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Sony Xperia 1 II Review: Bringing Sony Alpha Controls To A Phone

The Sony Xperia 1 II. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? Real-time Eye Auto-focus system works as well as Sony’s mirrorless cameras; burst shooting mode too. Great in-hand feel
  • What’s not good? Ultrawide angle camera is just average; zoom capabilities are weak compared to others. 60Hz panel; relatively pricey

When my dad was teaching me how to drive back when we lived in the US, he wanted me to learn stick shift. I already had some experiences driving automatic, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to take time to learn a more complicated way to drive, especially since most cars run on automatic transmission anyway. Still, he was insistent.

“What can a stick shift do that an automatic can’t do?” I asked.

“It offers total control over the gears as you’re driving,” he said.

“But why does that matter in real life day-to-day use?”

“It’s just better. More control.”

His view sums up the mentality of some pro photographers, who insist their oldschool way of taking photos is better, that this new age “computational photography” stuff used in smartphones just isn’t as good.

Sony’s newest flagship phone, the Xperia 1 II, caters to the this camp. Sony wants you to shoot photos with the Xperia 1 II like you would with a DSLR or mirrorless camera — or more specifically, a Sony full frame or mirrorless camera. This means you should consider exposure and framing, and adjust shutter speed, ISO, light balance, and more before you hit the shutter button.

This is the opposite of what other phone brands have been doing with their cameras. Whether it’s the Google Pixel 4’s best-in-class bokeh portrait shots or real time HDR; Huawei P40 Pro’s ability to virtually see in the dark; or Apple’s “Deep Fusion” tech, the philosophy behind them are the same: the phone’s camera will snap a series of images (even if you’ve only pressed the shutter button once), and the brains (mobile processors) will process all the information from those images and mix them all together for a single photo with better lighting and balance. In other words, Apple, Google and Huawei don’t want you to have to think — just point and shoot.

Sony doesn’t want to dumb down the photography experience like that. It wants you to have complete control. Well, almost, anyway, as there is no way to change aperture in a smartphone with a fixed aperture. But Sony is doing a lot, with a pro-grade camera that comes shipped with the phone. Named “Photo Pro,” it has a user interface far more complicated than traditional smartphone camera apps, instead the UI closely resembles what you’d see from one of Sony’s A series of mirrorless cameras or even the recent ZV-1 compact camera. There’s a histogram to show light distribution, digital dials to control focal length, and options to control focus zones.

Sony's ″Photo Pro″ camera interface is full of buttons, dials and settings.
Sony’s “Photo Pro” camera interface is full of buttons, dials and settings. 
Sony's ″Photo Pro″ camera interface is full of buttons, dials and settings.
Sony’s “Photo Pro” camera interface is full of buttons, dials and settings. 

Now whether this is good or not depends on who you are. Much like people who choose to drive stick shift even though it takes more work, there are people who want total control over shutter speed and white balance. They may not want Huawei or Google to artificially insert light into dark street corners. These people almost certainly own “real cameras” of their own. They may even be pros.

But for people who do not belong in that camp — aka the average consumer — they will likely find the camera app too complicated to use.

The Xperia 1 II with a Sony ZV-1
The Xperia 1 II with a Sony ZV-1

There is a “regular” camera app in the phone that offers a more traditional smartphone shooting experience. But let’s be real: this phone isn’t for them. Sony’s phones have less than 1% market share globally — it is a beyond-niche product for the enthusiasts.

There are two key features of Sony’s mirrorless cameras that has carried over to the Xperia 1 II, I’ll cover them later.

As a phone

Let’s look at the Xperia 1 II as a phone: the device has a glass back, Snapdragon 865, 8GB of RAM and a 4,000 mAh battery. The trio of cameras on the back offer the usual focal length setup as almost every other phone on the market: there’s a standard lens (24mm), an ultrawide-lens (16mm) and a telephoto zoom lens (70mm). All three lenses here are 12-megapixels. The main camera has a relatively large 1/1.7-inch image sensor for better light absorption.

The Xperia 1 II has a narrow build.
The Xperia 1 II has a narrow build.
On the side are volume rockers, fingerprint scanner, and a shutter button.
On the side are volume rockers, fingerprint scanner, and a shutter button.
Xperia 1 II.
The triple camera system of the Xperia 1 II.

These are fine components and specs; they’re in line with what everyone else is doing. Everything else about the phone, however, Sony zigs where others zag.

There are still bezels here, for example. Sony never bothered to chase the notch and slim-bezels bandwagon, and the Xperia 1 II keeps its boxy rectangular design language. The top and bottom bezels are slightly slimmer by Sony standards, but they’re clearly there. I don’t mind them though, I think they give the phone a symmetrical look, and for a phone meant to be held sideways often (for photography), the bezels offer some grip.

The 6.5-inch OLED panel here is 4K resolution and has an extra long/tall aspect ratio of 21.5:9. Both of these are Sony trademarks. I like the elongated aspect ratio as it makes the phone narrower to grip, and more suited for wide-screen movies. But 4K resolution is overkill. I don’t think the human eyes can detect the difference in pixel density between a 4K panel vs a 2K or even 1080p panel if the display area is relatively small at 5-, 6-, or 7-inches. There is a reason why Apple never bothered to jump beyond 1080p, and even LG and Samsung (pioneers of the 2K movement) have offered options to lower screen resolution back down to 1080p to conserve battery. 4K on a phone screen is a marketing gimmick — I’d rather have a higher refresh rate instead (it’s just 60Hz here). At least it doesn’t seem to affect battery life too much, as the phone can still almost last a full day for me on a single charge.

Dedicated shutter button on the Xperia 1 II.
Dedicated shutter button on the Xperia 1 II.

Another Sony-specific trait returns: the SIM tray can be removed with just a fingernail, instead of needing the needle pin tool. This would be useful for me, as I often travel and need to swap SIM cards. The headphone jack is here too, as well solid stereo speakers stored at the top and bottom bezels. Overall, as a smartphone, the Xperia 1 II offers top notch performance and a premium build quality. The Android 10 running here is mostly clean, with Sony additions being all useful, like quick split-screen action.

Alright, back to the cameras.

Real-time Eye AF and burst shooting!

Here are the two aforementioned features of Sony’s mirrorless cameras that have been brought over to this phone: “Real-time Eye Autofocus” and burst shooting up to 20 shots in a second. The former is a much loved and marketed feature found in all of Sony’s digital cameras like the A6500 that I use: it can detect a human or animal’s eye, and lock on to ensure focus stays on the subject’s face, even if he/she/it is moving around rapidly or in and out of frame. Most camera reviewers agree Sony’s autofocusing system is best in the industry, so it’s great news it’s now in Sony’s smartphone.

Real-time Eye AF tracking a cat's eye.
Real-time Eye AF tracking a cat’s eye.

To use the burst shooting mode, just press and hold the shutter button, and the phone will snap 20 shots in a second. And thanks to the Real-time Eye AF, all the burst shots should keep focus well.

First test: I took a burst shot of a man riding a bicycle past me at high speed. Of the 24 images I captured of him zipping past me, his face was in focus in every frame. Below, I spliced together the frames into a collage (I obscured his eyes for privacy purposes).

Burst shot sample
Burst shot sample.

In another test, I took burst shots of kids on a moving swing; notice how each frame is sharp with no motion blur. If I cycle through the frames in the phone’s camera app, it looks like an animation.

Sony Xperia 1 II burst shooting mode.
Rapid burst shots of a moving swing.
A burst shot of a basketball being shot at in mid-air.
A burst shot of a basketball being shot at in mid-air.

The burst shot mode is ideal for photographing sports or other activities with rapid movement. Other phones may have manual modes that offer faster shutter speeds, but none can capture rapid-fire sequences of up to 100 consecutive shots (over five seconds).

Using the “Photo Pro” app, I can also capture images that are more “moody” than a standard well-lit photo. In the next sample, I purposely dialed down exposure to make the shadowed areas darker and slowed down shutter speed to reduce motion blur of fast-walking Hongkongers.

Xperia 1 II shot.
A sample shot.

But for every five or six good shots I captured, there’d be one that’s a mess, mainly because I lack the skills to make the right adjustment.

In the below sample set, I took two shots of the sky with direct sunlight with the Sony Xperia 1 II and the Google Pixel 4. Notice the Pixel 4 was able to use Google’s computational smarts to fix exposure properly, while the Xperia 1 II’s image overexposes the sky. It’s my fault — I didn’t fix exposure properly — but the Google Pixel 4 fixed the mistake for me anyway.

Two samples
Two samples.

And that sums up the shooting experience with the Xperia 1 II: you need to know what you’re doing to get a good shot. As I said, there is a regular camera app that will simplify the shooting experience, but Sony’s software algorithm isn’t as smart as Apple’s, Google’s or Huawei’s, or even LG’s and Samsung’s for that matter. There is no night mode, for example, so good luck trying to bring more light into a pitch dark room if you don’t know how to set a long exposure shot. The phone’s ultrawide-angle camera is also relatively mediocre compared to what Huawei’s offering us. Same goes for the zoom system, the Xperia 1 II can only max out at 3X zoom. Huawei’s P40 Pro Plus can do a clean and sharp 10X zoom.

You also get the same total control over video shooting, and I enjoy being able to pull off “rack focus” mid-video using manual focus. But stabilization is below par, so moving videos feel slightly bumpy and jerky compared to footage shot with an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

Total control for those who want it — but do you want it?

Back to the original story to start this review: my dad did teach me how to drive stick. And my first car was a stick. I did enjoy driving it and felt “more in control,” particularly going uphill as I can shift gears as I see fit. I also felt “cool” driving a stick shift too as a late teen.

But one day my car broke down, and my replacement rental was an automatic. As I began driving it, I started remembering how much more simple it is to drive automatic: you don’t have to think; and you can drive using just one arm and one leg instead of needing all four limbs. For someone like me who always drove and ate at the same time (Carls Jr Double Bacon Western, man!); automatic made things a lot easier.

The Xperia 1 II is a different type of phone.
The Xperia 1 II is a different type of phone.

When my car was fixed, I went back to driving stick. I didn’t dislike it, but by the I was changing cars years later, I chose to go with an automatic, because sometimes it’s nice to cede manual control to new technology.

I feel the same way with the Sony Xperia 1 II’s camera approach. I respect and admire it, but ultimately, I think Apple’s, Google’s, and Huawei’s computational approach is the way to go. It’s just easier, with less room for error.

But this is also because I’m not a professional photographer. Maybe if I was better at it, I’d like shooting with the Photo Pro app here more.

The Xperia 1 II is also expensive, officially retailing for US$1,200 in the U.S. and HK$8,000 in Hong Kong. But consider this phone’s niche audience of professional photographers, I don’t think this will matter too much. Photographs are used to paying an arm and a leg for things. Shit, a good tripod costs like US$200.

Is the Xperia 1 II for me? Not really. But I can see many who’d love this. And I respect Sony for doing something different instead of following what everyone else is doing.