Camera Comparison: iPhone 5S vs Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z1

December 10, 2013

In this comparison I will compare the iPhone 5s camera versus those of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z1.  The iPhone 5s was announced on September 10th 2013, and with it are high expectationsfor a more capable camera that will improve upon image quality and performance.

If you are interested to learn about the differences between the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5 cameras, I recommend reading my iPhone 5S camera comparison article.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z1 rear-facing cameras are known for their high image quality. Not everyone is basing its buying decision no the camera’s performance, but no doubt that some people give it much more weight and want to buy a phone that have very high imaging capabilities.

When I say “imaging capabilities”, I refer to a few parameters which many people use in order to estimate the imaging performance of a specific mobile device: image quality, low-light performance, built-in software features and user-interface and other complimentary hardware (e.g. LED flash) and software specifications.

As an enthusiast photographer, I am also searching for a phone that can take gorgeous photos, but also one that will give me more creative freedom, especially important for a mobile phone camera that you take everywhere you go.

iPhone 5S, Galaxy S4 and Xperia Z1 – all have a common con, and this is due to the lack of optical zoom, and all are utilizing a fixed constant aperture lens, also referred to as a “prime lens” in the professional field. A prime lens has its cons and pros like any other lens, but the main cons is due to its lack of zoom and also for its small sensor size. Prime lenses perform better than zoom lenses in almost all cases, although there are some exception depends on the type of lens of course.

In this comparison we’ll take a closer look at the camera specs and I also help you to better understand what each one means and its direct implications on the final image quality and the camera capabilities.

Specs Comparison – iPhone 5S vs Galaxy S4 vs Xperia Z1

phone comparison: Sony xperia z1, iphone 5s, samsung galaxy s4

iPhone 5s (left), Samsung Galaxy S4 (middle), Sony Xperia Z1 (right)

Before we get deeper into talking about the differences between those three cameraphones, you should be introduced with the specs of each camera. The specs by itself can tell us a great deal about what type of digital camera we are actually looking at, and this can tell us a bit more about what we expect to see later on in the image quality analysis.

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The above specs camera comparison table draws us a good picture of the differences between those three cameras. Let’s talk about each of the key differences seperately.

The first thing I want to talk about is the sensor size. The sensor size plays a significant role in the camera’s image quality. However it’s not that the sensor size itself is what matters, but the size of each photodiode (light sensitive pixel) is what counts. We can see that the iPhone 5s has the largest pixel size of 1.5 microns, whether both the SGS4 and Xperia Z1 have a much smaller pixels.

Another thing to note here is that although the iPhone 5s has the largest pixels, the Sony Xperia Z1 has the largest sensor, relatively much larger than both the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy S4 sensors.

The Sony Xperia Z1 features the highest megapixel resolution, and therefore has much higher pixel density, therefore it has the smallest pixels. When I looked at the DxOMark results, I Was quite surprised to see how well the Z1 sensor copped compare to the other two, but result in a lower dynamic range and suffer from stronger JPEG artifacts  when compared to the iPhone 5s.

sensor size comparison: iPhone 5 vs Xperia Z1, Galaxy S4

sensor size comparison: iPhone 5 (red) vs Xperia Z1 (green), Galaxy S4 (blue)

The image above illustrated the differences. You can clearly see that the Sony Xperia Z1 sensor is much bigger, but again, it features the smallest pixels among the three. Apple took a more safe approach and unlike Samsung and Sony that went with high megapixel sensor to attract the customer, Apple used a slightly larger sensor than the iPhone 5’s 1/3.2″(4.54×3.42 mm) and stayed with the same resolution, allowing Apple to improve the low-light performance of the camera and promote better IQ due to a larger pixel (1.5 microns vs 1.4 microns) and faster lens, which I will talk about it in a moment.

iPhone 5s vs iPhone 5 image quality comparison – the iPhone 5s iSight camera has proven to produce higher image quality in many tests done by phone review websites. The difference is very evident in online sample images. Apple iPhone 5s result in images with less noticeable noise and result in better low-light performance (indoors, evening, parties, candlelight, etc). The faster aperture and the True Tone flash certainly helps too.

The Sony Xperia Z1 applies much stronger in-camera sharpening which is very visible when viewing the photos at 100% scale. The Samsung Galaxy S4 applies much stronger NR, which makes the image look much smoother, but comes as the cost of fine details.  At smaller scale, the S4 images look better due to the image processing. Both use very small pixels and although the Z1 enjoys a faster aperture lens, its larger sensor will produce sharper images due to its much higher resolution. Considering the Z1 high resolution, I am quite impressed with the Z1 performance. If you care about capturing more details from the scene for further editing, the Sony Xperia Z1 will give you more cropping freedom, although image noise is even quite evident at ISO 64 (Can be seen here on flickr – shot at ISO 64 / f2.0 aperture).

The Z1 sensor low-light performance is very good, but it’s petty that we get to see artifacts due to much stronger sharpening, which by itself emphasize the noise in the image.

The iPhone 5s sensor is larger by 15 percent over its predecessor the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5s image quality was improved upon that of the iPhone 5, but comparing it to the S4, the iPhone 5s has an advantage in lo light both in terms of color reproduction and sharpness. The Dual-LED flash and larger pixels certainly help here.  I personally didn’t see a huge difference compare to the S4, and I even preferred the S4 images in bright daylight.

No doubt that Sony puts itself very strong in the camera department with the Z1 with its 20.1MP large sensor, but all three lack an important feature and that is a True optical image stabilization mechanism. An optical image stabilization would have helped getting much better low-light photos due to better stabilization in low shutter speeds—therefore a faster shutter sped has to be used and that limits the amount of light that can reach the sensor.

I side note. I personally like the fact that Apple stayed out the megapixel race.  Smartphone cameras feature a very tiny sensor, leaving the Nokia 808 PureView and other unique models aside. Even 8MP is a lot for such a small sensor. I wouldn’t even mind going with 6MP as long as I get to enjoy better image quality.  Most people share their photos on the web and make small prints, there isn’t a need for such a high resolution image, especially for high quality editing and large prints due to the relatively low IQ of photos that are coming from smartphone cameras.


“True Tone” Dual-LED Flash vs Single LED Flash

The iPhone 5s enjoys what apple calls a “True Tone” Dual-LED flash. This flash is composed of two LED lights, each one with a different color tone, one warm and one color. There are 1000 mix combinations available, and those are designed to offer true-to-life color reproduction when shooting with the iPhone 5s in various types of lighting conditions. Different lights have different color temperatures, and that this was handles by cameras using a white balance correction software. Apple took another approach that allow photographers to get more natural looking images when shooting with a flash light.

You all know how photos with flash look like, mainly poor visuals and artificial color cast.  The Apple iPhone 5s dual-LED Flash certainly helps in that regard. I assume that most people prefer shooting without a flash, mainly because of photos look with ti. I was quite surprised that all three have opt not to embed an optical image stabilization mechanism and to play with that digital IS, which is optimized mainly for videos due to the video low resolution compare to stills.

An optical image stabilization can save people from using the flash in low-light, and help produce much more natural looking image that better reflects the scene as the photographer sees it. So considering the fact that non of those phones have IBIS, the iPhone 5 certainly has the advantage in this department, and I think it’s probably the most interesting feature of the iPhone 5, and it’s not necessarily a good thing as I was hoping for much better innovation from Apple’s latest device (..thinking iPhone 6 like me?).


All three phones enjoy the option to extend their camera capabilities using apps, they are all smartphones after all. Nevertheless, phone manufacturers spending quite a deal of time and effort on built-in camera features. Samsung Galaxy S4 is probably the first phone that broke all records when it comes to built-in camera software features.

Samsung has introduces not less than 10 new camera features, including the Eraser, Dual-shot, Drama shot, Best photo and others.  I personally care less about filter and effects, as those are offer better using 3rd party apps. However it’s nice to have those built-in features that some of them are quite innovative and unique– that helps push the camera sells at the time of launch.

I would give my to score to the Galaxy S4, Sony Xperia Z1 in second place and iPhone 5s in the last place.  I wouldn’t based my buying decision on that factor alone, not at all. In some cases it comes at the cost of the lack of innovation in the hardware section, but the S4 has relatively very good camera, so the S4 as a package offer a great value to the photo enthusiast.

Waterproof Camera

The Sony Xperia Z1 is a waterproof smarphone, and YES! you can shoot with it underwater up to 1.5 meter depth for 30 minutes max.  The Sony Xperia Z1 carries both IP55 and IP58 certification. That means that it is both water jet protected, waterproof  (1.50 meters of freshwater) and dust-resistant.

For you, the passionate photographer this means that you can shoot with the Z1 in the pool underwater or even at the desert or at the beach without worrying about your phone getting damage due to dust and other type of small particles.

Thinking about it, this is probably the best feature I’ve seen in any other phone camera.  Think about it, you can record underwater videos with it, that’s so cool. This opens a whole new world of creative possibilities. You will come home with photos and videos that none of your friends can shoot (At least those who don’t have a waterproof digital camera or phone).

Memory Expansion

The iPhone 5s is the only one among the three that lacks a microSD card storage expansion slot.  The iPhone 5s is available in both 16GB, 32GB and 64GB internal storage capacities, but that comes at a much higher cost. Being able to use a memory card certainly helps for those who love taking lots of photos and shooting high quality 1080p videos. Furthermore, if you are out of space, you can just put another card in and shoot more.

This is a big plus because most of us take their phones everywhere they go, even for holidays. This means that on your next vacation your can shoot lots of pictures without worrying about backing them up on your computer or uploading them to an online photo hosting service to make more room for more photos. for the casual photographer and for daily basis it’s not an issue, because you can take lots of photos and videos even with 16GB space.


The displays plays a significant role for enthusiast photographers. The screen serves both as a viewfinder and a photo album viewer. Having a bigger and higher quality display will boost the fun factor and allows you to better enjoy viewing photos and videos.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z1 have the advantage. Both have a 5 inch Full HD display. The iPhone 5 has a smaller display and also lower resolution.

Screen size comparison

Screen size comparison: iPhone 5s (4"), Sony Xperia Z1 and Samsung Galaxy S4 (5")

This is probably one of the biggest advantages of using a phone with a large display. If you don’t mind the size of the phone, you will enjoy a better visual experience with the S4 and Z1.


The Sony Xperia Z1 is has an amazing camera. IT features a 20.7MP BSI Exmor RS (relatively) large sensor, Sony G lens optics and wider angle lens (27mm compare to 31mm of the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S4), faster maximum aperture of f/2.0, NFC large 5-inch Full HD display with Sony Triluminos technology to enhance image reproduction in various parts of the image based on visual data, microSD card slot, huge 3,000 mAh battery and it’s both waterproof and dust-resistant.

After viewing sample images of the Sony Xperia Z1 and taking all of those extra features into account, we can’t deny the fact that the Z1 is one of the most compelling smartphones when it comes to its camera capabilities. What I like about the iPhone 5s is Dual LED flash, slow motion video recording and IPS display for displaying share and natural looking rendering. However, the iPhone 5s lacks an expansion microSD card slot, has the least impressive battery among the three (due to its smaller size obviously) and it has the smallest display as well.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 feature dual-shot, has a large display that produces very saturated visuals (some of you might not like that though). It comes with a wide arsenal of built-in software features, including Eraser, Drama shot and HDR. It offers a very good image quality in low-light too, but lacks the Xperia Z1 wide-anhle, waterproof capabilities and faster lens.

The Sony Xperia Z1 grabbed the 2nd position below Nokia 808 PureView on DxOMark, and that certainly tells us about the overall capabilities of the camera in terms of its sensor performance. I personally was quite impressed that Sony was able to put it off with such a high-megapixel sensor, and I was surprised to see how well the Z1 performed in low-light. The use of a large sensor is the reason for that, but it just makes me wonder how the Z1 would have performed with a 8MP sensor resolution.

I personally give my top score to the Sony Xperia Z1 as an overall package. The waterproof and dust-resistant capabilities shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I am sure that many of you will know how to use it well.

What’s your opinion, which one your prefer? — share your opinion in the comment section below. Thanks for reading.

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