Smartphone cameras have improved a great deal since the birth of the smartphone, but photos captured in certain settings — people in dark bars or wedding reception halls, your kid across the soccer field, that deer out in the backyard — are still pretty mediocre.
Nokia, the Finnish handset maker that in recent years has struggled to compete in the smartphone market, wants to change that.
Yup, I’m talking about the Nokia Lumia 1020, the company’s new, “notice-me” smartphone with a 41-megapixel camera. The camera is comparable to what you’d get with a simple point-and-shoot.
Some of the technology in the Lumia 1020 is actually borrowed from an earlier smartphone, the Nokia PureView 808. With the Lumia 1020, which runs the Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system, Nokia threw in two high-end features that are meant to make images look much better: A special backside-illuminated sensor, which helps in low-light situations, and optical image stabilization, which helps prevent blurry photos.
There are also manual controls in the camera, for people who fancy themselves shutterbugs.
I’ve been testing the Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone for the past week, and I was impressed by its camera. It took crisp, clear photos in low-light environments (“Oooh, can you send me that picture?” friends would say in social settings). Colors looked rich and saturated, although, sometimes a bit yellowish.
But it’s important to keep in mind that the Lumia 1020 is a phone first, camera second. With its $299 price point with a contract exclusively through AT&T, Nokia is firmly placing it in the upper echelon of smartphones, alongside Apple’s iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 (see chart for a comparison). And those phones have something the Lumia 2010 doesn’t: Operating systems that support hundreds of thousands of apps, unlike Windows Phone 8, which runs about 170,000 apps and games.
But how did the camera really work? First, it’s not a super-simple smartphone camera, meaning, you’re not just going to open up the native camera app and touch a button and voila. There are three different native apps that you can use to snap or edit your photos. These are Nokia Pro Cam, Nokia Smart Cam and Creative Studio.
Pro Cam is the main camera app. Smart Cam takes several lower-resolution photos at once to create a sequence of images. Creative Studio lets you apply filters and adjust focus and blur, similar to the way Instagram works.
You snap photos by either pressing a touchscreen shutter button or a physical button on the side of the smartphone. If you hold the phone in landscape mode to take your photos, this will feel quite natural, like the physical shutter button on a point-and-shoot camera.
Then, when you swipe through your captured photos, you don’t just swipe from side to side the way you would on an iPhone. You select one of two tiny thumbnails on the upper-left-hand side of the screen. One will show you a high-res version of your most recent photo, and the other will take you to your entire camera roll.
Nokia has done a whole bunch of marketing around this camera’s 41 megapixels, but this is slightly misleading: The 41 megapixels refers to the camera sensor, not the number of effective pixels in the captured images.
This means that the sensor is a 41-megapixel sensor, but the camera actually captures images up to 38 megapixels. When you’re snapping photos in Pro Cam, the camera produces both a 38-megapixel image and a five-megapixel version — the former for reframing, cropping, or printing; the latter for sharing easily with friends on social networks. It records1080p HD video.
If you only want to capture five-megapixel images, you can opt to do this through the phone’s settings. And if you’re not out shooting pictures of something special, it’s not a bad idea: After just a week of snapping 38-megapixel photos — about a hundred in total — I had used up 6.32 gigabytes of the 29GB of available storage.
The Lumia’s camera also has a high-resolution 3x digital zoom. Unlike the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, it doesn’t have an optical zoom, which would physically move the lens to zoom in on objects. But the photos I took using digital zoom with the Lumia’s camera looked fine, and didn’t have any of the pixelation commonly found with lower-quality cameras.
I was more impressed by the Lumia’s capabilities in low lighting. The camera’s 1/1.5-inch, backside-illuminated sensor and high-intensity Xenon flash — both of which are normally found in point-and-shoot digital cameras — seemed to really make a difference here.
I used the Lumia in dark bars and restaurants, taking pictures of my friends, of food and of beer steins. Most of the photos taken with flash came out crisp and clear, without much noise. My iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 photos sometimes looked washed out in comparison.
I also took pictures at a farm while visiting family out of town. The pictures of the animals taken with the Lumia looked much richer in color than those taken with the other smartphones. Lumia pictures taken of my five-year-old niece and eight-year-old nephew, who never sit still, looked distinctly high-quality. However, there was a warm, yellowish hue on the Lumia pics that I took in auto mode.
To try to fix this, you can manually adjust the white balance. You can also adjust the camera’s sensitivity to light (ISO), the shutter speed and exposure levels. This is all done through the phone’s touchscreen, not through confusing external buttons. As you’re adjusting these settings, the screen will reflect the changes you’re making, so you can get an idea of what the image will look like before you snap it.
As far as the phone features of the Nokia Lumia 1020, there’s the Microsoft Windows Phone 8 app store to consider. Sure, there are plenty of key apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Gmail, YouTube, Skype, Pandora and eBay. But I didn’t have access to apps like Instagram, Mailbox, Jawbone Up and RunKeeper — all of which I use regularly or daily.
From a hardware perspective, the 32 gigabyte Lumia 1020 feels like a premium phone, but it’s also significantly larger than the iPhone 5, and is thicker and heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S4. It measures 5.1 by 2.8 by .40 inches, and weighs 5.5 ounces. It has 4.5-inch touchscreen with a 1280 by 768 resolution, and comes in yellow, black and white.
I couldn’t get my head (or hand) around using it as my everyday smartphone — especially for running. By the end of each running session, I was referring to it as the “yellow brick phone.”
Aside from the camera, the Lumia 1020’s standout feature might very well be its maps. There are multiple map apps on newer Nokia smartphones, including driving maps and public transit maps. These maps, called Here, are powered by Navteq, which Nokia acquired in 2008, and they are excellent. The turn-by-turn driving maps were the best I’ve experienced with any smartphone.
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is a well-built phone with a camera that bests most other smartphone cameras. I hope to see other smartphone makers adopt some of its high-end camera technology. (Really, I do; I’m a little tired of all the blurry, washed-out, devil-eyed photos in my Facebook feed, including my own photos.)
But it will suit a specific crowd: AT&T-subscribing photo hounds with $299 in their pockets who prefer the Windows Phone 8 operating system.