Sony Xperia 1 v: musings on PureView, image purity, ProRAW, and more... Has Sony gone far enough?

Long time readers of my scribblings on camera phones will know my passion for photos to be captured as they look in reality, not in some high contrast, over-saturated, edge-enhanced version of reality.

Sure, the latter look better on 6" phone screens. That's why these trends have become common. But the photos themselves are terrible in terms of image quality. By which I mean they've been messed around to look great on the phone or embedded in a narrow social web feed but you can't do anything else with them.

Say you want to use a section of the photo only, cropping in to a group of people or an object in a scene. Or you want to show the photo on a large desktop display or TV.

Good luck with that with a photo grabbed at 12MP on an iPhone or Pixel or Samsung flagship with all default settings. You'll see artefacts, jagged borders where there should be none, and general 'over-processing'.

Which is why I applauded Nokia's 'PureView' approach ten years ago with the likes of the Nokia N8, 808, and 1020 - in each case using the camera's hardware to do the heavy lifting in terms of accurate image capture, so that edge enhancement, sharpening, and noise reduction simply weren't needed.

Although most phone camera software has gone a different way, I do find much to like in what Sony is doing with its Xperia phone cameras generally, in that the images that are spat out are fairly naturalistic and un-enhanced - after all, you can do that yourself if you really want to. I've also become a fan of Apple's ProRAW toggle in the iPhone Pro series, which keeps all the clever AI texture and HDR stuff but omits the final populist edge enhancement and sharpening steps. Especially when setting ProRAW to still capture at 12MP, so still doing all the Quad Bayer noise reduction and oversampling as the Sony.

Begging the question as to how well the new Sony Xperia 1 v actually shapes up in the purity stakes. Given the new stacked CMOS (and Quad Bayer) sensor, I'd hope that there was almost no enhancement or sharpening.

Spoiler alert: this isn't the case, and Sony's image processing algorithms seem static and the same as on older and lesser phones - which is a shame. What's needed are new algorithms for the new sensor/flagship.

I have some evidence, anyway. In each test photo, I'll show the whole scene/frame, and then show detailed crops from, in turn, the iPhone 14 Pro Max in default (populist) mode, the same in 12MP ProRAW ('PureView') mode, and finally from the Sony Xperia 1 v.

Note that I'm deliberately (mainly) concentrating on natural details rather than man-made objects - the latter lend themselves well to artificial processing as they already have sharp edges. But nature - trees, grass, animals, and - yes - faces, all have infinite fractal detail, and that's what's so hard for a phone camera to capture, process, and spit out in JPG form.

Test 1: Distant tree

Here's the full scene, as shot on the Xperia 1 v:

And here are central crops from, in turn, the Xperia, the iPhone, and then the iPhone with ProRAW toggled on:

True, we're hitting the law of diminishing returns to some degree - we're having to look at 1:1 crops and squint at on-screen pixels in order to see differences. But to my eyes, the crop from the ProRAW capture looks most 'natural', followed by the iPhone in default mode, and then the Xperia close behind. 

Hmm.... not really what I was expecting, but the shots are so close that different eyes can see different things. Let's move on...

Test 2: Sunny bench

Here's the full scene, as shot on the Xperia 1 v:

And here are central crops from, in turn, the Xperia, the iPhone, and then the iPhone with ProRAW toggled on:

The thing to note here is not the bench itself but the grass - in which crop does the grass look most natural? And it's here that the same order from the previous test pops up: the best rendering of grass is on the iPhone with ProRAW toggled on, then the iPhone in default mode, then the Xperia 1 v, which disappoints again with edge enhancement that really doesn't need to be there.

Test 3: Sunny flowers at 2m

Here's the full scene, as shot on the Xperia 1 v:

And here are central crops from, in turn, the Xperia, the iPhone, and then the iPhone with ProRAW toggled on:

The story repeats, except that the iPhone ProRAW detail at the pixel level is simply stunning. So pure and so natural. The iPhone in default mode beefs up edge enhancement and, as a result, looks a little artificial, but it does at least have a grasp on exposure and HDR. The Xperia is the 'sharpest', unnaturally so, plus it also manages to blow out sunny highlights.


It's at this point that I should stop and think about how I'm using the Sony. I'm using the default Photography Pro application, in its 'normal user' BASIC mode (as opposed to the various Alpha Camera user interface modes). So I shot some scenes in AUTO mode within the Alpha interface, with the same results. Although there are a zillion options in the Settings within these modes, nowhere did I see a 'JPG quality' or similar toggle.

I have other test scenes, in which I was hoping to show that the Sony Xperia 1 v produced naturalistic results that were better than those from the iPhone, but with the current image processing it seems that even the latter's default 'populist' mode produces more natural results than the 'Pro' Xperia. Hmm...

There is absolutely no need for Sony to be applying such edge enhancement to results from a double-stacked 48MP 1/1.35" sensor - there's already so much light available and so much data to resolve pixels from. 

I'll contact Sony PR and try and get an official statement from the company. Watch this space.


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Robin Ottawa said…
Great assessment. I also want less enhancement, especially from the pro apps!
Thanks again and again

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