Of course, in an ideal world, I'd do a 10 way shootout, including every flagship under the sun, but would you really want to sit through ten crops from ten smartphones for each of ten test photos, remembering which was which? It would be a nightmare to read. Therefore, I used the Nokia Lumia 925 as my 'baseline' 2013 smartphone camera - the 925 camera has won lots of acclaim and I'd put up against the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 camera without too many qualms. Not surprising, since all three have a 1/3" BSI sensor, etc.
Also in the mix is the undeniable camera flagship of the Android world, the Galaxy S4 Zoom - its status not surprising since it's essentially a standalone camera integrated into the body of a 4.3"-screened smartphone. With 10x optical zoom, OIS and a 1/2.3" sensor, it's certainly a worthy match for Nokia's two PureView giants.
For these four devices then, I chose ten test shots, designed to push the limits in terms of subject, distance and light. All of these shots are on the limits of what a normal user would 'snap', but then all top smartphones these days have cameras which can handle 'snaps' - what I'm interested in here is which of these devices can rise to the challenge when the going gets tough and the user gets ambitious!
- My aim here was to capture my subject in the best way possible using each phone camera. Although I didn't tamper with settings, i.e. things were on 'auto', I varied the level of PureView or optical zoom if appropriate. Add in a mix of slightly different original resolutions and you'll see why the crop framing doesn't quite match up below. Hopefully you'll still get a good idea of the quality of output that each phone is capable of.
- The degree of crop also varies from test case to case, depending on how large the subject/detail was in the original frame. If you want to do your own crops then the original JPGs are also available, linked in each case, should you not agree with my own assessments!
- I cannot emphasise enough that my intention here was not to denigrate the Lumia 925 camera - it's simply standing in for the 'everyman' camera phone, and is up against three devices for which the camera is THE unique selling point. But hopefully the 925's inclusion will provide a sense of perspective of how good the other three devices actually are.
- I've scored each photo from each device, partly for fun, to look at the total at the end, out of 100. Yes, my scores are completely subjective. I can't help that!
PLEASE NOTE: scoring any roundup like this depends hugely on the subjects and conditions. If I'd chosen 10 extreme macro shots, I think the Lumia 925 (and other 1/3" devices like the Galaxy S4) could well have come up top. If I'd chosen 10 extreme zoom shots then the Galaxy S4 Zoom would have run away with it. If I'd chosen 10 simple snaps then the 'pure' 808 would have been the winner by a mile. What is depicted below is a selection of subjects that span the entire gamut of challenging real world photo-taking situations.
Test photo 1: Bright sun, vivid colour, subject at 1m
In this case some buddleia florets, lit up by strong sun. A test of bright light and colour handling, as well as focussing on something relatively small (and also bobbing a little in the breeze, so a test of shutter speed).
Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
You'd have thought that this sort of subject would be simple for all the phones, yet the Nokia 808's shot is the only one which looks vaguely the right colour - the others are increasingly 'pink'! The 1020 and S4 Zoom's images are admirably crisp and detailed, but not sufficiently so that I can quite forgive the flowers being the wrong colour. The 925's shot is as indistinct (in terms of detail) as the 808's and over-pink. That the 808's photo is a little blurred is quite possibly down to the lack of OIS - I was shooting high up above my head and I'm sure there will have been some hand shake - and possibly down to the floret moving gently in the breeze.
Scores: Nokia 808: 7 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 6 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 5 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 3 pts.
Test photo 2: Indoors, average ambient light, subject at 50cm
Text detail is always great for spotting differences in capture and image processing, so I shot these book spines indoors. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
As predicted, the text here shows up the image processing differences from the various phone cameras very clearly indeed. The 808's image is natural and neutral, with almost zero noise, while the aggressive sharpening in the Lumia 1020's image manages to create artefacts out of thin air, plus you can clearly see the pixels that make up the curves in the text. Which is better? Depends who you talk to - most people would instantly pick out the 1020's image, top right, as being clearer, despite the processing. The S4 Zoom's photo is some way behind, with more noise and artefacts, enough to change the colour of the book spine completely. While the 925's photoshows typical noise from a small-sensored camera phone and is clearly massively inferior to the other three shots.
Scores: Nokia 808: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 7 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 5 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 2 pts.
Test photo 3: Bright sun, extreme macro
I wanted something colourful and with tiny detail, and spotted this tiny flower. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
When looking at extreme macro shots, small-sensored phone cameras have an advantage, in that you can get a focus lock a lot closer. The PureView zoom in the 808 and 1020, plus the optical zoom in the S4 Zoom all mitigate this to some degree, but the 925's shot is still very clear here. But it's just topped by the wonderful image from the Lumia 1020, with good detail and colour. In contrast, the S4 Zoom achieves detail, but the shot is over-exposed and some of the rich colour has been lost. While the 808's version looks too cold and with characteristically average macro performance.
Scores: Nokia 808: 5 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 10 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 6 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 8 pts.
Test photo 4: Night shot, brightly lit subject
In this case the beautiful green lighting on this Holiday Inn caught my eye. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
This time it's the Nokia 808 which has nailed the actual colour of the scene properly, even including some of the detail in the bright 'H' light. The S4 Zoom is some way behind, with the Lumia 1020 and 925 showing progressively weaker greens and less detail.
Scores: Nokia 808: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 6 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 6 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 3 pts.
Test photo 5: Night, faintly lit subject
The OIS-equipped Lumias are famous for being able to capture scenes even with little light available. In this case a relatively weakly lit spire, glowing in the darkness around 60 metres away. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia Lumia 925, in reality it was a lot fainter! - but this shot shows the distance more representatively):
The characteristics of each phone camera show up well here, with the Nokia 808's image (PureView-zoomed) having warm coloration and good exposure, but being slightly blurred (due to the lack of OIS and hand shake from yours truly), the Lumia 1020 showing the same detail but crisper, but with significant over-exposure (as happens a lot at night with the marque). The 925 is hampered by not having any genuine zoom functions, so there's far less detail and over-exposure, while the S4 Zoom comfortably nails the detail and lighting, thanks to the optical zoom (I think I used it around 6x or 7x for this shot).
Scores: Nokia 808: 5 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 5 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 9 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 2 pts.
Test photo 6: Bright sun, bokeh effect
This was asking a lot, but I had a mass of flowers (up to about 2 metres worth) in front of me, with a plane around 50 metres away - I wanted an nice arty shot of the flowers crisp and the plane nicely blurred in the background. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
Getting an exact focus lock on the flowers before reframing slightly to get the plane in view wasn't trivial, but the Lumia 1020 seemed to manage it best of all. Great colours and detail, while the 808's is all very natural and soft-focus. The S4 Zoom's shot is, again, rather bleached, while I'm not convinced the 925's shot achieved a satisfactory focus at all (despite my efforts, the plane looks crisper than the flowers).
Scores: Nokia 808: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 10 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 7 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 4 pts.
Test photo 7: Indoors, scanning a document
A common use for camera phones is to snap a document or brochure. This is A4 in size and I snapped the top half of it at about 30cm. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
The tricky thing with photographing something which is already, in effect, digital, i.e. broken up into 'dithered' dots, is that if you've got any kind of sharpening then it'll go spare with all the 'information' it finds. Here, the Nokia 808's 'natural', as-is capture and the 925's (noise reduced) shot are both acceptable, while the Lumia 1020 and the S4 Zoom both produce unsightly speckles and distractions, plus neither gets the brochure's colour just right.
Scores: Nokia 808: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 5 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 4 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 7 pts.
Test photo 8: Bright sun, distant subject
A perfect test of optics and zoom capabilities. The Fairey Gannet is a perfect subject, with masses of detail, I was shooting from around 40 metres. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia Lumia 925):
Although, as expected, the optical zoom in the Galaxy S4 Zoom triumphs here by some margin in terms of detail and clarity, it's surprising how close the PureView pair get with their 3x 'lossless' digital zoom. Once again there's the choice of the 808's interpretation of the scene with little noise or artefacts, and the 1020's version with immediately clearer detail, but at the expense of noise and artefacts in solid areas of colour. It's subjective - which one do you prefer? The Lumia 925, again representing the typical smartphone camera with no fancy zoom tricks or physics, shows how far behind the Nokia PureView pair the chasing pack is, at least once you want to zoom a little....
Scores: Nokia 808: 6 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 6 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 9 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 2 pts.
Test photo 9: Evening, artificial lights, moving subject, 2 metres away
A mock up of the archetypal party/pub shot, where there's some light (all room lights on), but not anywhere near enough to allow moving subjects to be captured crisply. A test of the phone flashes, but also how well they manage combining ambient light and flash illumination. Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
It's evident that the Lumia 1020 is trying to combine ambient light effects with illumination effects from its Xenon flash - the image isn't quite as frozen as in the Nokia 808's attempt. In principle, this means that evening or party shots should gather more 'atmosphere' while still essentially freezing moving people. But I still prefer the Nokia 808's image - just. The S4 Zoom's Xenon flash is very bright - some two or three times the strength of that in the Nokia PureView devices here. As a result the shot is almost over-illuminated - it could almost be daylight and there's no atmosphere at all. But you can't fault the clarity. In contrast, the Lumia 925's LED flash shows typical blurriness, as evidenced by a million evening photos from camera phones worldwide every day. Just say no. Embrace Xenon!
Scores: Nokia 808: 9 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 8 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 1 pt.
Test photo 10: Pitch darkness, moving subject at 2m
A similar mock-up to the test case above, but this time in the pitch dark, i.e. no room lighting. An absolute test of camera flash, this mimics the situation in a disco or gig, where there's typically little directional lighting on your subject. And no, I wasn't going to pretend to dance.....
Here's the full scene (as shot on the Nokia 808 PureView):
I'd expect this shot to be a very close call and indeed it was. The Lumia 1020 has a slightly weaker Xenon flash but a more sensitive sensor. The Nokia 808's typically frozen shot looks good, but then look at the top of the bottle in the 1020 shot - considering that the bottle and I weren't still, this is astonishing clarity. My skin looks slightly coloured and with higher noise, but still quite excellent overall. The S4 Zoom's attempt is again a little overblown, it's as if I was caught in a nuclear blast rather than a phone flash! And the same abuse can be given to LED-lit shots in the 925's case as in the previous test photo.
Scores: Nokia 808: 8 pts, Nokia Lumia 1020: 9 pts, Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 7 pts, Nokia Lumia 925: 1 pt.
As ever, it's fun (though obviously horribly unscientific, given the personal nature of the choice of subjects) to add up the scores. So, remembering that this is all for pure image quality and not taking into account aspects like ease of interface, flexibility in capturing, let alone preference on OS or ecosystem, we get:
- Nokia 808 PureView: 72
- Nokia Lumia 1020: 72
- Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: 66
- Nokia Lumia 925: 33
Cue cries of 'it's a fix!', of course. But feel free to score the shots yourself and come up with a different conclusion. The bottom line is that, though Nokia may have 'completely re-engineered' the camera for the Lumia 1020, the underlying principles and expertise are at play (large sensor and optics, oversampling, PureView zoom, Xenon flash, etc.) and it's not at all surprising that there's very little to choose between them at the end of the day. For someone making a real world choice*, it comes down to your attitude to image processing and how badly you want OIS.
* of course, with the 808 almost impossible to buy these days and with Symbian effectively stalled in the market, the real world choice is more between the Lumia 1020 and the rest of the competition.
Somewhat surprising was that both of Nokia's PureView devices managed to best the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, with its integrated optical zoom and other standalone camera specs. Not by a huge margin, but I'd definitely argue that the two top Nokias had 'better' cameras overall.
Very surprising was the margin by which the Lumia 925, standing in for the iPhone/GS4/Xperia Z generation of devices, got destroyed. As soon as you move beyond 1:1 casual photographs of people, food and flowers in good light, the small sensored, small-lensed, zoomless, LED-flash camera phones get left in the dust in terms of results and I point to the crops above as proof.
Again, to critics, I'd argue that not only has Nokia's 808 PureView got a better camera than you thought it had, the Lumia 1020 is as good. Yes, I suspect that some of its algorithms will receive a small tweak or two in the next firmware update, but some of the shots above really surprised me. Moving from the 808 to the 1020 (as some readers may be thinking of doing) is definitely not a downgrade. Think of it as a sideways step.
Which, as a turn of phrase, and given the platform change that would be involved, is somehow appropriate, don't you think?
Review: Nokia Lumia 1020 (focus on 1020 as a smartphone)