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Sony Xperia Pro-I hands-on: Seamlessly professional

Sony Xperia Pro-I
(Image credit: Future)

With the Xperia 1 III making its mark by being the de facto Android smartphone for creators, Sony now takes it up a notch with the Xperia Pro-I — a branding name I can get on board with when compared to the slightly perplexing 1 III, 5 III, 10 III, and so on. More camera than smartphone, the Pro-I’s standout feature is the 1-inch Exmor RS CMOS image sensor Sony managed to fit in the smartphone. Or, more specifically, a 1.0-type sensor.

That’s what acclaimed British filmmaker Philip Bloom explained in detail during Sony's hands-on event in London. It was sorely needed, too, as I appeared to be the only attendee that struggled to keep up with the current state of camera technology. Yes, I am a numpty when it comes to cameras, and whipping out my bare-bones iPhone SE (2020) may not have been a good look in a room filled with expert photographers. Once the Xperia Pro-I was placed in my hand, however, I didn’t feel so out of the loop. 

 Sony offered a hands-on look at its next step in smartphone camera technology with the new Xperia Pro-I, and not only did it transform me into a (temporary) professional photographer, but Bloom also claims a photo “looks like it’s from a camera, not a phone.”  

Sony Xperia Pro-I walkthrough   

After being invited to the photography-focused event, I was keen to try out the Sony Xperia Pro-I to see if it really does offer the “professional imaging quality” Sony claims it achieves. I was a fan of the Xperia 1 III, stating that it’s a marvelous Android smartphone for photographers and content creators alike. Since the Xperia Pro-I shares similar specs but with a bigger focus on camera capabilities, my one query was this: can Sony justify the $1,799 price tag despite the $1,299 Xperia 1 III already being a creator-focused smartphone?

(Image credit: Future)

Philip Bloom, known for his cinematography and camera work for big-time productions and companies such as Lucasfilms, BBC, CNN, CBS, Discovery, and more, shed some light on this question. The BAFTA award-winning filmmaker iterated his use of high-quality equipment, stating that he owns around 120 cameras. That’s an impressive collection, but the most important statistic he mentions is that 90% of them are from Sony. “I only use the best,” he says, and a majority of the equipment just so happens to have Sony’s signature on them.

Bloom currently shoots a number of documentaries and reviews for camera over on his YouTube channel. During the event, he showed us one of his “short films” that was shot entirely on the Xperia Pro-I — no extra equipment or vlog monitor kit to stabilize the phone, just a man and his smartphone. 

Now, this cat-filled feature wasn’t going to win any awards, but it did pique the interest of the camera enthusiasts in the room. The footage was shot using the Pro-I’s main 24mm shooter with the 1.0-type sensor, and right off the bat I could tell the quality is impeccable. This isn’t a smartphone that relies on AI to mimic the clarity and detail found in professional-grade cameras, it’s a proper camera that naturally captures images.

The Pro-I’s phase detection autofocus and Bokeh effect were also key features Bloom homed in on, with Lollipop the cat in the spotlight. Instead of the digitally grainy or blurred look you get when using typical smartphone cameras, everything appears naturally swish. Bloom was most impressed by the Bokeh effect, stating that it “looks like it's out of focus,” as it should when using a proper camera.

My take on the short but sweet short film is that it looks like a stylized advertisement. That’s not throwing shade; I find it incredible that this was shot and edited on the smartphone in just one day. When I look at ads, I can imagine the amount of time and money spent on equipment to develop something that will appeal to customers. Being able to do that with just a smartphone on a casual day out? Color me impressed. 

Sony Xperia Pro-I impressions 

Finally, I got my hands on the Xperia Pro-I. Almost immediately I thought “this looks and handles exactly like the Xperia 1 III,” with the only real differences being the centered camera lenses and new Video app. It boasts the same long footprint and brick-ish thickness as Sony’s latest flagship phone, but still feels compact and looks stylish thanks to a brushed finish. 

Sony Xperia Pro-I

(Image credit: Future)

The Pro-I’s long form factor complements the exclusive “Pro” camera and new video apps, along with the signature shutter button that allowed me to hold and operate the phone like a camera. I assume that’s what Sony was going for, and they nailed it.

Sony didn’t just lend us the phone to take pictures of an empty room, as they brought along a professional model and dancer so we could see the phone in action. They put me in the shoes of a temporary professional photographer and cinematographer, and while I don’t think I will be hired for my work anytime soon, the Pro-I’s auto mode and reliable stabilization feature had me snapping pictures like a trigger-happy pro.

(Image credit: Future)

From changing the lens on the fly to altering the frames per second it’s shot in, there are a host of easily accessible options to mess around with in the Video app. Audio levels, shutter speed, ISO and more are shown at the bottom of the screen to keep tabs on, along with the recording time and battery left I had to work with. I also easily switched from auto mode to manual with a flick of a switch, letting me touch and track what I needed to be in focus. There’s also the option to zoom in and out by adjusting the slider, but Bloom came over to say not to touch that, as it can ruin the quality of the shot. Needless to say, my finger stayed well away from the zoom slider from then on.

I was then invited to a photoshoot with an elegantly dressed model, and there was thankfully an actual professional photographer on hand to talk me through the various options available on the photography app. From changing the shutter speed to 1/80, to configuring the ISO to 400, the photographer showed us all the little tweaks that could be made in order to set up the perfect shot. Admittedly, most of this went over my head, so I asked her how she would use the phone and the advantages it offers.

(Image credit: Future)

“With this, I don’t need all the extra spotlights that come with setting up a photoshoot. Give me a big window with some light and the phone sorts the rest out,” she said. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch her name, but it was great to hear her realistic take on the Xperia Pro-I. She explained that it was an ideal phone for photographers, being a jack-of-all-trades of sorts. If that battery on her main equipment died, she would have no problem getting outstanding shots thanks to the impressive camera tech on board. Plus, if she needed wide shots of landscape, taking the Pro-I instead of hiking with heavy equipment would be a more favourable option.

With the eye-catching snaps I took, I was easily convinced that the Xperia Pro-I has taken smartphone photography to another level. Not only is this a phone that camera enthusiasts need to keep an eye on, but people with any kind of interest in photography or cinematography can deepen their knowledge of how to capture the perfect shot. 

Sony Xperia Pro-I specs 

The Xperia Pro-I has been made to allow users to shoot, edit, and send with a single device, and it all starts with the shooter. As Sony puts it, "THE Camera" features a large 1-inch Exmor RS CMOS image sensor with a phase-detection AF sensor, inspired by Sony's RX100 VII. This allows for less noise in low light settings, clear details and natural bokeh effects. Plus, the image sensor has a 2.4μm pixel pitch, which is a significant step up from the Google Pixel 6's 1.2µm pixel width.

(Image credit: Future)

The main sensor also features ZEISS optics that's been specifically made for the Xperia Pro-I. This features a dual aperture of F2.0 / 4.0, so users can change the depth of field on the fly.

As for the three lenses on the phone, expect a 16mm ultra-wide, 24mm wide, and 50mm standard, along with a 3D iToF sensor that Sony claims can instantly calculate the distance between the camera and a subject. All feature 12MP resolution. The front-facing camera is an 8MP shooter with an F2.0 aperture.

There are a lot of features for photographers and videographers to mess around with, thanks to the BIONZ X mobile image processor. This includes phase-detection AF, Real-time Eye AF specifically for photographing people or animals, 20fps burst shooting, optical image stabilization, 21:9 movie recording and more. Plus, users can shoot high-quality video in 4K HDR at up to 120fps, with audio separation tech to filter out wind or background noise. 

As for the smartphone side of the Xperia Pro-I, expect a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 5G connectivity, along with 12GB of RAM and 512GB for storage. According to the listing page, the phone comes with Android 11, but hopefully we'll see an upgrade to Android 12 soon.

(Image credit: Future)

The Xperia Pro-I features a 6.5-inch 21:9 wide OLED display with 4K (3840 x 1644) resolution to check out all the high-quality imagery on. Plus, it offers a 120Hz refresh rate with 240Hz motion blur reduction. You can also expect IPX8 water resistance, IP6X dust-proof, along with Corning Gorilla Glass on the front and rear.

The smartphone also offers a 4500 mAh battery capacity, which will hopefully keep up with the heavy-duty work when processing or editing images or video.

Outlook 

The Sony Xperia Pro-I is currently available on Sony.co.uk, and will be available in select regions including the US this December. Availability in other regions to start sometime in early 2022. The Xperia Pro-I will set you back $1,799/£1,599, which is significantly more affordable than the previous $2,500 Xperia Pro smartphone. That's good news for camera enthusiasts.

While I was impressed by the Xperia Pro-I, I did find it could heat up even after five minutes of use. However, until I get the phone in my hands to play around with, I won’t know for sure if Sony’s flagship “camera” phone is a must. Stay tuned for our review of the Sony Xperia Pro-I, and for more Sony tech, check out our reviews of the Sony Xperia 1 III and Sony Xperia 5 III