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Nokia Lumia 920 Camera Review
Peter M Ferenczi | Published: Mar 7, 2013 at 23:33 UTC66
Connect smartphone reviews are written with the needs of photographers in mind. We focus on camera features, performance and image quality.
Despite Nokia’s brutal drubbing in recent years at the hands of Apple and the Android posse, one thing has never been in doubt: the company is serious about the cameras in its phones. Back when Apple upended the smartphone market with the original blurrycam-equipped iPhone, Nokia was already fielding devices with Carl Zeiss-branded optics and xenon flashes that were in their own photographic class.
Enter the Lumia 920, Nokia’s newest flagship and the second phone graced with “PureView” branding. But wait: this is not the same PureView that Nokia unveiled earlier this year in the 808, a phone (unfortunately saddled with a legacy operating system) wielding an unparalleled camera unit that is inarguably the best available today (see Connect's full review of the Nokia 808). No, Nokia has decreed that PureView doesn’t refer to any particular technology or feature, but rather an attitude of photographic seriousness.
So the 920 doesn’t inherit the 808’s incredible 41-megapixel titan of a sensor. The 920’s 1/3-inch sensor is par for the course in a contemporary phone; we can’t expect any miracles in the noise department. However, Nokia is positioning the 920 as a low-light champ. It claims it earns its PureView badge with a fast F2.0 lens and optical image stabilization that keeps the camera unit steady at low shutter speeds, soaking up light while avoiding blur from shaky hands. And like the 808, the 920 has true multi-aspect-ratio support. It looks pretty good on paper. We put the phone through its paces to see how it does in the real world.
Update: We've added the DxOMark Mobile Report to this review.
Key Photographic/Video Specifications
Pushing the button
You can jump directly to the camera function with a long press of the 920’s dedicated shutter button. The app snaps open reasonably quickly, but there is a brief wait while the phone decides whether you really mean that button press. A lock screen activation might be a bit quicker, but the advantage here is that you can jump to the camera with the phone held in shooting position and your finger already on the shutter release.
Just like on a “real” camera, pushing the 920’s shutter button halfway down locks focus on the center of the frame, and pressing all the way takes a picture. This lets you use the famous “focus and recompose” method when your main subject isn’t smack dab in the middle of the frame.
However, the 920 doesn’t lock exposure on the half-press, making it unlike the huge majority of digital cameras, though it’s not the only phone that makes this design choice. Say you point the camera at an off-center subject, half-press, and recompose (putting the subject on the side, with the background now centered). The 920 recalculates exposure without privileging the in-focus subject. It’s not impossible that that’s the behavior you want, but it’s less than likely.
Now, you’re ready to take the shot. Squeeze. And squeeze a little harder. The second stage of the shutter takes a fair amount of oomph, probably to avoid the camera being activated in your pocket. This may offset some of the advantage of having a camera button in the first place: avoiding camera-movement-induced blur cause by poking at the touch screen.
Focus speed is competitive, but annoyingly, if you press the shutter button too soon after taking a picture, the phone ignores you (AKA “early shutter penalty”). You’ll need to release and try again. Shot to shot speed, at around a second, is fine if you don’t jump the gun. There's no continuous or burst shooting option, which is something of an oversight as high-speed drive modes make their way onto more phones.
You can also take a picture by touching the screen. Ironically, this might actually be steadier than using the button, because the phone then focuses on wherever you touched before taking the shot. The pause while focus locks is usually enough time to get the phone steady.
But now you may encounter another quirk of the 920’s camera app. Yes, touching the screen lets you lock focus wherever you want -- but exposure doesn’t follow. Typically, cameras bias exposure towards the selected focus point, assuming that’s what you really care about in the composition. But the 920 remains steadfastly big-picture. It’s a strange choice.
Take a quick video tour of the Nokia 920’s camera:
The 920’s basic camera experience is simple enough: jump to the camera, take a picture. Along the right or bottom side of the frame are buttons to toggle video and photo mode, front and rear camera, flash mode (auto, on, off), and to switch “lenses.”
These lenses have nothing to do with the toy camera special effects you might imagine; they’re more like different functions the camera can perform. The nifty Bing Vision is installed by default. It scans bar codes to look up products (with Bing search, of course) and can read and translate text. This would be a separate app on other platforms, but we like the idea of tying it to the camera.
There is a range of other lenses available including a panorama function, Nokia's Cinemagraph which creates stills/video "hybrid images" and Smart Shoot which takes five images in rapid succession and then lets you combine the best elements - very useful for group portraits where the likelihood of at least subject having their eyes closed is high. These three lenses are free to download and install and given most users will find them useful it's not quite clear why they are not installed by default.
There’s also a Windows Phone triple-dot icon on the main camera screen that calls up more advanced configuration options. You get a selection of scene modes (Auto, Close Up, Night, Night Portrait, Sports and Backlight). Auto pretty much does the trick, though the Night mode enables lower shutter speeds for really low-light situations.
You can manually select ISOs from 100 to 800. This is less useful than it’d be if you could preview shutter speeds when composing a shot and in practice the 920 does a pretty good job of choosing an appropriate ISO on its own, but it’s nice to have the option here.
You can adjust the exposure compensation if the camera can’t nail the metering (and since there’s no exposure lock, this is in the only way to modify it if you don’t like the default choice).
There are four manual white balance settings (cloudy, daylight, fluorescent and incandescent) which is definitely good to have, though the phone usually does fine in auto mode.
Finally, you can change the aspect ratio and prevent the flash from operating as a focus assist light if you’re trying to keep a low profile.
This is a reasonably full set of parameters for a default camera app, but we have a bone to pick with the way the configuration menu is set up. First off, after you hit that triple-dot icon to get to your options, you first have to decide whether you want to change photo or video settings (more on video later). Why not just pull up the photo options when in still camera mode, and the video options when in video mode?
When you finally get your options, you find a scrollable list of dropdown menus. There’s no reason why most if not all of these items couldn’t fit on the 920’s spacious screen at once, and two-position functions like aspect ratio should be toggles, not dropdowns. Plus, making a selection doesn’t kick you back to the main screen -- you still have to hit “save,” press the camera button (full press!), or poke the part of the screen beyond the menu. It’s all laid out like a generic program, not a set of camera controls, missing the chance to feel smooth and flexible instead of fiddly.
There are also two things missing from the camera app that you’ll find on most recent Apple and Android devices. There’s no high dynamic range (HDR) mode, which combines multiple shots with different exposures to capture details in both the highlights and the shadows and no face detection, which is a great hassle-free way to get sharp and properly exposed portraits. The latter is available in the Smart Shoot lens mentioned above but you have no control over shooting parameters in that mode, so it would be nice to have Face Detection available as a focus mode in the standard camera app. Presumably these features will come along one day, but for now they’re missed.
Hitting the arrow icon in the top right corner of the camera app takes you to the 920’s gallery function. Besides browsing your photos (only in a single row, which can mean a lot of flick-scrolling), the gallery provides basic rotating, cropping and a one-touch optimizer that does the trick for tweaking exposure before sharing a casual snapshot. Sharing is also nicely integrated in the gallery app.
There seems to be a general drift towards wider-angle lenses in phones, with 28mm equivalents no longer surprising anyone. The 920 goes even wider: in 16:9 mode using the full width of the sensor it’s a positively expansive 26mm equivalent. At 4:3, it’s a merely normal wide 28mm.
That extra reach in 16:9 mode is thanks to the 920’s multi-aspect ratio sensor. Most digital cameras that offer the 16:9 ratio simply crop the top and bottom off of the image: you could do the same in post processing. The 920 actually uses fewer vertical and more horizontal pixels than in 4:3 mode, giving you a genuinely wider field of view.
You’ll feel the extra width when shooting a landscape or encompassing a street scene, but if you’re used to a longer focal length (like the iPhone 4S’s 37mm equivalent), you’ll need to get closer to people than you normally would to fill the frame.
With its fast F2.0 lens and optical image stabilization, Nokia is pitching the 920 as a master of the night, but how does the 920 fare with plenty of light to work with? Well, it’s OK, but no better. Nokia recently pushed out an update for the 920 aimed at addressing complaints that photos taken under ideal conditions of bright light look strangely smeary, and we used the phone both before and after the update.
The post-update photos do look sharper. They’re also noisier, as seen above in the even tones of the sky and in the shadows. We do prefer the update’s results, but it’s not a panacea.
The 920’s color rendition is generally pleasant, perhaps tending towards warmth in the sunshine and heavy saturation. When it comes to balancing highlights and shadows, it does as well as can be expected given the limitations of a small sensor. You’ll often see clipping in at least one channel under high-contrast conditions.
The lack of face recognition can hurt the 920 when shooting portraits. Light-skinned subjects wearing dark clothes can easily be over exposed. Tapping the subject’s face on-screen doesn’t help, since the 920 doesn’t link exposure to the focus point: you’re left having to manually dial in negative exposure compensation.
But when the lights go down, the 920 does come into its own. It’s the first phone with an optically stabilized (OIS) camera, and this is the big low-light news. Note that a number of phones claim “image stabilization” as a feature, but this is not stratospheric ISO abuse and/or waiting for a relatively steady moment to release the shutter. Dedicated cameras counteract camera movement at low shutter speeds (which leads to blurry pictures) by mechanically moving either the sensor or a lens element. The 920 goes one better and moves the entire camera assembly: your shaky hand zigs right, the whole camera unit zags left. Nokia says this happens 500 times per second and results in a three-stop advantage in hand-holdability, which is on par with claims from dedicated camera makers. In other words, if you can normally hold the phone steady enough for a clear shot with a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second, Nokia’s OIS should keep you virtually steady down to 1/4 second. Another way to look at it: a low-light shot that would normally require ISO 800 (and all the noise that implies) could be shot at a more reasonable ISO 100 without shake-induced blurring.
Does it deliver? Nokia’s three-stop claim is largely borne out, with the 920 routinely delivering sharp images at 1/3rd of a second shutter speeds. You can see the OIS in action before you take a picture: the system kicks in when you half-press the shutter, and the preview image immediately snaps into a spooky steadiness, floating ghostly and immune to the usual micro-movements of your muscles.
The urge when given OIS is to push it to the extreme, and we did. The system hugely increases the number of sharp shots you’ll get at very slow, sub-1/10th of a second shutter speeds. That means you can afford to lower ISO for cleaner images, or in very low light, just get photographs that would be otherwise impossible to capture.
Of course, OIS keeps the camera steady, not your subjects. This can be used artistically -- cars passing at night become light streaks -- but when shooting fidgety people you risk your subject blurring themselves out of the photograph.
The 920’s F2.0 lens gives you about a half-stop advantage over most of the competition. So for example, with lighting and shutter speed being equal, the 920 could use an ISO setting of 200, while a competitor might need 280 or more. It’s not a big difference, but it’s an advantage.
If you really want to work in the dark, selecting the “Night” scene mode lets the camera drop to exposures of half a second. This is really outside of the OIS’s performance envelope for a normal shooting position, though you may luck out if your brace up just right.
You might need that extra exposure time because the 920’s ISO range tops out at 800. No tiny sensor delivers pretty results at higher ISOs, but there is utility in having more reach for situations where the alternative is no photo at all. Given the 920’s noise levels at base ISO, though, it’s easy to understand Nokia’s decision on a triple-digit cap.
The 920’s flash is capable enough for casual portraits, though even two LEDs won’t compete with a traditional xenon flash. The LEDs do double duty as focus assist and red-eye reduction lamps. They then pulse once, brightly, to provide flash illumination. The brief pulse helps freeze the subject more than continuous illumination would.
The 920 shoots full high definition 1080p video, though the default is 720p. Video quality is good, and the 920’s optical image stabilization provides an unusually steady image that’s familiar in dedicated cameras but a novel luxury on a phone.
Movement is smooth and detail is good in this bright scene, with the sky slightly more electric than it was to the eye:
In this lower-light close-up shot at 720p, the 920 manages to shift focus without hunting. Shooting video with the OIS's Steadicam effect is a treat:
The Lumia 920 is more than just a camera, of course: it’s a phone you’ll carry with you every day. So we’d be remiss in not mentioning its weight. At 185 grams (6.5 ounces), the 920 is heavier than the great majority of phones in its class. Whether you find it chunky or just solid is a matter of personal taste. We weren’t particularly bothered by the heft, and it actually makes it that much easier to hold the phone steady on camera duty, but you should know this thing has some mass.
If you’re coming from iOS or Android, also note that Microsoft’s revamped phone OS is a relative newcomer to the game, so the app selection lags more established environments. This is likely to change as the platform gains traction, but you usually buy phones for what they do today, not what they should do tomorrow. If a particular app is essential to your mobile mojo, make sure there’s an equivalent for Windows Phone.
On the plus side, the 920 has a gorgeous screen, with a pixel density that exceeds even Apple’s Retina displays. It remains usable in bright light.
The Nokia Lumia 920 sports a very capable camera. Thanks to its optical image stabilization, it can capture clear images at low shutter speeds that would elude any other phone on the market. This makes it an ace at low-light photography of stationary objects, and partially addresses the Achilles heel of every phone camera on the market except Nokia’s own 808: poor low light performance. OIS also helps with borderline shutter speeds that non-stabilized phones routinely use anyway. While they simply hope for the best, the 920 stands an excellent chance of delivering a sharp image.
The multi-aspect-ratio sensor combined with a wide angle lens also gives the 920 a uniquely broad view of the world that will tickle anyone who feels stymied by their phone’s boxy, narrow outlook.
Unfortunately, the 920’s daylight performance is only OK. There’s at least as much noise as much of the competition, if not more. So much engineering has clearly gone into the 920’s camera unit that we’d hope for class-leading sensor performance, but it seems to be middle of the pack. The good news is that with 7 or 8 megapixels to play with, a lot of the sins visible at 100% disappear at more realistic magnifications.
The 920 is a solid offering, especially at $99 on contract from AT&T in the U.S. Nokia’s innovation around the camera takes mobile photography into new levels of darkness, but don’t expect miracles from the phone’s typically-performing sensor.
What we like:
What we don’t like
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Peter M. Ferenczi is a freelance writer and avid photographer. He lives in Paris.