Nokia Lumia 1020: the camera review

If you are looking for a smartphone with the best camera on the market today, the 1020 is hard to beat.

Nokia has really been pulling out all the stops to stand out from the crowd with its camera technology. In a market crowded with options, how does a company cater to photographers of all levels?

The headline grabber with the Lumia 1020 is, of course, the 41-megapixel sensor. Even though there is still a common misconception among consumers that more megapixels are better, you have to admit that 41 is still a huge number to deal with. After all, even the high-end Nikon D800 SLR only has 36 megapixels to play with.

In terms of specifications, the 1020 impresses on paper:

  • 1/1.5-inch BSI sensor (1.1 micron pixel pitch)

  • Fixed f/2.2 wide-angle lens (26mm equivalent)

  • Xenon flash

  • Optical image stabilisation

  • Semi-manual exposure control (shutter, ISO, focus)

  • Minimum focus distance of 15cm.

Those looking closely at the sensor will realise that the 1/1.5-inch measurement is actually bigger than that found on many traditional compacts. While not physically as big as Nokia's first PureView model (that sensor was 1/1.2-inch), it's still impressive.

From Nokia's 1020 whitepaper, a depiction of how the aspect ratio determines the final output size from the sensor.
(Credit: Nokia)

In the past, the smartphone photography experience has generally been defined by the form factor of a handset. The user really does need to think twice before taking a photo, because the entire experience is essentially reversed from that of normal camera.

Hold the device like you normally would to make calls or check messages and be stuck with portrait orientation for photos and videos. While a sideways or landscape grip is ideal for the traditional camera experience, often the ergonomics just don't make sense. The on-screen shutter release usually needs you to move a thumb away from the side of the handset, leaving photos susceptible to shake. Stray fingers can easily cover the lens on the left side, as the phone shape doesn't lend itself to being held like a regular camera.

Nokia tries to alleviate these issues by shipping an optional (AU$89) camera grip for the 1020 that clips onto the handset. Featuring a shutter button, tripod mount and chunkier grip for the right hand, it emulates the experience of a traditional compact camera — except that this grip is large. So large that it positively dwarfs most compact cameras when placed side by side with them.

Indeed, in terms of size, the only device that the phone grip and handset combination comes close to is the Samsung Galaxy Camera. This in itself is a curious hybrid that just happens to run Android, with the added bonus of optical zoom. The grip comes with a standard tripod mount, which is a nice touch for long exposures, though it is positioned under the grip rather than directly underneath the lens.

When attached to the 1020, the grip really does enhance the photographic experience, allowing you to hold and operate the camera with just one hand, rather than two. It also acts as a battery booster, topping up the 1020 with juice as needed. However, there are a few operational quirks that do stop us from awarding it full marks. To load the camera app directly from sleep mode, you can long-press the shutter button. In just under five seconds, the interface will appear, ready to take an image.

Also, the same learned functions from a regular camera do not necessarily apply with the 1020 and its camera grip. For example, if you are reviewing images, you usually half-press the shutter button to return to the camera screen to keep taking photos. On the 1020, this does nothing, though to be fair, it's the same functionality that appears on other models like the 925 and 920 when pressing the shutter button in playback mode. To flick straight back into the camera app, you need to fully press the shutter button.

The Pro Camera app

Nokia has created an entirely new app to harness the full potential of its PureView camera on the Lumia 1020. Called Pro Camera, it has a very well-designed interface that gives easy access to a range of photographic controls. It is available to download for the 925 and 920 once the Amber update has been installed.

At the top of the screen are a small row of exposure options. Apart from the flash settings, each option will bring up a secondary dial on the right-hand side. Touch around the semicircle to change white balance, ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation. To access all of these controls at the same time, simply touch and drag out from the camera icon to have them all appear in concentric circle segments across the screen.

Pull out the menus from the icon on the right to set different exposure options in one go.
(Credit: CBSi)

The 1020 has a crazy maximum shutter speed of 1/16,000 second. To give you an idea of how quick this is, most professional cameras top out at 1/8000 second.

Though the sensor is rated at 41 megapixels, Pro Camera allows the 1020 to output at two resolutions. The first is an oversampled 5-megapixel image, and the other is the "original" 34-megapixel or 38-megapixel image (16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio, respectively). The 5-megapixel size was decided on because, according to Nokia's whitepaper (PDF) on the 1020, it is the "sweet spot for image quality" that allows for prints up to A3.

What do all these megapixels mean in a practical sense? The main advantage is the ability to simulate the effect of optical zoom without having an actual optical zoom. Rather than interpolating or "guessing" the missing information when digital zoom is applied, having almost three times as many megapixels on the sensor as a regular smartphone camera means that you can crop into a photo without losing detail, effectively acting like a zoom. Nokia calls this its PureView zooming method, which can achieve a maximum zoom equivalent of 3x optical for stills at the 5-megapixel resolution, 4x for 1080p video and 6x for 720p.

From within the Pro Camera app, you get the opportunity to reframe and rotate images using the original high-resolution file. It then saves that image for sharing, and maintains the original full-resolution photo — though this can only be viewed from within Pro Camera, not in the gallery.

Using the Pro Camera app to reframe a photo.
(Screenshot by CBSi)

Like earlier camera apps on Lumia models, Pro Camera integrates with different "lenses", such as Cinemagraph and Smart Cam. These are other apps that can be launched directly from the camera interface, but are also accessible from the apps menu.

Pro Camera has automatic bracketing that can take three or five exposures in half, full or two full stops (+/-0.5 to 2 EV). When the bracketing mode is selected, the camera takes the set number of shots one after the other. There is a considerable delay between photos, so to merge them together for something like an HDR image, a tripod will be needed to make sure the framing stays consistent.

Unfortunately, Pro Camera does not retain your settings when you quit and re-enter the app. So if you want to take a bunch of photos at, for example, 1/800 second at ISO 400 and -0.7EV, do it all in one go. Otherwise, if you check your email or open the app back up from sleep by pressing the shutter button, you have to dial it all in again.

The Smart Cam app

Don't need to muck around with all those megapixels? The Smart Cam app is where the 1020 gets to show off its processing prowess. Press the shutter button to take a series of images in a single burst. Then, in the playback mode, you can perform a number of different manipulations. These include: best photo, action shot, motion focus, change faces and remove moving objects.

When the motion focus option is selected, a white outline appears over the moving objects in the frame. From here, you can adjust the positioning of the object to generate the motion effect.
(Credit: CBSi)

Motion focus produces a very nice effect on moving subjects, though when there is more than one element moving in the frame, such as water and a boat in this example, some judicious cropping may be required.

Performance

General shooting metrics (in seconds)

Nokia Lumia 1020
5.6
4.4
0.8

Legend:

Start-up to first shot
Shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag

Note:

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

The shot-to-shot time was measured by launching the camera app from sleep by pressing and holding the shutter button. The camera loads into the Pro Camera app within 3.9 seconds, then takes another 1.7 seconds to focus and take the shot, providing the time of 5.6 seconds.

The 1020 is not a huge leap forward when it comes to burst or continuous shooting performance. The Smart Cam app is where continuous shooting can be found, with the app being able to produce 10 frames in quick succession.

Image quality

It is easy to forget that the 1020 is a phone camera when looking at its robust performance in the real world. We tested the 1020 in a number of situations, from low-light through to bright outdoor situations. It hardly missed a beat.

The lens is sharp, and there is very little chromatic aberration visible on high-contrast areas where a regular compact camera or phone camera might struggle. Colour rendition on default exposure settings is very good. The camera does saturate the red channel a little too much for a totally accurate representation, but results look pleasing nevertheless. Automatic white balance is accurate in most situations, but a little warm when taking photos indoors.

Smartphone cameras have never traditionally been very good at achieving bokeh, or shallow depth-of-field effects. Without any fancy trickery, the 1020 produces very attractive bokeh while maintaining excellent sharpness on the focused subject, particularly when shooting close up. The minimum focusing distance of the 1020's lens is 15cm.

It is very easy to create shallow depth-of-field effects with the 1020 by choosing your point of focus on the screen to an object in the foreground or background.
(Credit: CBSi)

Sharpness is maintained well across the frame, with a little softening towards the edges. With the lens having such a wide field of view, the camera does a good job of keeping distortions to a minimum, though there is obvious barrel distortion visible when photographing straight lines, buildings or objects.

Dynamic range is good for a smartphone camera, but not on par with the results that a dedicated compact can deliver just yet. The 1020 does still tend to blow out highlights in high-contrast situations. Like on the Lumia 920, we suggest dialling down the exposure compensation to make sure that detail can be maintained (and hopefully recovered) if you decide to post-process.

The 1020 does a great job of rendering detail, especially in areas of complex patterns that can sometimes result in moire. See the reduced resolution shot (above) and 100 per cent crop of the full-resolution photo (below).
(Credit: CBSi)

The 1020 has a maximum ISO sensitivity of 4000, but you really don't want to use this setting. The noise profile that the camera produces is not particularly pleasing at all, smearing detail and producing colour shifts. Apart from this extreme sensitivity, the 1020 controls noise very well up to and including ISO 800. The 5-megapixel images are even more impressive in this respect, though this is the behaviour you would expect, given the size and detail contained in the original source file.

For street photography, the autofocus system and resulting shutter-lag duration when using the Pro Camera app is unfortunately too slow to capture spontaneous moments. The delay is particularly noticeable in low-light situations. If you intend to use the camera for this purpose, you may want to consider experimenting with zone focusing the 1020: that is, setting manual focus within a desired range before going out to shoot. This considerably reduces the shutter-lag time to just 0.02 second or less.

For low-light photography, the 1020 continues the groundwork laid down by its Lumia predecessors, with the image-stabilisation system producing excellent results. We were able to achieve a shutter speed of 1/9 second in low light at an ISO rating of 800 and still get a clear, usable image.

Exposure: 1/9 second, f/2.2, ISO 800. Full-sized (5-megapixel) image can be downloaded here.
(Credit: CBSi)

The flash provides a nice, natural illumination on subjects in the foreground. As with many smartphone flashes, there is some fall-off that exhibits itself as vignetting in the corners. It doesn't have a huge throw, so subjects need to be within a reasonable proximity (a few metres) of the camera.

Using the flash gives natural results.
(Credit: CBSi)

Video test

The 1020 produces some seriously impressive video footage. Selectable resolutions and frame rates include 1080p (30fps/25fps/24fps) and 720p (30fps/25fps/24fps). From within the Pro Camera app, video mode can be activated by touching the video camera icon next to the shutter release. Along the top menu sit controls for changing white balance, focus and activating the video light.

Footage is crisp and motion is smooth, with the autofocus system only twitching occasionally as it tries to track moving subjects. Exposure is accurate and the audio quality is very good. There's minimal wind noise, even in blustery conditions.

Conclusion

Nokia's extensive research and development into its PureView camera system has continued to shine in its recent Lumia phones, with the 1020 producing the best results yet. While it's not quite ready to supersede your stand-alone camera, the 1020 is a great performer in most situations. The 41-megapixel sensor delivers impressive results and gives a great deal of flexibility when it comes to cropping and reframing images.

The one piece of the puzzle left to solve is to work out who the 1020 and camera grip combination is really for. Casual photographers will probably be put off by the extra bulk, while enthusiast smartphone photographers will want a few more tweaks to the Pro Camera app for greater flexibility. That said, if you are looking for a smartphone with the best camera on the market today, the 1020 is hard to beat.

To see more sample photos from the Lumia 1020, click through for the photo gallery .

 

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