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Nokia Lumia 1020 Photography Review

A little over a year ago I was first given the chance to demo what was, at that point in time, the latest flagship device from Nokia. While this opportunity was by no means my first encounter with the thing, otherwise known as the Lumia 920, I was still quite excited to see how it would perform as a daily driver. As the first phone- or, at the very least, the first mainstream handset- equipped with an optical image stabilization system, the device appeared poised to take smartphone photography to a new level.

Owing largely to the high sticker price, the 920 failed to impress me. Tack on buggy software and a battery that- on more than one occasion- petered out far before the day was over, and I completely wrote off the flagship Nokia. Such was my dismay at the device’s real-world usefulness that I even went out of my way to ensure that all of my peers would be sure to look at anything but a Nokia when their next upgrade cycle came around.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that the (no longer very recent) news of a brand new Nokia flagship device hardly managed to even make a blip on my awareness radar. Indeed, while I was aware of the new handset’s number designation, it wasn’t until a few weeks had passed that I actually bothered to see what the fuss was all about. It was then that I realized just what I’d missed as a result of my apathy towards the Finnish company, and I then began to beg Nokia Connects for the opportunity to play with one.

After patiently waiting a couple of months I finally got my chance, and was sent a Lumia 1020 to test and review. Unfortunately, by the time I was finally able to put the device through my daily routine, I was already late to the reviewing party. As such, this review shall more or less resemble a critique of the 1020’s imaging prowess as opposed to reiterating that which has been written before by others. Technical details, in-depth coverage of the updates to Windows Phone 8, and so on won’t be discussed at any length here. With that out of the way, let’s dig in.

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Left to its default settings the Lumia 1020 saves two copies of every image taken: one at its CCD’s native* resolution of 41-megapixels, and the second at a much more sharing-friendly 5-megapixel count. (*The actual usable resolution of the CCD is noticeably lower. This is accounted for by the amount of sensor space that is used for metering and white-balance purposes.) The difference between the two differently sized images is obvious when comparing the zoomed crop of the image below, which has been shared here in its original 41-megapixel format.

Original photograph.
41-megapixel zoom (left) and 5-megapixel zoom (right).
While the above comparison is good and all, it doesn't speak much for the camera's full abilities. A camera that performs admirably in situations with an abundance of light doesn't really stand out. What is needed in order to really judge the 1020's abilities is a dark scene that puts the OIS system to work, such as that found below. Most smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras must resort to cranking up the ISO sensitivity in order to snap a handheld picture without significant motion blur, at the expense of noise present in the final image. With its OIS, the Lumia 1020 manages to find a nice balance between shutter speed and ISO to produce a clean nighttime shot.

Example of detail captured in a handheld nighttime still.
Assuming one has enough time to setup a proper shot... well, that's where this Nokia really starts to shine. Take, for example, the shots below. They were captured by inputting some manual override settings and then standing the camera Lumia up on its end.

4" long exposure at night of downtown Portland, OR.
4" long exposure taken inside a dark venue.
What really took me by surprise was the level of control that is possible right out of the box with a 1020. Manual focus, aperture, ISO, shutter speed... these are all easier to set and adjust than they are on the vast majority of dedicated consumer cameras that I've interacted with. As a result of the ease with which Nokia's device can be configured, there's a lot less mucking about in settings and a lot more focusing on shooting the image you want to capture. I no longer found myself pointing the phone in a direction and hoping that the image would come out... hope was instead replaced with excitement at seeing the captured image on the screen a couple of seconds later.

Point and shoot, handheld. Not many phones can capture a steady image with motion blur.
Running around town with a 1020 in one's pocket opens up a lot of photographic opportunities that might otherwise be missed. It's possible to pursue creative passions with the device, indulging in such artistic endeavors as light painting or intentionally taking out-of-focus pictures, such as that found below.

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Not much has changed since the Lumia 920 in this category of imaging performance. Handheld video is still worlds better than any smartphone not equipped with OIS. The following two videos are 1080p videos captured by the Lumia 1020 that were then uploaded directly to YouTube without any sort of post-processing.

Keen eyed viewers will probably notice the focus shifting occasionally, a result of the AF system. Were I to have manually set a focus point, this visual nuisance wouldn't have been present in the videos. The edges of the video may also appear to bend and distort: this is the result of the OIS system attempting to compensate for the jitters and shakes of my hand.

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After playing with the Lumia 1020 for a while, it has become clear to me that Nokia definitely didn't rest on its laurels in the wake of the 920. Taking the best of both the 1020's predecessor, and the predecessor to that (the PureView 808), Nokia has created a fantastic camera. Or is it actually a smartphone? I leave to the decision for the reader to decide.

As far as the device itself is concerned, I do have a few negative points that I unearthed:

  • Battery life leaves much be be desired. On at least one occasion I drove all the way home (before the day was up) to switch back to my Nexus 4. Why? The 1020's battery had died and I needed to remain mobile for the rest of the day.
  • The high-sensitivity setting on the display- for use with gloves- is a two-edged sword. At least a handful of friends received pocket-dials while the 1020 sat in the pocket of my jeans.
  • Matte plastic looks great, but it is somewhat slippery. Combine this with some top-heavy characteristics and I nearly dropped the thing immediately upon removing it from its box.
  • Sometimes, and only sometimes, the screen would not register screen presses while I was trying to change camera settings.
  • True megapixel output, even at its highest setting, is shy of the true 41-megapixels touted. That was a bit of a surprise for me.
Now it's time for the big question. Would I recommend the Lumia 1020 to a friend or colleague? In a word... yes. While the price of the unsubsidized handset is still very prohibitive, this is the first recent device from Nokia that I actually want to have in my pocket. Now that the firm is owned by Microsoft, I can only wonder what's next from the people who put together this amazing smartphone.