Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Nokia Lumia 1020 (A Serious Camera For Serious Photographers?)

Nokia Lumia 1020
The time came to update my cell phone. Cell phone companies charge much too much for their services, so I hate giving them any more money than I have to. That is why I always choose from their selection of "free" phones. Two years ago it was a Samsung Galaxy S.

This time around, however, I did not choose a free phone. I justified this choice by buying a Nokia Lumia 1020, which AT&T (the only carrier with this phone) had on sale for $100 (MSRP $600). You see, the Nokia Lumia 1020 has a camera that's supposed to be pretty darn good. My justification is that the phone was free, and the camera cost me one hundred bucks.

So what about this $100 camera? It has a 1/1.5 inch back-illuminated sensor with a whopping 41 megapixels, a 26mm-equivalent f2.2 Carl Zeiss lens, image stabilization and the ability to save in RAW. Is this camera able to hold its own against much more expensive models? Could it be a serious camera for serious photographers?
Boss Hog - Tehachapi, California
The Lumia 1020 has 41 megapixels on a small sensor. Yes, the sensor is large for a cell-phone, but it is small compared to what is found in most cameras used by serious photographers. Pixels are not created equal, and in fact there are many different pixel sizes, all of which respond differently to light. Bigger pixels will produce a higher dynamic range and less digital noise while smaller pixels will produce a smaller dynamic range and higher digital noise.

In order for Nokia to get such high resolution out of the small sensor it needed to use tiny light sensors. Nokia made a camera that could capture images capable of mural-sized prints, but at the expense of dynamic range and high ISO image quality. But what surprised me is that the sacrifice was not nearly as severe as I would have guessed.

The Dormant Road - Tehachapi, California
It is important to understand what class the Nokia Lumia 1020 camera falls into, so we can see how it compares to other cameras in that class. So what kind of camera is it? The Lumia 1020 is a wide-angle fixed-lens compact digital camera. Cameras that it can be compared to are the Fuji X100S, the Sigma DP1 Merrill, the Ricoh GR, the Nikon Coolpix A, and the Sony RX1.

The best comparisons for resolution are the Sony RX1 and the Sigma DP1 Merrill. The Sony has a 24 megapixel full-frame sensor and the Sigma has a 46 megapixel APS-C Foveon sensor, which produces about 28-equivalent megapixels when compared to a Bayer sensor (the most common sensor type). The Lumia 1020 has 38 megapixels if used in the 4:3 aspect ratio or 34 megapixels if used in the 16:9 aspect ratio, so it easily wins this category. In fact, the resolution from this camera is up there with medium-format cameras.

For dynamic range, the best comparison is the Ricoh GR, not because it's the best of the group but because it's the worst (marginally the worst, they all have pretty good dynamic range). And the Ricoh GR has the Nokia Lumia 1020 pretty well beat. Really, it's not even close. This is where all those tiny light sensors hurt the camera's image quality.
Vibrant Shirts - Bakersfield, California
But, with that said, the dynamic range on the Lumia 1020 is not terrible, either. I would put it into the "acceptable" category. In fact, it's about the same as the dynamic range on Fuji Velvia 50 film, the standard film for color landscape photography. The Lumia 1020's dynamic range is also very similar to full-frame sensors from about 10 years ago (such as the Canon EOS 5D introduced in 2005), APS-C sensors from about five years ago (such as the Pentax K-7 introduced in 2009), and micro-four-thirds sensors from two years ago (such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 introduced in 2011).

If you think about it, that's pretty amazing! A very small sensor stuffed with 41 megapixels is able to maintain a dynamic range almost identical to the Canon EOS 5D, Pentax K-7 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, as well as many other cameras that have been well regarded. Even though the dynamic range on the Lumia 1020 isn't particularly great, Nokia deserves some recognition for somehow getting it to be as good as it is.

At low ISO, the Nokia Lumia 1020 will have similar digital noise as the other cameras in its category. At high ISO, the only camera worse is the Sigma DP1 Merrill, which is known for being a low-ISO-only camera. The Lumia 1020 drops significantly in image quality as ISO increases. This is no surprise because of all those tiny pixels. Even so, the camera produces acceptable results up to ISO 1600. However, for best results, one should keep the ISO at 400 or less.
Burnt Shack - Tehachapi, California
The Carl Zeiss lens on the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a sharp, high quality lens. There is some softness in the corners (especially in the 16:9 aspect ratio), but not a significant amount. The lens is equivalent to 26mm in full-frame terms. The Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A (both are 28mm equivalent) are good examples of what the Lumia 1020's lens is similar to.

Minimum focus distance on the Lumia 1020 is just under six inches. That puts it second among the cameras we're comparing, behind the Ricoh GR (just under four inches). That's pretty good, but not quite good enough to call it macro.

An anti-aliasing filter is included in the Lumia 1020. This prevents moire pattern distortion by blurring the image slightly (and robbing it of sharpness), and is very common on digital cameras. None of the cameras we are comparing it to have an anti-aliasing filter. No matter how good the lens on the Lumia 1020 is, it will never be able to produce images as sharp as those cameras without an anti-aliasing filter. Thankfully, however, sharpness on the Lumia 1020 is not far off from those cameras, either.
Bird Slipper Landscape - Stallion Springs, California
The Lumia 1020's f2.2 maximum aperture is large enough to allow for shallow depths of field or flexibility in low-light situations, but (unfortunately) the camera does not allow the photographer to manually select the aperture. One can manually control the ISO, shutter speed, white balance and even focus, but not the aperture. This could be a problem for those who prefer using their cameras in full manual or aperture priority modes.

EDIT: Someone pointed out to me that the f2.2 aperture is fixed, and that's why it cannot be adjusted. Thank you for correcting me and keeping this review accurate. 

Size matters in photography, but bigger isn't better. The smaller and lighter a camera is, the more likely it will get used. A camera that fits into one's pocket is much more pleasant to have than something that must be strapped around the neck. The Nokia Lumia 1020 is significantly smaller and lighter than the other cameras mentioned in this review. And because it is a phone, it is easy to be inconspicuous for photojournal-type photography.

The final comparison is price. The Nokia Lumia 1020 can be had (with a two year contract) for $100. That is way cheaper than the other cameras. The Ricoh GR can be found for $600. The Sony RX1 will run you more than $2,500. Oh, and did I mention that the Lumia 1020 doubles as a cell phone?

The Camera
Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is capable of saving in RAW (DNG) format. Dynamic range is limited and high ISO performance is marginal on this camera, so having the ability to capture in RAW is great. But, what I have discovered is that the JPEGs are actually pretty good, especially at low ISO.

I dismissed the JPEGs before I even started using the camera, just assuming that they were not good. I immediately set up the camera to capture in RAW. The camera also saves a small JPEG file of each image (this cannot be turned off). After post-processing the RAW files, I discovered that they didn't look all that much different than the JPEGs that the camera was saving. Perhaps a half stop of dynamic range was lost due to the contrast that the camera applied, but the images were so similar that I stopped saving in RAW in most cases. In fact, almost all of the photographs in this review were captured as JPEGs.

The camera is very easy to use once you find your way around. The screen is a touch screen and that's where you'll find all of the controls. Nothing is difficult to adjust (except aperture, which cannot be manually adjusted). One thing that I don't like is that the camera does not remember your previous settings. When you exit the camera and then return, everything is in auto and, if you don't want it in auto, must be set up again as you want it. It's not a real big deal, but it sometimes is annoying.
Towels - Bakersfield, California
The slowest shutter speed on the camera is four seconds. In order to use the shutter that slow you'll need to secure it somehow. There are some companies that make tripod mounts for cell phones, so that could be one solution. Otherwise, the image stabilization on the camera will allow you to hand-hold with a shutter speed as slow as 1/15th of a second.

The camera can be manually focused or auto focused. Manual focus is pretty simple, but there is no focus-peaking, so it's a matter of how good one is at eyeballing it. For auto focus, simply tap on the screen where you'd like to focus and the camera does a good job of nailing it. If you don't tap on the screen to tell it where to focus the camera will focus in the center of the image. Face detection auto focus works as advertised. Auto focus speed is anywhere from about half a second (in bright, contrasty light) to two seconds (in dim light).

Nokia claims that the Lumia 1020 has loss-less digital zoom. That's hogwash. The camera zooms by cropping, and anytime you crop you lose something. However, with all that resolution the camera has, one can crop quite a bit without a noticeable loss in image quality.
Come To - Tehachapi, California
The built-in flash works well (especially as a fill-flash), but it does have a short effective distance. Nokia claims the flash will reach 13 feet, but in practical use I would put it at about half that. Auto-white-balance works pretty well overall, but sometimes the flash seems to throw it off.

One can post-process the images right on the camera, but I prefer to upload the full size files to my computer and edit them there. It gives me more control and better results. However, if one needs to post-process and share immediately, the Lumia 1020 is certainly capable.

Joshua Tree Desert - Mojave, California
I see four different groups of serious photographers that may find the Nokia Lumia 1020 appealing. This is by no means to suggest that the camera is only for those people.

The first group of photographers who may find the Lumia 1020 appealing are street photographers and travel photographers. The compact, lightweight, and inconspicuous design of the camera is something that this group will truly appreciate.

The next group of photographers who may find the Lumia 1020 appealing are budget-minded photographers. These are people who have a hard time justifying the expense of the Ricoh GR, Nikon Coolpix A, Fuji X100S, Sigma DP1 Merrill, or the Sony RX1. For a fraction of the cost they can get something that's a reasonable approximation (plus, it doubles as a cell phone).
Play Time - Stallion Springs, California
The third group of photographers who may find the Lumia 1020 appealing are those that need a just-in-case camera option. These photographers have no intention of using the Lumia 1020 often, but want something in their pockets that can deliver good results should they find themselves without their much more expensive gear. The camera to them would be more of a safety net.

The final group of photographers who may find the Lumia 1020 appealing are those who collect gear. They buy cameras to impress their buddies or just because they really like fancy gear. The camera may or may not ever get used, but that's not really the point. How many people can say that they own a camera with over 40 megapixels? Not many.

I should mention here that the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a Windows phone. This will turn some people off right away. All that I can tell you is that it works like it is supposed to, and all of the apps that I wanted were available for it. That does not necessarily mean it is right for you or that you will find every app that you want. I don't think it's a big deal that it's a Windows phone, but others may. I guess if you really want the camera you'll accept the phone as well. It is what it is.
Early Spring Blossom #2 - Tehachapi, California
I asked at the beginning if the Nokia Lumia 1020 was a serious camera for serious photographers, and the answer is both yes and no. It all depends on what the photographer's needs are, and if that person is willing to accept the camera's shortcomings.

In the right situations and in the hands of the right photographers, there is no doubt in my mind that this camera could create some seriously amazing photographs. No one would ever have to know that a cell phone that costs only $100 was the tool of choice.

To see more photographs captured with the Nokia Lumia 1020, please visit my set on Flickr.
Fence Post & Shack - Tehachapi, California
Broken Barn - Tehachapi, California
Dilapidated Cattle Ramp - Tehachapi, California
Tree In Bloom - Tehachapi, California
Contrast Pole - Tehachapi, California
Broken Glass - Tehachapi, California
Color Windows - Tehachapi, California
Early Spring Blossom #1 - Tehachapi, California


  1. This is good information. I've seen some of the work National Geographic has done with the camera but I am admittedly far less skilled in photography. (see But this is a much more realistic review. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the review I liked the comparison cameras idea, because I am familiar with the Ricoh.