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iPhone 5S vs Sony Xperia Z1: camera comparison

Andrew Williams


iPhone 5S vs Sony Xperia Z1: in-depth camera comparison

The Sony Xperia Z1 claims to have the best phone camera around. But is it really that much better than the iPhone 5S?

We took the two phones out for a photographic test drive to see what the Sony phone is really capable of.

Camera Specs – Sensor and Lens

iPhone 5S – 1/3-inch sensor, 1.5 micron sensor pixels, f/2.2 lens

Sony Xperia Z1 – 1/2.3-inch sensor, 1.1-micron sensor pixels, f/2 lens

The Sony Xperia Z1 and iPhone 5S represent two slightly different approaches to the phone camera. Apple increased the sensor size but not sensor resolution in the upgrade from the iPhone 5 to the 5S.

This has resulted in a 1/3-inch sensor of eight megapixels – each sensor pixel being 1.5 microns in size. The Sony Xperia Z1’s sensor is much larger, but because the resolution is so much higher (20.7 megapixels) the sensor pixels are actually a lot smaller. They’re 1.1 microns.

However, the phone doesn’t capture 20.7-megapixel images as standard. They are downsampled to create more manageable 8.3-megapixel files in the standard mode – they're roughly the same size as the iPhone’s ones.

As well as a higher-resolution sensor, the Xperia Z1 has a slightly faster lens. It’s an f/2 lens where the iPhone 5S uses an f/2.2 lens. The lower the number, the more light gets to the sensor within a certain amount of time.


As you’d hope from a sensor that’s much higher resolution, the Xperia Z1 does capture more detail than an iPhone 5S in decent lighting. However, there is the clear look of a downsampled image here. Processing to increase sharpness is evident – something we also saw in the Lumia 1020’s downsampled 5-megapixel images.

Sharpness at the edge of the frame is much worse in the Xperia Z1, though. Where the iPhone 5S is sharp throughout, the Xperia gets pretty mushy at the corners.

SEE ALSO: iPhone 6 release date, news, rumours and price

iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1 5iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1

iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1 3

Downsampling results in very sharp 8-megapixel images, if not 20-megapixel ones

iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1 4

Edge sharpness is way off in the Xperia Z1

Low-light and Flash

The theme of intense processing continues in the Sony Xperia Z1’s low-light performance. The level at which the Xperia Z1 can cope with very poor lighting is quite astonishing.

Pictures that would appear almost pitch black in some phones are bright and virtually noise-free in the Xperia Z1.

This is not magic, though. While we expected the Xperia Z1 to offer superior low-light performance thanks to its larger-than-average sensor, the jaw-dropping difference between the iPhone 5S and Xperia Z1 is primarily down to processing. And it’s processing that trades away detail in order to get rid of noise.

How bright our low-light scene appears below is quite unnatural too.

iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1 2iPhone 5S vs Xperia Z1 1

The Xperia Z1's low-light processing is insane

SEE ALSO: Sony Xperia Z2 review

Colour, Contrast and Exposure

Given how obsessed the Xperia Z1 is at making its low-light photos appear bright, it’s surprising how glum its daylight shots can be. The phone tends to slightly underexpose its shots, leading to dull-looking images at times.

Colours are a little muted a lot of the time too. It’s a shame given the Xperia Z1’s fairly impressive photographic specs.

Side-by-side the iPhone 5S’s pics appear brighter and more lively – the exact opposite of what we saw in the low-light test.

Macro and Depth of Field

One area where the Sony’s slightly dodgy execution of the Xperia Z1’s camera doesn’t come into play is depth of field.

The Xperia Z1 produces marginally better shallow depth of field effects than the iPhone 5S. Depth of Field 2

Depth of Field 1

Depth of Field

Blurrier = better in this test

SEE ALSO: iPhone 5S vs Samsung Galaxy S4


The Sony Xperia Z1 has a much more interesting camera than the iPhone 5S. It has a larger sensor, higher resolution and a far more aggressive approach to photo processing.

However, it’s also far more problematic. Its performance is less consistent, and its photos can appear slightly anaemic. Plus its very aggressive approach to processing will turn off some.

For everyday casual shooting, the iPhone 5S is the more reliable, more enjoyable snapper. It's hard to beat the Sony Xperia Z1 for taking shots in the pub, though.

Next, take a look at our best smartphone round-up


October 7, 2013, 2:31 pm

Looks like, just as with the HTC One, any issues with the Z1 could be sorted with software updates?


October 7, 2013, 3:30 pm

Another Lustful iPhone Victory


October 7, 2013, 4:07 pm

Mothergoose, I've just bought an HTC One but have not picked it up yet. I've read reports about its "problematic" camera (inconsistent pictures, even in daylight), but do you know if this issue has been fixed through a software update? How well does the HTC One camera fare against the iPhone 5/5S and other top smartphone cameras?



October 7, 2013, 7:25 pm

I still find it amazing that no manufacturer has just released a really good camera with a phone function.

I don't mean a massive thing with a zoom lens just something with all the components that makes a really good camera but with as small as lens possible but not that totally comprises the quality.

I really don't need something as thin as a credit card but the battery dies after a 10mins of use and the IQ starts to get really ropey when you start to look on anything other than the phone's screen.

It seems odd that the pioneer of cameras in phones seems to be Nokia, or is that strange? Maybe its because Nokia doesn't sell point and shoot cameras as to why they push the envelope so much?


October 7, 2013, 7:29 pm

You don't buy a smartphone for its camera. Just choose the phone that suits you. Use its camera for everyday stuff. Invest in a good entry-level DSLR like the Canon T3 for serious photo work. The T3 is easy to use and cheap.


October 8, 2013, 12:29 am


What's the point of comparing if you don't use 20mp pictures on a 20mp phone camera?

Alex Norris

October 8, 2013, 5:34 am

i prefer Z1 camera

Alex Marinos

October 8, 2013, 8:12 am

Yes, we are all waiting for a FW update that will most likely fix the camera downsampling issue.

Alex Marinos

October 8, 2013, 8:16 am

Sony Z1 needs a FW update for the camera issue, hopefully it ll be released soon.


October 8, 2013, 10:28 am

The camera issues aren't really *that* bad - the main annoyance for me is the chromatic aberration.

Looking at some sample shots for the 4.3 update it looks like they have really addresses this.

Regarding it's comparison to the iPhone 5, there are lots of reviews that do a fair cop of comparing them. It's lower resolution by some way so when you zoom in it doesn't look too great, but for your general facebookness it is absolutely fine. It's not going to replace a proper camera but it does a good job. It's okay in low light, I've not been able to compare the two side by side though, the HTC One does take good photos in low light, but as with every digital camera, it gets noisy.

Can't comment compared to the 5S though due it's new flash for low light shooting etc.

I'm generally really happy with the HTC One, I am thinking of turning it in to a Google Edition unit (which gets OTA updates) via rooting though as I now reckon stock Android is better than anything the 3rd parties throw at it.


October 8, 2013, 11:32 am

I disagree, I want a camera with a phone as well, camera being the priority, that's why they are "camera phones"

Alex Marinos

October 8, 2013, 2:25 pm

there are many reviews about the Z1 that test the 20mp feature but here its the image processing thats tested rather than the size of the actual image. Meaning the pixel size, camera speed shutter, and downsampling.


October 9, 2013, 3:52 pm

I disagree too. I got my phone primarily taking the camera quality and size into consideration, in this order. Everything else was secondary.


October 15, 2013, 1:16 am

Who the hell should care about the camera quality on a smartphone? The only time people ever use it is for selfies on facebook or tryhard 'artistic' shots of trees. If you want a good camera, look into buying a DSLR. Once you own one and understand how it works you'll realise how pointless a 20 megapixel camera on a phone is (let alone nokia's 42mp camera phone...).


October 15, 2013, 7:23 am

I think it's very important, and I suspect a large majority of people who buy the more expensive phones would agree. It's important to everyone, of course, but the best camera is the one you have on you, which in most cases means your phone.

learnt it there

October 15, 2013, 12:21 pm

Just so.you all know to utilise all the 20.7mp on the Z1 you have to take it off of auto something I doubt the person doing this test did


October 17, 2013, 8:56 am

Camera quality depends on the camera. Camera usage depends on the user.
I use mainly to catch photos of my children - toddlers, & it is ridiculous to run and get a DSLR, by the time the 'moment' is gone (unless u're holding ur DSLR 24hrs a day). OIS and speed is the most important thing for me. So a good camera phone IS valuable.
I think it is useless to try to influence people telling which one is better than another, just go to the booth, try urself, like it, buy it.


October 29, 2013, 7:58 am

Funny how the iphone 5S sensor is made by Sony, but you can adjust the iso settings on the Z1 to a higher number: 800. afterward, set the sharpness to high and contrast to high. shoot the photo then you'll have the same looking photo like the one on the iphone in the day time. Compare the same photo on a pro monitor and you'll see that the iphone white balance is off. The iphone picture has a yellowish-orange tinge to them on white objects. The point is that the Sony Camera let you adjust the settings to look like iphone.


November 22, 2013, 3:31 pm

I have a dslr camera its collecting dust since I got xz


December 14, 2013, 2:31 pm

I h ave an Xperia Z, and I must say that I've been very impressed with the daytime shots on my phone. I was initially a bit disappointed with the low light shots because of the graininess that I saw but once I compared it to the iPhone, which showed just big black blobs of nothingness, my faith was restored. So I can see how the Z1 would widen that gap even more. I do like the camera on the iPhone, but the Sony phones just seem to be the best when it comes to taking pictures.


January 31, 2014, 9:55 pm

Which camera do you use? Both the Xperia Z1 and iPhone have no OIS. I am guessing Nexus 5?

Tom Smi

February 11, 2014, 2:58 am

In fact they specifically said they didn't do that, hence the heavy handed down sampling. Also, the manual app is much better than the auto, shooting in auto is honestly just pointless in any camera comparison, even between DSLR cameras.

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