Camera: 20 Megapixels And A Dash Of 4K

The Sony Xperia Z3 packs exactly the same camera sensor setup as the Xperia Z2 and Z1. That means you’re getting a 20.7-megapixel Sony Exmor RS 1/2.3” CMOS with 1.12 µm pixels, paired with a 26mm (in 35mm-effective numbers) f/2.0 lens. As this sensor is exclusive to Sony’s Xperia line, there is no official model number allocated to it (at least that I could find).

The front camera is Sony’s IMX132 2.4-megapixel 1/6.95” CMOS with 1.12 µm pixels, that captures either 1080p or 1600 x 1200 shots depending on whether you want to capture in a 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio. The actual sensor itself is neither of these aspect ratios, but provides for both. The sensor is paired with a fairly mediocre f/2.8 32mm (effective) lens.

There’s one main question regarding the Xperia Z3’s camera: is it any different from the Xperia Z2? The best answer I can give to this is “not quite”.

I’ll start with the camera software. Both handsets feature the same camera app with basically the same features. This means that by default, the Xperia Z3 shoots in its Superior Auto mode that takes data from the 20-megapixel sensor and downscales it to an 8-megapixel 16:9 image, all while applying automatic metering settings. Generally this mode does a great job of getting the conditions right, which in turn produces accurate images.

The downside of this automatic camera behaviour is that you don’t get true 20.7-megapixel images. Yes, the 8-megapixel shots do look exactly like downscaled images, so if you don’t plan on zooming or cropping there is little advantage to shooting in Manual mode at 20 MP. But if you want that extra information, perhaps to zoom and crop, or perhaps to gain the extra vertical height from shooting 4:3, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices.

One of the sacrifices is that the Xperia Z3 can’t take HDR photos at 20.7 MP, or 15.5 MP (the highest resolution 16:9 shots you can take), which seems pretty limiting considering the 16 MP Galaxy Note 4 can easily take full-resolution HDR shots. You also get worse low light performance because the Superior Auto mode utilizes a higher maximum ISO than the Manual mode, even if you set ISO to auto.

If you read my Xperia Z2 you review you’ll also notice that these are the exact same complaints as last time. Despite this being the third device to use the 20.7-megapixel sensor, Sony still hasn’t figured out how to overcome these glaring issues. You can either capture 8-megapixel images with every feature enabled, or take limited full resolution images. For a late 2014 flagship, this is nothing but a cop out.

But the complaints about the camera app don’t stop there. For some bizarre Sony has downgraded from a buttery-smooth 60 FPS camera preview to an unimpressive 30 (or lower) FPS. Image capture time seems to be the same as the Z2, but the preview frame rate downgrade makes the Z3 feel less responsive. It’s a similar situation comparing the Z3 to the Galaxy S5: capturing images feels more sluggish on the Z3.

I’m also not a fan of the layout of the camera app, which makes it awkward to access more advanced features, especially in the manual mode. While companies like Samsung and LG have been improving their camera interface and adding in more manual controls, the Z3’s camera app feels somewhat outdated.

One aspect of the camera app that can be praised is all the additional shooting modes you have access to. Everything from the Z2 remains, while Sony has added in some new ones too. Sound Photo captures background noise along with an image; Face In takes a picture-in-picture shot using both cameras; and Live on YouTube allows you to broadcast video from your Z3 directly onto YouTube.

The Z2 captured images that were too soft, and Sony has addressed this with the Z3. Images are noticeably sharper when viewing full resolution crops, and although this introduces slightly more artefacts in certain circumstances, the overall results are better. You would have wanted to apply a minor sharpening filter to the Z2’s images in post, and with the Z3 this is already taken care for you.

Aside from this improvement, photos taken with the Z2 and Z3 are largely the same. Color quality is ever so slightly improved on the Z3, while still maintaining its accuracy. The sensor itself has good dynamic range, and thanks to the f/2.0 lens, you also get decent bokeh when you’re taking macro-style photos. In the best conditions, the Xperia Z3’s camera excels to provide some truly fantastic results.

One of the main strengths to the Xperia Z3’s camera is accuracy, providing images that look lifelike and vibrant without being oversaturated. This means that, at the best of times, the Z3 captures photos that are perfectly exposed and generally beautiful. When this camera is on its game, it’s trading punches with the top crop of smartphones.

Unfortunately the Xperia Z3 isn’t always on its game. If a scene isn’t brightly lit or it isn’t generally good weather outdoors, the Z3 camera can be hit or miss. This means that if it’s cloudy, or you’re indoors, or it’s night time – all conditions which you’ll be expecting to use your smartphone camera – the Z3 might produce something a tad underwhelming considering the decent camera hardware. Sometimes you’ll get a great shot, sometimes you won’t.

Inconsistency has always been an issue with smartphone cameras in these conditions, especially at the time the Xperia Z1 was on the market. But recently companies have been clamping down on their camera quality, producing phones that actually do a decent job when lighting isn’t as ideal. In fact four phones released in the last few months spring to mind as being very capable across the board: the LG G3 (to an extent), Nokia Lumia 930, Apple iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus), and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

So while the Xperia Z2 at launch had one of the best cameras going around, in the six months since its launch it has been overtaken. And by Sony choosing to keep essentially the same camera combination as the year-old Xperia Z1, they’ve basically let this happen. Combined with some metering tweaks, optical image stabilization would do wonders on this handset; as you’ll notice, most of the phones I listed above come with stabilized camera systems.

But does the inconsistency make the Xperia Z3’s camera bad overall? Certainly not. You’ll take a lot of great photos with this phone, and impress others with their superb clarity. Will you have the best smartphone camera on the market? No: that crown now rests on the head of a competitor.

As for video recording, the Xperia Z3 features all the same video modes as the Z2. This includes 4K Ultra HD recording in a dedicated camera mode, capturing High profile H.264 with a bitrate of 55 Mbps. The quality of this video is excellent, as is the accompanying audio, though watch out for large file sizes.

If you don’t want to record at 4K, Sony has you covered for other recording modes. There’s standard 1080p30, 1080p60 for extra smooth motion, and 1080p HDR; note that the last two options are only available in Manual mode. In a separate mode, Timeshift Video, the Xperia Z3 records 720p120 for slow motion video.