When it comes to camera performance on smartphones, generally speaking a modern compact camera will still be preferable to those who want to capture those unforgettable moments at the best quality possible. The gap between compacts and smartphones is getting smaller however, with some smartphones, like the Xperia X10, offering the same amount of features found on dedicated cameras.
Featurewise, the Xperia X10 camera has alot more to offer than the iPhone 4. Some of its photo taking features are a dedicated camera button, smile detection, scene selection, facial recognition and white balance, all of which the iPhone 4 lacks. Features they have in common are a single LED flash, location detection, auto focus and manual touch focus. A unique feature of the iPhone 4 camera is HDR (“High Dynamic Range”, more on that later), but other than that, you won’t find any options to play around with on Apple’s device, which aims to make everything as simple as possible.
So, in terms of features the Xperia X10 clearly has the advantage. But does that mean it takes better pictures? Let’s study some sample shots and find out. Camera settings for all pictures were as follows:
Xperia X10 camera settings:
- recording mode: normal
- resolution: 8M
- scene: normal
- focus mode: single autofocus
- light meter: center
- white balance: auto
- image stabiliser: off
- geo location: off
With the iPhone 4 we have no meaningful options to set, except for turning on HDR for some shots (see shot descriptions to find out which pictures make use of this feature).
All pictures have been uploaded untouched, at their full resolutions (8M for Xperia X10, and 5M for the iPhone 4). Click on each thumbnail for the full-sized version.
First up, a shot of rails under a dark bridge:
The first thing you may notice by looking at the thumbnails is the big difference in colour. Colours are warmer on the Xperia X10 shot, and have a colder, purple-ish hue on the iPhone 4 shot. You will see this difference on other shots below, so let’s address this first of all. Depending on exposure, the iPhone 4 tends to create this blue/purple hue when there is a stark contrast in light and dark in the frame, as is the case in this picture under the bridge. It tends to go away when you focus on the brighter parts of the frame (focus also automatically sets exposure level when you touch the screen on the iPhone 4 camera application), but that is a poor solution. When it comes to colour, the Xperia X10 produces more natural, pleasing colours, most of the time.
Now here is a shot similar to the one taken by the iPhone 4 above, but this time with HDR enabled. When you enable this, the iPhone saves two pictures, one without HDR, and one with HDR applied. HDR basically uses different exposure levels so dark parts of the picture get brighter, and bright parts get darker, so they are not overexposed. It may sound like a gimmick, but as you can see in this sample, it actually works pretty well. Notice how the sky on the left side has turned blue, and you can actually see the clouds. Also, you get a much clearer look at the building in the background, which you can not see on the regular iPhone 4 sample, nor on the Xperia X10 shot. Now when we say HDR works pretty well, we should say it works pretty well most of the time. On some pictures, HDR introduced unacceptable artifacts, so it’s a good thing an untouched version is saved at all times.
That’s enough about colour and HDR for this picture, what about detail? The Xperia X10 camera has a resolution of 8 megapixels, which is much more than the 5 megapixel resolution of the iPhone 4 camera. But, as we will find out shortly, higher resolution does necessarily mean a higher amount of detail. Here is a closer look at the fence under the bridge (see sample 1), zoomed at 100%, with the Xperia X10 shot scaled down to match the iPhone 4 shot:
This shot perfectly demonstrates different approaches to noise suppression applied to these devices: on the iPhone 4, you see a grainier picture, where on the Xperia X10, everything is smoother and less noisy, but more importantly, also much less detailed. You can actually see the lines of the fence in the iPhone 4 shot, which have been completely suppressed (or erased) by the Xperia X10 camera software. This does not appear to be due to only high JPEG compression: there are alternative camera applications available on Android, which use less compression than the stock Sony Ericcson camera software, but these do not seem to resolve more detail.
In this close-up of dirty, melting ice, notice the colour difference. The Xperia X10 shot is more natural, and the iPhone 4 shot is slightly over-exposed. At first glance detail seems impressive for both shots, but at 100% the iPhone 4 shot is a little sharper and better detailed. (The pink shape on the center left side of the iPhone 4 shot is my finger covering the lens, sorry about that.)
In this picture the sun is going down, so conditions were not optimal for taking pictures. This gives us an opportunity to see how well these cameras perform in lower light conditions. Basically, we start to see a pattern here: Xperia X10 provides more natural colours, whereas the iPhone 4 has better detail. Notice how clearly defined the upper edge of the billboard is on the iPhone 4 shot (zoom in at 100%); the Xperia X10 has trouble capturing this kind of detail. Also, notice how undefined background objects (like the trees) can become on the Xperia X10 sample.
A similar shot to the one above, but with HDR enabled. The differences are more subtle than they were in the last HDR comparison, but notice how the parked cars in the background become more visible, and the inside of the billboard is much clearer.
The biggest flaw in the iPhone 4 camera is immediately obvious here: colour looks totally off. The houses in the background turned purple. See the Xperia X10 sample for what they should look like. Other than that, once again the iPhone 4 camera does much better detail: notice how grass farther away from the camera is smeared and undefined on the Xperia X10 sample.
Here is the exact same picture as “iPhone 4 sample 4”, but with HDR turned on. Colour contrast is a bit too high, but overall this picture turned out nice and really shows the benefit of HDR. All of a sudden we can see what the weather was like when this picture was taken. Background trees are now well defined, and we can clearly see the reflection in the water.
In this sample, contrast is still a little high on the iPhone 4, but colours look more natural this time around. In terms of sharpness and detail, there is no question: the iPhone 4 camera does a much better job. Here are some comparisons (at 100%) highlighting the difference:
Time for one more sample shot:
Here we see the Xperia X10 was better at handling the exposure, as there is more blue in the sky, which is completely white in the iPhone 4 sample. Colours look better on the Xperia X10 shot (as goes without saying by now), but it quickly goes downhill from there, as the Xperia X10 completely chokes on the high amount of detail present in the scenery. It did not help that the weather was pretty bad that day with little sunlight, so conditions were challenging for both cameras. Here is a closer look:
Basically, all detail got highly compressed on the Xperia X10 side, with the branches on the foreground looking smeared and pixelated, and the pond in the background being barely recognizable.
Before we conclude this comparison, let’s take a quick look at one last important aspect of taking pictures: camera operating speed.
In the time we took 8 pictures with the Xperia X10, we managed to take no less than 25 pictures with the iPhone 4; a huge difference! The resolution of the Xperia X10 was lowered to 6 megapixels in order to match it closer to the iPhone’s 5 megapixel resolution, which makes the resulting files comparable in size. The Xperia X10 has to write the files to a class 6 microsd card, whereas the iPhone 4 writes to internal memory, which partly explains why it is so much faster.
That was quite a test! If you read all of that and looked at the sample pictures carefully, you deserve a pat on the back. If you did not do either of those things, we can’t really blame you, as this article turned out much longer than we expected, and we haven’t even covered the video camera yet! (More on that in an upcoming post.)
So, what to make of these cameras? Given Sony Ericsson’s experience in creating solid cameraphones, it’s only natural to expect good things from the Xperia X10, which was the first Android smartphone to feature an 8 megapixel camera. Apple’s track record on the other hand, is quite the opposite: before the iPhone 4 was released, cameras on iPhones were basically an afterthought, offering poor performance at best. With that in mind, the results of this comparison are quite surprising. The Xperia X10 offers many tweakable settings and great colour reproduction, but it is slow to respond and pictures lack detail. The iPhone 4 on the other hand has basically no settings, so you have little control over white balance and exposure, resulting in unnatural colours alot of the time. Detail however is pretty great, and operating speed is lightning fast. HDR is a useful addition as well, which is likely to show up in more smartphones in the future. In summary:
+ Great colour reproduction
+ Lots of settings
– Low operating speed
– Poor detail
+ Photos are very detailed
+ Snappy operating speed
+ HDR actually works
– Colours tend to have a purple/pink hue
– Few settings
Overall, we like the iPhone 4 camera best, because of its ability to resolve a huge amount of detail, and super fast operating speed. Ideally we’d combine it with the Xperia X10’s colour reproduction, which is simply in a league of its own compared to the iPhone 4 camera. Hopefully, Sony Ericsson and Apple will take cues from each other for future smartphones. Things can only get better as technology advances, right?