Nokia Lumia 1020: Camera Lovers, This One's for You

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-07-30

Nokia Lumia 1020: Camera Lovers, This One's for You

Smartphones, the good ones, tend to tip a user's focus. The iPhone is all about apps. With the BlackBerry Z10, no communication goes unseen. With the HTC One and its BlinkFeed home screen, my attention was focused, more than usual, on headlines. And with the newest Nokia, the Lumia 1020, the camera is the thing.

The Lumia 1020 is a smartphone like no other, which is clear at a glance. Even aside from the lemon-yellow polycarbonate it's wrapped in (black and white are also options), the phone has a protruding camera on its back that in size and appearance looks like a thin lens cap is glued there.

With that bulge, which prevents the phone from sitting flat on a table, Nokia makes clear what the 1020 is all about.

Nokia's award-winning (Symbian-running) 808 PureView phone first suggested a flip-flop in priorities—was this a phone with a camera or a camera with a phone? The Windows Phone 8–running Lumia 1020 goes further. While the 808 had five lenses, the 1020 has six. Added to those are a second-generation optical image stabilization (OIS) system, Nokia's most sophisticated xenon flash and video-light LED to date and a 41-megapixel camera sensor.

The result, says Nokia, is a benchmark performance in one of the trickiest camera design decisions: a balance between image sharpness and low-light performance. And on a crazy scale.

Introducing the 1020, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop zoomed in on a video of bees in a hive, to the point where one could see pollen on the bees' back legs. (Wow!) He showed an image from a helicopter, zoomed in to street-level details. (Cool!) In an example photo of what the Smart Cam can do (there's also a Pro Cam), a man is shown diving into a pitcher of lemonade (instead of the pool behind the table holding the pitcher). However, the bigger trick is the several incarnations of the man running and jumping, all shown in the same frame. (Amazing!)

While actually using the 1020, however, I found all of this potential—all of these options—kind of stressful.

I started out just using the Pro Cam, which can shoot 38-megapixel photos. As long as I wasn't trying to catch anything moving—my toddler, say—the results were gorgeous: detail-rich, saturated in color and, sometimes (why sometimes?) components popped, 3D-style.

Then, I realized there was also a Smart Cam in the app list. This also takes bright, great photos, but smaller ones. So it has a faster response—not fast enough to catch a puppy before it turned away, but still faster.

It's the Smart Cam that does the stuff like take Action photos—the diving in the lemonade—and Best photos, which allows the user to pinpoint their favorite moment in an Action shot and eliminate the rest of the, well, action.

I tried this out at the playground, snapping shots of my daughter going down (what's referred to in my house as) a twisty slide.

I was trying for an Action photo, but at the time, I thought I'd failed. I was expecting to hear a burst of photos being taken, like so many Android phones now do, but the shutter seemed as slow as ever. A day later, though, after Googling the feature and trying to figure out where it is in the camera, I realized I'd succeeded after all. The Action option presented itself, and there was a photo of my daughter, as though eight clones of her had lined up for the slide and slid down in fast succession. Cool.

From there, I also created a Best photo. The software allowed me to put my finger on the image of my daughter and drag her up or down the slide, finally depositing her where it made for the best shot. Amazing!

Then, for two days, I couldn't for the life of me find that feature again.

Nokia Lumia 1020: Camera Lovers, This One's for You

Eventually, I realized that there's the Camera app, the Pro Camera and the Smart Camera app—where the Action and Motion and Best Shot features hide, along with the ability to fix a face and remove a moving object from a photo. (It's too bad for you if you decide to snap a shot with the Pro Camera and someone walks into it.)

The camera technology in the Lumia 1020 is a lot to keep track of. Which camera is better at night? Which is better for video? Which one lets me adjust the white balance before I snap the photo?

It can be a bit much.

That said, in most instances where speed wasn't an issue, the photos came out fantastic. Photos taken during a backyard cocktail party lit mostly by candlelight came out shockingly well, without the harsh coloring we've come to expect in flash photos, or the photo subjects still grimacing from having been blinded by a strobe.

Low-lit indoor photos took a little finessing, but the Pro Cam lets one fix a shot before taking it and the Smart Cam offer fixes afterward. Outdoor daytime photos, though, take work to mess up.

There's also an addictive Cinemagraphic app that turns a few seconds of video into a GIF, a Panorama app and another app, Creative Studio, for adding filters to images.

The Camera With a Smartphone Attached

Before I forget, there's also a smartphone involved. It launches and moves between apps very quickly, the call quality is super, and the speakers—which are of a piece with the video camera and capture strong sound quality—are loud and crisp. (The speakers are on the bottom of the phone, though, which is better than the back, but the HTC One makes an undeniable argument about the correct location of phone speakers: the front.)

Windows Phone is what it is. My only real gripe—the world's only real gripe—was with the missing popular apps. I also didn't care for the email app, which is too open and airy for my taste. I like to see more of my emails, packed in tighter. I'd also like to blame the OS for how slowly the camera launches, even from the physical fast-launch button.

Those things aside, I like the OS. I grew attached to my home screen—I liked rearranging and sizing the tiles for optimum efficiency and seeing which photo popped up in the photo tile.   

I even had zero complaints about the AT&T service—a first.

AT&T is now selling the Nokia Lumia 1020 for $299.99 with a new two-year contract. It's a steep price, given the going rate of an iPhone. But for those who are serious about photography and willing to study the tricks and capabilities of the 1020, it's not a bad price for an excellent camera—particularly one with a smartphone attached.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.

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