Nokia Lumia 1020 review: Photographers, meet your camera phone

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MSRP: $299.00

The Good The Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone's camera captures extremely high-resolution images with fine detail, and puts creative controls at your fingertips.

The Bad A niche device, the Lumia 1020 is $100 pricier than most high-end smartphones. The lens makes it a little bulky. Multiple camera apps are confusing. It lacks manual f-stop control and presets for common shooting scenarios.

The Bottom Line Avid mobile photographers will love the Nokia Lumia 1020's exact controls, but casual users should stick to cheaper camera phones.

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8.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

You can sum up the Nokia Lumia 1020 in three words: 41, megapixel, camera.

It's the Lumia 1020's high-octane shooter -- along with Nokia's custom camera app -- that defines this next marquee Windows Phone 8 device, and that gives mobile photographers a reason to salivate. In the 1020, Nokia pushes the smartphone camera envelope with a combination of raw image-capturing prowess and close-cropping capability that makes it one of the most artistically able smartphone cameras we've tested.

Would we ditch our point-and-shoot cameras and rely on the Lumia 1020 instead? For day-to-day and weekend events, absolutely; the 1020 is the ultimate in convenience and approaches point-and-shoot quality. However, based on our tests so far, Nokia still has a ways to go before it can completely supplant the need for a higher-level standalone camera. We'd take it away for the weekend, but wouldn't use it to shoot our kid's first birthday.

Like the 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom (reviewed), the Lumia 1020 is a niche device. Casual users may not venture from automatic settings and may not notice much difference in image quality unless they frequently crop photos tightly. Of course, the S4 Zoom's optical zoom element gives the 1020 a run for its money where that's concerned. However, overall, the 1020 offers often technically better images in a much more portable chassis.

The 1020's $299.99 on-contract price with AT&T is too steep for casual users, who can capture high-quality everyday stills and videos with handsets that cost $200 or less. Serious photographers, however, will appreciate the phone's genuine two-in-one capabilities. The Lumia 1020 also is sold globally.

Design and build

The first thing you're probably asking yourself is if owning the Lumia 1020 is like carrying a bulky point-and-shoot camera in your pocket. Blessedly, it is not.

Compared with the chunky Galaxy S4 Zoom and bulbous Nokia 808 PureView (the company's first attempt at a 41-megapixel phone), the Lumia 1020 seems only slightly thicker than the Lumia 920 and 928, both of which it physically resembles.

Blake Stevenson/CNET

Dimensions of 5.1 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide are pretty standard, and the 1020 measures 0.4 inch thick throughout most of its body. It's that large camera module on the back (about 1.75 inches in diameter) that protrudes a full 0.51 inch from the phone's face.

That means the phone won't lie flat on its back, which is surprisingly sometimes helpful when the face tilts toward you as if on a stand. Amazingly, I did carry the phone around in my back pocket for long stretches without noticing it too much. When I held it, my fingers adjusted to grip the 1020 below its bulge.

Keeping the phone this slim was quite the design feat, especially when you compare the 1020 with the chunky S4 Zoom, which is shaped more like a point-and-shoot with a smartphone attached.

Nokia Lumia 1020
A huge camera module defines the Nokia Lumia 1020. Sarah Tew/CNET

At 5.6 ounces, the matte yellow, white, or black 1020 is hefty, sturdy, and undeniably solid. I'm used to carrying heavy bags and backpacks, so the weight didn't particularly bother me, but those who travel light will notice the 1020's density right away. We tested the phone in all three colors; the white version picked up smudges most readily, but they wiped off easily enough from the polycarbonate material.

Nokia pulled off a design feat in keeping the large camera mount from sticking out too far. Josh Miller/CNET

Like all the Lumia 920-series phones, the 1020's 4.5-inch display features a 1,280x768-pixel resolution (WXGA) and pixel density of 334ppi. Its AMOLED screen is also supersensitive, which means you can operate it with fingernails or gloved fingertips. Gorilla Glass 3 helps resist cracks, though smash any screen hard enough or often enough and it'll break.

In keeping with the Lumia design philosophy, you'll find oblong volume, power/lock, and camera shutter buttons on the right spine, and the headset jack and micro-SIM card slot up top. In addition to the front-facing camera there are three capacitive navigation buttons on the front, and the Micro-USB charging port is down on the bottom edge. On the back, the massive camera module includes a wide xenon flash and a six-lens Carl Zeiss lens, plus an LED sidekick that's mainly used for focus.

The Lumia 1020 does not lie flat. Josh Miller/CNET

A completely sealed unibody device, the Lumia 1020 doesn't have a removable battery or microSD card storage, which may make avid photographers jittery about storage limits, especially with large photo files.

Understanding the camera

The most important thing to know is that the Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel shooter doesn't actually give you 41-megapixel pictures. In fact, not much about the camera or its software is particularly straightforward.

Here's what's essential:

1) The Pro Cam app creates 5-megapixel photos. In addition, it also saves a high-resolution image of each one. If you crop in tightly, your photo looks even more detailed. I recommend CNET camera guru Joshua Goldman's must-read explanation of what's going on with this particular type of lossless zoom.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Nokia Pro Cam is the 1020's default camera app, but you can also switch among other apps, or change the default in Settings. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

2) By default, the Lumia 1020 takes photos using Nokia's Pro Cam app. Not to be confused with Nokia Smart Cam, Pro Cam gets you sliding controls for flash, exposure, ISO, and focus among other settings. Nokia Pro Cam is technically a "lens," a separate camera app that supplants the native camera. You can only capture the higher-resolution images using Pro Cam.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Choose resolution and aspect ratio in the Pro Cam app settings. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Making matters more confusing still, the size of the high-resolution photo you shoot depends on your camera settings. Pick a 16:9 aspect ratio, and the phone saves a 34-megapixel shot in addition to the 5-megapixel picture you eventually see and share. A 4:3 aspect ratio gives you a 38-megapixel file in addition to the smaller snap. You won't see these choices -- or any resolution options -- when using the native camera app.

You'll only be able to upload and share the smaller file size from the 1020; if you want all 34 or 38 megapixels, you can access the raw files through a computer connection.

In some cases, the 1020's creative settings are no big deal. Most smartphone cameras have many of these within submenus. The difference here is that surfacing them on the app's top layer makes them a lot quicker to access, set up, and change from shot to shot.

One setting is conspicuously absent for serious photographers, and that's the power to manually change the depth of field. It also threw CNET's photographers that the "live preview" of manual controls that you see on the screen before taking a picture often didn't represent the actual image once it was captured.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
CNET editors help demo the Nokia Pro Cam app. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In the menu, you can switch to the front-facing camera, get at settings, and launch the tutorial. Unlike the Galaxy S4 Zoom, there aren't mode presets for night shots, sports, or other common scenarios, so it helps to know what you're doing, or have the patience to play around.

I'm not sure why there's no onscreen control for the front-facing camera; digging into the menu just seems like an unnecessary step. It's also a little strange that there are two buttons for reviewing your photos. One reviews the last shot you took, the other lets you get at your whole photo stream. Unfortunately, you can't swipe to the left as you can in the phone's native app to access your camera roll.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
I don't like having to dig into settings to use the front-facing camera, but I do like having easy access to the tutorial. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There are cursory editing tools you can access when you review a photo, including rotation and a sort of cropping tool that changes the aspect ratio to 4:3, 3:2, 1:1, and 16:9. I wish that Nokia had included a more robust suite of editing features here. Instead, you'll have to swap to a different editing app if you want to crop or auto fix. Luckily, the 1020 makes this fairly easy to do from the settings when you access photos through the review strip.

Nokia Lumia 1020
Sliding controls let you adjust exposure, ISO, brightness, and white balance. Sarah Tew/CNET

Image quality

To test how well the Lumia 1020 backs up its claims of photog greatness, I shot dozens of pictures with both the Pro Cam app and the native app, using a combination of automatic modes and fancier settings. Full disclosure: I'm a completely casual photographer, so my photos here represent the perspective of an average user. For the more-artistic shots, I enlisted the help of CNET photographer James Martin and CNET camera editor Joshua Goldman, who independently called the Lumia 1020 a "really good smartphone camera" after taking their own rounds of test shots.

Many pictures I took looked fantastic in terms of color, contrast, and detail -- especially fine detail like a visible background cobweb. When an image was focused correctly, the camera's lossless digital zoom also produced terrific detail, just as Nokia promises.

Must-see: Nokia Lumia 1020 versus Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, HTC One, Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5.

I never took a bad photo with the 1020. That said, not every photo was a complete hit. Of course, even good cameras can take the odd bad picture if conditions are off. Sometimes, I wasn't sure that another high-end smartphone couldn't have taken the photo just as well.

Edges usually appeared sharp to my eyes, but then some centers sometimes lacked shadows, detail, and depth. I also had a hard time nailing great portraits. Lighting was sometimes off, and faces often appeared a tinge out of focus. That can cause problems when taking photos of a group. Overall, my photos of objects were a lot more beautiful than my pictures of people. James and Josh had much better luck with portraits; photo enthusiasts should take my results with a grain of salt.

This kid clearly loves his snack. Click to enlarge. James Martin/CNET

I also noticed that the 1020 seems to color-correct a couple of seconds after taking a picture. When using the flash, photo color also grew warmer, yellower, which can be a little weird. Then again, yellow is better than the blue cast you sometimes get when taking photos with a flash.

Since the Pro Cam app saves pictures in one small and one large resolution, the camera takes longer to reload. Instead of shot-to-shot times about 2.5 seconds apart, it's about a 6-second wait before the Lumia 1020 is ready for the next round.

I will say that I got some terrific pictures of objects even in the Pro Cam app's automatic mode. That and being able to crop in tight on an element without losing detail definitely made me want to take a lot more photos than I normally would.

Unless otherwise specified, the following pictures were taken using automatic settings, and have been resized. To see more of what this camera can do, check out this Lumia 1020 photo gallery and a camera showdown between the Lumia 1020, Samsung Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Shoot outdoors using Pro Cam. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Taken with the 1020's native camera app. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Full-resolution crop. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
This grape cluster, shot with the native camera app, was one of my favorites of the bunch. Here it is at full resolution, no cropping. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Despite focusing on the palm trees, this landscape shot, taken on an overcast day, looks a little soft. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Nokia Lumia 1020 camera test
Words to live by. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET