Mobile phone camera technology has come a long way in recent years, from the substandard VGA offerings of yesteryear to the compact camera-challenging smartphones of today. Even the most basic device is now able to offer a dizzying array of options for the photography-conscious consumer, including intelligent ISO, wide-angle lenses and face recognition.
At the very top end of the camera phone market, The Nokia N8 has long been considered the benchmark by which others are measured. Boasting a 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, xenon flash and autofocus, its arrival showcased just what was possible when taking dedicated digital camera features and placing them into a smartphone.
However, the new Sony Xperia S looks set to steal the Nokia’s crown. The Japanese manufacturer’s flagship unit not only matches the Nokia’s megapixel count, it also includes super-fast capture and the impressive Exmor R sensor technology, the very same sensor that can be found in Sony’s high-end compacts.
Both handsets certainly impress on paper, but which has the best image capturing capability in the real world? We decided to compare the devices in three key photographic areas to see which performs its duties to the highest standard. The areas under the spotlight are:
- Point-and-Shoot Mode
- Landscape Mode
- Macro Mode
When used as an out-of-the pocket snapper, the Xperia S cannot fail to impress. Its ability to shoot from standby in just 2.2 seconds by simply holding down the shutter button means the device is ready to go virtually as soon as you see the shot. This, when combined with the intuitive on-screen interface means that those special moments can be captured as they happen. Our test images gleaned high quality results showing good colour saturation and little loss of clarity.
The Nokia N8 wasn’t able to match the Sony unit as a point-and-shoot device, the lag when going from a locked unit being far longer than that exhibited by the Xperia S. The on-screen interface is competent rather than impressive but the compact size of the handset does aid composition when putting together a shot. Image clarity and saturation is broadly similar to that of the Sony with only marginal differences in sharpness.
Overall, the Xperia S is clearly the stronger of the two devices in this department. Its super-fast capture alone is enough to impress the user and the ease of use when shooting quickly makes it more competent out of the pocket than the slower Nokia device.
When composing more considered shots – such as landscape photography – the N8 is really able to show its strengths. The Carl Zeiss optics system ensures a sense of realism within the image and optical performance is outstanding, with no border degradation and impressive resolved detail. Our test images produced strong results, particularly in cloud detail, where the depth of tone was clearly evident.
The Xperia S was similarly competent when composing landscape images and the Exmor R CMOS sensor really pulls out the very best of the image, with colour saturation of a high standard and tonal range balanced across the board. Additionally, the f/2.4 lens aperture gives the processor as much light as possible to work with, as is evident in our test shots.
Both handsets excel when putting together landscape images, with each playing on their respective strengths of high quality optics and a top-end sensor in order to create photographs with clarity and depth. The larger 4.3-inch screen of the Xperia is of some benefit here; the N8’s 3.5-inch display meaning composition is slightly more difficult. However, this is a small gripe and we see it is a dead heat between the handsets in this department.
For the keen photographer macro mode is a vital feature (particularly in wildlife and still-life image capture) and the Xperia S really is able to shine here. The conveniently programmed auto-macro setting captures close-ups with quite frankly dazzling clarity and exceptional detail. The Exmor R sensor really is able to flex its muscles in this mode, providing results that easily equal the majority of dedicated compact cameras.
In comparison, the N8’s macro credentials are somewhat disappointing. Extreme close-ups are simply not possible and the camera struggled to lock a strong focus in our tests, even at conservative distances. The mode is not entirely redundant but it is not one that inspired us.
Although competent, the N8 really is no match for the Xperia S as a serious macro camera. The Sony device exudes quality in this mode, something that sets it apart from the pack and the auto-macro functionality makes capturing high-quality close-ups a breeze.
Despite both handsets providing an engaging image capturing experience and each yielding impressive results, Sony’s Xperia S is the clear winner here. The combination of swift image capture, excellent colour saturation and impressive low-light capability make the handset a top-drawer compact-camera equivalent. There seemed to be no situation in our testing that could push the Sony handset beyond its limits. The Exmor R sensor is a revelation and as such the image output of the camera is consistently of a high quality.
The Nokia N8, although not matching the Xperia S in a number of areas, certainly does not shame itself though. The Carl Zeiss optics provide distortion-free images and the xenon flash gives indoor shots a realistic sheen. The macro setting was a letdown and out-of-the-pocket speed gave a sluggish feel to proceedings at times, but the device still felt top-drawer in most photographic situations.
Overall, both of these handsets provide credence to the argument that the modern smartphone really is a valid alternative to the digital compact camera, and with rumours of the forthcoming Nokia 803 handset suggesting optical zoom and a super-large sensor, the bar looks set to be lifted even higher in the near future.
Edit: You can now view hi res versions of our test shots (including shots testing the flash on both handsets) by clicking here.