What's old -- and new -- about the Nokia Lumia 1020's camera

Nokia's 41-megapixel sensor is back, and with its new features, this may be the best camera to end up in a smartphone -- again.

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The Nokia 808 PureView was simultaneously ahead of the curve and behind the times.

Its camera is still one of the best to ever be in a smartphone (if not the best), but the most common lament I read was that it was running on a near-dead Symbian OS. Second to that was how thick and heavy it was, which was out of step with just about every new smartphone at the time. That all changes with the Nokia Lumia 1020 .

The new Windows Phone 8 device is actually slightly thinner and lighter than the Lumia 920 , which makes it significantly slimmer than the 808 PureView. And, from the sound of things, the camera will be just as good.

More than marketing-pixels
Yes, the 1020's camera has a 41-megapixel sensor and, yes, it can take photos at that resolution, or at least close to it depending on your photo's aspect ratio: 38 megapixels for 4:3 or 34 megapixels for 16:9. But, as with the 808, that's really not the whole story.

The main reason for such a high-resolution sensor is for pixel oversampling. Nokia's algorithms collect data from multiple pixels to create what it calls a superpixel. These superpixels deliver a more accurate representation of the subject while also helping eliminate image noise in low-light conditions and make noise virtually nonexistent when shooting in good lighting. The end result is some really good 5-megapixel photos.

More importantly, the pixel oversampling gives the 1020 a better digital zoom. Basically, as you zoom in the amount of oversampling reduces until you've reached the limit of the actual resolution. In other words, if you are shooting at 5 megapixels you can continue to zoom until it's no longer oversampling and simply using a 5-megapixel area of the sensor. There is no upscaling or interpolation, it's just a 5-megapixel photo.

At that resolution, it will give you about a 3x digital zoom for photos and a 4x zoom for movies shot in 1080p or 6x recording at 720p. (More details on how it all works can be found in this post on the 808 or in the white paper for the Lumia 1020.)

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That's not any different than what the 808 provided. However, what the 1020 can do is save the high-quality 5-megapixel oversampled photo for sharing as well as a full-resolution version that can be used for enlarging and cropping. That means if you chose not to digitally zoom in when you originally shot, you still can later. Good thing the 1020 has 32GB of storage.

Sadly, to get the phone smaller, the sensor -- and its pixels -- had to get smaller, too. The Lumia 1020's sensor is 1/1.5-inch type and, according to PureViewClub.com and confirmed by Nokia's white paper, the pixel size is 1.1 µm (micrometer). By comparison, the 808 had 1.4 µm pixels for its 1/1.2-inch type sensor. The 1020's sensor is still the largest in a smartphone as well as being bigger than you'll find in most point-and-shoots.

Brighter, later
When it comes to improved low-light shooting, Nokia's algorithms and 41-megapixel sensor are certainly big parts of its solution. They aren't the only ones, though.

Nokia didn't make too much mention of it, but the sensor is now backside illuminated. This basically makes the sensor more light-sensitive by moving wiring from the front of the sensor to its back. The more sensitive it is, the less light is needed to get a properly exposed photo and the less noise is created.

On top of that, you have a new six-element (five plastic, one high-precision glass) 27mm Zeiss lens with an f2.2 aperture, which is marginally brighter than the f2.4 lens on the 808. The bigger the aperture, the more light reaches the sensor.

Like the 808, the Lumia 1020 has a bright Xenon flash as well as an LED for a video light and autofocus assistance to help it focus in low-contrast scenes. The benefit to the Xenon flash is that it puts out a lot of light for a very short amount of time. The combination means that you can capture a sharp image while keeping background ambient lighting. Also, the 1020's flash uses a flat capacitor technology that provides more power in a smaller design. It should still blind your friends and family (and light up your shots, too).

Lastly, optical image stabilization has been included with the 1020. Because of the size of the lens, Nokia says it couldn't use the same spring system it used in the Lumia 920 , and instead went with a new design using a lens system that sits on ball bearings (after all, it's all ball bearings nowadays). A gyroscope is used to detect unwanted movement and, when it does, small motors move the lens system to counteract it.

Adding OIS allows the camera to use slower shutter speeds when less light is available and there will be less blur from hand shake. It also means the camera doesn't immediately need to increase ISO in low light, which can lead to more noise and softer photos.

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You're in control, if you want
Lumia owners have already had a handful of Nokia lenses to experiment with, such as Cinemagraph, Smart Shoot, and Panorama, which will be available on the 1020 as well. There are also a handful of scenes to choose from in addition to full automatic: Night portrait, Sports, Night, Close-up, and Backlight.

Probably more important for those who like to fiddle with settings is the new Pro Camera mode. The 808 had a Creative mode that let you get some control over the camera's settings, but the new Pro Camera unlocks a lot more. With it, you can have access to adjust white balance, ISO (100-3200), exposure compensation, shutter speed (4 seconds to 1/16,000 second), and focus.

Nokia also announced better app support for the Lumia 1020's camera is coming from the likes of Path, Flipboard, Yelp, and Foursquare . There will also be an exclusive Hipstamatic app for the 1020. In addition to editing your photos, the new Hipstamatic app will let you share to Twitter and Facebook. Your move, Instagram.

Better audio for video
While its video features remain the same as the 808's for the most part, Nokia hyped its Rich Recording technology, which allows for distortion-free, stereo sound. It's helpful for anyone who's ever tried to record a live music performance with their phone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Get a grip
A snap-on camera grip will be available for easier one-handed shooting. It also adds a shutter release, a tripod mount, and, perhaps most importantly if you're using this as your primary camera, a built-in battery that adds up to 55 minutes of shooting time (though Nokia doesn't state what that translates into for photos).

Editors' note: This post has been updated with additional information about the image stabilization, flash, and lens.

 

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