changing the white balance for the ambient light conditions.
Thanks to the Z1's water-resistant construction, you can splash about with the handset in the pool or at the beach. In superior automatic mode, underwater photos look great. Colours are accurate, and the image is reasonably sharp as well.
Naturally, using the touchscreen underwater is nigh on impossible, so you do need to take photos using the physical shutter release. The screen also needs a good wipe and dry when it arrives back on land to get it to register touches again.
Video quality is decent for a smartphone, although the exposure can be a little uneven in bright lighting situations. Movement is rendered well, while the lens produces a reasonably sharp image for most purposes. In high-wind areas, there is wind noise present on recordings — unfortunately, there's no wind-cut option in the menu system.
Within the camera app you can use the flash as a torch light, which provides a valuable source of illumination during video recording.
The Sony Xperia Z1 offers several fun features as part of its default camera app that competing smartphones miss out on. For general photography purposes, the Z1 produces good results when using it as a point-and-shoot replacement, but more serious photography enthusiasts will be left wanting because of some image quality issues.
If you do want more manual exposure control, consider installing a third-party app from Google Play. Camera FV-5 is one of our favourites for a more traditional camera experience.