In this article / review I’m going to talk about smartphone photography. With smartphones rapidly getting more advanced it’s the question of when smartphone cameras and sensors will catch up with modern professional cameras. There are people who use their smartphones for almost all of their ‘photography’. These people usually display their images on social media where resolution isn’t really an issue. However, smartphone sensors are getting bigger too. The new Sony Z5 Xperia smartphone has a 23 Megapixel sensor! That’s HUGE for a smartphone. Of course, the size of the sensor is not the only thing that matters. When we talk about quality photos, things like dynamic range, ISO performance, manual camera settings and lenses are obviously things that matter as well. These days smartphones are taking it a step further by trying to close the gap more and more. Some smartphones already offer full manual control and RAW format for example. In this article I am going to talk about the Sony Xperia Z5 regarding from a photographer's perspective. Its 23 Megapixel sensor size is impressive, but does it also take amazing photos? This ‘review is about the experience of using the Z5. I will NOT compare it to other (Android) phones because I simply do not have any experience with them. Also, I am not a ‘fanboy’ of any brand. I use a Macbook Pro, but also have a PC at home. I used an Iphone, but now using the Z5. I simply use what I like best at the very moment.
From iPhone to Android
Ok, I have to admit that ever since I started to use smartphones I have been using iPhones. I started with the iPhone 4 (was kind of a late adopter) and didn’t leave Apple ever since. However, lately I wasn’t that satisfied with Apple anymore. This was mainly because of the small things. Overpriced charger cables that kept breaking down for example (I’m sure this happened to you Apple users a lot). But not only that. Apple keeps updating their operating system, and my Apple devices always got slower and slower. Even devices, like my iPhone 5 (yes, it’s a bit old, but not THAT old) is so slow that it’s a pain to use with the new operating system. Add to that that I am forced to update IOS to run certain apps, and you’ve got a slightly annoyed user. These and other things made me look at other devices. I realised that after being an Apple user since forever it might not be the easiest job to make the switch to Android. But I felt I still had to give it a try.
I have been a big fan of the small Sony e-mount camera since Sony first released them. Regarding photography, I felt like I found ‘my’ brand to stick with since the release of the first Sony A7. As I was always using Sony and their cameras (currently a Sony A7RII user) it was only natural to take a look at the Sony smartphones. Everything was made even easier when Sony offered me a Z5 to try and see if I liked it compared to my iPhone. I never really took a lot of photos with my iPhone, mainly because of the bad resolution and I always see ‘smartphone photography’ as a kind of photography that is just for ‘candid’ shooting, next to my serious photography that I do with the modern Sony bodies.
The Xperia Z5 interested me though. Mainly because of its large sensor. Could I make some great photos with this phone? Who knew. And could this phone replace my iPhone in other ways? When first having a go with the phone I quickly felt familiar because of the customisation options. This will not be new for Android users, but it was kind of new for me. Being able to customise everything is great. That’s a typical Sony feature, that some people love to hate because it can be ‘too complicated’. I love it though, and I quickly customised my phone in a lay out that was similar to my iPhone so that I could make the switch easier. I installed all apps that I had on my iPhone on the Z5. There was only 1 app that was ‘IOS only’, but this app will be available for Android later this year, so no problems there! The switching took me a few weeks to be fully comfortable of removing my sim card from my iPhone and put it to in my Z5. Now, after just getting back from a small international trip where I fully relied on my Z5 I can safely say I am fully converted from iPhone to Sony Xperia.
Some quick notes after the full switch:
- The design of the Z5 is slick! Who says Apple has the best designed phones? I totally love the Xperia Z5 phone design with the silver back and the different available colours front. It’s a simple, but beautiful design. It just shows class. We can see this in all of Sony’s products lately, like their TVs, new headphone line, cameras etc. Some people may not like the ‘clean’ design, but I love it.
- I’m used to ‘small’ phones. The new iPhones are bigger now too, but I’ve always used the earlier generation iPhones which were much smaller. I love the beautiful Z5 display which shows my photos in beautiful colour. It’s important that the photos I edit on my Macbook Pro not only show great colours on Apple products, but also on other properly calibrated displays. I can safely say that the colours of my Z5, even without any calibration, look great and match my Macbook Pro Retina display.
- I’m still getting used to a bigger phone in regards of the reach of the screen. I am used to using my thumb to make movements on the screen when I hold the phone with one hand. But moving my thumb on top of the screen is a bit of a different experience with a bigger screen. I can simply not reach the top of the screen which makes me hold the phone a bit different. This may sound familiar for people switching from a small phone to a bigger one.
- I love the customisation you can do with Android compared to IOS.
- The ‘Flashlight’, a tool that I always use a lot on my phones, is not that bright on the Z5. It works fine, but my iPhone flashlight was much brighter. There are probably apps to change the brightness, but I’m not sure if this is good for the LED.
- Charging on my iPhones generally went faster.
- Thank god, no more overpriced iPhone cables but just a simple micro usb cable for charging, what a relief!
Finally, let’s talk about taking photos with this thing! I obviously didn’t expect Sony A7RII quality from a smartphone, but I did have some expectations as Sony was promoting this phone as ‘phone with the best camera’. So I was quite excited to try this out. When starting the photo app and using the manual mode I immediately noticed that this phone normally uses the ‘8 Megapixel’ mode. Why? It basically uses the 23MP sensor to squeeze it into an 8MP resolution image for extra sharpness. A big difference I noticed between using 23MP and 8MP in manual mode was the speed of saving photos. You can not just quickly snap away when set to 23MP. The camera needs quite a lot of time to save your images. It didn’t really bother me that much though, but it was just a first observation. Images are of course a lot bigger and need some time to be saved on the phone’s memory. The files are ranging from 7-10 mb when set to 23MP. The phone is unfortunately not being able to shoot RAW. Maybe because that would slow the phone down a lot more. The lens of the Z5 has a fixed aperture of f2.0.
In manual mode you can change the white balance and underexpose/overexpose the image. You can also change the ISO, but this can only be done when set to 8MP. When set at 23MP, ISO is forced to ‘AUTO’. As a photographer I obviously expected a little bit more. While most ‘normal’ people would probably only shoot on the automated settings anyway, I hoped for a bit more control. Obviously, it’s a smartphone so it doesn’t need to be too advanced. But being being able to manually set the exposure time would indeed be nice. Let’s keep in mind that Sony promotes this phone as ‘the phone with the best camera’. That is great, but with that statement you’re not only going to attract masses. You’re going to attract photographers, who -like me-, look for a bit more advanced options when taking photos. Especially when some of the competition already has more advanced manual options, and some even have RAW.
I think this can all be fixed in software though. I am confident Sony is listening to its users and will keep updating the software, hopefully with more manual options (and maybe even RAW) in the future. That would definitely give them a big leap forward regarding smartphone photography. The Sony Imaging line (mainly Sony ILC Cameras) is listening to its community in a great way. They always bring features to the cameras that are people requesting. I am hoping Sony Mobile would do the same, and I am pretty sure they will. These were my first impressions before taking any serious photo with the smartphone. I know, it’s a little bit negative but maybe I was just expecting too much because of the camera’s high megapixel sensor. It’s never wrong to expect much right? It just makes room for improvement in the future.
Having said all of this, let’s start shooting! After all, this phone does have an amazing camera! It should be able to make some great photos (and let’s not forget 4k video). I put this camera to the test on different circumstances, daytime, low light, etc and checked how it held up. In short: pretty good for a smart phone! To keep up with the mobile vibe I edited all of these shots with either Lightroom Mobile or Snapseed. All of these shots were done hand held.
In this shot, taken at Reitdiephaven Groningen, I boosted the shadows quite a lot. The files still hold up quite well, with some noise in the dark tones but not that noticeable. Perfectly acceptable.
The camera performs best during daytime with nice weather. Blue skies with clouds come out great. Automatic white balance is usually accurate and the colours look vibrant.
In these shots the weather was a bit grey, but the camera’s automatic white balance and colour rendering still hold up really well. These shots still look great.
Let’s take a look at the detail of the images the 23 Megapixel sensor creates. A lot of detail can be seen of this amazing looking church in Copenhagen. A 100% crop at base ISO:
The detail in the bricks here looks still quite good. For a smartphone, the detail is impressive.
When the sun starts to set light conditions get difficult for smartphones. Because we’re not shooting in a RAW format, the dynamic range of the JPEG format takes its toll. Even with the HDR function of the smartphone itself, it’s not enough to capture the full range of contrast sometimes. By using techniques one can still capture the range in different images and merge them together in Photoshop. However, when photographing with smartphones everything should usually be fast and simple so people usually do not prefer to edit their smartphone shots at home. A technique I like to use by not needing to combine different shots at home would be to underexpose photos in full Manual Mode. This way I can still pull up the shadows like I usually do in RAW files. In the JPEG files from the Z5 you will get some noise, but it’s still very acceptable if you do this well. Examples:
These shots have been taken about 30 minutes from each other. The dynamic range still looks good as I underexposed here and pulled up the shadows successfully. The second shot (purple one) even uses a bit of a higher ISO and still looks relatively clean. Other examples using this technique:
When we get to indoor locations the camera boosts its ISO. For your reference, the base ISO of the Z5 is ISO 40.
This was taken slightly above base ISO, at ISO 64 but still looks very clean.
Inside of a church with a bit higher ISO at ISO 125, still perfectly fine regarding noise and still great colour rendering.
Inside in quite a dark place. To expose correctly the ISO moved to 500. Some parts of the image still look fine, but it’s starts to struggle here. Look at the darker part in the bottom left, which loses a lot of detail.
When it really gets darker the Z5 still holds up, but obviously loses detail. We are still talking about a smartphone sensor here, which is tiny!
This is at ISO 800. Shutter speed is at 1/25s here. Some nice motion going on here of the train. The image still looks quite good here even at ISO 800. It’s obviously not great, but we can’t expect high ISO performance from small smartphone sensors (as of yet).
First of all, after making the switch I am happy I did. I love the phone’s looks, and after some time getting used to, am totally confident with its interface.
Overall I am satisfied with the image quality of the Z5. In daytime you get great vibrant photos with high resolution. That means they will be perfectly usable as print. In fact, I could even use my phone to shoot ‘stock photos’ and they will be of high enough quality to sell. This may be very interesting from a photographers point of view. Of course this phone’s image quality is still nowhere near Sony’s professional camera line up but that’s of course an unfair comparison. But is it for the future? Smartphone sensors and cameras are advancing fast so we might see some serious competition later on. For now, the images this phone produces are great in general, and absolutely perfect for social media.
For now, I feel like Sony is doing a great job. Remember, Sony made a real break through in the Camera industry over the last few years with their E-mount bodies and highly innovating sensors that came with it. Who would have thought that Sony was a serious contender in professional stills cameras along Nikon and Canon a few years back? And now they keep innovating and might even strive ahead.
I kind of feel the same way regarding their smartphones. Their high end smartphones are on par with Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxies. They have the technology, but to really push this in regards to serious photography they also need the proper software and more advanced options. The camera is great, but RAW shooting and at least the manual setting of shutter speed would open up way more possibilities for serious photographers. I feel like Sony is close but not quite there yet. Like I mentioned before, this could only be a software issue. For me Sony is known to listen to its community and professionals (along with people like me who write this kind of articles) so I am really hoping Sony will push their smartphones even more with improving their software and adding these wishes. I am sure I am not the only one. For now, I am happy with my Z5 and I am looking forward to what Sony will bring to the Xperia line up in the future.
For any questions or licensing these images, feel free to contact me.
- Albert Dros