My first serious digital camera was a Nikon D1x, a professional DSLR, boasting interchangeable lenses and a bit more than 5 million pixels (mp). I recall standing beside someone shooting with a compact digital camera that was 8 mp, but with an owner with pixel envy. As we talked, he commented that his camera was better than mine because it had more pixels. It was at that point that I realized that consumers were buying into the megapixel race and were ignoring the other important factors that made a great camera.
It is true that higher resolution is important and you can’t compare a DSLR with 16 million pixels to a state of the art Mamiya medium format camera with an 80 mp Leaf back. For a professional shooting important work, there is no other choice than to go with the most professional gear. But for family snapshots or vacation pictures, it is no longer about megapixels.
A Primer on Exposure
Exposure is all about the amount of light that a camera lets in in order to create a well exposed image. It is similar to a faucet — your goal is to fill a glass of water and depending on your choice, you can either open the faucet fully and and fill the glass quickly, or you can let the water trickle out and fill the glass slowly. Taking a picture is similar, the camera can open the shutter wide for a short amount of time or can let the light through a small opening for a longer amount of time.
This scenario works in cases where all things are equal and the light is the same in both situations. What happens when the light is low and the camera needs to open the lens wide and for a long amount of time? Enter the Nokia Lumia 928. Most compact cameras today have maximum apertures of 2.8 and if the lens is a zoom, 5.6 is typical and sometimes as low as 6.9. This does not allow a lot of light in and in terms of exposure. Remember the difference between f/2.8 and f/5.6 is 400%. It is in precisely these low light situations where a camera is pushed to its limits. Nokia took two paths to solve the problem of low light photography. On the Nokia Lumia 928, they included an f/2.0 lens, which allows double the light of an f/2.8 lens to reach the sensor. This wider aperture enables the camera to shoot at a higher shutter speed, avoiding the pitfalls of longer handheld exposures. Long exposures introduce camera shake, which means blurry images.
Let’s do the Twist
When I shoot with my DSLR, I try to always stay above 1/30 second with normal lenses. Below that I start seeing camera shake. When I tested the Nokia Lumia 928 from Verizon, I was able to take pictures at much slower speeds without seeing a substantial amount of camera shake or blurring. If you can still shoot using a shutter speed of 1/4 second, it is an effective increase of three f/stops, which is an 8 times increase in exposure.To push the envelope even further, Nokia’s new Window Phone, is equipped with an optical image stabilization (OIS). OIS works like a tiny gyroscope to help smooth out the slight movements of an unsteady hand holding the camera while the shutter stays open for a long time. It is not meant for time exposures, but will enable you to shoot at slow shutter speeds when other cameras will not hack it. The technology of OIS is similar to noise cancellation, where the lens moves in the opposite direction of the movement of the camera. Nokia has figured out a way to move the entire lens assembly, rather than just a single lens element, thereby enabling the camera to absorb as much as 500 movements every second.
When you need the Big Guns
When light levels drop and even a long exposure with a fast lens will not capture your subject, you need to resort to a flash. Most smartphones do not have internal flash units and the ones that do, mostly come equipped with an LED that offers a weak illumination of the subject. LEDs have improved over the past few years, but a built in xenon flash gives a burst of light that can illuminate a subject up to 10 feet away. I tend to avoid using flash, because I do not like the harsh light and strong shadows. But there are times that you really need it and xenon does the job.
The Zeiss Connection
As if that were not enough, the Lumia 928 is equipped with a Carl Zeiss lens, designed by the legendary German optics manufacturer to ensure that that the images captured are as sharp as possible. Nokia and Carl Zeiss AG entered into an exclusive partnership to develop the technology for the Nokia camera lenses. Zeiss has many years of experience in optic design and qualifies suppliers and controls them to make sure they meet Zeiss’ necessary standard.
Since smartphone cameras use tiny sensors with minuscule pixels that measure barely more than one micron across, they struggle to reach the quality of compact digital cameras. But with the addition of faster lenses, German-designed optics and image stabilization, smartphone cameras such as the Lumia 928 are pushing the envelope and reaching the level where consumers are questioning whether they really need both a smartphone with a camera and a separate digital camera. The saying “the best camera is the one you have with you,” is certainly a reason to think twice about a duplication of resources.
Everything is getting smaller, and so are cameras, yet sometimes we cling to the idea that a bigger box contains a better camera. As I pointed out above, it is a question of which components of the camera are smaller and what is the need of the person taking the pictures.
Call me paranoid, but I have two copies of most of my images. I have the original files sitting on my hard drive and a copy stored on a network server and a second copy in the cloud. Although I use the GoodSync application to automatically copy my files to their backup locations, the analysis and synchronization are time consuming and tend to low down my computer. The beauty of a Windows phone is that you have the option of automatically uploading your images to Microsoft’s SkyDrive via Wi-Fi. Whenever I get home or to my office, I find the images stored on my SkyDrive a few minutes after logging on.
The Lumia 928 uses a sensor which is 3552 x 2448 pixels. You can’t take a picture with the camera that measures 3552 x 2448 pixels, so why the difference in numbers? The sensor, with pixels that measure 1.4 micron pixels each, is capable of taking pictures in two aspect ratios; 4:3 and 16:9. It would be easy to create a sensor that covers one dimension and to crop in the second dimension. This “easy” solution creates multi-aspect capability, but reduces image quality, because the camera uses a reduced segment of the sensor. Nokia took the dimensions of the 4:3 mage and cropped top and bottom, but added enough pixels on the side to give a truly wider angle image, without a serious degradation of image. This interesting approach enables you to capture scenes in 4:3 format or turn to 16:9 when you want a wider angle of view.
In choosing a smartphone, one of the most important features that I look at is the camera. Every smartphone has a camera, but how seriously the manufacturer takes the camera is indicative of the results you get.
Nokia has taken the camera and made it a central feature of their Lumia 928. They understand that when you see something that you want to capture, you don’t want to unlock your phone, find the camera app and take a picture, because it means you will have missed that great shot that was going to win you the Pulitzer Prize. They simply added a shutter release button. The “button” is on the side of the phone and not only is used to take a picture, it can turn the camera on, even if your phone is locked. Now I can grab my phone and take a picture, giving me a tools that is useful. It also bypasses the issue of what to do if you are wearing gloves. You no longer have the issue of having to remove your gloves to touch the screen, now just press the “button” and you have captured the image.
Enough talk about theory, you probably want to see some images. I decided that I would not show images compared to another camera, because I don’t have a lot of phones with cameras with the same resolution and it is unfair, because almost all smartphones on the market are not equipped with the extra features such as an f/2.0 Zeiss lens and optical image stabalization.
Shooting snapshots outdoors when the sun is bright will produce good results on pretty much any camera. The differences start to show up when you are pushing the camera to its limits, such as at a dimly restaurant taking a picture of someone or are capturing a scene as the sun is going down. At that point, many of the features that are built into the Nokia Lumia 928 start to take over and make the difference between missing a shot and capturing the scene exactly as you imagined it.
Also, as you can see from the examples above, the sharpness of the Zeiss lens and the sophisticated image processing provided by Nokia in this Windows phone, make for a great combination.
A word about Nokia and the operating system. Nokia really know how to make great phones. They were clobbered by the smartphones that Apple and Samsung produced and instead of producing just another Android phone, they partnered with Microsoft and built their phones with the Windows OS. Currently not as popular as iOS and Android, but the Windows operating system is actually elegant in design and very functional. It is not made for geeks, it is made for the person who wants a pleasant user experience and still knows that there is plenty of “horsepower” under the hood.
The main shortcoming is that there are not as many apps available. But when I started looking for an alarm clock to suit my needs, I realized that I do not need 200 alarm clocks and my choice of a few dozen was plenty for me.
My choice for a camera when I am am not carrying a professional or mirrorless? The Nokia Lumia 928 Windows Phone.
Note: I started a Facebook group that is made up of amateurs and professionals. Every week we photograph an image connected to a prearranged theme. The theme is always a line or stanza from a song or poem. We capture everything from Robert Frost to the Beatles. Check out the group and look at some of the shots that I am starting to take with the Nokia Lumia 928. Image Poetry group is found here.