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

REVIEW: The extent of the camera technology in the Nokia Lumia 1020 can be confusing, but those willing to study up will be rewarded.

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.