Sony Just Crammed A Zoom Lens, Tracking AF in the Sony Xperia 1 III

A smartphone that has autofocus tracking and a 105mm lens? Here’s what’s new for Sony’s photo-focused smartphones.

After bringing A9-like autofocus to smartphones last year, Sony is again trying to push sports-ready autofocus into pockets. The Sony Xperia 1 III brings real-time subject tracking to the company’s smartphone line-up. And, if that’s not enough, Sony packed in a periscoped optical zoom lens. Said lens shoots at both 70mm and 105mm. Announced today, April 14, the smartphone continues the earlier Xperia models’ photo-first focus. The company today also announced the Sony Xperia 5 III. It’s a smaller, cheaper smartphone that still has the variable telephoto lens. However, it lacks real-time tracking.

Details on a “World’s First” Camera

Sony says the Xperia 1 III is the world’s first variable optical telephoto lens that’s also paired with dual phase-detection autofocus for both stills and video. That’s a lot of descriptors in order to claim a world’s first, but it’s there. If I had a dollar for every time a Sony representative said “very first” or “world-first” when talking about the Xperia 1 III, I would have had enough cash to go buy one for myself. (And I’m only exaggerating slightly.) It also breaks barriers with a 4K HDR 120Hz refresh rate display and 360 Degree Reality audio in the speakers.

Unlike a Sony mirrorless lens, the optical zoom lens on the Xperia 1 III shoots at 70mm or 105mm, but none of the focal lengths in between. A newly engineered digital zoom called AI Resolution Super Zoom can shoot the focal lengths in between. It uses artificial intelligence to attempt to replace some of the detail lost from a digital zoom. On the plus side, Sony says that focus is instant when swapping back and forth from the 70mm and 105mm focal lengths.

The variable telephoto lens is a periscope design, which means the lens is built inside the phone body and is actually pointed towards the side of the phone instead of out the back. A prism directs the light from the back of the camera into that lens, so the optical zoom lens appears to shoot from the back just like the other two rear-facing cameras.

The optical zoom lens — which has an f2.3 and f2.8 aperture — is in front of a 1/2.9-inch sensor. The smartphone’s main camera is a 24mm f1.7 lens in front of a larger 1/1.7-inch sensor. The set-up also includes a 16mm f2.2 with a 1.2.6-inch sensor. All three sensors are 12 megapixels, with dual-phase detection autofocus.

Tracking the Subjects and More Camera Details

Building on the Xperia 1 II’s real-time eye-tracking, the Xperia 1 III now also integrates Sony’s subject tracking. (The Xperia 5 III has the variable zoom lens, but not the autofocus tracking). The company says that the autofocus uses Alpha technology to analyze the scene and track an object as it moves across the frame. That includes, in some cases, finding the subject again after it is temporarily blocked, Sony says. A 3D iToF sensor at the back assists those A.I. AF algorithms by calculating distance.

That 105mm would, in theory, be great for capturing action, but, not all three of the rear-facing cameras are created equal. The 16mm and 24mm can calculate autofocus at 60 fps, while the variable lens camera calculates at only half that. The 4k video at up to 120 fps is also only on the 24mm main camera.

In another Xperia first, both smartphones can also shoot low light photos with noise reduction applied in bursts, rather than only single shots.

The newest Xperia smartphones are also designed to work in conjunction with Sony’s Alpha cameras. Borrowing from the Sony Xperia Pro, the third generation smartphones work as an external monitor for Sony mirrorless cameras, including live-streaming. The smartphones support a USB-C input to HDMI adapter. The Xperia Pro still offers the better bandwidth and 4K, however, while the Xperia 1 III and 5 III are only HD when used as an external monitor for an Alpha camera.

The Photo Pro app has also been redesigned, including a Basic mode. The updated app has P/S/A modes as well as an Auto mode. While a new Basic mode simplifies the interface, the app still integrates manual controls inspired by Alpha cameras.

Of course, Sony didn’t forget about, well, actually talking on the phone and surfing the web. The smartphones, which will run Android 11, are 5G compatible with a screen that boasts a 120 Hz refresh rate and 240 Hz touch scanner rate. For video, the Xperia 1 III has 120 fps 4k, an intelligent wind filter, and eight color look filters. It also features several features geared towards gaming, audio, and cinema. The smartphone is designed with IP65/68 water resistance and Corning Gorilla Glass Victus around a metal frame.

Sony isn’t the first to add a periscope optical zoom lens to a smartphone — there’s notable the Huawei P40 Pro Plus, among others. But, the mix of reach and quick autofocus might prove handy in capturing those fleeting moments that smartphone cameras tend to work best for. Typically, when I shoot with my smartphone camera, I’m shooting a moment that would be gone if I took the time to grab my actual camera. The ability to easily and accurately photograph moving subjects could be a huge perk — if it works as Sony advertises.

Sony hasn’t yet announced a price, but says the smartphones are expected out this summer.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.