A non-photographer's view of the Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia's newest flagship phone, the Lumia 1020 Windows Phone, goes on sale this week. What's a non-photographer think about this device that's all about the 41 megapixel camera?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Since Nokia unveiled its flagship Lumia 1020 device a couple of weeks ago, many photographers I know have been drooling over the device.

Me? Being the most marginal of picture takers, I was wondering whether a Windows Phone that is all about the 41 megapixel camera would hold much appeal.

Nokia officials are fond of reciting the statistic that the camera is routinely in the top three things users evaluate when choosing a phone. I am an outlier. If you look at my current camera roll on my SkyDrive, nine out of ten of my pictures are snaps of craft beers I'm drinking and logging into Untappd.com -- all for research for Windows Weekly Beer pick of the week, mind you. 

So it was with some trepidation and skepticism that I grabbed my yellow Lumia 1020 loaner that I received courtesy of Nokia yesterday morning and hit the streets with it.

Again, I am very different from most of the other reviewers who are writng about this device -- but maybe not so different from a segment of the potential Lumia 1020 buying audience. When I look at phones, the camera is an afterthought for me. I care far more about the device's weight, battery life, feel in the hand, and, of course, the availability/price on my carrier of choice. On this front, I can happily say that the Lumia 1020 is the first Lumia phone I've held that didn't scream "unwieldy brick."

Also keep in mind, unlike many tech bloggers, I am not a product reviewer, so I don't take gadget shots. I have zero digital SLR camera experience. I was worried, going in, that the 1020's camera and camera software would leave me overwhelmed.

I decided not to try to read up on the 1020's camera beforehand -- beyond perusing the very brief instruction sheet that came with the phone and said little about the camera controls. There are tutorials built into the Lumia 1020 to show users unfamiliar with things like ISO and white balance how these can be altered manually (via settings on rings on the view screen). These helped me a bit. There are also other apps, including Nokia's Creative Studio software, Panorama and Cinemagraph for creating custom images and videos.

I figured out after a few initial frustrating moments that you don't try to set up a perfect shot with the 1020. You shoot first, and crop/zoom and ask questions later.  You seemingly have to go into your SkyDrive image file on a PC or tablet (or wherever you are saving your photos) to see both the original shot and the one you've altered, as only the altered image automatically shows up on the camera roll on the phone. You also don't tap the screen to take a picture, like you do with other Windows Phones; tapping the screen simply focuses the shot. Instead, you click the camera button or tap the camera icon.

So how did I do? Here are a few shots I took in Grand Central Terminal at rush hour yesterday. (The first two are examples of the original, quick shot and the reset/zoomed one made from the original image. The remaining two in this set are simply the original shots, untouched.)


Not too shabby -- even when being jostled and shoved by the usual crowd of polite New Yorkers rushing for their trains. I was less happy with my results, however, when attempting to shoot in low light -- something at which the newest Lumias supposedly excel. I tried with flash; without flash; no focus light; auto. Nothing really seemed to help.

Here are a couple more shots -- first the obligatory beer shot (something this craft beer lover cares a lot about perfecting). It's OK, but I think my HTC 8X has taken some shots equally as good:



I realize it's not a mug-to-mug comparison, but here's a beer pic I took with my 8 megapixel HTC 8X camera in low light:


One more low-light image using the 1020 yesterday from inside my favorite local, which came out a little better:


OK, Lumia and photography experts: I'm looking for any tips and tricks you have for me (especially around low-light images). I'll be tinkering with the 1020 over the next week-plus to see if there will be more camera-phone photography in my future.

As far as the non-camera-specific components of the 1020, I was really happy, as I noted above, to get to try out a Lumia phone that wasn't a massive, slippery slab. With a 4.5-inch AMOLED display, a matte finish, and an only marginally protruding camera (given its size/complexity), the 1020 felt like a phone I wouldn't hate toting around. (For a full list of specs, go here.) I really liked the "glance" screen, which is the always-on clock that Nokia is including with some of its newer Lumias as part of its "Amber" stack of updates that build on top of the GDR2 Windows Phone OS release.

I have to say my initial impression of the 1020 is positive. The shining star, the camera, aside, this is a nice Windows Phone. And if you are one of the majority to whom a smartphone camera really matters, the 1020 definitely should be on your "check it out" list. Sadly, in the U.S., this phone is an AT&T exclusive, and at $300 (with a two-year contract), not a cheap one.

For a review by someone who knows a lot about smartphones, check out my ZDNet colleague Matthew Miller's write-up on the Lumia 1020.

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