Camera: Exmor RS Beckons

Like with other Sony smartphones it's not surprising to see the inclusion of an Exmor RS sensor in the Xperia Z Ultra's camera module. Unlike the Xperia Z and Samsung's Galaxy S4 - both of which use 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensors - the Z Ultra features the lower-end IMX134 8 MP sensor. The pixel size (1.12μm) remains the same between the two sensors, and although both can do 1080p video at 30 frames per second, the 8MP unit lacks 1080p HDR/60fps video.

Sony has included what I believe to be the IU134F9-Z lens, which is a slim 4.2mm module featuring an f/2.4 aperture and 28mm effective focal length. Interestingly there is no LED flash on the Xperia Z Ultra, so it's all up to the sensor when it comes to low-light photography. The front of the device also sees a 2-megapixel camera capable of 1080p video recording.

I was pleased to once again see a Sony smartphone camera with a plethora of settings, shooting modes and features. Most of the time I shot in Superior Auto mode, which automatically selects the best shooting mode based on the conditions it detects (and it does a really good job of it), although there's also a standard shooting mode. In the Normal mode you have full control over white balance, exposure, ISO, focus mode, metering and more, which allows you to fine tune your photography where Superior Auto doesn't get it quite right.

The Z Ultra also features HDR photography, burst shot mode, picture effects, and a panorama mode. Like with most high-end Android phones, the camera preview is a blazing fast 60 frames per second, and the shutter takes a photo instantly. Unfortunately the phone isn't very useful for underwater photography as there's no physical shutter button, but the Xperia Z1 should address this when it's released later this year.

When looking at samples taken directly from the Z Ultra's Exmor RS camera, I was a little disappointed when comparing them to shots taken on the 13 MP Galaxy S4 or Xperia Z. By default the unit shoots 5 MP photos at 16:9 (although you can change this to 7 MP 4:3 shots). It isn't just in the resolution, photos not only appear less crisp, but also grainier in nearly all situations.

In scenes with strong light, the Z Ultra can produce some nice photos, although it's always one step behind the other Exmor RS cameras in one way or another.

Results are reasonably sharp when looking at a 100% crop, but the level of detail is a little bit lacking for a high-end phone. The bokeh produced from the f/2.4 lens is also extremely weak and occasionally jarring, especially in moderate lighting conditions where out-of-focus areas appear very overprocessed.

One aspect of the Z Ultra's camera that I was very impressed with was the color accuracy, which is near-perfect in essentially all conditions. The Superior Auto mode absolutely nails white balance and exposure across the board, and although color vibrancy isn't as strong as I've seen on other devices, I never saw extreme washing out or color tinting. Photos taken indoors are a little lackluster compared to those taken outside, but nevertheless they aren't nearly as terrible as those I've seen on devices like the HTC One.

Low-light shots are naturally where the camera struggles the most, as the small pixels and aperture, lack of optical image stabilization and no flash all work against the Z Ultra. In some of the shots I took at night, it was possible to make out the details of the subject I was shooting, but rarely was the subject crisp. In extremely dark areas - where the HTC One and Nokia Lumia 925 would succeed - there was basically no point using the Ultra's camera, as you can't see anything but grain. A flash might have helped in these situations, but like the choice to go with an 8 MP camera, I assume this was removed for space reasons.

For everyday shooting, you should be happy with the Xperia Z Ultra's 8-megapixel camera, but it's not an amazing unit like the Lumia 925 or Galaxy S4. If you're looking for a large-screened phone that doesn't skimp on the camera, perhaps the Galaxy Note range will be more appealing to your needs.