Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3: why Sony’s a new camera contender

Sony Xperia cameras have previously felt a bit like being served bangers and mash by a Michelin star chef – perfectly satisfying, but with a strong aftertaste of what might have been.

Well, that’s all changed now with the Sony Xperia 1. The photographic menu’s been radically overhauled, with features like Eye AF and Zeiss optics, and Alpha tech is now baked into the whole shooting experience.

Sony told me exactly why Xperia phones are finally getting Alpha-style cameras at MWC 2019, but the question now is – do all the changes bring the Xperia 1 up to speed with the likes of Google’s Pixel 3?

I took one out on a (very rainy) trip to Venice with Google’s flagship phone to see how it fared in different shooting situations, from portraits to low light.

And while I’d like to test it more thoroughly outside of monsoon conditions, the early signs are that the Xperia 1 has, if not exactly leapfrogged the top smartphone cameras, certainly made itself a very appealing alternative. Particularly if you prefer a more camera-like experience to the brilliant point-and-shoot simplicity of the Pixel…

Related: Best smartphone camera

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Portraits

Portrait shooting should be one of the Xperia 1’s strengths, given the inclusion of Eye AF. And in my early experience this looks to be the case, with its shots containing natural skin tones, lots of detail, and some decent (if not perfect) bokeh simulation.

Impressively, the Eye AF feature (which stands for Eye Autofocus) finds and lock onto eyes as quickly as Sony’s Alpha cameras, marking them with a little screen square.

(Left) Sony Xperia 1 (f/2.4, 1.4000s, ISO 125), (Right) Google Pixel 3 (f/1.8, 1.2933s, ISO 62), 4.44mm

Given the extreme depth of field on smartphone cameras, though, this square acts more like a marker for the Xperia’s bokeh simulation. On the Pixel 3, you can change both the amount of bokeh and the focus point after you’ve taken a shot – so while Eye AF is an improvement on previous Xperias, it isn’t a big advantage over its rivals either.

The Xperia 1’s dedicated Portrait mode also uses its 52mm lens, which means shots are taken at f/2.4 compared to the Pixel 3’s f/1.8. This doesn’t make much difference in good light, but I’ll be interested to see how it affects the Xperia 1’s low light portraits.

Overall, both phones take excellent portrait shots. The Xperia 1 shot above was taken with maximum background blur, hence the extreme separation between subject and background.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

And as the above shots show, the Xperia 1 goes for a warmer and more true-to-life look compared to the more contrasty Pixel 3. As we’ll see, this is something of a recurring theme…

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – General shooting

As a point-and-shoot camera, the Xperia 1 performs well and offers a similar level of versatility to its rivals thanks to those two extra lenses – the 52mm for 2x zoom, and the now obligatory 16mm wide-angle lens.

Like the ‘Intelligent Auto’ mode on Sony’s cameras, its scene recognition tells you on the screen what type of shot the camera’s recognised (for example, backlit or macro) and tweaks the settings accordingly.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

Its scene recognition isn’t as powerful as rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Google – for example, it doesn’t go as granular as recognising a ‘flower’ or ‘building’. But there is also a handy ‘predictive capture’ feature which (if turned on) takes a burst of four photos, including before you press the shutter, and lets you choose the best.

Overall, though, the Xperia 1 feels more like it’s aimed at those who like to venture beyond the (albeit brilliant) hand-holding experience of Google’s Pixel 3. For example, there’s no auto-HDR mode in the main camera, but you can find it in manual mode, which lets you tweak everything from shutter speed to exposure compensation.

Sadly, this manual mode is only available for the 26mm main camera, rather than the wide-angle or 52mm lens, and there’s no way to permanently leave the camera in this mode, but it’s a useful one to have on standby.

In terms photo quality, the Xperia 1 puts in a good showing, with Sony’s flagship exposing the above gondolas scene a touch better than the Pixel 3 – crop in on fine details though, and Google’s phone has less noise and aliasing.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

It’s a similar story with the shot above, with the Pixel 3 winning out in terms of fine detail and dynamic range (particularly on the boat in the foreground), but not by much across the whole shot.

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Zoom

Google’s image processing and photographic A.I works wonders across a range of shooting situations, but one area where it can’t quite overcome the limitations of its single lens is zoom.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

Like most flagship cameras, the Sony Xperia 1 has a lens with a longer focal length to give you a bit more reach (twice as much, in this case). That’s not quite as impressive as the Huawei P30 Pro’s 135mm lens, but it’s a handy tool to have in relatively well-lit situations where you need to get closer to the action without losing quality.

The Pixel 3’s Super Res Zoom is brilliant for a digital zoom, but it still can’t compete with the Xperia 1’s dedicated 52mm lens. Crop in on the rocks in this scene, and there’s noticeably more detail in the Xperia 1’s shot, with the Pixel compensating for its lack of range by smudging out the parts it can’t resolve.

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Macro and food

Phones aren’t really designed for macro photography, with their lenses generally a bit too wide to nail a close-up without a dedicated accessory.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

That said, both the Sony Xperia 1 and Google Pixel 3 did a decent job with these two scenes, with little to choose between them.

Both phones’ autofocus did well with the main flower, with a good level of detail on the petals and raindrops. The Xperia tends to be a little softer towards the edges, which is perhaps due to a combination of it shooting wide open at f/1.6 and also ramping up the bokeh by default.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

It’s a similar story with this food shot, with good detail in the centre but greater softness as you move towards the edges of the frame. One bonus on the Xperia 1, though, is that if you’re struggling with focus, you can always go in manual mode and use MF rather than AF, an option that isn’t available in the Pixel 3’s official camera app.

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Low light and night

One of the upgrades the Xperia 1 brings over its predecessors is its larger pixels, which are the same size (1.4um) as the Google Pixel 3.

This isn’t the only factor that contributes to low light performance, but the Xperia performed pretty well in the two indoor cafe scenes below.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

In the image above, it didn’t control the highlights on the two coffee cups to the right as well as the Pixel 3, but otherwise produced a very similar shot in terms of detail and white balance.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

Similarly, in this shot the detail levels and exposure are pretty much on a par – it’s only when you crop in that you can see the Pixel 3’s better handling of image noise, though this is only really noticeable with pixel peeping.

More obvious, though, is that the Google Pixel 3 is still unquestionably the king when it comes to the extremely challenging night shot.

The Pixel’s ‘Night Mode’ isn’t always one you turn to for realism, but if you need to rescue some details from an almost pitch black scene and get a useable snap, then it’s a trick shot that you won’t find on the Xperia 1.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

In the above shot on dark boat the Pixel 3 has handled the extremes of lighting better than the washed out Xperia 1, while in the scene below it’s done a miraculous job at pulling out the details of the hotel’s interior, which has been completely blown out by the Sony phone.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Selfies

Like most front-facing smartphone cameras, the Xperia 1’s isn’t quite as powerful as its rear ones, with a smaller sensor and pixels.

There is a ‘portrait selfie’ mode, which contains all sorts of bokeh adjustments and face-warping. Strangely, there’s no Eye AF though (just face-tracking), and it feels like Sony’s missed a trick here.

Sony Xperia 1 (left) vs Google Pixel 3 (right)

Of all the modes where Eye AF could be most useful, with simulated bokeh helping to defocus the far side of your face, it’s in selfie portrait mode. The Pixel 3 currently doesn’t let you adjust background blur in selfie mode, so that could have been a nice win for the Xperia 1.

Perhaps it’s coming, but for now there’s little to choose between the two phones, other than a slight colour temperature difference and an extra dash of sharpening and contrast in the Pixel 3.

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Video

One of the big focuses of the Xperia 1 is video, thanks to some closer collaboration with Sony’s CineAlta team.

Perhaps more useful than the new Cinema Pro app, though, is the inclusion of optical and electronic stabilisation, which work together nicely (as long as you’re not shooting in HDR) to smooth out any judder from walking or running.

In my early tests so far (see below), the stabilisation and video quality looks slightly better than on the Pixel 3. The Xperia 1 can’t shoot 4K at 60fps like the iPhone XS, but you do get object tracking and an HDR option.

Bear in mind, though, that the latter isn’t compatible with the stabilisation, so you’ll need to be holding it very steady or using a gimbal.

Right now, the Cinema Pro app, which is designed to let you shoot in 21:9 using a range of pro settings, workflows and ‘looks’ based on Sony’s CineAlta heritage, is a bit of a work in progress.

For a start, there’s no stabilisation when shooting in the app (because HDR is on by default), and some of the ‘looks’ are very heavy-handed and only suitable for certain scenes.

I did enjoy the ability to adjust manual focus while recording, but the app became unresponsive on occasions and you can currently only string videos from a ‘project’ together rather than do simple things like cut your clips.

Sony Xperia 1 vs Google Pixel 3 – Early camera verdict

The Sony Xperia 1 is a strong new contender in the super-hot smartphone camera space.

Sony has rightly focused on features like in-depth manual modes for stills and video to make the Xperia 1 something of an alternative point-and-shoot for videographers and fans of traditional standalone cameras. And it’s good to get the versatility of a 52mm lens and wide-angle shots, like the one below.

Sony Xperia 1

It’s not yet the finished article and there are some slightly annoying inconsistencies across the camera experience – no manual mode for wide-angle or zoom lenses, no Eye AF on the front camera, and no stabilisation in its Cinema Pro app or HDR video modes. The Pixel 3 also handles noise better in most situations.

But the Xperia 1 is a good all-rounder with lots of potential. Its price pushes it right into flagship territory, but given the issues Huawei is facing, it could well find its niche as the ‘other’ camera option between the Pixels, iPhones and Galaxys. We’ll bring you our final verdict on the phone as a whole very soon.

 

 

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