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Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Camera Review: Big screen, big snappers

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra camera review: The XA1 Ultra doesn’t just boast an expansive 6-inch display, it also squeezes in a high-resolution primary camera and a serious selfie snapper with OIS. Here’s how they handle.

Arguably more than most manufacturers right now, Sony is playing the field by offering powerful smartphone experiences in both small packages, like the flagship-class Xperia XZ1 Compact, as well as large ones, like the competent mid-ranger that is the XA1 Ultra.

Big screen aside, it also fits in a pair of really respectable-looking cameras too. On the back is the same 23-megapixel Exmor RS sensor that you’d find on its similarly-specced siblings; the Xperia XA1 and new XA1 Plus, sporting an f/2.0 aperture, 24mm wide-angle lens, phase detection autofocus (PDAF) and the company’s own SteadyShot electronic image stabilisation (EIS) system.

As for the front camera, Sony’s gone all-out giving the 16-megapixel sensor dedicated optical image stabilisation (OIS), as well as a single LED ‘Smart Selfie’ flash all its own. It also utilises a 23mm wide-angle lens and again rocks an f/2.0 aperture.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Camera Review: UI

This generation of Sony phones sports pretty consistent camera interface design, with simple swipe gestures controlling both mode and camera switching, a fairly clean viewfinder that keeps it simple with only basic controls readily accessible and a context-sensitive settings menu that presents you with different options with regards to resolution, image stability and more, depending on which mode you’re shooting in.

Xperia XA1 Ultra Cam UI

It’s easy to get up and running if this is your first time with an Xperia camera but diving into the settings menu is really the best way to lock down just what abilities the XA1 Ultra’s camera system can offer up and how to get the most out of it.

Along with a manual and video mode, the Camera Apps section adds in a few, more creative experiences, including the company’s signature AR shooting mode, which drops pixies and dinosaurs into frame. There's also slow-motion shooting, panorama capture and more.

The Ultra’s feature set also includes a dual-detent hardware shutter button which can wake the phone and snap instantly (although resultant shots are more likely to turn out blurred) or be preprogrammed to simply quick-launch the camera. There's also a palm shutter function tied to the front camera that initiates a shot when you hold an open hand in-frame.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Camera Review: Photo Quality

Sony's Superior Auto shooting does an impressive job of balancing colour and contrast depending on the scenario you're working in, helped by the fact that it shoots with HDR by default. Depending on the scene detected by the phone colours appear to undergo slight tweaking, making already vibrant subjects like the flower samples we captured really 'pop'.

We were also impressed with how well the Ultra coped with high-contrast shooting; demonstrating a wider dynamic range than you might expect from a mid-ranger such as this. Details also remain relatively clear when zooming in, save for low light situations, where they're subsumed by grain. Despite this, you can also expect competent low light shooting, especially when using the flash, which creates appealing results even with the relatively harsh light it throws out.

As for the front-facing camera, it exhibits many of the same traits as the Ultra's main sensor, with nice colour and contrast accompanied by a well-balanced soft skin beauty mode that isn't overbearing. Detail takes a slight hit in artificial lighting and a more severe one in low light, even if the front-facing flash goes a long way to recover from more challenging, dingy shooting conditions.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Camera Review: Video Quality

With the conservative MediaTek chipset running the show and the Ultra’s mid-range standing, the main camera doesn’t offer up 4K video recording or even 60fps Full HD shooting, leaving you with conventional 1080p video at 30fps or less. What Sony has squeezed in is HDR video recording at the same resolution, with the promise of brightening dark areas and better balancing lighter ones.

In practice, standard Full HD footage appears accurately coloured, with the phone demonstrating fast, albeit jerky automatic focus and contrast adjustment, along with offering clear audio recording. The company’s SteadyShot tech isn’t perfect but proves effective at taking out some of the natural shake that comes from walking whilst shooting on the phone too; at least enough to offer up usable footage.

That said, there’s an unmistakable lack of clarity and detail at play, paired with what appears to be a narrow dynamic range that crushes blacks all too readily. Naturally, HDR mode seems like the obvious remedy to such a problem but therein lies a new issue, with footage that, although more balanced, appears washed out overall.

The front camera’s video chops are also worth testing, particularly with the promise of OIS on the table. Interestingly, in our samples aspects that weren’t handled with enough grace when shooting through the phone's main snapper, such as contrast adjustment, appear to be far less of an issue for the front-facing sensor.

It's also clear that the OIS system is doing its job even if, like the main camera's SteadyShot-powered results, it's not the perfect remedy, it still holds plenty of promise for selfie fanatics or vloggers on a budget though.

The XA1 Ultra does offer a competent video experience but it also highlights the clear distinction between mid-range and flagship-class optics and image processing.

Sony Xperia XA1 Ultra Camera Review: Verdict

The XA1 Ultra's camera setup exhibits a notable disparity between still and video quality. Its front camera is arguably the more balanced of the two sensors overall, making this the ideal companion for selfie lovers and vloggers on a budget, as mentioned earlier.

In natural light shots pack in pleasing amounts of detail and colour, it impresses in some challenging environments and packs in some fun shooting modes too, despite its lower price tag.

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