Camera: A Glorious 20 Megapixels

Sony didn’t skimp on the processor inside the Xperia Z1 Compact, and they didn’t skimp on the camera either. The same 20.7-megapixel 1/2.3” Sony Exmor RS CMOS sensor from the Xperia Z1 is seen in the Z1 Compact, paired with a 27mm-equivalent f/2.0 “G Lens” and an LED flash. On the front we’re seeing a 2-megapixel sensor, and both cameras are capable of 1080p video. One notable omission from the camera module is optical image stabilization (OIS), which would greatly help the small 1.1µm pixels in low-light conditions.

This very camera module in the Xperia Z1 established itself as being the best available in an Android smartphone, and nothing much has changed since. With the Bionz image processor at hand, the Z1 Compact is capable of some fantastic shots, both in clarity and in color accuracy.

I was never disappointed with a photo taken in good lighting conditions, with the Z1 Compact capturing accurate, detailed images that I’ve come to love from Sony’s imaging solutions. Automatic white balance almost always measures conditions perfectly, and colors reproduced are both vibrant and balanced. Sony’s G Lens is sharp and its f/2.0 aperture can give some great results when shooting macro, even if the bokeh is well off what you’d get with a dedicated camera.

The sharpness of each image is assisted by the sensor size and megapixel count. With 20.7 megapixels of real estate producing 5248 x 3936 images with a 4:3 aspect ratio, there’s room to crop or downscale as you see fit. Looking at a 100% crop reveals the sensor actually captures quite a lot of detail, with edges appearing sharp and without significant post processing artefacts. Downscaling these images looks even better, producing some of the best smartphone photos I’ve seen.

The Z1 Compact also does a decent job of capturing photos indoors and in conditions where lighting isn’t as good. The camera’s software does a fantastic job of choosing optimal settings in dodgy conditions, and the end result are surprisingly sharp images (especially if the software image stabilizer is enabled) with, again, accurate color reproduction and white balance.

Low light photos aren’t the Z1 Compact’s strong suit, but the smartphone still performs extremely well considering the hardware it's using. Shots taken at night time aren't quite as good as those from Nokia Lumia devices or the HTC One, but they are surprisingly good for a camera without OIS, and well ahead of handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S4.

While photos from the Xperia Z1 Compact are generally superb, the camera app problems of the Xperia Z1 are still present. Superior Auto does a better job of judging automatic camera settings than the Manual mode will by default, but it’s limited to shooting at 8-megapixels in a 16:9 aspect ratio. I wouldn’t say the differences in image accuracy are huge, but it would be nice to have the option to capture 20-megapixel shots in Superior Auto mode.

More of a concern is what you can’t do in general while shooting in 20-megapixel mode. The maximum ISO is capped at 800 (while you can go up to 6400 in 8-megapixel mode), which by itself is relatively noise-free for a smartphone sensor, but completely inadequate in low-light conditions. Good luck getting a 20-megapixel image that isn’t pitch black at night, even though Superior Auto can produce the goods.

There’s also no 20-megapixel burst mode, and no HDR mode. HDR images from Exmor RS sensors are generally fantastic, and those taken at 8-megapixels on the Z1 Compact are no exception, however I wish these photos were possible at full resolution.

The Z1 Compact is one of the few Android devices with a dedicated two-stage camera button, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The button is actually quite hard to push in all the way, meaning blur can sometimes be introduced into your images if you opt to capture through the hardware button rather than the on-screen button. It’s more comfortable to hold the smartphone and shoot using the hardware button, but I quickly begun opting for the software button to reduce my chances of blurring my shots.

On the other hand, the hardware button actually allows you to use the smartphone as an underwater camera, as it’s impossible to use the touchscreen when it’s in contact with liquids. Do note though that the Z1 Compact is not rated for usage in salt water and might stop working if salt finds its way inside, so keep your underwater photography to pools rather than the oceans.

The Xperia Z1 Compact captures 1080p H.264 video at 30 frames per second with an overall bitrate of 17.5 Mbps, which is decent enough for mobile video capture. Quality is just as good as you’d expect from the sensor, with frames looking sharp and colors being well balanced. The lack of OIS can affect stabilization when walking and panning, although the software stabilizer seems to do an okay job. Automatic exposure and focus works quickly and accurately, while stero audio quality is acceptable.