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Nokia Lumia 1520 camera review
Lars Rehm | Published: Feb 7, 2014 at 20:11 UTC102
The Nokia Lumia 1520 combines good image quality across the ISO range with full manual control over shutter speed and ISO in the very well designed Nokia Camera app. Throw DNG Raw recording into the mix and you've got yourself a real photographer's tool that allows for more creative control than any "full-auto" smartphone.
That said, compared to some high-end Android smartphones, such as the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, the imaging feature set it a little weak. Yes, the Lumia is the only device to offer a "Lytro-like" refocus feature but there is no built-in HDR and no real burst mode. The choice of imaging apps in the Windows Store is also much more limited than on Google Play or iTunes. If you are thinking about switching to a Lumia I would recommend to check the availability of your favorite apps for the Windows platform first.
When talking about the Lumia 1520 you have to mention it's dimensions. There is no doubt the device is big but if it's too big for you really depends on your personal taste. Personally I find it too large to carry in a pants pocket but if you usually keep your phone in a purse or the inside pocket of a jacket you will be fine. In terms of taking pictures the Lumia's size really only means you'll need two hands to operate it. On the upside you have that nice big screen to frame and view your images on.
Features & Operation
For many photographers one of the Lumia 1520's most interesting features will be its ability to capture different images sizes and formats at the same time. You can use the 5MP JPEGs for instant social sharing or the 20MP output if you really ever wanted to print one of your pictures. The DNG files give you the flexibility to change some shooting parameters, such as white balance or sharpness, in post-production and generally optimize the image to your liking. Don't expect DSLR-like ability to lift shadows or recover highlights but there is no doubt having a DNG file can be very useful on occasions.
In terms of the more gimmicky type of features the Lumia has narrowed the gap to some of its Android competitors but not quite closed it yet. The Smart Cam functions let you pick the best shot of a ten-shot burst, find the best facial expressions in a group shot or remove unwanted moving subjects from the frame among other things. However, there is no HDR mode for taking pictures in high contrast-situations, no slow-motion video and no dual-camera modes. On the other hand the 1520 offers Lytro-style refocusing after a shot has been captured, something we have not seen on an Android or iOS device yet.
The new Nokia Camera app is arguably the best default camera app on a smartphone we've seen. It offers manual control over shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focus, exposure compensation and flash mode. These controls are accessible with one touch from the main screen, making them easy to manipulate. There are no customization options, but thanks to the good interface design you don't miss them. Of course Nokia Camera works well in point-and-shoot operation as well.
Thanks to Qualcomm's latest quad-core processor the 1520 always feels snappy and responsive in general use but unfortunately camera operation is an area where the Nokia can feel a little sluggish at times. Shot-to-shot times are longer than on most competitors and it takes about three seconds for the camera app to be ready for capture which can just be a little too long for capturing that decisive moment.
The Nokia Lumia 1520 offers very good image quality across the ISO range. Viewed at 100% magnification the downsampled 5MP JPEG files look detailed and and very crisp but stop just short of being oversharpened. They are remarkably clean, even at higher sensitivities. If you look close-up at the 20MP files you will inevitably find more noise and smeared fine detail but overall they look good next the output of other smartphones, too.
Exposure is usually spot on in all light condition but saturation and contrast can be very strong. This gives the images a "punchy" look but if you prefer things more natural this might not be for you. Unfortunately there is no option to modify parameters such as saturation, contrast or sharpness but of course you can switch to the 1520's Raw mode and convert the DNG files to your taste.
Like many smartphones, in low light the 1520 uses very slow shutter speeds in order to keep the ISO down. Thanks to the very efficient image stabilization system the Lumia usually gets away without any image blur in static scenes. However, any moving subject will inevitably show motion blur. Thanks to the Nokia's manual control you can override those settings and shoot at a higher shutter speed. Of course you pay with slightly higher noise levels in your image.
We were also impressed by the new phablet's flash performance. Unlike the Lumia 1020 the 1520 does not feature a powerful Xenon flash but its dual-LED flash unit still offers better performance than most competitors with conventional LEDs, in terms of both power and exposure. Overall, the Nokia Lumia 1520's image quality is not quite on the same high level as its sister model, the Lumia 1020, but is among the very best we have seen among smartphones.
The Final Word
The Nokia Lumia 1520 has a lot to offer for mobile photographers but there are a couple of caveats you should keep in mind before hitting the buy button. If out-of-the-camera image quality is a priority you can't go wrong with the 1520. It's not quite as good as its sister model 1020 but among the best smartphones we've tested. The image quality is matched by the excellent Nokia Camera app which offers a degree of manual control and user-friendliness that you'll struggle to find anywhere else.
However, the Nokia is a little bit slower, in terms of both start-up time and shot-to-shot time, than most high-end Android and iOS devices. It's not going to be a terrible problem for most users but means the Lumia is arguably not the best option for fast-shooting street photographers and similar folk. It's also not the best option for those of you who are into downloading and testing all the latest imaging apps as soon as they come out. Despite making noticeable progress over the past few months the Windows eco system is still lagging behind other platforms in terms of availability of apps.
If the Lumia 1520's large dimensions are right for you is mostly a matter of taste but if you like your smartphone big and can live with the couple of limitations mentioned above the Nokia Lumia 1520 is an easy choice for any mobile photographer.
There are 62 images in our Nokia Lumia 1520 samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.
Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.