Sunday, 9 November 2014

Get more out of your Sony Camera Phone - ADVANCED

< Previous article about the BASICS >

Shutter speed and ISO
The shutter speed of a camera says how long 'the shutter will be open'. That is, the time that the camera collects light. If you increase the time the camera collects light, it will obviously be able to collect more light which is useful in low light situations. Unfortunately, the Xperia Z family of devices don't seem to go any slower than a shutter speed of 1/8 of a second. This is the reason that true low light photographs won't turn out as good as they should. However, there's good news regarding this limitation - more on this later in this article. Another unfortunate decision from Sony is that they won't allow manually setting the shutter speed, not even within their shutter speed boundaries. There is however an option for exposure compensation which changes the shutter speed relatively. The most influential way to change the shutter speed to your liking however, is by changing the ISO.

The ISO setting may be the least clear setting for your camera. At least it was for me, when I started to learn about photography. ISO is essentially the sensitivity of your camera sensor. The higher you set your ISO, the more sensitive the sensor becomes, thus the faster the sensor decides to give a pixel on the sensor a light value (the less light is required to reach the sensor for a similar image, essentially). This sounds like a great idea, but the disadvantage of increasing the ISO value is that you increase image noise. You can imagine why companies are touting their cameras' ISO capabilities - the better the hardware and software, the higher the ISO can be set to still get a clear image without noise. If you want crisp and clear photographs, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible to still get a visible image. If you set the Xperia Z1's ISO to 50 for example, which the lowest possible for this device, it may result in very dark or even black images indoors. If you want clear images with ISO-50, you want your environment to be very well lit. Experiment for yourself, to see what ISO would be best for what environment. That's one huge step towards getting highly detailed photographs!

Note that the "Superior" auto mode which Sony includes with the camera is horrible at automatically setting ISO correctly. Sony wanted users to always get bright images, so the ISO value is always way too high. This is exactly why images taken with Superior auto mode turn out dull and full of noise. If you want images full of contrast and with vibrant colours, no noise and simply very detailed - shoot in Manual mode. For details it doesn't matter whether you set the camera to 20 megapixels or 8: as long as you keep the ISO low, the images should turn out much more detailed than with Superior auto mode.

HDR, focus mode and more elaborate settings
HDR is an option that's only available in the settings at 8 megapixels or lower, or in video. HDR stand for High Dynamic Range, and it makes sure that photos and videos have less blown up whites and less true black spots where they don't belong. Generally, smartphone cameras have a poor dynamic range - if you point your phone to the sky to take a picture, the foreground will be pitch black. In contrast, if you snap a photo of the ground with the sky in view, the sky will be bright white with no distinguishable sky colours anymore. HDR tries to solve this issue by taking multiple photos with different exposure (one with the blacks being lighter, one with the whites being darker) to combine them into one image where the blacks are lighter and the whites are darker. As a result, you get a photograph with essentially more details.

Sony's camera phones feature more elaborate settings as well. Take for example the focus mode, available in Manual mode in the general settings menu under photo settings. There are a couple of focus modes you can choose from:

  • Single auto focus - focuses in the middle of the photograph. Pick this if you want simple straight-forward focussing.
  • Multi auto focus - focuses similarly to how high-end cameras do: the viewfinder gets a couple of focus points and focussing is done on the closest object in the frame to one of the focus points. After focussing, the focus points that are highlighted indicate the spots that it's focused on.
  • Face detection - focuses primarily on faces when detected (note: faces are detected in still objects too easily: I never use this setting myself since it's not perfectly reliable because of this)
  • Touch focus - focuses on the spot that you tapped to focus on. Particularly useful to focus in corners.
  • Object tracking - lets you pick a spot to focus similar to touch focus, but when the object in focus moves, the focus spot moves with it. This is very useful for moving subjects if they can be touched in focus beforehand.
I personally prefer Multi auto focus, since it resembles how high-end cameras focus as well and it often focuses exactly where I want to. After all, when I'm close up I generally want to focus on the closest object. When I didn't want to focus on the closest object, I simply move my camera back and forth so the object in focus changes to the one I want to be in focus. Of course, this is done while focus is locked (with the hardware button it's the easiest). It's noteworthy to mention that mostly touch focus works poorly if you have a thin object that you try to focus on, like a twig. To focus up close you will want to focus on a thick object, so it's clear what the camera should focus on.

A similar kind of setting to focus mode is metering, which tells the camera how to set exposure:

  • Centre - Exposure is set based on how the centre of the image is exposed. This is a good default setting.
  • Average - Exposure is based on the entire view, instead of only the centre.
  • Spot - Exposure is set based on the middle point of the image. This is much more specific than centre: if you move your phone from a bright display to a black edge for example, you see a huge shift in exposure. Centre metering is much more gradual.

There's another useful feature called the image stabilizer. The Xperia Z family so far doesn't have optical image stabilization, but then again it doesn't need to. For shooting video, I found that the image stabilizer is extremely useful. It makes videos look buttery smooth, so I recommend leaving this option on for video unless you're using a tripod (in which case it could mess up more than it could clean up). For photography this image stabilizer could be useful as well, but I personally never use it since I keep my phone very steady anyway when I'm taking pictures where the shutter speed might cause unwanted blur. I generally put my phone against another object instead of using the stabilizer, but when you can't do this (suppose you're in a crowd at night) then it could still be useful.

Finally there are two useful settings that may go overlooked, since they're under the more general camera settings. The first one is geotagging: I always have this on. Most photos are correctly geotagged, so if you care about creating memories then the extra data to see where an image was taken is a wonderful addition. GPS doesn't cost anything anyway if you have mobile data turned off, and I haven't noticed any battery drain from this at all. I don't see why not to enable this. A second setting which might be useful to double check is the storage location. Since Xperia phones have Micro SD card slots, you might consider storing photos and videos on the external memory. But beware, Micro SD card slots can be much slower than the internal memory, which causes storing photos and videos to take much longer. If you've taken a photo and you notice it takes a while before you can open it in the gallery, make sure you double check the storage location to choose the fastest memory.

The future of your camera phone
Android 5.0 Lollipop was announced very recently, and Sony stated that all devices from the Xperia Z family would get updated to this version. How is this at all relevant to the camera? Well, here's the thing: Android Lollipop comes with an updated camera API, where features like manual shutter speed, manual focus and even RAW shooting is baked into Android itself now. Before, numerous devices had already made their camera shoot in RAW, but that had to be done per manufacturer and they only did so when they found it interesting enough (and for some reason Sony's camera software always lacks some useful settings). When any device will be updated to Android 5.0, those devices will likely be able to access these camera settings through an app, be it official from the manufacturers or simply a Play Store app. So this amazing 20.7 megapixel camera from Sony should finally get what it deserves - the point where the camera lacks most, in software, will finally extend to featuring professional controls.

EDIT: The Xperia Z2 and Z3 have gotten the update to Lollipop as of recently, and unfortunately Sony hasn't included the new Lollipop Camera API in these devices. The future of your camera phone seems to be the same, unless Sony realizes their mistake and rolls out an update that includes the API anyway. I wouldn't count on it, however. Sony could've made their camera phones really stand out from the crowd of flagships, but it seems like they're not quite trying. At least not in the camera department. That doesn't mean your Sony phone suddenly has a poor camera - not at all. It's capable of very decent photographs, once again, but adding more manual control would've made capturing awesome images just that much easier.


  1. Kaarthikeyan SwaminathanThursday, 27 November, 2014

    Good read mate. This article threw some nice aspects that I never understood about the CAM

  2. I'm glad you like it!
    If you have any questions regarding anything, don't hesitate to ask (which goes for everyone, actually).

  3. Thank you for the article! Good job.

  4. Nice article Hugehog, I own a Z1 and you literally expanded my photography options to a whole new level

  5. I just don't get the right image, it's so noisy and blurred. I actually got frustrated on how to go about. Indoor photos all have grains.

  6. Noisy images are always due to a high ISO. If you're in Manual Mode, what do you set your ISO to? If you don't set the ISO yourself, the phone will always pick the ISO too high (and choose an incorrect white balance often as well) indoors. Blur can obviously be caused by improper focussing, which I must say is still too common on my Xperia Z1.

    Have you perhaps unlocked your phone's bootloader? This is known to remove some of Sony's camera algorithms, making photos appear even more noisy (although you can get them back if you've made a backup of the TA partition).

  7. Very nice review, me too can't wait for lollipop. I have a question: do you know about some third's app that could improve image quality in comparison to the stock camera app?

  8. Thanks!
    I've tried a few third party camera apps but most of them actually perform worse than the stock app. The only third party app that I really love is Camera FV-5, because of the extensive control it gives the user (and because the interface looks more professional ;)

    Despite not being able to set the shutter speed manually by the device, this app uses a workaround to still allow images with a shutter speed close to a second when you set it to "long" or "long+" exposure. At "long" I believe it sets the ISO to 200 with the longest shutter speed possible if the image you're shooting is dark enough. This is basically Night Mode in the stock application but this works in 20.7 MP mode as well.

    It has to be noted that image quality cannot be improved by much (if at all) through a third party application as of yet, because apps still rely on the device's own image processing. The only thing that applications can do is either add easier controls, or add their own processing after the device processed the image, which almost always makes quality worse.

  9. Thank you for the detailed answer. I will try Camera FV-5, and I'm even more waiting for lollipop...although I'm not disappointed by Z3c camera (obviously in manual mode)

  10. Again a superb article, thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  11. Too bad that Sony didn't implement the camera2 API

  12. so sad, i was really hoping the RAW to come when i read your post prior to the update. hopefully some developer can make something out of it... or maybe you have friends with such capabilities to do so?

  13. I'm using xperia z ultra which is has the worst camera from all z family. Imx134. So i'm using camera fv5 and google camera. From my experience, i found that google camera gives the best result for.colour and low Light photo. May be you can try too..
    Sory if my pronouncation not good. I'm from indonesia.