Great camera on oddball phone
The New York Times
FOR years, every decent photo from a mobile phone has earned the same faint praise: "That's a great picture! You know, for a cellphone."
Still, the mediocrity of such photos hasn't stopped us from hitting our phone's shutter button. The phone's handiness seems to excuse a long list of photographic disappointments: feeble sensors, no zoom, no real flash, no ability to freeze action and heartbreaking low-light graininess.
Well, good news: Little by little, the world's electronics companies are finally turning their attention to this problem. Some of them try to graft cellphones onto cameras; others try to jam real cameras into cellphones.
Nokia has taken the latter approach with its new Lumia 1020. It's a huge Windows Phone 8 device with an absolutely amazing camera.
Nokia says this phone has a 41MP camera. But if you think megapixels equal picture quality, you would be disappointed.
The megapixel count really means very little. There have been 2MP cameras that took wonderful photos, and 20MP cameras that took terrible ones.
A high megapixel count is primarily a marketing gimmick. And in any case, any picture you send wirelessly from this phone - by e-mail, text message, Facebook or Twitter - is actually a 5MP shot. Which, again, doesn't mean anything good or bad.
The only way to get the full-resolution originals off the phone is to connect the phone to a Mac or PC with a USB cable.
The high megapixel count is useful in exactly one situation: when you want to crop out much of the scene. If you're starting with 41MP, you can throw away a lot of a photo and still have enough resolution for a big print.
What Nokia should really be bubbling about is the superiority of this camera's sensor - its digital film. Compared with the sensors in most phones, this one is huge and especially light sensitive.
Most of the time, the photos are just as good as what you'd get from a US$300 (S$380) pocket camera. Often, they're better. Sometimes, though, the photos are worse. Shutter lag is a problem. There can be distortion at the outer edges of the frame.
This phone doesn't have a true zoom. Instead, it has a 3X digital zoom: slide your finger up the screen to magnify the scene. You're not really zooming at all - just cropping into a smaller area - but it works well enough.
On most cameras, what you get by way of a flash is an LED lamp that lights up momentarily for short-range illumination. On the 1020, you get an actual flash - a mini strobe that's much better.
The phone also has a superb image stabiliser that comes in handy for videos. The videos really are something: stable, bright, 1080p high definition, with crisp stereo sound.
This is probably the best camera on a phone. But you do pay a price for its photographic excellence.
First, this thing is huge: 130mm by 71mm by 10mm. It accommodates a big, bright 4.5-inch screen and you feel as if you are holding a DVD box up to your ear.
The lens creates a bulge on the back, too. It's slight, but awkward enough to prevent the phone from lying flat.
At least Nokia has made good use of this hulking shell by packing in a big battery. It easily gets you through a full day of regular smartphone tasks, but using the camera slurps down the juice much faster.
The second price: complexity. The camera app is broken up into three pieces. The main app, called Nokia Pro Cam, puts controls like white balance, ISO, exposure, shutter speed and manual focus right on the touchscreen. The Nokia Smart Cam app then performs editing stunts like choosing the best expression for one person in a group from several successive shots, or removing something that wandered into the background. The third app, Creative Studio, degrades your shot with colour filters, a la Instagram.
What is clear, though, is that the Lumia 1020 is a remarkable experiment. Its size and silhouette may make it a little too weird for most people. But if you want good photographs from a phone - man, has this one got your number.