(Superb) Camera, Video Sample

The standout feature on the Sony Xperia Z1 is the brand new 20.7-megapixel camera, which combines a 1/2.3” Exmor RS sensor (1.1 µm pixels) with a ‘G Lens’ – Sony’s name for a f/2.0 27mm effective lens unit – and a Bionz image processing engine. The sensor is capable of 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second, as is the 2.0-megapixel front-facing camera.

As far as Android phones are concerned, a 20-megapixel camera on-board is one of the highest resolutions you can find, and the differences in quality between a 13- or 8-megapixel camera is certainly noticeable. Downscaling a full-sized 20-megapixel image to 1080p gives the sharpest and clearest image I’ve seen from an Android smartphone, but what’s more surprising is comparing a 100% crop from the Xperia Z1’s camera to the 8- and 13-megapixel Exmor RS models.

Not only does the 20-megapixel Exmor RS sensor give you an image with greater room to zoom and crop, but 100% crops in ideal conditions deliver better quality than either of the lower-resolution models on Sony’s past smartphones.

Sony’s G Lens has improved the optical quality of the camera unit as well. Where the previous f/2.2 and f/2.4 lenses had jarring, harsh bokeh, the f/2.0 optical system of the Xperia Z1 gives a much nicer background blur. It’s still miles away from a decent DSLR lens, but I’ll take what I can get. F/2.0 also has its advantages in low light and fast action shooting conditions, where a shorter shutter speed can be used to reduce blur, thanks to a larger amount of light passing onto the sensor.

I was reasonably impressed with Sony’s Bionz image processing technology, which in a similar fashion to other Exmor RS handsets, provides decent image quality across a range of shooting conditions. When a scene is well lit by the sun, the Xperia Z1 has no trouble accurately reproducing color and delivering awesome shots with above average dynamic range. While not as vibrant as well-lit images, photos taken in moderate lighting conditions (such as indoors) were more than acceptable, although occasionally Sony’s nasty habit of overprocessing the images reared its head in final results.

Low-light photography, always a talking point with modern smartphone cameras, is improved with this new-generation Exmor RS camera module, but still behind the competition. Pixel size remains the same as the previous models at 1.1 µm, but the larger sensor can take advantage of higher ISOs (6400) and more light enters through the f/2.0 lens. Sony still hasn’t seen the benefits of optical image stabilization, so it hasn’t been included in the Xperia Z1, and pixel size is smaller than leading solutions; the iPhone 5S camera, for example, features 1.5 µm pixels, which naturally delivers better results.

With that said, the Xperia Z1 is more usable than the Xperia Z or Galaxy S4 in low light conditions, especially if you make use of Superior Auto mode. I wouldn’t call this device the most ideal for nighttime photography, but in this iteration it isn’t as much of a flaw as it once was.

What I found the most strange about the Xperia Z1’s camera is the software that drives it. Past Xperia smartphones have featured a fantastic automatic mode called Superior Auto, which almost always chooses the perfect settings to take a photo, and this has mostly transferred to the Z1. Using Superior Auto I saw photos taken using anything from ISO 50 and a 1/1000s shutter to ISO 6400 and a 1/8s shutter, but there’s one major downside: photos taken in this mode are capped at 8 megapixels with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

This means that the best shooting mode available is incapable of taking 20.7-megapixel images, images which make the Xperia Z1’s camera great. Superior Auto mode is always launched whenever you hold down the dedicated camera button or launch the camera from the lockscreen, making full resolution images several taps away. Even more disappointing is the restrictions that are enacted when you switch to taking 20 MP shots: no HDR mode, no low light mode, ISO capped at 800, and no scene selection. Say goodbye to taking 20 MP images at night, because an ISO cap makes this essentially impossible.

You can view several full-resolution photos taken with the Xperia Z here

Aside from the obvious issues with shooting in 20-megapixel mode, the Xperia Z1 comes with a decent set of camera features. The built-in HDR mode is very good, like with previous Exmor RS cameras, and other built in shooting modes such as Timeshift Burst (takes a burst shot before and after the shutter is pressed) and Sweep Panorama are functional and useful. One particular mode I’d like to draw extra attention to is AR Effect, which literally can put 3D animated dinosaurs and volcanoes in your backyard for some truly crazy photos.

The Xperia Z1 is capable of 1080p video capture at 30 frames per second, with a data rate of 17.5 Mbps. This is a little behind some of the other flagship smartphones you can buy, which can do 20 Mbps 1080p/30 and even, in the case of the LG G2, 1080p/60 at 30 Mbps. However the quality is still pretty reasonable, with colors comparable to still images taken in the same scenes (if slightly less vibrant), and a sharpness on-par with other phones I’ve tested.

The lack of optical image stabilization means that the Xperia Z1 relies on a software stabilizer, which when it kicks in at every shake significantly reduces the quality of the frame as it attempts to compensate. Apart from that though, the audio recording quality from the device is quite good, meaning you should be able to record decent video provided you don’t move around a lot.

Simply put, the Xperia Z1’s 20.7-megapixel camera replaces the need for a standalone point-and-shoot, producing stunning images in almost all conditions, and giving enough resolution to zoom without significant loss of quality. While the 20 MP shooting mode can’t be used in all situations due to software restrictions, the Xperia Z1 lays claim to one of the best phone cameras of the year.