Camera Features

The battle to differentiate Android camera functions is leading to more extensive, if not always impressive, lists of features. The Z packs a lot of functionality into its native camera: much of it is useful stuff, while some may leave you scratching your head. 

HDR

High Dynamic Range (HDR) modes shoot multiple frames in quick succession to capture both the bright highlights and the dark shadows of scenes with a brightness range that exceeds the limits of the camera. Since phones’ sensors typically have poor dynamic range, this is a very useful feature that’s becoming a standard offering.  

Since the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the sensor’s ability to capture it, the sky is blown out while shadow detail is lost in murkiness.
The HDR image preserves much more detail in the sky and bit more in the shadows.

The Z’s HDR mode works fairly well, though its range isn’t quite enough to deal with the sample scene here. It’s a very valuable tool, with the limitation (common to all HDR implementations) that moving objects, like the people walking through the frame in the example, may appear to have ghostly doubles. The Z also crops the image, presumably to give it some leeway when aligning the multiple frames used to compose the final photo. As a result, the resolution is slightly lower (11.5 MP) and the field of view a bit narrower than a normal image.

Superior Auto and Scene Modes

Sony’s point-and-shoot Superior Auto mode tries to deploy the best combination of the Z’s extensive scene modes and special features for the situation at hand with minimal user input. On the whole, it works well.

The “Superior auto” mode automatically chooses scene modes that (hopefully) best suit the situation.

Largely following the Hippocratic oath of all full automatic modes, “Do no harm,” Superior Auto appears to avoid the most aggressive of the Z’s scene modes in favor of those that aren’t likely to ruin a shot even if they’re not quite appropriate. We saw it pick landscape, low light, sports, document, macro, backlight and soft snap modes during our testing - Sony claims the phone has 36 different settings, so presumably we didn’t encounter some of them. In this mode resolution is limited to 11.5 MP, though images don’t seem to be cropped as they are when HDR is turned on. 

The Z offers a smorgasbord of scene modes, some (like “Night scene”) more useful than others (“Gourmet?”).

You can also manually pick individual scene modes from a dizzying array of options. Arguably the most useful one is “Night scene,” which enables shutter speeds down to 1/2 second while keeping ISO low. This substantially improves image quality in low light situations but makes it hard to avoid blur without using a tripod. If you snap three or four shots, though, the odds are one will be useable, and the results will look much better than a higher-ISO Normal mode image of the same scene.

Another low-light scene mode is called “Hand-held Twilight.” In Sony’s dedicated cameras, a feature by the same name takes a burst of high-ISO shots and then blends them together (a technique known as image averaging). This lets you maintain hand-holdable shutter speeds in low light while averaging out the noise. We’ve seen a similar feature work to impressive effect on other phones, but the Z’s Hand-held Twilight implementation produces little if any image quality advantage. It tends to choose a slightly higher ISO and shutter speed than Normal mode in low light conditions, increasing the odds of avoiding blur. However, there’s no obvious reduction in noise and it miraculously appears to avoid the artifacts created by moving objects in true image averaging implementations, so we’re not sure what Sony is really doing here.

Below you can see a comparison between Normal mode, Night Scene and Hand-held Twilight, all capturing the same night scene.

For reference, in Normal mode the Z selected an exposure of 1/8 sec at ISO 500. There’s a good chance of camera shaking blurring a shot like this.
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The Night scene mode used a much longer exposure, 1/2 sec. You get less noise at ISO 100, but it’s extremely difficult to hold the phone steady enough to avoid blur at such speeds without optical stabilization (or a tripod).
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The Hand-held Twilight scene mode raises the ISO slightly and the shutter speed enough to substantially increase the chance of getting a blur-free shot, but there’s no evidence of multi-frame averaging or anything else fancy going on: the photo is as grainy as you’d expect for an ISO 800 shot from the Z.
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The “Soft Skin” mode blurs facial skin tone areas in an effort to smooth out wrinkles and blemishes. It works pretty well, though occasionally produces a fake, processed look.

The Soft Skin scene mode blurs skin tones to hide blemishes. Here it works well enough, though the results are variable.
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“Backlight correction HDR” appears to pull up shadows more aggressively than the normal HDR mode. Many of the other modes will be familiar if you’ve ever used a point-and-shoot camera, which is good since the Z’s PDF manual doesn’t explain what they do. “Landscape” appears to lock focus at infinity. “Sport” prioritizes higher shutter speeds to avoid motion blur. “Beach,” “Snow,” and “Document” all avoid underexposure with those subjects. “High sensitivity” lets the camera use ISO 2500, a stop higher than the 1250 ceiling in normal mode. 

A few other scene modes are made mysterious by a lack of documentation or obvious effect. You’d think the “Pets” mode might work like Sport, but it doesn’t seem to do anything different from normal mode. “Soft snap” is what the Superior auto mode uses when it detects a face in your scene, but we couldn’t figure out what it actually did to the image (in Sony dedicated cameras, this mode warms skin tones and softens focus). There’s a “Party” mode as well, but we’ve been too busy reviewing phones to test it properly.

For some reason, the Z’s automatic white balance has more problems with artificial light when using scene modes: images are often too yellow or orange. Unfortunately you can’t tweak white balance within scene modes (or anything else, really - most settings are locked). 

Scene modes are supposed to make things easier for users, but Sony’s overloaded menu is confusing. Is this low-light scene best captured with Night scene? Or Hand-held Twilight? Or Anti Motion Blur? Or High Sensitivity? And what the hell is Soft Snap?

Sweep Panorama

Sony’s Sweep Panorama feature is a basic panorama feature. It gets the job done, merging images with minimal artifacts, producing 5MP images that are 4,912 pixels on the long side and 1,080 on the short. While you can pan in any direction, the phone’s long edge must always be parallel to the pan direction (so you can’t pan horizontally with the phone in portrait orientation for extra vertical resolution). This was about what we’d come to expect from panoramic modes until Samsung’s S4 started rocking the boat with its staggering 60MP pano output. Now we need something a bit more to get excited.    

The Z’s native camera app has a competent but unspectacular panoramic mode.