Long Term Review: Using the Sony Xperia 1 as an Every Day Camera

The Sony Xperia 1 is a phone with a pretty good camera. 

As a photographer and journalist, I find it hysterical when folks geek out hard about the image quality that cameraphones deliver. Granted, it improves with each generation, but so too do dedicated cameras. This doesn’t invalidate the advancements Sony has made with the Sony Xperia 1. Phone aside, the cameras, app ecosystem, and functionality are all quite good. If you’re a photographer with enormous paws, I can ultimately see how the Sony Xperia 1 could be the option you want. But, if you’re on the short bus like me, then it becomes a tad unwieldy. And if you’re a Sony Alpha camera user, don’t expect the same level of attention to imaging that you get from your a7 series device.

 

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Great camera
  • Multi-tasking is something I never knew I needed
  • Gorgeous screen
  • Fantastic battery life
  • Wonderful sound quality

Cons

  • Some issues with activating the landscape camera function
  • Night scenes are a bit odd but very good for a phone
  • Typing is a bit weird due to the screen’s design
  • Putting a case and a screen protector on it makes thing more awkward, as with sideswiping the screen
  • I was an Android guy from the start until switching to iOS. Android still just isn’t doing it for me. I don’t care to do my own mods.
  • Portrait mode looks okay I guess
  • Apple health data transfer is lacking, and if you’re an Apple user, it’s difficult to segue to this phone.

Tech Specs

Specs are taken from the Adorama listing

Rear Camera System

Rear CameraWide: 12 MP 1/2.6″ Sensor with 26mm f/1.6 Lens
Telephoto: 12 MP 1/3.4″ Sensor with 52mm f/2.4 Lens
Ultra Wide: 12 MP 1/3.4″ Sensor with 16mm f/2.4 LensPixel SizeWide Angle: 1.4 microm
Telephoto: 1.0 microm
Ultra Wide: 1.0 micromFocus TypeWide Angle: Phase-Detect Autofocus
Telephoto: Phase-Detect AutofocusVideo RecordingUHD 4K at up to 30 fps
1080p at up to 60 fps
1080p at up to 30 fpsSlow Motion Recording960 fps in 1080p

Front Camera System

Front CameraWide: 8 MP 1/4″ Sensor with 24mm f/2.0 LensVideo Recording1080p at up to 30 fps

Ergonomics

More than likely, this is how you’re going to hold the Sony Xperia 1. There is a big, beautiful screen with a display that takes up pretty much the entire front face of the device. And you’ll probably notice the weird notch on the right, where the fingerprint reader is. Initially, it’s annoying. But when you get used to it, it’s one of the most brilliant features of the phone. What would have made it even more perfect is a larger width. The only thing you’ll care about on the front of the Sony Xperia 1 is the screen and the front camera section. If you’re putting a screen protector on, then be sure to align it very carefully.

Here on the side, you can find the power button, the camera shutter button, and volume control. Inside the notch is the fingerprint reader.

Down on the bottom, you’ll find the microphone, an audio speaker, and the USB port. There’s nothing else here to really look at. This port is USB C, which is becoming the standard more and more.

On the back of the Sony Xperia 1, you’ll spot the camera. This is what you really care about. The three cameras and flash each do different things. There is a standard camera, a wide, and telephoto. The wide and standard are arguably the most fun. The portrait camera will render scenes in a sort of weird way. Lots of folks will love it, but if you’re classically trained, then you can tell that the gaussian blur in portrait mode is rendered.

Build Quality

During our test, we took the Sony Xperia 1 with us everywhere. Admittedly, the taller and slimmer size felt odd in my pocket. It also wouldn’t store deeply into my pocket at times. This made me feel like the phone is designed for folks who are taller. The phone consistently worked, and it continued to function even when I went into the rain. I couldn’t get over how I had to hold the phone to take photos with it. It’s best set to landscape mode, and even that has problems. Either way, you can be confident that it will keep working if someone spills soup, beer, wine, or whiskey on the phone.

Ease of Use

I was using the Sony Xperia 1 for a few months and, no matter what, I couldn’t wrap my head around the ergonomic design. The only thing that truly made sense was the placement of the thumb print reader. Though I had issues with it, it turned out to be a genius design I would come to expect from a company as innovative as Sony. But typing one handed proved uncomfortable because of the weight and where the phone needs to be placed to make it ergonomically pleasing. The reason for this is the wide design. While the Sony Xperia 1 is taller than my iPhone, it isn’t as wide. My iPhone is just the right width for me.

The Sony Xperia 1 also has this really cool function for shooting in landscape mode. If you hold the phone up to a subject and put it into landscape mode, the phone will detect that you want to take a picture and activate the camera. Then you just swipe on the screen and take the photo. When it works, it’s fantastic. But when it doesn’t work, it’s nothing but pure frustration that caused me to sigh exasperatingly. To me, I found it really odd as Sony is an incredibly innovative company when it comes to their Alpha lineup. However, I didn’t see all those features come to the Sony Xperia 1. This is where I was most disappointed.

With the Sony Xperia 1, I expected to be able to do a bunch of cool things that their a7 and a9 series cameras could. Those include:

  • Multiple exposure: which used to be possible before Sony killed the PlayMemories store
  • Touchless shutter: which could have been a great feature where the phone used the front facing camera to detect when you wanted to take a photo
  • Better face detection: this became a big problem in low light. It varies depending on which camera you’re using. Considering how fantastic Sony’s Alpha cameras perform, I was shocked to see this.

These are just a few.

The simple answer for this would be adding a case, right? Unfortunately, that didn’t help. I purposely bought a case and a screen protector for the phone to make the most of it and fully integrate it into my life, but it didn’t help. In fact, using the case disables a few very useful features like Side Sense Swipe. The Sony Xperia 1 also allows a user to make full use of the screen real estate space with two apps running at once. But, once you’ve got that working, it’s just a pain to do at times. When a case is added, using this feature becomes more difficult. What also makes it difficult is not only the exact placement and pressure of your finger, but what apps you’re using. I can’t tell you how many times I had Chrome open, tried using this feature, and it would just scroll through the web page instead of activiating this feature.

Beyond all this, the Sony Xperia 1 has Android in it. Android is easy enough to use, but certain things will require a photographer to rewire their brain. Sharing is different than that of an Apple device, for example. The same applies to getting to different settings and the nomenclature. If you’ve been used to Apple for many years, it will be difficult to leave.

Recommended Apps for Photographers

Sony has their own camera apps on the phone, but by and large, my favorite apps for taking the most advantage of this great camera were:

  • VSCO: Another great photo editor with arguably more power than RNI Films for iPhone. It can also edit RAWs.
  • Instagram: Well, duh.
  • Lightroom Mobile: This is a no-brainer if you’re still a Creative Cloud User.

If you’re an iPhone user going to the Sony Xperia 1, then it’s nice to know you get a lot of the same apps to work with. But, from what I read on forums and Reddit, lots of folks just like using the camera as it is. Lightroom mobile edits are very popular online. Perhaps that’s what embracing their philosophy is more about. Shooting RAW photos is a lot easier than doing so with an iPhone. So, Android is setting you up to be the photographer who wants to customize everything possible with the option of even hacking it a bit.

Battery Life

The Sony Xperia 1 has the best battery life I’ve seen of any phone I’ve used. With my SIM card in there, I could go for over a day without needing to charge my phone once. But, without the SIM card in, it ran off of pure Wifi availability. While running only on WiFi, Sony Xperia 1 lasted for around a week without needing a charge. That’s truly fascinating.

Image Quality

When it comes to pure image quality, the Sony Xperia 1 is very good. But that quality really excels in good lighting. In low lighting, the Sony Xperia 1’s quality still looks like that from a phone. Even though the night mode is highly capable it’s still evident that it’s from a phone. It’s not going to replace a dedicated camera but it will surely replace a point and shoot. With editing skills, it’s also more than good enough for social media work.

My favorite thing about the Sony Xperia 1’s camera is the wide angle, which proved to be particularly fun. It can provide a lot of distortion or you can set it to get rid of it. If you’re a Lightroom mobile user then fixing that will be simple. It’s even easy to fix it in Instagram. The images you get are very detailed if not a bit too crispy. It’s obvious when you look closely that there is sharpening and clarity enhancements being done under the hood. But, this is the case with all computational photography. Unfortunately, it looks very fake.

The standard camera is the versatile one that’s good enough for most cases and uses every day. While the camera itself is great, the ergonomics on the phone make it sort of annoying to use.

The weirdest part of the Sony Xperia 1’s camera is the telephoto system. With people, the bokeh is just odd. With still life subjects like plants and stuff, it’s pretty good. It’s not as solid as a dedicated camera lens and sensor, but most people will find it adequate.

For most of my uses, I found that the wide angle and the standard camera performed the best. I don’t need the fake, highly doctored bokeh the Sony Xperia 1’s camera provides. Instead, I want to embrace the big city, and the wide angle lets me tell that story easily. If you’re focusing out to infinity then you’re fine, but the wide angle’s autofocus is arguably the worst if you’re looking for it to focus on a specific subject. This will become most annoying in low light. That’s also where you’ll start to see the Sony Xperia 1’s camera smooth out the details in a scene to get rid of high ISO noise. And it will do a great job, except for the whole loss of important details in a scene. To boot, when it detected a face, the Sony Xperia 1’s camera also smooths skin out. Why? I really don’t want that!

All in all, the Sony Xperia 1’s camera still reminds me that this is a phone first and foremost. To that end, treat it as such. Is the camera good? Sure. But, it’s not better than an actual camera.

Conclusions

I really like the image quality from the Sony Xperia 1 in good lighting. It’s far better than anything I’ve seen from Apple that can be shot during the day. Where I think the Sony Xperia 1 is best is with good lighting. To that end, it’s exceptional for the cityscape shooter, the landscape shooter, the photographer that goes to festivals, and the photographer that wants to record photos of their friends doing skate tricks. But when the sun sets, you’re much better off pulling out your dedicated camera.

Is the Sony Xperia 1 nice? Oh yeah. But when it comes to being a phone, I had problems with the overall size. I realize this is a very personal thing, but I’d also like to believe that most of my readers aren’t walking buildings of people with hair. Your mileage will vary. I enjoyed my time with the Sony Xperia 1, but it’s still not a phone for me. If I sound lukewarm about this phone, it’s because I am. Want one? Check out Adorama for the latest pricing.