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The Sony Xperia XZ1's camera has pleasantly surprised me

After using and reviewing the Sony Xperia XZ Premium earlier this year, and being squarely disappointed by the camera considering its flagship positioning and price, I was expecting much more of the same out of the (relatively) lower-end Xperia XZ1. It after all has the same camera specs as the XZ Premium, so how much could it have improved? Well, as it turns out, a lot has changed — and for the better.

Despite ostensibly having the same camera hardware as the XZ Premium, it only took a few shots with the XZ1 to notice that Sony has made big improvements in processing. Something to actually get excited about with a Sony smartphone camera? Absolutely. Here's why.

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Important photo processing improvements

Sony Xperia XZ1

There's basically one change in the characteristics of the XZ1's camera that makes it so much better than Sony's last handful of attempts, and that's how it detects and processes fine lines and detail in photos. Saying it's "one" change makes it seem like it was easy to fix, but really this is a combination of lots of tweaks to the processing the camera software does, and it's a big change.

Sony has finally stopped murdering fine lines and details.

On the XZ Premium and the last handful of Sony phones, the camera's "Superior Auto" mode went way overboard in its sharpening and processing of photos, doing what it thought was great work but in reality just completely murdering every last bit of detail in each shot. Otherwise-sharp lines were muddy and soft, and any sort of texture you'd normally find in a scene was crushed to a blotchy mess. I'm not entirely sure why Sony thought this was a good thing, but it was most certainly a bad thing.

Sony has walked back that stance dramatically on the XZ1, and to great effect. Lines are actually sharp where they should be, fine detail is much more preserved even when zooming in, and scenes look natural instead of bordering on watercolor interpretations. I actually had the confidence to open the XZ1's camera, take a shot and not second guess whether it was acceptable or switch over to Manual for another shot "just in case" — that alone is a big improvement.

To add to it, Superior Auto seems far more willing to use HDR (there's no explicit HDR toggle unless you are in Manual mode) in scenes that would benefit from it. And in poorly lit scenes where there's a mixture of lighting, the XZ1 again properly refrains from over-processing those dark areas — you still get grain on account of the lack of OIS, but it's just natural low-light grain and not post-processed chroma noise.

On the right path, with more work to do

Sony Xperia XZ1

The Xperia XZ1, despite not being the top-of-the-line phone for Sony, still has a $699 price tag and we should rightfully expect a great camera considering the kind of photos you can get out of several other phones for the same money. And I'm unfortunately still going to say that the camera on the XZ1 isn't completely up to speed with the rest of the industry. Between the serious speed and consistency improvements with the XZ Premium and the subsequent processing leap in the XZ1, Sony has reduced the number of dire feelings I have for the state of the company's smartphone cameras. But there's still plenty of room to improve.

There's still plenty of room for Sony to improve — but there are positive signs here.

Much like the XZ Premium, the XZ1 still has issues with metering and overall dynamic range, even though increased use of HDR helps mitigate that. Sony's cameras are still crying out for OIS to improve low light performance and reduce reliance on high ISOs and slow shutter speeds that introduce noise and blur. They also still exhibit some weird post-processed depth-of-field quirks that are rough on the eyes.

At the same time, the camera app, while now very fast, is still poor in terms of usability. The use of disparate modes to accomplish things is unnecessary and complicated — look no further than Samsung to see how a camera app should be made. Copy it wholesale if you want; I'd be happy with that.

Using the XZ1 has shown me that Sony is improving its smartphone cameras, and not just making seemingly superfluous changes without any plan or progress. Now it just has to give up on some of its long-held feelings about how its cameras should be set up, and we could see something that actually goes head to head with the best.

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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

42 Comments
  • Good to hear that at least they've started working on the post-processing mess their software does.
    But in typical Sony fashion, they take one step per-phone. Which means they'll probably finish fixing their cameras by 2020...assuming their mobile division survives that long. Unless of course they get a CEO that finally admits point-and-shoot cameras are dead and stops thwarting their mobile cameras to try and get people to buy their little cameras instead. No one is doing that and in the meantime all that Xperias are left with are sub-par cameras which pretty much baffle any user of Sony's DSLR offerings. Now, Andrew, may I use you as a guinea-pig? Can you go to XDA and sideload the Pixel camera apk unto the XZ1?
    'cause I'm very curious to see what a completely different camera software, designed for another phone without OIS as well, does with the XZ1. The Pixel camera port works wonders on the likes of the Nokia 5 so I'm curious to see it on a proper flagship from Sony.
  • i just pre ordered mine and it will come to me 9.10.17
    Sony Xperia XZ1 black + free Sony WH-H900N headphones black
  • Tbh I have the xz premium and I have found the camera amazing on it. I had a g5 before and it beats that camera and close to the quality if the lumia 950xl imo from what I have taken.
  • Is this one of the phones with the amazing slow-motion?
  • Yup. XZ Premium, XZ1 and XZ1 Compact all have 960fps@720p
  • Why aren't we talking about this more?? This is incredible. Everybody is like "wow 240fps at 1080p, largest advancement ever". 960fps@720p requires way more bandwidth, and it's so impressive.
  • We talked about it a lot when it debuted on the XZ Premium. In reality, 960 fps introduces a ton of issues that don't make it practical unless you're a diehard video person (MrMobile had a field day with it). It's limited to 720p, puts a huge crop on the sensor (with no OIS, that's rough) and requires a lot of light to look good. Most people would prefer Sony just give you options to easily step between 120, 240 and 480 ... but it doesn't even offer them.
  • Yeah, but it should be at least at 1080p to really excel compared to other slo-mo captures. If they could do it in 4K, then it would be game over.
  • i just pre ordered mine and it will come to me 9.10.17
    Sony Xperia XZ1 black + free Sony WH-H900N headphones black :P
    costs 698,40 € in total
  • I loved my Z5 compact but the camera was awful on Superior Auto mode and it was honestly a hassle to deal with manual mode. That and overheating were the only reasons I switched to another manufacturer, which is a shame because I love Sony software experience.
  • Overheating cause of Qualcomm, ****** sd810 processor....
  • Yeah, you got burned by the Snapdragon 810, not Sony. The only reason I didn't buy the Z5 Compact.
  • If only these phones were available on Sprint I may have tried a Sony phone at some point. I'm jealous of the slow motion technology though. Is there any reason why say a V30 or Samsung phone can't achieve this?
    Possible with software upgrades? Thanks for any insight
  • These phone has camera modules with stacked memory in them. To be able to quickly store the frames.
  • So, since the hardware is identical to the XZ Premium, does this mean that a software update should bring it up to par?
  • Yes. They've said when the Oreo update comes to the XZ Premium the camera improvements from the XZ1 will also happen.
  • Well whatever improvement arrive, I hope they fix the camera distortion problem. https://talk.sonymobile.com/t5/Xperia-XZ-Premium/XZP-camera-has-serious-... Was just on vacation and most the pictures I took with my Xperia-XZ-Premium looked like they were taken with a toy camera. So disappointed with the camera on this phone.
    Customer support is non existent from Sony.
  • Presumably, yes. And I hope that's the case — people with the XZ Premium deserve better than they have right now.
  • I really want a smaller phone, less than 5 inches... I can only think of Sony's compact phone. Which is ridiculous because not everyone wants a giant phone in their pocket
  • Yeah that or iPhone SE. If you're willing to try an international phone with the correct bands, also the Galaxy A3 2017. I have both and I am considering the XZ1 Compact possibly, which would be nice if it can replace borh of those phones LOL.
  • XZ1C battery life is a beast, with the 835 SD, the phone is super fast and snappy.
  • There's the Sony X and XZ1 Compact, and iPhone SE. Everything else is not even worth looking at.
  • This gives me hope...
  • It gives me hope too. I did in fact buy an SE because of doubts about the cameras on the various Sony Compacts, but the XZ1 Compact may now, in that respect at least, be worth considering.
  • That was a smart decision. I wasted time and money (initially but not in the end thanks to great return policies) trying the X Compact, along with the Z5 Compact to compare to the SE and both fell short. I believe that the XZ1 Compact can actually match the SE, if not do better than it in some areas.
  • My Z3 was the best phone I've owned. I love the Sony experience, I just can't handle these bezels on the newer phones. Bezels are actually bigger now than in 2014. Get with the times and I'll jump back on, Sony. Oh, and please adopt two cameras on the rear.
  • Sony makes some of the leading mirrorless cameras. Why they can't take a sliver of that tech and contribute it to smartphones is beyond me. At least OIS. I mean come on.
  • Quite honestly, I think the camera would benefit a lot from one big feature that's a thing on Sony mirrorless cameras. It's called Hand-held Twilight mode, which is basically image stacking but it works wonders. There's not a heap of noise and fine detail is retained for the most part. If Sony is reluctant to add hardware stabilization, HHT might actually be workable.
  • There's hand held Twilight scene in manual mode
  • It should probably be tuned to be enabled more often in Superior Auto mode when there’s not enough light and have an algorithm that decides how many shots can be stacked to avoid large amounts of blur, handshake and motion. I think Sony phone cameras would benefit much more from better software. That’s been more of their Achilles’ Heel as of late as Sony sensors are very well known in the photography community for their excellent dynamic range and high ISO performance.
  • guess its not a surprise enough to have its own forum section though huh? ;/
  • who uses the forum anyway
  • How is the speed of focus and capture? (I.e when you press the shutter button how long does it take to capture and save the photo). Is it as fast as the Galaxy S7 / pixel?
  • It's laughable that Sony makes most of the sensors in the best smartphone cameras and likely keep some of the best sensors for themselves, yet they hold themselves back in terms of software. If Sony puts some solid time and money into a new design language with true water resistance, keep their physical camera shutter, keep the front facing speakers, bring the fingerprint sensor to the US, and figure out their software. Do a total overhaul if you need to. There's really no excuse for Sony of all companies to have rubbish smartphone cameras.
  • Apparently I'm not allowed to edit this comment, which is nice. I was just saying, if Sony does all this, I think they still have enough fans and a good enough brand to make a tiny dent. Which is better than most other companies can hope for.
  • True water resistance?
  • When Sony started the Z series their Smartphone cameras were some of the best outside of Nokia. I'm pretty sure what you suggest didn't work out for them. Despite the criticism of the article over the camera, the XZ1 is an excellent phone. Sure the camera isn't the best, but it's right up there close. Considering Sony is providing such a powerful device for a such a small user base, they have to make cuts somewhere to keep costs down.
  • No Sony camera as well as cell-phone camera review is complete without thoroughly testing it for thermal stability and overheating. Particularly 4K / higher frame rates.
  • Don't care about the camera(s) in general. Tired of curved screens...any curves at all....tired of glass backs....too fragile.....gorilla glass 5 is complete trash....Gorilla Glass 3 was the best of both worlds...scratch resistant and resisted breaking...tired of teeny-tiny non removable batteries....built in obsolescence.
    Getting the S8 Active on T-Mobile as soon as it is released. Flat screen (yes Gorilla Glass 5 UNDER a plastic type top screen (I will still add a 9H tempered glass screen protector) one of the largest batteries available (still unremovable but what can a person do?) great camera (for those who care) and it doesn't "need" a case to cover the useless GLASS backs that are all the rage on nearly every other flagship phone! No brainer for me!
  • Just so you know, lack of battery capacity isn't planned obsolescence. I for one like that my phone weighs practically nothing. If I need a top off, I can stick it on the charger for 15 minutes and get through the day. Battery replacement is a bit tricky, but not that expensive and very doable.
  • Sony should have the best Cameras, it is disappointing that it is no longer expected and a pleasant surprise.
  • Agreed. Being that many manufacturers use Sony's sensors you would think they leave the class leading ones to themselves.