Smartphones have targeting and shooting cameras (remember them?) That beat in many ways, but there is one thing that traditional cameras still do better than phones: zoom. The new Sony Xperia 1 IV aims to change that with a real lens with continuous optical zoom. This is certainly a technical achievement, but at this stage it is more a proof of concept than a change in the game.
At $ 1599, it’s also a high-priced concept. To be sure, you will find many first-class specifications of the device, starting with 6.5-inch 4K (well, 1644 x 3840, but close enough) OLED with 120Hz refresh rate. It also has a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, IP68 waterproofing, 512 GB memory, 12 GB RAM, 5000 mAh battery and even a headphone jack. But $ 1,600 matches the most expensive versions of the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, both of which give you at least 1TB of storage for that kind of money.
In any case, the Xperia 1 IV has something neither Samsung nor Google offer: this lens with continuous optical zoom. Of course, many smartphone cameras allow you to pinch and zoom, but this is digital, not optical zoom. At least right now, optical zoom usually works better than digital, because it actually uses moving lenses to zoom in on your subject. Digital zoom is usually simply cutting out a wider image and reading the AI to try to recreate details it has failed to capture – more as an educated guess than a basic truth.
You can also have a telephoto lens on your smartphone, such as a 3x lens (or 77mm equivalent to use movie-era terms familiar to photographers) on the iPhone 13 Pro or 10x (230mm equivalent) on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. They are also not “magnifying” lenses, which means they are fixed and do not allow you to move between focal lengths. The Xperia 1 IV telephoto lens is different because it allows you to adjust the focal length to 85 mm, 125 mm and somewhere in between.
Smartphone manufacturers stick to fixed lenses because they are smaller and cheaper. Shrinking the moving parts of the zoom lens to the size of a smartphone is a technical challenge for which obviously few OEMs. Oppo unveiled a concept for continuous optical zoom last year, but has yet to launch it. To be honest, the Xperia 1 IV only exists in prototype form right now and won’t be available to consumers until September, so Oppo can still beat Sony. But until then, the Xperia 1 IV offers our only real, tangible proof of a real increase in smartphone size.
This is a great achievement, but it is also a disappointment.
For starters, this is a a lot small magnification range: only 3.5-5.2x compared to the standard 24mm wide angle. Sony says it chose these focal lengths because they are traditionally used for portraits and are individually useful for this purpose. I’m just not sure how valuable the space between them is.
Before we get too far into the zoom lens, here’s a brief description of the three rear cameras of the Sony Xperia 1 IV:
- 16 mm F2.2 ultra-wide: 12-megapixel 1 / 2.5-inch sensor
- 24mm F1.7 standard width: 12-megapixel 1 / 1.7-inch sensor with OIS
- 85-125 mm F2.3-2.8 telephoto magnification: 12-megapixel 1 / 3.5-inch sensor with OIS
All three rear camera sensors support a high-speed reading of 120 frames per second, so Sony’s face and eye recognition works seamlessly on each. Seriously, it’s almost terrifying how good he is at finding the eye of the subject and sticking to it, and it works almost flawlessly on all rear cameras. It also has a 12-megapixel front sensor that already supports 4K HDR video.
The Xperia 1 IV is sometimes capable of fantastic images – photos I’m amazed I was able to take with a smartphone. But the module I was able to demonstrate is also inconsistent and sometimes makes poor judgments about white balance and challenging lighting scenes. The phone I’m testing is a prototype, so things are subject to change before the device is shipped later this year, but Sony’s senior product information manager El-Dean Naude says he doesn’t expect much to change between now and then.
First, the good thing: this phone has this real zoom lens and works pretty well. It’s a little soft, but certainly good enough for the small size of images used on social media. The small magnification range doesn’t make much of a difference for distant subjects, but close up for portrait subjects provides some extra flexibility.
With good lighting or permanent indoor lighting, the Xperia 1 IV is smart when choosing a balanced exposure with vivid colors that don’t look too saturated.
It is sometimes difficult in mixed or dim indoor lighting – not surprising, given the smaller sensor and darker aperture compared to the main wide-angle camera. There are also some gaps in the white balance or HDR effect that turns white ice into fresh gray fish. Some of my zoom shots look a little overexposed and are softer than they should be. Sony’s Naude acknowledges a problem specific to the prototype with 5.1x autofocus, which I can clearly see in my device, but these exposure and quality issues are seen at other focal lengths.
Also, the fact that the Xperia 1 IV works with small sensors and small optics compared to a traditional camera cannot be ignored. Sharp shots of moving objects in low light are a challenge, as they are for all smartphones, and don’t expect to get a lot of splitting of the subject even at the long end of the telephoto.
The Xperia 1 IV offers a lot of manual video control – much more than an enthusiast, a photographer like me, can hope to understand and use correctly. As in previous models, all this is housed in the Sony Cinema Pro app. Fortunately, for this year’s model there is a simpler video recording application: Videoography Pro. It also doubles as a live streaming app. I haven’t used it widely, but so far I find it much more convenient and familiar than Cinema Pro.
Most of my worries about the Xperia 1 IV stem from its price. For the same MSRP Galaxy S22 Ultra offers excellent portrait mode, standard wide, ultra wide, 3x telephoto, and 10x telephoto. For my money, I prefer to have a long range of 10x lens and a portrait-friendly 3x digital zoom lens between them, instead of two portrait lenses connected by optical zoom.
Xperia 1 IV has class IP68, which means stable protection against dust and water, but it is not clear how tolerant the lenses inside the Xperia’s zoom will be to daily shocks and wear. Sony has not answered my question about this at the moment and I will update this article if they do. Until then, it seems that moving optics can be pushed out of alignment more easily than fixed lenses. If I spent $ 1600 on this phone, I would like to know how careful I should be with it.
In the end, Sony put a good zoom for targeting and shooting on a smartphone. This is an impressive feat. In practical use it is a little less impressive. In essence, these are two lenses that perform the same function: portrait photography. The fact that there is an optical zoom that connects them does not make them much more flexible. Maybe the next iteration will go a step further with a longer magnification range. Meanwhile, this concept still seems to be under development.
Photo by Alison Johnson / The Verge