Sony Xperia Z camera: User interface walkthrough
With a 13-megapixel Exmor RS sensor in tow, the Sony Xperia Z is the camera phone to watch, but before we pick apart the pictures, how does the UI fare?
Without a final version of the Sony Xperia Z, we’re not in a position to talk about image quality from its brand spanking new 13-megapixel Sony Exmor RS sensor. Why? Because, image processing can be one of the last things to change in a camera phone’s firmware - and it can make or break the results.
No. Image quality will have to wait. But seeing as we've covered the Xperia Z's main UI, it makes sense we walk you through is the brand spanking new camera UI Sony has donned its latest flagship with - and boy is it a belter.
Android Camera UIs - A brief history
Before diving in at the deep end, it makes sense to summarise what the Android camera UI landscape looks like in January 2013. Android delivers its own camera user interface. Prior to the latest version, Android 4.2, the stock interface was basic at best. It supported touch to focus ever since Android 4.0, but the general consensus was that manufacturer customisations were preferable to the stock camera UI - that is until Android 4.2 hit the scene.
You can check out our full impressions of Android 4.2 in our Google Nexus 4 camera UI walkthrough here. In a nutshell though - we were impressed. While not as comprehensive as other Camera UIs, with its long press integration coupled with the Nexus 4’s form factor, the stock camera UI instantly became the first and only Android interface to make one handed photography a comfortable reality.
Custom Android camera UIs
Moving onto other brands and the main players are Samsung, HTC and Sony. Samsung’s camera UI draws strength from being highly customisable and comprehensive. Its main weakness is that it is arguably over-complicated, with countless options and multiple ways of doing the same thing.
HTC’s camera user interface is also extremely comprehensive, though is more digestible than that of Samsung. Without the customisable element, it might not be the tweaker’s choice, but once you get your head around the interface, settings can be set quickly and easily. A real highlight of the camera functionality is that photos and videos can all be captured from the same menu removing the need for a separate video mode.
Finally, Sony. In the past, Sony’s camera UI has performed well in certain areas. Focus for example has been exemplary. Giving you the option to change your focus modes and lock-on to your target object using either touch to focus, centre weighted focus or multi-auto focus points, Xperias of old generally gave the most camera-esque interface of the bunch. The fact this was historically coupled with a two-stage physical camera key was a fantastic point of differentiation.
Sony Xperia Z camera: Specs
What has the Sony Xperia Z’s camera UI got to work with? Solid specs, that’s what. The pixel count is 13, but that’s only part of the story. The Xperia Z’s new Exmor RS sensor is put together differently to Sony sensors preceding it. While it’s still back-side illuminated (BSI), the ‘RS’ denotes that the Z’s is a stacked sensor.
Stacked sensors make better use of space, enabling Sony, should it choose, to include a larger sensor component across a smaller camera module. Another feature all Exmore RS sensors have in common is their ability to shoot high dynamic range (HDR) HD video.
If you’re au fait with aperture, you’ll be glad to know that the Xperia Z packs an f/2.4 lens. Admittedly, this isn’t the most open we’ve seen, though don’t hang your head in dismay just yet. With apertures on camera phones being none variable, f/2 to f/2.2 apertureszxv can result in overexposed shots and lacklustre performance. More modest apertures such as those found in the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Apple iPhone 5 have proven more versatile, making f/2.4 a sound, all-purpose offering.
The Sony Xperia Z doesn’t have a physical camera button. This upset us. We thought to ourselves - Sony will really have to do a sterling job with the camera UI to make up for this. Before the camera UI was good, but now it will have to be incredibly catered to touch input on a sizeable 5-inch screened device to compensate. For the most part, it is.
Sony Xperia Z camera user interface
Activate the Sony Xperia Z camera to bring up the main interface. Predictably, on the right hand side of the display is the shutter release button, below which is a record button, so you can get shooting video without the faff of changing modes.
Below sits a camera switcher to activate the front facing camera while above is a gallery shortcut, taking you to your pictures. Moving onto the left side of the UI and options include settings, flash toggle, HDR toggle and exposure control. In the top left is also an icon indicating the shooting mode you’re currently in.
The default shooting mode is Superior Auto mode. This is different to regular auto mode. If you’re wondering why, we’ll tell you - but hold up for one second. First it makes sense we list out all the modes available.
Presented on a horizontal scrolling list along the top of the display, the first shooting mode, as mentioned is Superior Auto mode, with the second being standard auto, called Normal. Next up it’s Burst mode, Picture Effects, Scene mode, then Sony’s trademark Sweep Panorama. The final stills option flips things round to front facing camera, after which you’ll find your Video mode - complete with all that full HD HDR realness you’ve heard so much about.
Now onto what each mode does and first up, it’s Superior Auto. We mentioned this was different to standard auto, here’s why: it intelligently selects the appropriate scene mode for your shot.
Standard auto will determine shutter speed, white balance, metering and post processing against elements such as overall contrast and amount of light in a scene. Superior Auto goes one step further.
If for example you’re photographing text, it will automatically up the contrast and drop the saturation putting you in text shooting mode - one of the scenes in scene mode. If you’re taking a picture of a backlit subject, it will throw you right into HDR mode, so they appear as detailed as they need to be while still being complemented by a backdrop that’s fit for fine holiday landscape snap. It will keep you posted as to what scene mode it’s opted for by displaying a small icon in the top left of the screen.
Normal mode, as we’ve described figures out how to tweak your shooting based on what’s on the viewfinder in a very traditional way. For anyone who doesn’t know, mobile cameras take well exposed images by manipulating shutter speed and ISO. Once the picture is taken, post processing tries to fix up anything the first two didn’t sort out and correct for any sensor/lens quirks.
Normal mode will try and use these to make the most balanced overall shot. One advantage to normal mode is that it give you the flexibility to set things like ISO, focus system and exposure.
The Xperia Z pulls off the fastest Burst mode seen on any smartphone to date. At 9-megapixels, you can shoot at an astounding 10 frames per second (FPS). What makes it even more exceptional is the lack of limitation.
While other phones cap out at 20 photos or thereabouts, the Xperia Z will keep bursting until your memory runs out, and given the onboard microSD card slot, that could take you through roughly 68267 images to burst through the potential 80GB of storage. Impressed? You should be. That's almost two hours of 10FPS snapping.
Picture Effects is a great way of getting your a live view of what your pictures would look like with a filter on them. When you select the shooting mode you’re presented with nine effects in total displayed in a grid format.
Each cell shows a mini preview as illustrated in the image above. The picture effects include Nostalgic, Miniature, Vivid, Filter, Fisheye, Sketch, Partial colour, Harris shutter and Kaleidoscope. Selecting an effect makes the preview full screen, with pictures taken shot at the Z's native resolution, 1920x1080 pixels.
Scene mode is the way to go if you’re looking to override the scene selection of Superior Auto, but don’t want to make the kinds of manual adjustments found in Normal mode. The scenes include Soft Skin, Soft Snap, Anti Motion Blur, Landscape, Backlight Correction HDR, Night Portrait, Night Scene, Hand-held twilight, High Sensitivity, Gourmet, Macro and Text to name a few.
Chances are, there’s a scene for every situation, and given the fact the Xperia Z packs some gorgeous creative shooting modes on board such as light trails, you'll likely want to spend a fair bit of time tinkering.
Pioneered by Sony and emulated by everyone, Sweep Panorama made its debut on Sony DSCs (digital stills cameras). It enables you to pan horizontally and capture an incredibly wide angled shot, doing so by stitching multiple photos together. The results can be enjoyed on the phone, exported or printed, with most photography shops offering panorama printing across sizes.
Finally, Video. The big shout out loud feature about video on the Sony Xperia Z is obviously the HDR mode, ubiquitous in stills, never seen prior on a mobile in video. It’s simple to toggle with the HDR button taking pride of place on the left side of the display. This isn’t the only thing you can tweak in video though. A tap of the settings and a whole host of modifications are at your fingertips.
Sony Xperia Z camera: First impressions
So what do we think? Having been around the block in terms of camera UIs, Sony is still a definite contender. Undeniably, the horizontal bar at the top seems like a long winded way to change your shooting mode, involving panning across the length of the large 5-inch display. In addition, the lack of physical camera button may irk many hardcore Sony fans.
In the same breath, it’s blindingly obvious that Sony has innovated for the better too. For starters, just look at the screenshots, it all looks incredibly rich and clean. Sony has two standout modes - Superior Auto and Picture Effects, and the main shooting display has taken a leaf out of HTC’s book and integrated the record video button below the shutter release button.
If the sensor performs as well as we hope, there’s every likelihood the Xperia Z will be amongst the best camera phone out on launch. As to whether it will or won't, Keep an eye on Know Your Mobile for the full review coming soon where we'll go to town on this 13-megapixel monster. In the meantime, enjoy our Sony Xperia Z hands-on video from CES 2013.