It's been just a year since Sony introduced its 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor in the Xperia Z1, but the company's strategy of constant, half-yearly updates has seen this camera grace three flagship phones already. In the past we've praised Sony's high-resolution shooter for its general versatility and oversampling capabilities, not to mention the vast array of features the ever-expanding camera app.
And all of that is true of the Z3 and Z3 Compact's rear camera, a similar 20.7-megapixel setup behind a slightly wider-angle lens, with an expanded ISO range — up to 12800. That's backed up by a relatively run-of-the-mill 2.2-megapixel front-facer, which performs adequately — though selfies quickly become blotchy if you're shooting in the dark.
Despite these token changes to the rear camera, the experience on offer is barely any different to that of the Xperia Z2, or even the year-old Xperia Z1. And while it's still a perfectly decent smartphone camera, Sony risks moving backwards relative to its competitors by standing still in such an important area.
By standing still in such an important area, Sony moves backwards relative to everyone else.
Nevertheless, there's plenty to like here: fast capture speeds, good-looking shots in a wide range of lighting conditions, even in relatively low light. Superior Auto does a great job of locking down settings and scene modes for a wide variety of situations. By default, the camera shoots images at 8 megapixels, leaving you with some room to zoom in and capture more detail before reaching the limit of the sensor. You can also capture images at the full 20 megapixels (or 16 in 16:9 orientation), though you'll do so without the help of any scene modes, or Superior Auto's scene-detection trickery.
And for advanced users, there's no end of tweaking options to be found in the comprehensive Manual shooting mode. There are 18 shooting modes available, along with the usual white balance and EV (exposure value) tweaks, a host of different flash options and additional features like HDR, various focus modes, ISO and metering tweaks and much more. It's the antithesis of the iPhone's "just shoot" camera app — but for more advanced users that might not be a bad thing.
Beyond the basics, the Z3's camera offers a range of plug-in camera apps for different situations, including panorama, burst captures and a range of neat AR (augmented reality) modes that can add characters and interactive objects to your viewfinder.
Both Z3 models also support video recording at up to 4K resolution through the specialized 4K recording mode, or 1080p in regular video mode. When shooting at 4K you'll sacrifice the stabilization and customization options available at lower resolutions, and the camera app also warns that recording may discontinue due to heat buildup — not exactly the most encouraging message dialog we've ever seen.
On the whole, though, the Z3's camera captures good-looking video footage at both 1080p and 4K, with no real complaints in terms of bit rate, color quality or dynamic range. The lack of optical stabilization means the Z3's video camera is more susceptible to hand motion than competitors like the LG G3, but there's a software stabilization option to compensate for this. In addition, there's an HDR video mode that's up there with the best from Samsung and others, though certain scenes do take on a slightly trippy quality with HDR video enabled.
Like its predecessor — and its predecessor's predecessor — the Z3 camera's main weakness seems to stem from its relatively small pixel size. Image quality can degrade rapidly in twilight conditions, leading to blurred shots, or images where there's just not much fine detail to be seen, even at full resolution. What's more, in the past year we've seen plenty of devices that are better in these conditions.
Ultimately what you're getting is still a pretty good smartphone camera, but there's no hiding the fact that Sony's 20-megapixel shooter is starting to show its age. It maybe one of the better ones for now, but the competition's become fiercer than ever over the past year.