Smartphone cameras are serious business. We just need to take one look at the major specification every recent smartphone manufacturer has harped on about to see that. Nokia with the Lumia 925 and 1020. HTC with its Ultrapixel camera on the all-metal HTC One. Sony, stuffing its Exmor R photo chips inside the flagship Xperia devices – including the Z, Z Ultra, and most recently the Z1. And then there’s Apple, which has also been flexing its imaging muscle by slow iterating the 8Mp camera in its iPhones.
With the iPhone 5S that 8Mp sensor is now a third-generation part. It’s impressed us with clarity, excellent results in low light, and great white balance. Meanwhile, Sony’s put the best it’s got into the flagship Xperia Z1. The 20Mp sensor in that device using multisampling when used in auto mode, so all 20-million pixels get used to record an 8Mp image – the result is better sensitivity in low light, and that’s more important than having a 20Mp photo. Used in manual mode, the Z1’s camera produces 20Mp stills
To compare the two – while we wait for the Nokia Lumia 1020 to arrive – we took some snaps with both the iPhone 5S and Xperia Z1. While the iPhone does not offer manual adjustment in its camera, the Z1 camera app allows for all manner of adjustments: ISO, exposure, white balance, to name a few. All photos below were taken in auto mode for the Z1 – the one most users will end up using. The manual features will definitely yield better photos, in our experience, but those aren’t ideal when you just want to fire off a quick shot.
With both cameras in auto, the iPhone’s results always boasted richer colours. Not over-saturated, but just that bit nicer than the results from the Z1 in auto mode. The Z1 pulls ahead with overall clarity and low-light performance. Its image sensor is physically larger than that in the iPhone 5S – and the multisampling trick also helps it here. Results in low light have noticeably less noise. Meanwhile, Apple went for overall detail and colour reproduction. The two photos of the green bottle, here, show that the iPhone again favours richer colours, and the edges of text have less softening (due to image processing). Photos from the Z1 have more muted colours, but less grain from noise.
The larger sensor in the Z1, even for its auto-mode 8Mp snaps, also gives it an edge in well-lit photos. The detail around leaves in the outdoor shots show this clearly. The iPhone isn’t bad, but the sensor in the Z1 gives it a detail and sharpness advantage here. Bizarrely, the Xperia Z1 can’t focus as closely as the iPhone – the photo of the car’s badge shows that the iPhone could lock on the S, while the Z1 could only lock focus on the second zero. If you love taking photos up close this can be a tad frustrating. To be fair, in manual mode the Z1 has the advantage of resolution. Take a full-sized photo from further away and crop it.
In general, the iPhone also tends to expose better. This is evident in the coin photos, where the Z1 underexposes, while the 5S gets it spot on. Flash photos really show what a great job Apple has done with the dual-tone flash. Skin tones are more accurate than a regular white LED can compensate for, and there’s far more detail in the iPhone’s flash photos.
If anything, these sample snaps show that the auto mode on the Z1 is a bit hit and miss. Apple’s gone for ease of use, where the results are always very good – but it lacks the adjustability of the camera on the Z1. Even with apps like Camera+ it is impossible to perform manual adjustments – and that could be where Apple makes the next big leap for the iPhone platform. Meanwhile, Sony has the best camera on any Android phone, and that’s well worth consideration if pure speed and screen size aren’t your bag.