Testmodo Challenge #3: Three Readers Put the Sony Xperia Z3's Camera to the Test

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It's Week Three in the Testmodo house and our three adventurous testers are well accustomed to their new diet of bread, water and an Xperia Z3 from Sony now. But before the grand finale Final Thoughts next week, we first get them to take one of the smartphone's big selling points for a spin: its 20.7-megapixel, 1/2.3”-sensor camera…

I’ve been a big fan of Sony in the photography space for a number of years and was looking forward to testing the Z3’s optical prowess. I love that it has a dedicated shutter button that allows the phone to be used as a snap-and-shoot camera, and the snap-and-shoot results are pretty good. But if you really want to get the best out of the camera on the Z3, you have to be prepared to play with the settings – then you can really get some impressive photos.

From using the camera icon on the home screen or from the dedicated button, the camera comes on pretty quickly. You have to unlock the phone if you want to actually select a mode, which isn’t particularly slick, but for snap-and-shoot needs it’s more than enough.

This being Sony, you’re then into loads of different modes – 18, in fact, with the ability to download more from the Play Store. There are almost too many modes, if I’m honest, with some that will struggle to be useful for most of the population. Evernote integration will be great for some, but things like AR effects are fun to play with for a few hours, but won’t hold your attention very long.

The key selling point of the Z3, though, is its high ISO sensitivity of 125000 for better low-light shots. But while I couldn’t get the camera to utilise those high ISOs in the default Superior Auto mode, switching to Manual let me tap into the Z3’s full gamut of options and get some great low-light images.

It's worth noting that the camera's default resolution is set to eight megapixels, rather than the maximum possible 20.7. In fact, some of the modes such as Background Blur actually have a maximum resolution of eight megapixels, so it’s always worth checking.

Everyone seems to want to do slow motion these days and the Z3’s Time Shift solution is very good, if not as slick as some. The Background Defocus on this camera is superb, though, if a little bit fiddly at first, but it's worth persevering as you get some great shots.

For video, the quality of the 4K video is really excellent, although I did find that using this mode for more than a few minutes caused the phone to heat up, with the camera turning off to allow it to cool down. I only ever shoot shorter clips, so this isn’t an issue for me, but if you’re planning on recording a blockbuster, it’s probably worth making a note.

Overall: a great camera on a great phone.

Simon is a lifelong tech addict born in Scotland, living in Macclesfield, with a love of beer, fish and chips, and all things technical and shiny. Follow him on Twitter here.

As a part-time photographer, I was certainly eager for this week of the challenge. Indeed, the Xperia Z3’s dedicated shutter button on the phone’s right-hand side is a nice touch, bringing up the camera settings with a long press while in standby mode – no more waking up the screen to get snapping – while the volume buttons double as zoom controls, too. However, the placement of the buttons between them can make zooming a little tricky without hindering the screen a little.

Another thing to note is that while the Xperia Z3 boasts a 20-megapixel camera, that’s not what those who use default settings will be getting. The Superior Auto mode that comes set up on launch shoots eight-megapixel shots – which is nothing to be sniffed at – but to squeeze all 20 megapixels out, you need to set the phone to Manual mode, which makes the ratio 4:3 as opposed to 16:9. More megapixels don’t guarantee better pictures, mind.

For most of my extensive test, I left the Z3 in Superior Auto mode, snapping a wide variety of different objects and scenes, from robots to skyscrapers, in a variety of lighting conditions. In most circumstances the Z3 got it right, and on the few times it didn’t it was only a matter of refocusing or switching to Manual mode.

There is such a wide breadth of possibilities with the camera software, it’s worth spending a fair amount of time working out which settings work with which resolutions and modes. For example, while there are lots of night settings, I found that leaving it in Superior Auto and letting it auto-select the Night Scene option, then focusing on the right object, produced the best low-light shots and at a low ISO. Noise levels were noticeable from ISO 800 onwards, when quality started to drop.

One of the more intriguing modes, Defocus (pictured above), works well with simple scenes, but when given anything more challenging it can start to show edges and artificial blur bleed. Although I found that given the F2.0 lens, the Z3 was already defocusing nicely on the right sort of shot…

I then equipped my Z3 with a 64GB Class 10 MicroSD card to do the 4K video test. Despite a brief “shutdown” warning due to the phone heating up, I still managed five minutes of footage (taking up 1.5GB of storage) of these skaters and signage at London’s Southbank. The quality was excellent.

I found the Z3's camera to be a very competent all-round performer, especially in good lighting conditions. In particular, Sony’s software actually adds to the standard Android camera experience, improving the options for users. The low-light performance could be better but that ever-good auto mode typically delivers. To see more examples of photos using the Xperia Z3, please visit my Flickr album.

Ray Liu is a London-based web developer and part-time photographer. Follow him on Twitter here or check out his photography site here.

Sony has historically been pretty good at a couple of things: chiefly, imaging and throwing in shedloads of “features”. Well, the Z3 has a 20-megapixel, 1/2.3” sensor with a 25mm equivalent field of view and more modes than I could reasonably fit in this review, so it looks like nothing’s changed there. Chuck in 4G (spoiler alert: it’s fast when you find it) and you’ve got a good recipe for a camera phone.

There is certainly a lot of potential with stills. The wide-angle lens when shooting 16:9 ratio is great for framing, although I’ve already grown accustomed to shooting shots to fill the display, finding it can lead to some really attractive results, such as the beach image above. But once set up for 20-megapixel shots, you’re given real freedom for cropping – see my original shot, and the detail-focused crop, below.

Also note the slightly aggressive blues in the left-hand photo, too. The Z3 does have a tendency to over-saturate colours in images on the default settings, though in a world of VSCO, Instagram and a plethora of phone-based photo-editors this is only ever of brief annoyance. Resolution, sharpness and capturing action in good light all work fabulously.

Night shots, as is often the way with smartphones, hasn’t been as great. I used to have a workaround in putting my old phone in HDR and dropping the exposure to -2; if the phone and subject in front of me stayed still it could lead to decent snaps. The Z3’s Superior Auto mode, however, can either overcompensate or opt not to use its high-ISO capabilities at all. The image below could have benefited from ISO 3200 and 1/16 for the shutter, but instead it chose 1600 and 1/8.

What about the Manual mode? Well, it does come in handy if you have the know-how, although there are a lot of pros to the presets: the beach photo up top was actually taken in Sports mode, while HDR gives sharper (if darker) shots than High ISO. Truth is, they all work well if used properly, but definitely require some time to get to grips with for anything overly fruitful.

Video has plenty to offer, too. You can record 30fps and 60fps HD content, super-slow 120fps films and super-attractive 4K video – again, useful for the crop – although it does tend to over-saturate colours again on the default settings.

As a fan of a raw and focused control scheme, I may take a while to bond to the camera's interface, but Sony knows its image and video capture. When this phone is good, it’s fantastic, and the hardware is near flawless. See the rest of my photos here.

Alex is a full-time student and part-time gadgeteer from Aberystwyth. Find him online here or follow him on Twitter here

Check back for the final Testmodo challenge on November 6th and follow our Testmodo winners' tweets using the hashtag #testmodoz3


Previously on the Xperia Z3 Testmodo Challenge…

Testmodo Challenge #1: Three Readers Put the Sony Xperia Z3's Battery Life to the Test
While our three lucky Testmodo winners get to keep the phone, they have to sing for their supper first – and first up is taking on a smartphone with some serious staying power. Read More >>

Testmodo Challenge #2: Three Readers Put the Sony Xperia Z3's Waterproofing to the Test
Those downpour-tolerant properties that the British weather was born for are given a full and thorough investigation. Read More >>