How Sony’s camera guru is transforming Sony Mobile, starting with the Xperia 5

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

When Sony first introduced the DSC-RX100 in 2012, it delivered DSLR-quality pictures in a pocket-friendly, point-and-shoot camera. It was a trailblazing product that used a brand new 1-inch sensor when everything else comparable around it used smaller, less capable sensors. This is the camera that helped the company’s imaging division become the powerhouse it is today.

It was also primarily the project of Kimio Maki, who headed up Sony Imaging at the time. In June 2019, he became Executive Deputy President Sony Mobile and there are plans afoot to perform the same turnaround at the struggling mobile division. In the same way as the RX100 appealed to creative people who wanted pro-level products in their hand, Sony’s strategy to make its current and next generation smartphones more appealing follows a very similar path.

Understanding the plan

Sony Headquarters, Shinagawa, Tokyo Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

“We don’t say it anymore, but the best of Sony in your hand [a marketing phrase Sony used several years ago] is still valid,” Someya Yusuke, Senior Communication Manager in Sony Product Marketing and someone who has worked closely with Kimio Maki for more than a decade, told me when I visited Sony’s headquarters in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

When it launched the RX100, Sony gave keen photographers something that wasn’t really available anywhere else — DSLR photo quality without carrying around a massive DSLR camera. It mixed Sony’s talents to create a desirable, new product. At Sony Mobile, it’s also capitalizing on Sony’s overall wealth of technical expertise at a professional level, and integrating the most desirable aspects into a the smartphone. Beginning with the Xperia 1 and continuing now with the Xperia 5, tech from Sony’s broadcasting knowledge has been used in the display, and tech from its pro-grade and Alpha cameras has been added to the phone’s own camera.

It may sound like a company searching for a niche in a world where it’s now considered a small player; but Sony insists it’s not. The changes in Sony Mobile reflect what happened at Sony Imaging in the past, and that didn’t result in a niche win, it resulted in dominance of a product category. Sony is the world’s top full frame camera maker, and just 1% behind market leader Canon in the mirrorless space. In smartphones today? It’s nowhere.

Sony Mobile has been going through crucial changes over the past year or so, with internal shuffles bringing people from the camera side to mobile, and vice versa, and the most notable being Kimio Maki. It’s also now part of Sony’s Electronic Products and Solutions, or EP&S, where it joins imaging, TV, and audio products. Someya explained why this matters:

“More than ever we have better involvement with other product divisions. Not just to borrow branding, but to bring the products more closely together,” he said.

This is evident in the Xperia 1 and Xperia 5, which bring in expertise from the professional side of Sony to augment features and make them more appealing to those who are fully aware of what Sony’s capable of, and want the same thing in a portable device.

Pro-level features

For example, Sony makes the monitors used for reference by color scientists and editors at TV stations and broadcasters, and engineers who work on these products are involved in the development of the Xperia screens, and the Creator Mode software. This setting changes the colors, contrast, and quality of the screen image to one that’s close to what filmmakers use when scouting locations, or checking footage.

Netflix took a look, and agreed the Xperia phone screen’s colors and quality using Creator Mode are similar to what’s achieved in the professional space, Someya told me. It also pulled in help from Sony Pictures to fine-tune the Dolby Atmos audio, so it had a wider soundstage, and a more immersive surround sound experience. This is undoubtedly a fascinating collaboration; but regardless of what Sony says, it has serious niche appeal.

It’s when we talked about the camera that the wider benefits of this inter-department sharing began to appear. The Xperia 1 and Xperia 5 use impressive eye-focusing to ensure the camera locks in on the subject’s eyes, rather than the face overall. We’ve seen face tracking before, but eye-focusing is more in-line with how pro photographers take portrait photos.

“Depth is different,” Someya explained. “Focusing on the eye requires subtle and laser sharp detail, so that when the eye is recognized, it’s entirely focused at eye level. When a pro photographer takes a portrait shot, they are keen to focus on the eyes, as it makes the shot more attractive. We have this technology in the Alpha series and the RX100 series.”

  • 1.
    An example of Sony’s current Alpha cameras
  • 2.
    The original 2012 Sony DSC-RX100 camera

The Xperia 5 tracks eyes 30 times every second, compared to 60 times per second on an Alpha camera. Getting this capability from the Alpha to the Xperia was a serious challenge. Sony Principal Engineer Hiroshi Takano explained some of what was involved in taking what’s possible on Sony Alpha camera hardware, and putting it inside a smartphone that’s based on completely different hardware and software.

“Hardware wise, the phone’s chipset is completely different to the custom Sony-made chipset and software in the Alpha,” he explained. “We had to convert and import [the eye-focusing technology] to Android and the Qualcomm chipset. This results in a difference in performance, so we cannot completely copy over algorithms. They have to be optimised first.”

Smartphone product cycles are short, so time was of the essence; and Taken said that even then it still took six months to get the quality right. For comparison, professional products take many years to create, and software on an Alpha product can take between one and two years to finalize.

Video gets that pro look

Both phones have Sony’s Cinema Pro mode for video. This lets you shoot video that has the color, quality, and feel of that shot with pro-level hardware, mostly by applying different “filters” to the footage. But to call them filters is an injustice. The main look to pay attention to is Venice CS, as it’s closest to the look given by Sony’s digital cinema cameras, where the style is commonly called S709. Going to see Top Gun 2? That was filmed using the Venice style with Sony cameras, and although changes will occur in editing, the underlying look is achieved using the same style possible on the Xperia 1 and Xperia 5.

You may not be able to got out and shoot your own version of Top Gun, but giving your video a cinematic look is still desirable, and that’s why Cinema Pro exists. The look has been copied over to the Xperia, but like the eye-tracking mode, the hardware differences made it a tough task, as did ensuring Venice CS looked exactly right.

This required a long back-and-forth between Sony Mobile engineers and the pro-grade product engineers, and not only for the Cinema Pro mode, but for the Creator Mode on the display too. At the end, the color reproduction and final sign-off of Cinema Pro was the responsibility of Sony’s experts, as the unique style simply couldn’t be assessed just by plugging it into a machine to check the algorithms performed properly. It was a lot of work in a short amount of time.

Finally, there was another more controversial aspect for the teams to consider. Sony’s professional products are sold for thousands of dollars, so it was a fine balance between getting the Xperia smartphone’s features right, while still respecting the pro-level product and its audience. That it was possible at all to put these features on a phone is impressive.

The results, and the creators

I was shown a video shot on the Xperia 1, made to showcase the ability — which you can see above — and it’s truly stunning. Like so many videos we see today, it’s hard to believe it was shot on a smartphone. It made me want to grab the phone off the table and go outside to shoot film, just in case I could come up with something that was even vaguely comparable.

“The lens and sensors are obviously different,” Someya said about the Xperia 5 and Xperia 1, “But the impression you get in terms of what you create is very similar to what you’d get from professional kit.”

However, I’d used the feature before and found some of the aspects a little confusing. Someya told me Sony’s aware it needs to improve the user experience; but this and a lot of our conversation continually came back to the headline features on these phones not being aimed at casual tech fans, but at professionals and so-called creators. The inference being that they would already be familiar with the processes and advantages.

Someya and Sony believe that if you implement and promote these high grade features properly to those audiences, they have better insight into how the technology can be used, as they’re already exposed to the features elsewhere. Through word of mouth and seeing the results from the pros, others will be inspired to try out a new Xperia phone.

“Through their word of mouth and community, we will gradually reach out to mass audiences. We are not in a hurry to convince everybody at this point.”

When Sony made the DSC-RX100, point-and-shoot camera buyers got DSLR-quality photos in a smaller, more convenient package. It was expensive at the time, and a nascent niche; but people eventually loved it. The synergy is obvious, and even this unusual approach of targeting professionals with the phone is linked to the RX100’s start in life. In a 2013 interview, just after the RX100 came out, Kimio Maki told DPReview that buyers in the U.S. were not initially convinced, but once “influential people started saying it’s a great camera,” it took off.

The future

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Today, the RX100 series cameras are on their seventh generation. It’s an enduring product for Sony, and repeating this in mobile would be desirable. The integration we’re seeing now is considered stage one, Someya said. “We will continue to do more,” he confirmed.

It won’t necessarily stick with upgrading the display and camera to pro-level for its future Xperia 1 sequel either, as the organization changes mean better access to other technology.

“We will utilize other elements of Sony’s technology,” he continued. “Our goal is to make the most of what Sony can offer, and put them into the Xperia.”

The changes at Sony Imaging took 10 years to really bear fruit. Someya knows Sony Mobile doesn’t have that long, so expect to see plenty more of what makes Sony, Sony inside a flagship phone very soon, and then for it to trickle down into an even more consumer friendly device like the Xperia 5. We also don’t have to wait for the professionals and creators Sony is courting to promote the Xperia 5’s ability, as it’s available to buy from November in the United States.

Like Sony’s long, illustrious history producing game-changing products, there’s considerable evidence the unusual approach that worked for the Imaging division, may actually end up working for mobile too, especially with the man ultimately responsible for that change now at the helm.