Sony Xperia 1 camera review: When three cameras aren’t enough

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  1. Android Authority

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    People buy flagship phones as much for the cameras as for any other feature. Nearly every premium device from the likes of Huawei, LG, and Samsung has stepped up the game to include not one or two, but three cameras. The standard configuration for a modern flagship is now a high-quality primary lens, an optical telephoto lens, and a wide-angle lens. This applies to the Sony Xperia 1, which the electronics company is just now getting to market.

    If you’re interested in learning everything there is to know about the Sony Xperia 1, check out our full review here. The purpose of this article is to dive deep into the camera situation and assess whether or not Sony can keep up.

    Here is Android Authority’s Sony Xperia 1 camera review.

    About this review: Sample photos have been resized for quicker loading times, but that is the only editing these images have received. If you want to pixel peep and analyze the full resolution photos, we have put them in a Google Drive folder for you.

    Sony Xperia 1 camera specs



    Rear:

    • Primary:
      • 12MP Exmor RS 1/2.6-in. sensor
      • Pixel pitch 1.4μm
      • G lens at f/1.6
      • OIS photo
      • 26mm with 78 degree FoV
      • RAW noise reduction
      • 960fps Super slow motion video (FHD/HD)
    • Wide-angle:
      • 12MP 1/3.4-in. sensor
      • Pixel pitch 1.0μm
      • f/2.4 lens
      • 16mm with 130 degree FoV
      • Fixed focus
      • SteadyShot with Intelligent Active Mode
    • Telephoto:
      • 12MP 1/3.4-in. sensor
      • Pixel pitch 1.0μm
      • f/2.4 lens
      • 52mm with 45 degree FoV
      • Fixed focus
      • OIS photo
    • Video:
      • 4K at 30fps
      • Full HD at 30fps or 60fps
      • HD at 30fps
      • Hybrid OIS/EIS video stabilization
    Front:​


    • Selfie:
      • 8 MP 1/4-in. sensor
      • Pixel pitch 1.12μm
      • f/2.0 lens
      • HDR
      • SteadyShot with Intelligent Active Mode
      • Portrait selfie effects
      • Display flash

    Sony’s 2018 flagship, the Xperia XZ3, had but a single camera on the rear. This year’s phone has three. Sony stepped up its imaging configuration to match those of its competitors. The Xperia 1 has a standard camera, a 2x optical telephoto camera, and a super wide-angle camera. All three feature 12MP sensors, though the primary has a larger IMX586 Exmor RS sensor and G Lens from Sony.​

    The feature list for the cameras is extensive and should please spec fiends. I’m glad to see OIS in the standard and telephoto cameras, as well as hybrid OIS/EIS for video capture.

    Camera app



    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Sony’s camera app is powerful, but perplexing. It contains the vast majority of advanced features flagship phone buyers expect, yet there are some glaring omissions.

    Let’s start with the dedicated camera button. Yes, the Xperia 1 has a physical shutter key, located where you expect to find it on the top right corner (when holding the phone sideways.) The button is a subtle two-stage key. Press it very lightly and the camera will focus on the subject. Press it all the way to fire off a shot. The difference between pressing the button gently and all the way is minimal. You can easily just smash the key down all the way when you intend to focus first.

    Alternately, you can do what we’re all using to doing at this point: touch the screen where you want the camera to focus and then tap the software shutter button.

    See also:
    15 best camera apps for Android

    Cameras on smartphones are a much bigger deal than they used to be. Companies are chomping at the bit to make their cameras more reliable, work better in low light, and add features that people want. …

    Sony’s AI Cam is enabled by default. You can only ditch it by shifting to manual mode. What I find most frustrating is the lack of control over HDR. HDR functions automatically in AI Cam mode, which is to say you never know whether it is being used or not. The only way to take direct control over HDR is in manual mode. From my perspective, HDR should always be an easy-to-find feature.

    A basic on-screen toggle lets you switch between photo and video modes, while a series of controls line the opposite edge for functions such as aspect ratio, bokeh, flash, timer, and settings. Some of these could be easier to grasp. The bokeh tool, for example, is represented by one circle placed behind another. What the what? How does that equate “bokeh”?


    On the whole, the camera app could be simplified quite a lot.

    Jumping from one lens to another should be easier. The camera always launches with the standard/primary camera lens active. A small circle with a “1x” appears on the far right side. Tap it once to switch to the telephoto lens. The small circle then displays a “2x” inside. Tap once more to get to the wide-angle “w” lens. If you press the “1x” for a second, a slider bar appears for zooming between 1x and 2x, and on through to 10x (digitally). No matter what, you have to press the “w” to get to the wide-angle camera, and it pauses for a second before switching. It’s a confusing and inconsistent system. LG’s camera app is much simpler to decipher in this respect.

    A small button under the shutter button lets you access the advanced modes. These include portrait selfie, Google Lens, slow motion, AR effect, manual, creative effect, and panorama. Pick one, and then a little symbol pops up in the corner to tell you which you’re using. There’s no time-lapse mode, nor is there a dedicated portrait mode or even a night mode, which is both frustrating and puzzling.

    On the whole, the camera could be simplified and improved quite a lot.

    • Ease of use: 6
    • Intuitiveness: 6
    • Features: 8
    • Advanced settings: 8
    Score: 7/10

    Daylight



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    Any and every camera should excel at daylight shooting, when the most light is available. It’s therefore amazing how poorly some perform.

    The Xperia 1 is all over the place in daylight situations. All four of these samples have bright and dark regions that aren’t particularly well balanced. What we notice most is the loss of detail in the darker spots, such as the trees in the first image, the sides of the buildings in the second and third images, and the pillars in the fourth. I’m glad the sky isn’t blown out in any of the images.


    These are passable shots, but not fantastic ones.

    Focus is mostly sharp, and colors are mostly accurate, if a bit muted. For example, the yellow and red shades in the second image were brighter in real life.

    There isn’t too much noise, nor are compression artifacts obviously visible. These are passable shots, but not fantastic ones.

    Score: 7.5/10

    Color




    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Obtaining good color relies on a mix of things, including proper exposure and white balance. If one or the other is off, colors suffer. Some phone makers, such as Samsung, make up for this by boosting colors in the end results. Sony does not.

    Here we see the Xperia 1 at its best. The top two images turned out spectacularly well with rich, bright, accurate colors. There is no banding, and the transitions between shades are smooth. These images look exactly like what I remember seeing on the streets of New York City. Color me impressed (pun intended).


    You can see all the color, it’s just not as impressive as the real thing.

    The bottom two images are the Sony Xperia 1 camera at its most average. Both appear muted in terms of the color tones and exposure. The fourth image is particularly frustrating, because the tile mural was well lit and I was standing only a few feet away. You can see all the color, it’s just not as impressive as the real thing.

    It’s the inconsistency here that I don’t care for.

    Score: 6.5/10

    Detail



    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Preserving details relies on focus, resolution, and maintaining control over compression and noise.

    Once again we’re faced with inconsistency from the Sony Xperia 1 camera. In the top two images, the detail is clear enough that you can read the text in the images, there’s no doubt of that. Too bad neither is properly exposed.

    The images with the brushes in the foreground is terrible. Much of the detail in the leaves is lost on close inspection, with the green foliage blending together. It was much easier to tell the individual plants apart in person. The third image also has lots of noise in the sky.

    In the last picture, all the parts of the electric meters stand out and you can even tell where the gauges are pointed on the closer units. Here everything comes together, the exposure is on point, and there’s no noise at all.

    Score: 7/10

    Landscape



    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    When shooting land- or cityscapes, focus and balance are generally what you seek. Three of these images provide those, one does not.

    What I like about image 1 is that the green looks rich, the sky is still blue, you can read the text on the sign, and even the darker areas have some detail. Image 2 shows sharp lines, accurate color, and relatively good detail. Both these images are a bit on the noisy side, with compression artifacts here and there.

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    Image 3 is a disaster. The phone’s HDR tool completely failed here. The sky is overblown and yet nearly all the detail on the statue is lost because it is underexposed. At least the foliage is green.

    The last image turned out fairly well. Despite the strong shadow, there’s lots of texture visible on the right wall compared to the fully sunlit left wall. You can see all the bricks and the sky is blue. There is still far too much noise.

    Score: 7/10

    Portrait



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    Fancy, effects-laden portrait shooting is all the rage these days. Many of today’s flagships include modes specifically for taking artful shots of our friends and family.

    In order to take portrait images such as these, you need to use the Xperia 1’s bokeh shooting tool. It’s not called “Portrait Mode” and there aren’t advanced tools such as studio lighting — another shortcoming of the camera app when compared to Samsung, Huawei, and others.

    See also:
    What is portrait mode and which phones have it?

    There's a good chance you use your smartphone to take pictures and capture video. There's a relatively new feature a lot of smartphones have called portrait mode, and it can up your photography game big …

    The phone did do a decent job of outlining my profile cleanly and blurring out the background. I like that you can select the amount of background blur. In images 1 and 3, however, I look like I was artificially added to the pictures via PhotoShop. The second and fourth images look more natural. Exposure in all these shots is good, and I don’t see too much noise.

    I’m flummoxed that there’s no actual portrait mode, which might make capturing these a touch easier.

    Score: 7/10

    HDR



    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    HDR shots generally blend several exposures to create a balanced whole, with detail visible in both bright and dark regions. The Xperia 1 struggles with HDR across the board.

    Images 1 and 4 are total failures of HDR. In the first, all the detail in the trees behind the fountain is lost due to underexposure. In the fourth, the top half of the image should have been bright with daylight and is instead dark and dreary. What is going on here, Sony?


    It's evident that Sony's HDR algorithms need more tuning.

    The second and third images are more balanced. They are each noisy, but at least the light and dark regions are better preserved. The second shot is particularly challenging because it has natural and artificial light mixed in a dark indoor environment. Some detail is lost on the second level, but this exposure is still fairly accurate. In the third pic, I appreciate that the blue sky is visible in the windows at all and that there’s some shading to the wooden roof far above the staircase.

    In all, however, it’s evident that Sony’s HDR algorithms need more tuning.

    Score: 6/10

    Low light



    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    One of the biggest omissions of the Sony Xperia 1 camera is any sort of night mode. Sure, the AI Cam senses low light situations and takes steps to mitigate the exposure, but there isn’t a dedicated mode for shooting in the near dark. That’s a serious boo-boo considering phones such as the Huawei P30 Pro can practically see in pitch black night.

    All four of these images were taken post-sunset. The first, just after sunset, has a reasonable amount of detail in the trees, but the sky is overblown. The colors are about right. The second image actually turned out pretty well, and was true to the scene. Shame about the noise. The third image may be accurate, but is soft.

    Deep dive:
    What is Night Mode and how does it work?

    Those following the latest smartphone camera trends have probably heard of "Night Mode", "Night Sight", "Bright Night", or other similar terms. These new shooting modes seem to give smartphones night vision, and results have proved …

    Things are a bit different in the third and fourth images. You can see that my face is a bit softer in the third image and the brick wall behind me looks a bit washed out. The last picture is a mess. Though it wasn’t that dark out, the Xperia 1 used the screen flash to light me up. While my face is properly exposed, the background is almost lost completely. Moreover, my face looks incredibly soft.

    On a whole, I’d call these average selfie shots at best.

    Score: 7/10

    Video




    Flagship phones need to be able to capture 4K video, full stop. While we’d prefer to see 60fps, we can deal with 30fps which is where the Xperia 1 camera tops out.

    I captured a variety of video with the Xperia 1 in 4K and Full HD (the latter in 60fps). It may be hard for your eyes to really see the difference between the two, but the 4K footage from Sony impressed. I was pleased with the way the phone captured motion smoothly, despite the fact that I was moving around. Moreover, the phone’s sensors are better able to adapt to changes in lighting when recording video.

    Here, the Xperia 1 matches the competition.

    Score: 8/10

    Conclusion



    As I said in my full Sony Xperia 1 review, I’m stunned at how poorly the Xperia 1’s camera performs. Not only is it not up to snuff when compared to other flagships, such as the Samsung Galaxy S10, Huawei P30 Pro, and Google Pixel 3 XL, it doesn’t even compare to the budget Google Pixel 3a XL. It’s hard to recommend a $949 phone when a $479 phone beats the snot out of it in the core category of photography.

    Bottom line, if you thought Sony’s adoption of the triple-camera setup would lead to a dramatic improvement in imaging quality, I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.

    Score: 6.8/10

    Buy Sony Xperia 1
     
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