The first smartphone I ever owned was a Samsung S3 Mini. When I purchased it in 2013 I didn’t really think about the phone’s potential for video production. I just wanted to finally step into the world of touch screen phones with mobile internet, without paying a premium price for an iPhone. It was only after spending some time with the lil’ Samsung that I became more and more interested in seeing the device’s potential for more than just taking calls, browsing the web and snapping some pics. My next phone was, interestingly enough, a Nokia 920 running the Windows Phone operating system. I was very much aware of the sparse app situation on Microsoft’s platform but intrigued by Nokia’s camera hardware (Zeiss lens) and the support for 25fps in the native camera app. Since the WindowsPhone app store didn’t really improve much and it became obvious very soon that the platform was not going to stick around much longer, I kept looking for an Android phone brand that would strike a chord with me.

And that chord would be something like having fairly advanced manual video controls in the native camera app. At this time, there was no Filmic Pro on Android. Yes, there were a bunch of other 3rd party apps, most notably the now abandoned Cinema FV-5 but with Android being the fragmented OS that it is, I thought it would be good to have a potent native camera app at hand as well because often – not always – those tend to be quite stable and reliable because they were developed by the maker of the phone. Even later, when Filmic Pro arrived on the platform, I often preferred an advanced native camera app for stuff where I didn’t need Filmic’s 25fps support.

LG as the pioneer of advanced manual video controls

At the end of 2015, screenshots of a new phone from Korean underdog LG popped up that immediately caught my attention: You could see visual audio meters in the interface of the native camera app. You could also see parameters for ISO and shutter speed, white balance etc. Wow, I thought, looks like some phone maker finally heard me. And so I went for the LG V10. I was really happy with it for about two years, the biggest gripe with the otherwise groundbreaking native camera app in terms of video features was the lack of support for PAL frame rates (particularly 25fps), you could only shoot in 24, 30 and 60fps. Still, I absolutely felt at home with LG’s V-series, a match made in heaven if you want to be dramatic.

More cool stuff from LG, but the mainstream didn’t care

I skipped the V20 because I don’t need a new phone every year but couldn’t resist the V30 with its ability to shoot in a LOG profile from within the native camera app. Check out these two reels of test footage I shot with the V30 here and here. Absolutely gorgeous if you ask me. I also loved that it had a wide-angle lens, a feature that just like the pro video controls in the native camera app and native LOG-support was originally pioneered by LG (with the LG G5 in 2016). Unfortunately, I broke the wide-angle lens after about 18 months (got crushed by a spare DSLM battery in my pocket while on a shoot) and finally decided that it was time to move on. The V50 would have been the natural successor but it wasn’t available in the European market at the time so I went for the LG G8X with its interesting Dual Screen case. With the arrival of the LG G6 in 2017 LG had ported the manual video controls of the V-series over to the G-series (its more mainstream flagship line), so this was another great option. The Dual Screen case was interesting particularly for video editing but with the exception of PowerDirector, none of the good video editing apps really scaled well – and not a single one was customized for this layout. Still, I very much enjoy(ed) the G8X. Alas, 2021 brought about the end of LG as a smartphone maker. While having claimed the number 3 spot in Android smartphone sales in the US for some time, on a global scale, the Korean company just didn’t see a way to compete with the big dogs like Samsung, Apple and the Chinese giants (Huawei, Xiaomi etc.) anymore and the bosses at LG thought they had lost enough money in the last years. So I began my search for a phone maker that could take LG’s place once I was ready to move on from the G8X. On my wish list of features: A phone with great manual video controls in the native camera app.

Who’s taking over from LG now?

At around the same time as LG introduced the V-series with its revolutionary native camera app, Samsung also stepped up its native camera game in terms of videography features although it wasn’t quite as sophisticated as its Korean sibling. Fairly recently, Chinese top player Oppo joined the ranks as well giving its users a solid set of manual video controls for its Find X3 series and then the Find X5 series. However, I had set my eyes on Sony for the most part. From the moment Sony had ventured into making smartphones, the company had always been something like the unfullfilled promise of mobile videography glory: It was the only smartphone maker that was also producing ‘regular’ cameras: DSLRs, DSLMs, ENG cameras, camcorders etc. As a matter of fact, they were basically only doing smartphones “on the side” while their camera business was much bigger. Also, image sensors featured in all kinds of smartphones (even Apple’s iPhone) were produced by Sony. The IMX sensor series was and still is ubiquitous in the smartphone market. With all this camera and sensor tech knowledge, surely Sony would churn out the most amazing phones for doing serious videography, letting the competition play catch-up? Well, not really. Time after time, experts kept wondering why Sony’s own phones actually couldn’t really keep up with other smartphone company’s like Samsung, Apple or Google in terms of image quality. And it was not only the image quality but the lack of advanced shooting tools. And to add insult to injury, Sony’s flawed implentation of the Android Camera2 API caused problems with 3rd party apps that could have mitigated the shortcomings of the native camera app.

Sony’s new Xperia flagships and the thing no Android phone maker did before

Starting with the introduction of the Xperia 1 in 2019, Sony included an app called „Cinema Pro“ in their new Xperia flagship line. This was a separate app from the regular camera app (which only gave you minimal control when taking video) but the fact that it’s from Sony and comes pre-loaded qualified it as a native camera app for me. It gives you a full set of manual video controls like the ability to adjust ISO, shutter angle/speed, white balance, focus and includes helpful tools like an audio level meter and of course support for external microphones. It also features a set of special color profiles including the flat Venice CS. The most revolutionary thing though (at least for me) was the ability to record with a PAL frame rate of 25fps – never before had an Android phone supported this in a native camera app, you had to use 3rd party apps and the results were not always consistent. Curiously enough though, there was no option for 50fps, not even in a lower resolution like 1080p. Another shortcoming was the limited choice of resolutions: 4K and 2K are great for filmmakers but other pro videographers would have loved to have regular UHD 2160p and FHD 1080p available.

Cinema Pro app interface

Here comes another pro native camera app for video recording

With the arrival of the Xperia Pro-I in December 2021, Sony added another native camera app named „Video Pro“ which brought the count to a total of three. „Video Pro“ didn’t come pre-installed on the 5 III I chose to go with and it’s basically the same for all Sony flagships that preceed the Pro-I, but you can side-load the app and I haven’t run into any major problems so far. Still, it would be nice if Sony just offered it in the PlayStore. The biggest advantage of „Video Pro“ in comparison to „Cinema Pro“ is that it supports more common resolutions and features Sony’s famously good Face/Eye-AutoFocus system. „Cinema Pro“ on the other hand only has „normal“ AF but actually supports focus racking in manual focus mode, an absolute pro feature. Unlike with LG though, focus peaking isn’t available in either app which is a pity when you’re working with manual focus. While one could argue that both Cinema Pro and Video Pro have very specific use cases, I wish that Sony would just fuse the two pro video recording apps into one with all their features combined but I can live with having two as I will probably mostly use Video Pro.

Video Pro app interface

3rd party apps and the Xperia 5 III hardware

In contrast to the early years of Filmic Pro on Android, when Sony’s phones were „blacklisted“ because of technical issues regarding Sony’s implementation of the Camera2 API, Sony phones now run Filmic Pro quite well, so it’s good to know that you can always fire up Filmic (or another 3rd party pro video app like mcpro24fps, Protake or MotionCam) if you need even more advanced features like focus peaking, false color, wave form monitor etc. Looking at the hardware, I was really intrigued by the fact that the Xperia 5 has a whopping four (!) focal lengths: 16, 24, 70 and 105mm (full frame equivalent). The 70 and 105mm are achieved with a single movable lens. This set up gives you lots of flexibility without having the enormous form factor of a single optical zoom lens like in camcorders. It’s also fantastic that the Xperia 5 III supports expandable storage (microSD) and has a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack (helpful when using external mics). The phone sports a dedicated physical (and customizable) shutter button, a great haptic way to start and stop recording. Furthermore, the 4800mAh battery has a lot of stamina which is always good. The featured Snapdragon 888 is still a top flagship grade chipset despite being a year old but I’m curious to see how problematic the overheating issues are that some users have reported. Overheating is something that even a lot of Sony’s DSLMs have been known to struggle with.

So why did I choose the Xperia 5 III instead of say, the Xperia Pro-I with its big 1-inch sensor, Sony’s latest and greatest? Call me naive or stingy, I’m still not willing to spend 1000 bucks or more for a phone these days. The Xperia 5 III, which came out in late 2021, has now, one year later, landed at a price of around 600 Euro which fits the budget I was planning for a new phone quite nicely. If I absolutely need a big sensor shooter and maximum image quality, I’ll just grab one of my Sony DSLMs. The Xperia 5-series also has the advantage of being one of the very very few powerful flagship-level phones that are relatively compact and easy to operate with one hand. Almost all other flagship phones have become screen space monsters. While it’s nice to have a big screen (particularly if you are doing some video editing) I had a hard time getting used to the constant inconvenience of adjusting my grip for certain gestures and operations. And while I occasionally do edit video on my phone, I use it more for the shooting part for which a compact phone is better most of the time.

So much for now, I’ll be preparing a more in-depth review of my experience with the Xperia 5 III once I’ve used it for a while. What’s your take on Sony’s recent flagship phones and their pro videography apps?

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