Just how good is Nokia's PureView 41Mp camera tech?
Our pro photographer holidays in Stromboli to find out
When I first learnt about Nokia's 808 PureView phone featuring a 41Mp camera, I thought I'd either misread the specs or I'd somehow stepped into the future. A forty one megapixel camphone – WTF? Not even professional DSLRs showcase such a high resolution.
Nokia's 808 PureView 41Mp camphone
Well, once I ascertained that Nokia was true to its word, I had to find out what this apparent miracle consisted of and, more importantly, if this massively spec'd camera was any good. With a summer holiday long overdue, I took a Nokia 808 with me on a trip to Stromboli, an island off Sicily, to familiarise myself with the phone and take in the PureView experience.
The Nokia 808 looks like a fat version of most Androids on the market. It is chunky and heavy too, but it does feel good in the hand, at least as a phone. Yet as a camera, the complete lack of grip and the protruding lens so close to the left edge makes handling as uncomfortable and unsafe as any other phone. On the plus side, you can fire off the camera from a large button on the edge.
In fact, once you turn the phone horizontally to use it as a camera, it is a pleasant surprise to find that commands such as the shutter release and the zoom lever are exactly where you expect them to find them on a compact camera. Also, one indication of the seriousness of Nokia’s claim over the novelty of the 808’s camera tech is its lens. This bright f2.4 wide-angle 8.02mm lens – equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm camera – is from Carl Zeiss, a company that renowned for top quality glass. It's housed in that distinctive bulge at the back that also contains the Xenon flash and the stereo mic.
Apart from the tiniest ridged plastic strip for the answer/hang up and menu buttons, the 4in touch screen fills the front of the phone. Yet seeming somewhat inconsistent with the high resolution of the camera, the display has is a mere 640 x 360-pixels. Even so, it's bright and sharp enough with a good screen performance in broad daylight, no doubt aided by Nokia's ClearBlack display technology. In keeping with compacts, the Nokia 808 comes with a lens cap and a wrist strap, which I found very useful.
HDMI output option for viewing on TV
Despite providing the 808 PureView with a 41MP sensor, Nokia claims not to subscribe to a strategy of pixels for pixels’ sake. So how does it explain the rationale behind the 808’s feast of the blighters? The big idea behind PureView technology is pixel oversampling; combining many pixels to create a single 'super' pixel.
Faced by the physical limitations of incorporating a high quality camera into a phone, Nokia opted for the largest sensor it could get away with – nearly twice the size of a compact camera and more than five times that of conventional phone camera sensors. While it's big, it's actually crammed with pixels of the same size of those used in compacts. Instead of capturing the output of each individual pixel separately – as sensors normally do – the trick is to combine the output of groups of individual pixels into a larger pixel.
Big sensor – now what?
This technology allows the 808’s sensor to capture as much light information as much larger pixels and sensors would. However, the process avoids the loss of quality usually associated with small sensors filled with too many small-size pixels that typically plague compact cameras.
What this means is that while the 808 is capable of shooting images at full resolution – 38Mp effective – it is only really meant to produce distilled images at its 8Mp, 5Mp or 3Mp PureView modes. The difference being these images deliver unprecedented quality by camera phone standards.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the 808 PureView camera, as like many, I'd initially been drawn to the headline grabbing hype surrounding its astonishing pixel count, which rather eclipsed the technology behind this concept. Yet, true to its word, Nokia has produced a phone capable of incredibly detailed, sharp, nuanced and balanced pictures. As soon as I saw the results I was really and truly impressed.
Indeed, the idea of merging seven small pixels into one giant pixel, as Nokia puts it, seems to have achieved not only a new photographic benchmark but the upshot of it all is that the 808 PureView could hold its own with most advanced compacts currently on the market.
Looking at the PureView images – at 3, 5 and 8Mp – the level of noise is impressively low at all ISO sensitivities, with an almost complete lack of artifacts. Colours are accurate and natural across the range too, and images reveal an exceptionally broad dynamic range. White balance could be improved though, since it behaves somewhat erratically.
Excellent low light performance for a camphone
Although the end results are not necessarily far off, in use, the automatic white balance keeps changing slightly in the same lighting conditions and for no apparent reason. Resorting to the preset WB settings instead, proved much more reliable. Indeed, the twitchy white balance is about the only thing I can take issue with, since the 808’s photographic skills are truly commendable.
I was particularly surprised by the pleasant bokeh the lens delivers – an imaging characteristic pretty much absent in phone cameras. The combination of a longer focal length with a wider aperture creates a smooth but well marked background defocusing effect that greatly enhances portraiture and still life shooting. The images are not only remarkable in terms of exposure and sharpness but lack all the typical distortions of phone images.
Minimal controls with mini HDMI and micro USB tucked away in the base
The only one flaw I noticed is a tendency to produce excessive flare when shooting against the sun. But again this is to be expected from a bright fixed lens. The images taken by the Nokia 808 PureView are by far the best I have ever seen produced by a phone and probably of quite a few compacts too. While it is undeniable that the camera performs best at lower resolutions it is still amazing to observe the level of detail recorded at full resolution, something you would never expect of a camera this size.
To make the photographic experience more creative and complete Nokia has also provided the 808 with a broad range of camera settings that beyond white balance enable user control of ISO (ranging between 50 and 1600), exposure compensation, colour tones, capture mode (normal, bracketing, interval and self-timer), saturation, contrast, and sharpening. You also get nine scene modes to choose from.
All settings are easily accessed from self-explanatory icons on the touchscreen including a tap-to-focus option and focus modes including Infinity, Hyperfocal, Close-Up (up to 15cm) and Automatic. The contrast detection autofocus system works really well in good light and satisfactorily in dim light. The Nokia 808 also provides a large range of editing tools that let you change almost any aspect of an image from resizing to applying effects, frames or red eye removal – the latter being very effective.
A nice touch is that the post-production actions are non-destructive and can be undone step by step, so you are free to experiment as much as you like. Another unexpected surprise was to discover that the 808 actually has a flash unit that performs as a proper camera flash. Having been used to permanently turn off the flash on phone cams because of shockingly bad results, the 808 reconciled me with flash photography. The Xenon unit does a great job as both full flash and fill-in light.
Stereo Bluetooth gadgetry if you're keen – the phone also has Dolby Headphone and 5.1 surround support too
That said, given its low level noise characteristics at high ISO speeds, the 808 camera is particularly well suited to available light photography without need for a flash. Obviously the results cannot be compared to cameras using much larger sensors but the 808 does handle poor light extremely well for its category. My only complaint here is that its lack of image stabilisation means camera shake can be a problem if the 808 is unsupported. If you are really into night photography, Nokia does sell a special tripod clamp that solves the issue and options from the likes of Joby will probably do the job just as well.
The Nokia 808 does not feature an optical or conventional digital zoom but it does compensate with the introduction of what Nokia calls a "lossless" digital zoom, which is basically a system of cropping the image to the desired area. But since there is no upscaling or interpolation of the image involved, the quality of the zoomed image remains pretty much the same as the native shot.
Pixel binning v. zooming function
The 808 lets you zoom – 3x for stills and 4x for full HD 1080p movies – either through physical controls or directly on the screen by sliding your finger until you have selected the area you wish to zoom into. Once you release the finger from the screen the camera will automatically perform the zooming action.
This SlideZoom function works particularly well for videos, where it results in much smoother action than manual zoom. The other added benefit of the lossless zoom for video is that, being totally silent, it avoids recording the mechanical optic movements onto the soundtrack. Video quality is also very good with a particularly clear and warm audio.
The Nokia 808 PureView lets you easily share images on social networking sites such as Facebook or Flickr by simply clicking on the relevant social media icon provided at the bottom of each image in the gallery.
But first things first. In order to use essential features, such as e-mail and social networks, you need an internet connection and that’s when I hit my first wall. I soon realized that getting the 808 on-line was not going to be the painless thing it normally is with any other phone.
8.02mm lens (35mm equivalent: 28mm)
41Mp photo with no PureView processing – note the pleasing limited depth of field from the f2.4 lens at full aperture
Click for a full-resolution image
PureView 5Mp resolution images
PureView 5Mp resolution images
The Nokia 808 is not currently a stock option handset with any of the usual cellcos, which means that they can’t apply data settings remotely. Instead, you have to input them manually. The problem is that providers don’t have a clue of how to do that because they don’t know the phone yet. Although given it runs
Symbian Nokia Belle, you'd think they could read off the script for a Nokia E7.
Swappable battery and micro SD storage expansion too
Alas, the mobile data configuration menu on the phone is anything but self explanatory and the Nokia manual does not shed any light on this either. After spending a long time getting the my cellco to spell out all the necessary data settings, that failed to work, I was left with no other option but to contact Nokia to get a step-by-step guide on where to insert the APN, username and the like from its support staff. Good news is that once I finally got there, posting pictures on-line was truly a no-brainer.
As for the Nokia Belle OS, after some getting used to it, I didn't experience extensive problems in general operation and call quality. However, given that handsets are also used as entertainment devices, learning its ways – and dealing with some less than intuitive approaches to simple tasks – did frustrate my having fun with the phone.
Belle ringer: Proof of concept or a platform saviour?
Alas, Nokia Belle also lacks the support of many applications readily available for Android and iOS – Instagram, being one example that photographers and Facebookers alike will certainly miss. On the positive side, Nokia Maps is exemplary, very useful, efficient and user-friendly. The 808's battery life also outperforms my iPhone by a large margin, at least when it's in battery saving mode.
So what's the bottom line here? I have to say that despite its photographic excellence as a phonecam, I will not be rushing to trade in my iPhone nor my camera for a Nokia 808 PureView just yet. The camera and the PureView technology are very attractive but the Belle OS puts me off making such an investment, especially now that Nokia has announced the Lumia 920 featuring PureView but powered by Windows Phone 8. Admittedly, the new Lumia has only an 8Mp sensor, but this is surely just the start.
Indeed, with PureView, Nokia seems to have finally found a way to differentiate and deliver some new, exciting products to look forward to. For now though, if you're looking for a quality camera on your mobile, the Nokia 808 PureView is the best you can get. ®
Catherine Monfils is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
All sample images are supplied for quality assessment purposes only. © Catmon Photography 2012.
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