BlackBerry's back: Z10 camera review
The Z10’s camera app emphasizes point-and-shoot simplicity over control. While its approach to basic picture taking is impressively polished, it lacks some useful features that are becoming standard on the dominant platforms. A high dynamic range (HDR) mode, very useful for scenes with bright highlights and deep shadows, and a panorama function are conspicuously absent.
With Blackberry 10 being a relatively new operating system there is also not the same degree of choice as in the Android or iOS app stores. With 360 Panorama we found a third party panorama app in the Blackberry World app store, but at this point no HDR apps or camera apps with built-in HDR mode appear to be available. In its standard shooting mode the default camera app also lacks face recognition, increasing the odds of poor exposure and missed focus when taking pictures of people. This is an odd omission considering the Time Shift feature described below is capable of detecting faces in images.
The Z10’s headline photographic trick is Time Shift, a clever mode that takes a high-speed burst of ten images starting the second before you pressed the shutter. When shooting hard-to-catch action you can then scroll through the frames and pick the best one to save.
But the function really comes into its own when taking a group picture. The phone identifies subjects’ faces and you can separately select the best version of each individual’s head from the ten frames, building a photo that seamlessly merges images taken instants apart. Ideally, you end up with a single frame in which no one is blinking or talking. The only problem with the implementation as it stands is that you have to make your frame picks or face selections immediately after you snap the picture. It would be nice if the whole multi-frame capture could be saved for later “processing.”
Similar features have recently become available on various new devices. Time Shift is functionally a hybrid of Samsung’s Best Face feature for Android and Microsoft’s BLINK app for Windows phones. The new HTC One's Zoe movies also include a similar function. We suspect this type of feature will grow to be standard on phones in the near future.
Shooting and Scene Modes
The default shooting mode is “Normal,” and it provides a satisfying point-and-shoot experience. In the menu you can choose from two further modes. The “Stabilized” mode simply is an electronic image stabilization function. It pushes up the ISO in low light in order to increase shutter speeds and decrease the risk of camera shake. The drawback is of course an increase in image noise but given the Z10's lack of manual control over ISO this mode offers at least some control over shutter speeds in low light.
The Burst mode shoots approximately 5 full-resolution frames per second over the course of 150 frames. Unfortunately you have no control over shutter speeds and in its Auto mode the Z10 attempts to stick with low sensitivities, resulting in blurred motion and camera shake in anything but the best light.
That said, you can combine the Burst shooting mode with the Action scene mode and by doing so achieve faster shutter speeds. The Action mode prioritizes action-stopping higher shutter speeds to avoid motion blur, increasing ISO as needed.
Other scene modes include the Night mode which does the exact opposite and allows the shutter speed to drop to 1/9th sec, prioritizing low ISOs. The Whiteboard mode, in a nod to BlackBerry’s business roots, helps avoid the underexposure that normally results when a whiteboard fools an auto exposure system (the Beach or Snow mode addresses the same effect in the great outdoors).
These scene modes are in essence the same as what we've seen on almost every digital camera since the early 2000s. What is slightly unusual on the Blackberry Z10 is the ability to combine shooting and scene modes. You have virtually no control over exposure on the Blackberry but choosing the Action or Night scene modes at least allows you to get faster or slower shutter speeds.
The Z10 offers a 5x digital zoom, which simply crops the image and then upsamples it back to 8 megapixels. The results are predictably underwhelming as you can see in the samples below. Zoom is controlled via the familiar pinch-gesture but, given the loss in image quality, should really only be used if you cannot get any closer to the subject.
Post Capture Editing (Gallery App)
Tapping the last photo you’ve taken in the camera app takes you to a basic gallery in which you can only flick by one image at a time. Opening the Pictures app separately, you have a lot more flexibility in finding a given photo, with the ability to scroll quickly through screenfulls of thumbnails or jump to the most recently taken or viewed shots. It all works well with one exception: creating and populating albums is a byzantine process that involves using the File Manager app. It’s a small but stunning user interface fail.
Tapping the pencil icon while viewing a picture opens an unusually full-featured editor. You can crop and rotate, and tweak brightness, contrast, white balance, saturation, sharpness, and noise reduction.
The auto-enhance one-touch fix option does a satisfactory job in modifying contrast and brightness if you don’t want to fiddle. This is a lot of power for a built-in editor; the fly in the ointment is that you can’t zoom in on images, which are already squeezed between three tool bars. That means that while useful for really basic adjustments, you’re flying blind with more delicate operations.
The editor also has two sets of effects, grouped under “Artistic” and “Styles” sections. Lomo, sepia, antique, black and white, negative and a few others are deemed Artistic. The Styles include sixties, grain, filmstrip, and half-tone. But why is “Cartoon” a Style while “Sketch” is Artistic? These filters aren't anything you wouldn't have seen somewhere else before but given the lack of third party editing and filter apps in the Blackberry World store these effects might get more use than they would on other platforms.
If the editor detects a face in the frame, it also offers two portrait-specific Style options, though you’re probably better off ignoring them. Smooth Face sandblasts all detail from skin tones, leaving people looking like mannequins. It also enlarges their eyes just enough to be disturbing. The Big Eyes style, on the other hand, gives people enormous googly eyes like something hauled up from a deep ocean trench. You wouldn’t use it on anyone you liked.
The gallery app offers social media integration, making it easy to share images on Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger, email, and Foursquare.
BlackBerry’s included Story Maker app is a simple way to create montage videos from stills and videos captured with the Z10.
Select a few photos and videos, pick a sound track (there’s an innocuous selection preloaded, or you can use your own music) and a theme, and presto, the app spits out a 720p video with Ken Burns-style panning and zooming on stills and a variety of transitions. You can reorder items and change the duration they’re displayed, but Story Maker is really about keeping the process dead simple. Aesthetically, the results are surprisingly satisfying. Technically, it would be nice to have 1080p output for viewing on big screens.
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