Is Sony Hindering Xperia’s Photo Capabilities On Purpose?

Sony_Xperia_XZ_4

On Labor Day, I ran a little poll on Twitter to see what many of you thought of cameras found on Xperia phones. My question was simple – how do you find the camera on your Xperia phone to be? In hindsight, I should have been a bit more clear and perhaps asked ‘how do you find the image quality on your Xperia phone to be?’ but I think the majority who voted got the gist. As for the options readers could choose from:

  • Good
  • Bad
  • Competition is better

Since then, the results have been mixed at best. Only 50% found the image quality to be good while 17% found it to be bad and 32% thought competition offered something better. If you didn’t get a chance to voice your opinion, I’d love to know:


Update:

If you’d voted previously, please vote again as the poll mistakenly allowed you to vote for multiple options and skewed the results.

So why the polls? What got me thinking about the Xperia’s camera is the fantastic article written by M.G. Siegler called Point-and-Shoot Plus. The whole crux of the piece is where photography was and where it’s gone – which is in our pockets, thanks to our smartphones. At the heart of it all has been the iPhone.

 I found myself thinking about that camera while reading the latest rumors for the forthcoming iPhone 7. More specifically, I’m interested in the iPhone 7 Plus which will be the first iPhone to feature a dual lens camera system. The whispers suggest it’s great. Next-level great. While previous iPhone models have all-but wiped out the point-and-shoot market, some of the hype here suggests that the iPhone 7 Plus could be the first smartphone camera to take on today’s professional cameras: DSLRs. 

M.G. goes on to mimic my exact sentiment:

 Even before the iPhone 7, I’ve sort of been in this camp — which was the point of my prelude above. I seem like the type of person who would be all-in on the DSLRs. Many of my friends are. And I really enjoy photography. I’ve often thought about making the jump, but with each passing year, as the iPhone camera gets better and better, the need feels like it strays further from me. This latest iteration may kill that desire for good. 

As someone who tries to stay on top of all things Sony, you cannot image how much I lust over the E6300 or RX100 III yet when I go on vacation (honeymoon in this case) and can produce images like this from my pocket (which have been compressed):

I question why I’d need something big and clunky. I see friends who work at PlayStation and other outlets who routinely use ‘proper cameras’ and that makes me wonder, am I missing out? Yet again, I go back to the image above. Or take, for example, our entire CES 2016 coverage which was done on a rig, which just attached better mics to my phone. Do I really need a DSLR?

But the point of this piece isn’t what I need and instead, it’s what Sony needs. At the center of the photo revolution has been Apple. Instagram is notorious for heavy iPhone usage which is likely one of the reasons Apple created an entire marketing campaign called #ShotOniPhone (a heavily used hashtag) that can be found on air, in print, and even in Apple retail.

As for Flickr, things first might seem to bode well for Sony; after all, they are responsible for two of the top five cameras on there.

But if we look at mobile, Sony is nowhere to be found.

And if we look at the entire landscape which combines mobile and traditional cameras, again, Sony is nowhere to be found.

Now it’s not my taste to write about a product that’s yet to be released. After all, additional software/hardware updates will likely be made available for the Xperia XZ prior to its release, but here is what Vlad Savov from The Verge had to say:

 In my brief testing, the Xperia XZ’s focus was off as often as it was on point. Fine detail like forearm hair was blotched out, and exposure was typically too high. That being said, I flipped to manual mode, dropped the exposure to a minimum (it’s a sunny day in Berlin), and I got a fantastically sharp and accurate shot of a Canon lens cap. It was awesome enough to be convincingly presented as the product of a professional DSLR, but that suggests to me that Sony’s still got its old problems. Earlier Xperias also had terrific camera sensors allied to iffy software. I found this behavior consistent across multiple Xperia XZ units and a couple of Xperia X Compacts. None of them was especially fast to process images, either, though speed issues are more forgivable in devices that might not be running the final retail software. 

Here is a little secret for you. Two years back, I was given the Xperia Z3 for review and one of the pieces I wanted to focus on was its camera – after all, every year, Sony ups the megapixel count and rhetoric on what their phones can do which had me especially excited, since Sony doesn’t really play ball with us and give us review units.

Seeing how I had some errands to run, I decided to turn a day in downtown LA into a photo shoot. For hours upon hours, I shot with the Xperia Z3. Some of my shots were more composed where others were meant to capture how a typical consumer would react if they saw something of interest and wanted to quickly shoot it. This is because I tend to find most camera sample images from manufacturers disingenuous at best because a majority of us don’t have 5 minutes to set up the perfect shot.

Now if you don’t remember seeing my review, it’s not you. Once back, I found so much of what I had shot to be borderline terrible, which you could chalk up to me being a terrible photographer, but half of my shoot was focused on me shooting identical photos with another phone and the results were day and night. Not wanting to write an entire piece on how I found the camera to be garbage, I simply tucked the whole piece aside.

But here is the curious thing – why are Sony’s cameras on Xperia phones so regularly panned for being inconsistent? They have the ability to produce some magnificent shots and maybe more so, have been at the heart of Apple’s phones since iPhone 4s. So why can Apple improve year-over-year without resorting to the megapixel war and why can’t Sony, who uses more advanced image sensors, achieve the same thing?

As Vlad concludes:

 

I’d love to be able to convey happier news, but Sony’s camera software looks like it’s still far from the polished, finished article that it needs to be to boost the Xperia XZ and X Compact to the heights of competing against Samsung or Apple’s best. And knowing Sony, neither of these phones will be cheap to acquire.

The circle of life in Sony’s world seems to always be this way: excitement-stirring design, great camera innovation, and a chronic failure to put all the pieces together the right way.

 

But is it as simple as poorly written software? After all, this isn’t their first Xperia phone made and surely, Sony could have by now hired new talent to rewrite their camera software and algorithm. Spock:

 Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. 

Perhaps in this case, the impossible isn’t a software roadblock but a business one. Apple has routinely stated that they have no problem cannibalizing their own products – something that is the achilles heel of most companies. When asked about iPad eating into Mac sales, Apple CEO, Time Cook said:

 One thing to keep in mind if the iPad and tablets do start cannibalizing, is that the Mac has a relatively low share in the PC market, so we actually have a lot more to win because of that, while our competitors have a lot more to lose. 

For most other companies, this mentality is hard to grasp and it tends to come back to bite them. Windows famously did not want to go mobile because desktop is where their clients would be – they now have around 2% or less of the market. Canon & Nikon for years thought digital photography would be a fad which allowed Sony to jump into the point-and-shoot market and eventually, DSLR. Now they routinely trail Sony, a favorite among new photographers who don’t have decades of lenses stockpiled as is evident by Flickr.

Cybershot_T_SeriesPerhaps Sony now faces a similar challenge. There is no doubt that camera sales, especially point-and-shoots, have dropped off a cliff since the start of the smartphone revolution. Where Sony used to focus on thinner and even more entry level Cyber-shot units with the W series and the then ludicrously thin T lineup, their main focus today is the E-mount series and high-end RX100 lineup.

For Sony, at the $100-$300 range, there is likely little innovation they can provide that would convince you to leave with your phone and camera during your next outing. But once we get into the $500+ category, Sony can provide sophisticated shooting controls, interchangeable lenses, and videography that ‘most phones’ can’t match. As I argued earlier, I think a majority of consumers have reached a point that the cameras on their phones is good enough, or perhaps more than good enough. But that doesn’t mean that for Sony, their camera division still isn’t lucrative and perhaps that’s the problem.

While Sony Mobile barely turned a profit for the first time in recent history, at least Sony’s camera business continues to hum along. Don’t get me wrong, the division will continue to shrink over time, but on the other end, Sony can keep pushing into higher-end cameras which provide them with bigger revenues.

Let it be known that I have no insider insight on this matter and am purely projecting my thoughts onto screen but lets revisit that Spock saying again:

 Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. 

Maybe it’s just that – they don’t know how to do good software and their entire camera woes in mobile are rooted in poor engineering. Or perhaps Sony doesn’t want to challenge and cannibalize their own camera division which in the short term makes sense. But when an entire generation has moved on to mobile only, you’ve not only hurt your prospects of capturing them, but now have a division (cameras) that is no longer attractive, no matter what whizbang feature it pumps out.

The biggest danger now for Sony is if M.G. is correct:

 And yet, image quality absolutely matters. For most, the iPhone hit the good enough threshold long ago. Apple clearly knows how to do cameras the right way. For some of the would-be DSLR folks, it may hit that threshold with the iPhone 7 Plus. 

It’s pretty clear that Sony has never been able to capture consumers attention with their Xperia camera qualities and that competitors devices like iPhone have always had superior cameras. But what if the next iPhone pushes into DSLR territory?

Discuss:

Do you think Xperia cameras never achieve their potential because of poorly written software or is this more a business decision?

  • Jonathan Leong

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”

    Sherlock Holmes, not Spock 😛

  • Talos the Robot

    The only true reason is that they get more money from the sensors they sell to iPhone, Samsung and the other phone companies, and that’s why they cannibalize their own phones. All the others stories of this article is bullshit.
    But the reason you buy a phone is not only for the camera, but the whole user experience and Sony phones have maybe the best user experience in Android, with long lasting reliability and support and that’s why I buy their phones.

  • steve99 jobs99

    I agree most of this article is to make Iphone look good.
    Just all bullshit.
    The 2nd and 3rd chart is a joke its got nothing to do with the camera just people are brainwashed in to buying Iphones.

    Please Sohrab stop writing for Sony and go work for Apple already.
    and get your head out of apples ass and open your eyes

  • But sensors and cameras are 2 different divisions

  • You sure? Damnit, the Internet failed me. I even looked it up as a Spock quote and it came up. Must have been Spock quoting Sherlock

  • Sorry you see it as such

  • steve99 jobs99

    Sony just came out with some great news yesterday and not one word about it on your site … to busy working the apple show a guess?????

  • Jonathan Leong

    Spock quoted Sherlock in one of the movies.

    To be fair Spock did that a lot.

  • Jonathan Leong

    I’ve owned a Z1 and currently have a Z3. I’ve often found my photos better than my friends Android phones in a comparable generation. My phone would often have features more advanced like sweep panorama, 3D photos and 4K video [again in a comparable generation].

    Sohrab, you have an interesting theory but your graphs and quotes have an alternate explanation. For example, we know Sony’s market-share is quite low so the fact that none of Sony’s phones show up in the graphs correlates with its market share.

    And no offence to The Verge (which I do like to read), but I wouldn’t count on them to do a proper quality test. There are better sites/experts for that kind of thing.

    I would say, if you’re trying to make the argument Sony could do better than I would agree but you’ve taken an odd route to communicate that idea.

    That being said, I love your site and keep up the good work.

  • Thanks Jonathan. You’re absolutely right Sony tends to put out advanced features and indeed works on a lot of AR components in their cameras. However the problem is the inconsistency with their photos. I’m equally with you that as a whole, I think what the Verge pumps out is eye-roll worthy and I state as much. After all, judging a phone before it’s officially released is unfair. However, I’ve seen it time and time again from numerous sites where the camera on the Xperia phones ultimately gets panned. The problem is rooted in 2 parts, either Sony is way over promoting and overhyping what they can offer or that there is is this inconsistency issue with their cameras where they CAN produce good photos, but also can struggle for no apparent reason.

    So the reason I then bring the Flickr graphs into it is that you’re absolutely right, in smartphones, of course they don’t rank because they have nearly no marketshare. However, when you factor the over all ecosystem of Flickr, it’s dominated by smartphones, not DSLR and high-end point-and-shoot cameras right? So if Sony’s strategy has been to hold back the cameras in Xperia models in order to give their camera division a leg up, it’s ultimately hurting them because how most consumers choose to shoot photos (on mobile). And that if we are getting into an era where smartphones can pull off DSLR like photos, then not only has Sony suddenly lost in mobile, but their camera division is about to take even a greater hit.

    I hope this better frames my argument and always appreciate your comments.

  • No, unfortunately I’ve been sick the last week, that’s why coverage has been a bit low so I’ve been mostly in bed. But if you follow SRN on Twitter, I think you’ll see a lot of good commentary/insight about PS4 Pro that a lot of people I believe missed.

  • Captain_Tom

    I have to back up your statement here: The Xperia Z line towered above its competition.

    My 2 year old Z3 is still better than my friends’ newest phones lol. They are constantly busting out chargers while I sit their and go “I’m fine, my 2 year old phone is at 75%”. It also has waterproofing (DONT TRY SALT WATER!), 4K video, 6.5K pictures, and imo it is still the most attractive phone made.

    Yet Sony doesn’t advertise for it at all in the United States. Seeing Samsung’s new commercials advertising their (Inferior to Sony’s) waterproofing p ! sses me off to no end when I have had this for years!

    Sony should have continued to iterate the Xperia Z line on its core values: Battery Life, Camera, and attractiveness. But instead they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

  • dbjungle

    The answer is simple… Sony’s Intelligent Auto sucks. I just used Google Camera for the longed time to avoid this, but recently I have started using Manual Mode in the Sony camera with ISO Sensitivity set and the results are fantastic. Unfortunately this is a camera you have to tweak. Getting the Android lock screen to pull up my settings or my preferred app would take it even further.