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(Pocket-lint) - Smartphones have not only got smarter in recent years, they’ve also developed so much in the camera department that there’s an argument to ditch the compact camera altogether. That, it seems, is the Lumia 1020’s ultimate goal - to attract photo-savvy customers, some of whom might otherwise not look at the Windows Phone 8 platform.

Nokia is at the forefront of photography in its smartphones. It was the first to put a large-sensor in one, the first to introduce a floating element for image stabilisation, and the first to opt for super-high resolution as a work-around to alleviate zoom issues. Things dedicated cameras have been using for years already, but that other smartphone manufacturers have been slower to adopt.

After a rocky road of company stability the accumulation of these experiments has led us to the Lumia 1020. A device that, in some respects, is trying just as hard - perhaps even harder - to be a camera as it is a smartphone.

With all the shiny new tech that Nokia has crammed on board is it truly the very best smartphone camera out there? And, perhaps more importantly, can it truly be seen as a legitimate camera replacement? We’ve already reviewed the 1020 as a phone, but here, in 2014 and following the Nokia Black OS update, we drill down to its camera capabilities to see if it is truly king of the camera castle.

Our quick take

Let's cut to the chase: the Nokia Lumia 1020 is the smartphone to beat when it comes to photography. Its camera is a serious bit of kit that, given the right conditions, will create exceptional shots.

The caveat is that the best smartphone camera still isn’t always as good as a dedicated camera. In low-light conditions the higher ISO shots won't return true sharpness, which is where the 1020 falls just shy of perfection.

There will also always be a tug-of-war battle as to whether the smartphone's design has been tailored towards camera functionality to excess. But there has to be ambition, and while that might spell out compromise for some, for us we think it's largely paid off.

Since the Nokia Black OS update the 1020 camera system is better than ever. We love the raw file shooting more than we even thought we would from such a device, the optical image stabilisation saw us taking shots without flash that we'd struggle to get from a compact camera, and the continued growth of the "lenses" apps are all notable highlights.

Whether you're on board with Windows Phone 8 or not, the camera in the 1020 is yet another dangled carrot from Nokia, and a tasty one at that. In our minds there's no doubt the Lumia 1020 is the king when it comes to smartphone cameras.

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review

Nokia Lumia 1020 camera

4.5 stars - Pocket-lint recommended
  • Image stabilisation great to assist with shots in low light
  • Bright exposures
  • Manual controls available
  • Touchscreen is responsive
  • Inherent smartphone abilities to share/apps
  • Raw files hold plenty of detail at low ISO settings
  • Chunky for a smartphone
  • Image quality can't always rival a dedicated compact camera
  • Some settings may confuse the uninitiated
  • No microSD/SD storage
  • Tricky to hold without accessory grip

Camera or smartphone?

We like smartphones to feel like smartphones. Something too large and too chunky can feel like someone trying to tug your jeans down when the phone’s in your pocket. And in the hand additional protrusions can become nothing more than a nuisance.

The Lumia 1020 shows it is firmly focused on its camera features because it’s a fairly big beast for the sake of the camera tech on board. Not so much the physical size overall, complete with that 4.5-inch screen, but the physical thickness of the protruding circular camera section to the rear. The lens won’t pop out and add additional girth when the device is switched on or anything like that, and it is thinner than any dedicated camera we could name, but then the 1020 is supposed to be a phone. And as a phone it’s quite big.

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But that’s the state of compromise, we suppose, if you want higher-spec camera features than most competitors can offer, and it’s a fair compromise then we can understand. In a year when large-screen phablets are due to be more popular than ever there's an argument that big phones are on trend anyway. And the longer we’ve lived with the Lumia 1020 the more we’ve come to adapt to its size and enjoy it - it’s less of a hindrance than we probably make it sound.

If anything it goes too far the other way in terms of size for camera usability, because a thin camera is tricky to handle. So-called "smartphone fatness" is the equivalent of camera anorexia - and handling that touchscreen and getting a solid grip to use the shutter button can be a bit of a trick sometimes.

Good job, then, that Nokia has also optioned an additional accessory grip. It’s not included in the box, but if you’re keen on a more camera-like hold then it’ll make all the difference. We borrowed one from a colleague and it does morph the 1020 into a camera-like design. With the grip attached the simplest of tasks such as pressing the shutter button feels a lot more supported and steady - even with one handed use. But as a dedicated smartphone with the grip attached? People will probably laugh at you.

Serious specs

With that camera/smartphone question still in mind, we’ve gone down the route of using the Lumia 1020 SIM-free as a camera to focus on its qualities in this department. We already know it's a good phone.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1020 review

And its first apparent omission is its lack of an SD or microSD slot - something that’s commonplace in plenty of smartphones. Shame. If you intend to shoot a stack of shots then you’re stuck to the internal storage, and if you want more than 16GB then you’re going to have to fork out extra cash for it. No budget removable card to be found here.

In terms of spec, however, the 1020 is a shining example of other camera features. There’s a 26mm equivalent Carl Zeiss optic with a maximum f/2.2 aperture to let lots of light in - and that’s useful for exposures in low light. Furthermore the 41-megapixel sensor not only has a massive resolution - and we’ll come to why later on - but its 1/1.5in size makes it larger than the typically small sensors in other smartphones. That’s ideal for better image quality, although the sensor isn’t as big as that found in the original PureView 808, for the sake of keeping the device's scale to a more manageable level.

And as if all that didn’t sound like enough then there’s the Nokia showstopper: optical image stabilisation. Commonplace in cameras these days, this is the tech that enables the lens elements to "float" and therefore counteract handshake. When lighting conditions are dim, the device is more capable of making a longer exposure in order to successfully expose the frame. Doing so would typically result in blur or softness, but the Nokia stabilisation technology raises the acceptable threshold. Even if you don’t feel it, it’s there acting as wingman for every shot you take.

Zoom Zoom

Then there’s that resolution. We’d usually say that 41-megapixels is absurdly high as too many "pixels" on a small surface area can easily hinder image quality. Nokia has been clever with this by opting for that larger sensor, so the relative size of each is similar to the majority of its competitors. The key difference: it opens the door for digital zoom.

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Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review - sample image at ISO 100 - click for full size JPEG crop

Digital zoom is important to make subjects seem closer in the frame. Imagine you’re looking at a window, and that windows represents all 41-megapixels. There’s the window frame, which obscures the outer edge, but is necessary for the frame to exist - and that is a simplified analogy as to  why the Lumia 1020’s maximum output is 38-megapixels. Now imaging someone walking down the road in that window field of view - they’ll probably look like a fairly small blip in that frame, so by "drawing the curtains" and not using the entirety of the available view it will look as though that same subject then dominates the frame more. It’s the same with the Lumia 1020: as you zoom from the 26mm through to the maximum 78mm equivalent it ignores the outer part of the sensor to "zoom" in.

The resolution decreases as the zoom increases, as it does on other smartphones and cameras, but as there’s so much resolution available that’s not a problem. Even the maximum zoom will deliver a 5-megapixel result, and when considering that your 40-whatever-inch HD telly is only 2.2-megapixels that's none too bad at all. Because it isn’t. Even at full zoom there's more resolution available than from the HTC One, for example.

READ: HTC One review

Point and shoot

We can talk all that geeky stuff to death, but will refrain from overdoing it. Because when it comes down to it you just want to pick up the 1020 and snap away. Press the Nokia Camera tile app - it requires a separate update outside of the Black OS update - and that's what you can do with ease.

At 4.5-inches and with a 1280 x 768 resolution the 1020's screen also provides an ample view onto the world. That's a 2.49m-dot resolution and, therefore, far more resolute than most compact cameras can offer, even if it can't quite reach the Full HD standards of some other smartphones on the market.

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In use the 1020's touchscreen is responsive to position the point of focus, and it’s possible to fire off a shot in a single action. Once in focus a second press on the screen will cause focus to drift out, which is something to watch out for, and as the aperture is wide it's worth being critical where you apply the point of focus.

In the dimmest of conditions we found that on a couple of occasions the 1020 autofocus faltered, such as in failing to lock on to the contrasting edges of silhouetted trees against a sunrise backdrop. In total darkness it also struggled to focus on the small dots of light from a distant town shot from the top of a hill.

When things do go to plan, however, the kind of shots that you’ll get exceed anything that we’ve seen from the competition. We snapped some poolside shots with little available light and, on the 4.5-inch screen at least, they look impressive. All that behind-the-scenes tech in action is a great thing to behold.

That’s what will make the Lumia 1020 a winner for most: it’s so easy to use in a variety of conditions without the need for flash and the results still look good.

Advanced but alien

Nokia has killed off the Pro Camera app that began life with the 1020 and rolled all its features into the Camera application. Manual controls are available towards the top of the screen should you want them, although if you don't know what they mean then the way its delivered may feel somewhat alien.

As much as we love the hands-on ability to adjust for white balance, flash, manual focus, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed and exposure compensation, if you don’t know what any of that means then Nokia certainly isn’t making it easier to grasp. Some sort of guidance might help out those who want to improve their picture taking abilities.

That sentiment is exaggerated in the case of settings such as white balance, where only symbols represent a colour temperature. A bulb represents tungsten light, for example, which we already know from our photographic background but others won't. The screen does shift the colour balance in real time, so it can be used to creative effect if you want to, but the symbols feel a bit alienating for a standard application.

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Once you get a handle on these controls they are certainly handy, albeit a little on the small side to thumb through. We'd like the top line menu to be that bit fatter, or even size adjustable, to fit to different users that bit better.

The more we used the manual settings the more we liked them, particularly for manual focus to lock on to close-up subjects. And once updated to Black OS there's more depth to the "lenses" section within the Camera app to open up additional Nokia-specific apps. Smart Cam takes multiple shots to "animate" moving subjects through a frame, while the new Refocus app allows for post-shooting depth of focus adjustment. Very cool. There are more first and third party options available, including things such as self timer.

We have a couple of small issue with "lenses". The first is the load time required between one and the other, because we want it to be instant, as if just pressing a button to activate a new camera mode. The second is the visual language used between older apps and newer ones - both Camera and Nokia Camera exist as tiles within our install, which is confusing.

Image quality

How the device performs was all a big drumroll up until this point. Just how good are the Lumia 1020's images? There are multiple ways to approach the answer to that.

First and foremost there's a lot to be pleased about. In good light we've been able to take some great snaps with plenty of detail in them; shots good enough to rival a compact camera. The lowest ISO 100 sensitivity delivers plenty of detail that's very impressive for a smartphone, despite some imaging artefacts if we’re particularly critical.

In moderately dim conditions we've been able to take steady shots with shutter speeds right down to 1/8th sec, which is one area the 1020 can certainly show off. That extended shutter time means more light can fall onto the sensor in a given period to "brighten" the scene and this gives the Lumia an edge compared to the competition. However the camera will opt to shoot at even slower shutter speeds than this, to the detriment of sharpness, as there's only so much that otherwise brilliant image stabilisation system can handle.

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When it comes to low light there are highs and lows from the 1020. As the light dips the camera has to process results harder, achieved by using a higher ISO sensitivity. Upwards of ISO 800 the quality rapidly falls away. Indeed it pretty much dives off a cliff.

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Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review - sample image at ISO 100 - click for full size JPEG crop

Scale is then important because if you just want to share shots on Facebook, via a quick media message to another device or in other similar formats, then the down-sampled shots continue to look good on a small screen. Well exposed shots even in dim conditions are what sells it, but it might not be largely apparent looking at an ISO 1600 shot on the device's relatively small 4.5-inch screen just how sharp (or not) the results are. We weren’t able to snap a critically sharp shot at ISO 1600 or higher. Here the aggressive processing and, at times, excess shutter speeds combine to deliver a soft result that won't outdo a compact camera. The Lumia 1020 is ambitious, we’ll give it that, but like anything it does have its limitations. 

If you're relying on what the 1020 produces straight from device then it's impressive for the most part, but sometimes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as not everything was as sharp as it appeared to be on screen when viewed at full scale. That's often the nature of photography.

Raw power

There's another trick that the Nokia Black OS update brings with it: raw shooting. Available in the universal DNG format this can be switched on from the Capture option within the Settings menu. If you are the Microsoft Windows Phone Mac app, however, you'll need to download NokiaPhoto Transfer software to access these raw files. A shame Microsoft and Nokia's software can't be in sync, but such is the way of independent software development.

A raw file is sort of like a digital negative. It's the original version of the shot minus any image processing, so while there's a lot more data stacked into the file it can also show up lots of image noise, look washed out, lack contrast and appear less sharp. But that's part of the point: the possibility for lossless editing of images means you can dig deep into all that available data, including adjusting exposure, colour and all manner of other settings after it's been shot. It gives scope to inject some magic into a shot, or rescue one that wasn't quite right when taken.

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Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review - sample image at ISO 100 - click for full size raw file crop

It's here that the Lumia 1020 pushes itself to another level. In truth we thought that the raw files wouldn't be usable above the lowest ISO settings, based on how the JPEG image quality slips, but even snapping at ISO 800 the results have a fine grain that's largely void of colour noise. It is grain considerably worse than, say, a DSLR camera - we did a side-by-side against the Nikon D610 - but this is a smartphone, so credit where credit is due.

Some optical issues do rear their head in raw shots, such as vignetting and colour shift towards the broad corners of the frame, and the reproduced colour palette also seems thinner than from a higher-spec camera. But, all told, we preferred utilising the raw files than the JPEG images straight from the phone. The treatment to contrast and colour is finer than the JPEG frames, and the raw shots don't auto-crop the outer edges of the frame in an attempt to hide optical nasties.

Raw shooting gives the 1020 even more power than when it first launched to market. It's best reserved for the low-mid ISO settings, but is of genuine use if you have Adobe Camera Raw software handy for some quick editing. We're impressed.

Writing by Mike Lowe.