Camera head to head: Lumia 950 vs Sony Xperia XA1

Matthew Weflen writes:

With new first-party hardware nowhere to be seen (the last being the Lumia 950 in November 2015, a full 19 months ago), and Microsoft’s messaging a complete train wreck (“We are supporting Windows 10 Mobile! No wait, we are supporting Ultra-Mobile PCs! Umm, how about… we are committed to mobile in some way, shape or form?!”), it seems like many formerly loyal Windows Phone fanatics are losing faith and contemplating jumping ship.

Sadly, I am one of them. After starting out with a Lumia 900, moving to a Lumia 1020, and now to a Lumia 950, I want off this roller coaster.

But I don’t want to give up my Lumia-level imaging. The 1020’s wonderful camera turned me into an amateur photography enthusiast, inspiring me to purchase Sony’s Alpha a5000 mirrorless camera. But sometimes, the best camera is the one you have with you. My 950 has served me well in this regard, and I am loath to give it up, especially when I see how it compares to other leading phone cameras in Steve’s wonderful camera head-to-head series here on AAWP (which I can fairly safely say is one of my favorite things on the internet).

Lumia 950 and Sony XA1

In my search for a Lumia 950 replacement, I want a few things. I want great optics, expandable storage, and a dedicated shutter button, but I also don’t want to break the bank. As such, Sony’s XA1, released May 1 2017, was high on my radar. Featuring Sony’s 23-megapixel “Exmor RS” sensor, sized at 1/2.3”, and a f/2.0 aperture 24mm lens, it seems on paper at least to be physically capable of competing with the Lumia 950’s 20-megapixel sensor, sized at 1/2.4”, with a f/1.9 aperture 26mm lens. Both are backside-illuminated sensors, which should improve low-light photography by placing all light-blocking circuitry behind the CMOS sensor. The Lumia 950 has physical Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), while the XA1 does not, opting for a digital solution instead. Nonetheless, I am excited to see how the XA1 fares – Sony has equipped it with the same sensor and lenses that they utilized in their 2015 flagship, the Xperia Z5.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. So let’s start snapping and pit the results against each other, using Steve’s Famed Interactive Comparator. All shots were taken on auto settings (unless otherwise specified) at full resolution, and cropped to 900×500 for comparison.

TEST 1: STILL LIFE WITH GOOD INDOOR LIGHT

It was a bit cloudy and rainy out on my first testing day, so I decided to go with a ‘still life’ featuring a few household objects and some money. Here is the whole scene, as presented by the Lumia 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

Both cameras do a pretty good job with this brightly-lit scene. Both succeeded at rendering the delicate cross hatching on the lower portion of the $50 bill. The Lumia 950 renders everything with a warmer tone, which in fact is a bit too warm compared to the real scene to my eyes. The 950 beats the XA1 in terms of overall detail. Notice on the cars the pearlescent paint jobs – the 950 gets it right on both the green and blue cars, while the XA1 only renders the pearlescent flecks on the green – the blue car remains flat.

Lumia 950: 9 pts; Sony XA1: 7 pts

TEST 2: INDOOR MACRO

I decided to hone in on the paper money, because of the oodles of detail and the challenging reflective color schemes. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

Interestingly, when things get closer, the Sony XA1 ends up delivering the better shot to my eyes. The color is truer to life, and the focus across the entire frame is better than the 950. In the comparison shot above, notice the delicate cross hatching in the corner of the $50 bill – it is much clearer in the XA1 shot. The extremely subtle threads in the paper of the bills are absent in the 950 shot.

Lumia 950: 8 points; Sony XA1: 10 points

TEST 3: OUTDOOR MACRO

Here is your basic outdoor macro shot of a flower. It was rather windy, so it provided a good challenge for both cameras’ abilities to focus and snap quickly. Here’s the overall scene, as shot by the 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

The Sony XA1 continues its winning streak with macro shots. The Lumia 950 shot completely butchers the delicate transition from white to yellow in the flower – the Sony shot represents what the flower looks like to my eyes. This yellow tint was evident in every attempted shot on the 950. Both cameras do a pretty good job with detail, showing crusty bits of pollen and tiny dirt particles inside the petals.

Lumia 950: 7 points; Sony XA1: 8 points

TEST 4: OUTDOOR SCENE WITH FOLIAGE, SUNNY CONDITIONS

A sunny day in Chicago! I headed over to the nearby Japanese garden to get some shots with foliage. Here is the whole scene, as presented by the Lumia 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

Both shots do a very nice job with color and contrast, with the Lumia 950 appearing just a bit richer in color and less washed out by the bright sunlight. Foliage betrays Sony’s over-aggressive edge enhancement routines, which are detrimental to the image. The 950 also does a better job resolving detail in the shadows of the pagoda ceiling. But all told, these are pretty close.

Lumia 950: 9 pts; Sony XA1: 8 pts

TEST 5: PARTY! INDOORS, POOR LIGHT WITH FLASH

Ah, the venerable “simulated party” shot. Here is the whole scene, as presented by the Lumia 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 cropXA1 crop

Predictably, both shots look like hot garbage. Xenon flash these ain’t. In point of fact, both shots have aspects to recommend them. The XA1 does a pretty decent job with the background books, while the 950 better renders the beer bottle and gives me less of an ashen pallor. All in all, I think the 950 just edges the XA1 in this battle of the bottom feeders.

Lumia 950: 6 pts; Sony XA1: 5 pts

TEST 6: URBAN LANDSCAPE, OVERCAST CONDITIONS

Time to capture some modern architecture from a distance. This sort of shot is pretty challenging for a smartphone, at least for pixel peepers, anyway. Here is the whole scene, as presented by the Lumia 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

The 950 again renders things too warmly by half, lending the sky an almost pinkish hue. The XA1 rendered the colors accurately. With that said, the 950 maintains focus across the frame better than the XA1. Taking a closer look at the detail in the background, it is clear that neither phone excels at long-distance detail. But the 950 does a better job giving us at least some fine detail in the distance, while the XA1 again overdoes the edge enhancement. To be fair to both cameras, zoom is not their forte, and both pictures looked at in total are fairly nice. They’re just not 1020 snaps, are they?

Lumia 950: 8 pts; Sony XA1: 6 pts

TEST 7: ALLEY AT NIGHT

This is my home’s back alley at nighttime, lit by a few streetlights. Here is the whole scene, as presented by the Lumia 950:

Overall scene

In case you want to grab the original images to do your own analysis, here they are, from the Lumia 950 and Sony XA1, click the links to download. And to look at the images in more detail, here are fairly central 1:1 crops, just wait to make sure the page has fully loaded and then use your mouse or trackpad pointer to compare the images:

Lumia 950 1:1 cropXA1 1:1 crop

Both phones turn in a pretty admirable performance here. A fair amount of detail is evident in both images. The XA1 has more ISO noise, while the 950 has a smoother look. The 950 resolves more details in the shadows, and the overall snap has more detail and color gradation as a result.

Lumia 950: 7 pts; Sony XA1: 6 pts

VERDICT

  • Lumia 950: 54/70pts
  • Sony XA1: 50/70pts

This was a pretty close battle, with the XA1 consistently delivering better color than the 950, but the 950 consistently delivering better detail, especially on long shots. Sony’s hyper-aggressive edge-enhancement algorithms were really detrimental to fine details in the distance, and I wish they would tame it as the Lumia imaging team clearly has. The 950 also performs better in challenging light conditions, though the XA1 did not embarrass itself by any means on this score.

For potential ship-jumpers, the question is how important camera is to you. The Sony XA1 offers an attractive phone with a dedicated shutter button (indeed, a button layout identical to a high-end Lumia) and a very high resolution sensor with solid optics. Nonetheless, despite a few wins for the XA1, the 950 was consistently just a bit better.

For me, the deciding factor ended up being performance across other areas of the phone. During my testing, Facebook (which takes upwards of 12 seconds to load on my 950 running Creators Update build 15204) locked up and required a forced reboot with battery removal. My power and shutter buttons’ behavior on the 950 was inconsistent at times, requiring several attempts to engage the camera or turn on the screen. Heat generation was significant with all this picture taking.

The 950 takes better pictures in most conditions than the XA1. But once you try a phone that “just works” in quick succession with a W10M device, the flaws in the OS, not to mention the dearth of apps, become ever more glaring.

I’ve decided to switch to the XA1 as my daily driver. I go in, eyes open, knowing that my pictures won’t look quite as good, though no one on social media will likely notice. If Sony could but rein in its outlandish post processing, then the gap would narrow even further. I think I will also use this opportunity to lean more heavily on my Sony a5000 mirrorless camera for “serious” photography.

Matthew Weflen

Sony XA1