Sony Xperia M5 camera review: We test out the camera capabilities of Sony’s latest mid-ranger, the Xperia M5.
Considering it packs a 13-megapixel front-facer, a 21.5-megapixel sensor on the back and 4K video recording, we’ve got high hopes.
Sony only ever makes slight tweaks to its skinned take on Android and the M5 packs an almost identical user experience to the flagship Z5 family we’ve already spent the last few months with. That includes the camera interface as well.
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By default the phone’s camera experience is set to Superior Auto mode, which feels fairly clean, with a few controls overlaid on the viewfinder. You can tap the shutter button or jump straight into recording video (1080p HD@30fps), access the gallery and switch camera modes all with the controls down the right side. If you’ve allowed location data to be saved alongside your snaps, a pin icon will appear in the top right too.
The left is even sparser, with a flash toggle, a camera switcher and a link to the options menu. In Superior Auto you can choose to switch from the default 16:9 aspect ratio to 4:3, set up a timed shutter, a smile-detection shutter, whether you see a preview of the snap you’ve just taken after capture, whether holding the shutter initiates burst capture and a toggle for face recognition.
It’s without question a full-featured experience and that’s before you dip into the options for video. The ability to actually choose capture resolution for both stills and video doesn’t actually appear unless you switch modes, which is a little annoying as it’s not immediately apparent that the default 16:9 images aren’t captured in full 21-megapixel glory (you have to switch to 4:3 for the privilege), but nonetheless it’s clean and doesn’t feel as overcrowded as the experience on offer from the likes of LG’s or Samsung’s camera experiences (although the latter has worked to slim down its UI in recent iterations too).
If you tap the mode button the Xperia M5 comes well stocked with an array of different specialised abilities; like the filters found in Creative Effect mode and Sony’s signature AR tricks – from AR Effect (think 3D T. rexs and fish passing through your snaps) to AR mask, which can overlay a face on your face (albeit poorly when compared to the likes of similar Snapchat filters). It still seems odd that Timeshift mode (read: slow-motion recording) and 4K capture are billed as standalone modes, but that’s simply a quirk of Sony’s interface design and has been presented as such since the company first added the features to its mobile devices a few years back.
Should the 13 pre-loaded camera modes not whet your appetite, there are more available to download from both Sony and third-parties through a secondary tab within the camera UI; with tools for scanning documents, augmented reality flight tracking and more on offer (although not all of these extra modes are necessarily free).
It’s always important to remember that a high megapixel count does not a good camera make, but in this instance the M5 genuinely comes with decent imaging skills to back up those big numbers, particularly for a mid-range handset.
Click on camera samples to view in full resolution (opens in new tab).
Shots from the rear 21.5-megapixel snapper are captured in a 4:3 aspect ratio at full resolution and pack a respectable amount of punch. As with most smartphone cameras it’s most comfortable in natural light, but even bright artificial lighting helped yield pleasing results from the Exmor RS sensor.
You have to crop in quite far to notice any significant degradation in image quality, making the M5 a great device for social media, where shots undergo a touch of compression during the upload process - finer details can get lost depending on the environment though. The results when using HDR feel heavy-handed with the brightest elements in our test photos becoming blown out and other areas appearing over-saturated, but the resultant images are still pleasing overall.
The other main weakness is the camera’s underwhelming macro capabilities, where the phone struggles to focus at far greater distances that other serious (and admittedly more expensive) camera phones can handle. That said the shots again retain a lot of detail provided you’re shooting your subject from far enough away.
Grain unsurprisingly appears in poor lighting conditions and the finer details become murky, but even without the flash you should still be able to take something useful away when shooting in low light. Manual control is also on-hand should you want to scene settings or white balance any further, however it’s a relatively shallow take on manual versus what you’ll experience on the likes of the LG G4 or the latest Lumia devices.
Whilst the rear camera is impressive, a look at the front of the M5 and you’ll notice it also boasts a serious front-facer. The 13-megapixel camera sensor doesn’t enjoy all the same functionality as the phone’s main snapper, but you still get some level of manual control (mainly over resolution an aspect ratio) as well as the option of skin softening (read: beauty mode), which actually does a nice job of smoothing out skin without it looking too artificial.
It took a couple of tries to get the autofocus to behave, but when it does, shots carry plenty of fine detail even in artificial lighting, making it a strong offering if you plan to snapping yourself and your friends at arm’s length.
As we mentioned at the top of this article, the Xperia M5 appears to punch above its weight with regards to video recording. In Superior Auto, the camera defaults to Full HD resolution, but in manual you can select from MMS quality and length, 4:3 VGA (640x480), right up to 1080p at 60 frames per second for super-smooth footage (60fps isn’t available on the front camera).
For the most part footage looks nice and crisp and colour reproduction is excellent. The camera struggles with exposure in high contrast scenarios, but luckily the ability to shoot video with HDR on is a nice extra that has its uses. Sony also promises fast 0.25 second autofocus, but the M5 seems to really struggle with recognising when a subject moves from near to far or vice versa. The camera sometimes remained locked in at close range for a few seconds before adjusting.
Filming handheld produces noticeably shaky footage and as there’s no optical image stabilisation system, it falls to the company’s SteadyShot software to smooth things out, which it does so well, even if there’s a signature wobble to the footage after the fact.
The big feather in the M5’s cap is that it’s a mid-range phone with 4K video recording. It’s perhaps the only new device in its class capable of capturing footage at such a high resolution and the results are rammed full of detail. You’ll still encounter the same issues with high-contrast scenarios as you would shooting at a lower resolution, but overall the quality is really good and footage is very pleasing to the eye.
The trade off is that by default shooting in 4K pulls up a temperature warning, just as you’d find when using the phone’s AR modes. It’s not a massive problem, but worth remembering if you were planning on capturing any long clips above Full HD resolution.
Sony describes the Xperia M5 as a “super mid-range” phone and even if you were going by the camera alone, we’d have to agree. Whilst it does unquestionably have a few weaknesses here and there, the camera experience feels comparable to the likes of the phone’s own Z5 siblings and the other flagship handsets in the same space.
If you’re looking for an attractive, well-featured device that places a special emphasis on camera quality, without breaking the bank, the Sony Xperia M5 can be had for around £300 SIM-free, and it’s only going to become more affordable as time goes on.