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Last week we published a comparison of the cameras on the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Sony Xperia Z1 on AUTO mode. From the pictures we published, the Sony Xperia Z1 emerged as a better camera. While we think most users will use their phones in AUTO mode, what happens when you want to put some time and effort into your shots and switch to manual modes. That’s exactly what’s been done today. My name is Faisal Khatib and I am a professional photographer, and here are my thoughts on the Lumia 1020 and the Sony Xperia Z1 as far as using them as a camera are concerned.

Initial Impressions

The Sony Z1 feels well balanced in the hand with the extra weight, aluminum frame and non-obtrusive design. The same can’t be said about the camera placement because my fingers kept blocking the lens. The camera app UI is typical Android fanfare with a dumb proof Auto mode- or as Sony like to call it Superior Auto. The Manual mode is where my interest belongs and it is limited to Exposure compensation, White Balance and ISO which is hidden in the menus. As a photographer, I would like a little bit more control and thus I found the Xperia Z1’s camera app as a little underwhelming and disappointing.

In your hand, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is like a lighter and slimmer version of the Lumia 920. The phone feels nice to shoot with but in comparison to the Xperia Z1, it feels a bit flimsy. The Nokia 1020 with its Amber OS update comes with the Nokia Pro Camera as its default camera app. Nokia does take the Pro bit a little more seriously so along with the usual Exposure compensation, White Balance and ISO settings you also get manual focus and shutter speed. With three different exposure controls, there are infinite possibilities (think shutter priority in a DSLR) but there is a catch- you can only use two exposure controls at a time due to the fixed apertures on phone cameras.

General Thoughts

With a powerful processor to boot, the shot-to-shot time on the Z1 is pretty impressive for the 20.7mp resolution- which is only available  in manual mode. In comparison, not only does the camera on the Lumia 1020 takes more time to launch but the shot-to-shot times are dismal thanks to the phones insistence on saving a smaller 5mp image (for sharing) along with the huge 36mp image. The other option is to only shoot 5mp images which kills the point of owning the 1020.

The Xperia Z1 defaults to the previous mode and settings you’d used if you use the app icon which is a lot better than the Nokia 1020 that defaults to auto. Oddly if you used the camera shutter release button on the Z1 to launch the app then it defaults to auto as well. The Lumia 1020 settings are easy to access via radial menus making the whole experience quite intuitive once you get a hang of it. With shutter speeds ranging from mind boggling 1/16000secs to streaks of light worthy 4 secs; you do a little dance of happiness. Manual focusing was perfect for times when you didn’t want the camera to spend extra time re-focusing for every picture you took of the same scene.

Macro

The Sony Z1 with its decent 8cm MFD (Minimum focusing distance) along with the 20mp resolution is able to resolve almost the same amount of magnification as the Nokia 1020 which has an abysmal MFD of 14cms. This is the situation where you might find yourself using the dreaded digital zoom that technically only saves a zoomed in 5mp image leaving the 38mp untouched.

Both of the sample images below were shot in incandescent WB with ISO at 100 with the shutter speed on the 1020 1/20 secs to give us an EV of 0 (EV on the Z1 was set to 0). The Z1 image on both the phone and computer looks quite similar while 1020 image got an ugly purple tint on the computer. Both photos look underexposed on the computer though the exposure on the Z1 was closer to reality thanks to the fact that the phone decided to ignore my ISO 100 setting and shot the image at ISO 125.

That being said, even though the Z1 does better when it comes to color reproduction the 1020’s wins hands down thanks to its bigger sensor delivers a crisper image with heaps of detail. (Color correction can easily be done with minimal image degradation)

Macro-Comparison 100pc crop

Note: The exposure in the 100% crop images has been fixed by 2/3 a stop though the full resolution versions are untouched.

Landscape

Straight out of the phone, the Z1 images look flat and boring. It doesn’t handle the bright light well as colors look washed out. The in-phone processing adds loads of sharpening that helps bring out the details of the objects closer to the camera (car number plate) but makes things further away a fuzzy mess.

The Lumia 1020 on the other hand churns out a more pleasant image as it handles the scene with better colors, decent amount of contrast and a better exposure. With less sharpening applied, overall detail overall is adequate w/o getting fuzzy or artifact crazy.

Both images suffer from a purple tint that is more evident in the gradient sky. Distortion is a bit worse for the Xperia Z1 while the 1020 vignettes a little more. Neither stands true to the sample images we’ve seen from the manufacturer thanks due to local hot and dusty weather in Dubai that results in more noise and softer images. The Z1 fuzziness makes it almost impossible to edit to improve upon.

Landcape-comparo

Just to figure out the upper limit of the shutter speed, I bumped up the ISOs of both phones as I pointed the camera at the sun. The 1020 tops out at 1/16700secs while the Z1 tops out at a crazy 1/20000secs. Interesting to note that even though I’d set the ISO at 400 for the Z1; it decided to shoot the image at ISO 500. Clearly it doesn’t mind going 1/3 a stop up or down to meet an incremental stop in the shutter speed unlike the 1020 that has the weirdest of shutter speeds increments possible.

Images were shot in sunlight WB with EV at 0.3 and ISO at 100. The 1020 picked the shutter speed on 1/1768 secs as I set the other parameters.

Low light Landscape

As previously mentioned, the Lumia 1020’s slowest shutter speed is 4 secs. Obviously that is not a shutter speed you can hand hold at but give it any kind of stabilization (in my case a tripod) and we can create beautiful long exposure images. Due to the fixed aperture, more often than not you’ll find yourself shooting at shutter speeds of 2 secs or more unless you can throw in a Neutral Density filter into the mix. On the other hand the slowest shutter speed for the Z1 is 1/8 secs which gives us under exposed and somewhat boring images at ISO 100.

The color reproduction, noise control and detail of the Lumia 1020 image is miles ahead of the under exposed and over sharpened image of the Xperia Z1. The Z1 does handle lens flare better but that’s down to personal taste. Also the auto focus on both these phones struggled but more often than not the 1020 got it more right.

Images were shot at ISO 100 with a Tungsten WB.

ISO performance

The Xperia Z1 has a limited range of ISO50-800 at full resolution so even with a 1/3 aperture advantage (f2 over f2.2 for the 1020) the Z1 struggles in most low light situations. At maximum ISO, noise levels are quite acceptable when not viewed at 100%. Oddly once again the phone chose to ignore my ISO 800 setting and shot the image at ISO 1000 in some shots.

The Lumia 1020 has a clear 2 stop advantage over the Z1 images with an ISO 1600 shot having similar amount of noise as a ISO 400 shot of the Z1. The larger sensor on the Lumia 1020 outshines the Xperia Z1 again.

Flash

Neither the Xperia Z1 or the Lumia 1020 will make skin tones look natural and you’re better off avoiding flash completely. Though if the need ever arises, the Xenon flash on the Lumia 1020 is brighter and looks a lot better. The Fill flash on both phones is decent though couple it with some slow shutter speeds on the Lumia 1020 and you’ll get some pretty cool results.

Auto Mode

Using the 1020 normal camera app in auto mode gives us a small 5mp image that look similar to the Pro camera app images in color rendition but lack the resolution. On the other hand the Z1 in auto mode shoots larger 8mp images that seem to handle the in camera sharpening better than its 20mp sibling. So the Z1 does indeed shoot better images in Auto mode but that just boils down to the bucket loads of sharpening along with the higher resolution. Obviously all of this is moot if you instead use the Nokia Pro camera app in auto mode that basically makes all the decisions for you while giving you those high resolution 36mp images. It is worth noting that the Z1 gives you a better exposure and color rendition than the 1020 in either of auto modes.

Conclusion

On its own, the Xperia Z1 does make a case for itself as the best Android phone camera. With a decent sized sensor and fast shooting times, the Z1 shows a lot of promise but is let down by the post processing that each image goes through. Hopefully a software update from Sony might be able to fix that down the line.

The Lumia 1020 has the best image quality I’ve seen out of any phone. The bigger sensor helps achieve immense amount detail along with best in class low light performance. With addition of manual controls, it allows you to be creative in ways that weren’t possible before with a phone camera.

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Faisal Khatib is a professional freelance photographer along with being a blogger, timelapse video freak, pessimist, proud uncle.....and that's about it!

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