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In focus: A closer look at the Nokia Lumia 925 camera

Nokia’s newest flagship, the Lumia 925, has certainly made a positive impression since the company announced it just under two months ago, with broad praise from journalists and reviewers across the world. When I reviewed the handset last month, I said that it’s “not just the best Windows Phone by far; it’s also one of the best smartphones available today”.

One of the key strengths of the device is its 8.7MP PureView camera, and in my review, I said that it “offers the best all-round camera experience of any smartphone I’ve tested”. A few weeks on, I’ve had the opportunity to test that camera further in a variety of conditions, and I’m pleased to say that my opinion hasn’t changed.

Nokia is understandably proud of the 925’s camera. In a video released this week, the company shared an ‘exploded’ view of the complex architecture of its imaging hardware, revealing the six ZEISS lenses, each no bigger than a pin, that sit inside the device.

ZEISS – named after the company’s eponymous founder, Carl Zeiss – has become synonymous with Nokia imaging, but the company does much more than just make smartphone camera lenses. They've been world leaders in microscope and optical technology for decades, with many notable achievements to their name.

In 1886, the company developed the apochromatic lens, which eliminated colour distortion in magnification. In subsequent decades, they created the metallographic microscope and the stereo microscope, and developed new lithography technology employed in microchip production.

ZEISS has also ventured out into space; since 1962, every manned NASA mission has used ZEISS lenses. As Neil Armstrong made ‘one small step for man’ onto the surface of the moon in 1969, ZEISS lenses captured the moment for all those watching back on Earth.

The lenses are just one element of what makes the camera so impressive, and the process of developing leading smartphone imaging technology extends beyond just creating world-class lenses. Nokia and ZEISS collaborated closely to create Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), which helps to reduce the ‘shaky cam’ effect that often ruins photos and videos taken on phones.

OIS employs a gyroscope to detect movement in the device – such as when your hands might be shaking a bit from enjoying one too many drinks on a night out – and the camera reacts to those movements by shifting the entire optical assembly in the device to compensate for camera shake. Nokia says that OIS reacts 300 times faster than the average human reaction time, and can cancel out up to 500 movements per second.

Of course, this all sounds very impressive, but it means nothing if the device doesn’t live up to expectations in the real world. When I reviewed the handset, my assessment of the camera was based upon its performance in two quite different settings: a bright outdoor scene with rich contrasts and plenty of light; and an indoor scene with quick-moving subjects and very low ambient lighting.

To flex the 925 camera’s muscles further, I took the review unit with me on my recent trip to San Francisco – where I would be covering Microsoft’s BUILD developer conference, and catching up with some friends in the sun – to see how it performed in more regular, spontaneous use.

One of the very first images that I took on my trip was in mid-flight, while crossing the Atlantic. Taken through the double-paned window of the plane, I snapped this image as we crossed the Canadian coastline. If you’ve ever taken a look out of an airliner window, you’ll know that they’re rarely clean and often blemished with scratches and dirt of various kinds.

Despite this, and the challenge of capturing the scene through two panes, I was really very pleased with how well this pic turned out, with strong results across the image. The landmass appears well focused, with plenty of detail visible in its rocky features, while in the foreground, the engine nacelle has been well captured too, with the vibrant red of the Virgin Atlantic livery standing out nicely; it’s even possible to just about make out a reflection of the airliner's white fuselage on the engine.

There are some unfortunate lighting flares, including streaks of sunlight and soft pink luminescence in the upper half of the image, but given the conditions of the shot, I can’t judge the camera too harshly for this.

Let’s not pretend that the Lumia 925’s camera is perfect though. It’s not. It is incredibly good, but that doesn't mean you’re going to get completely flawless shots every time. At a media briefing at BUILD, the image above, for example, turned out pretty disastrously. This is basically what I see when I take out my contact lenses – although that wasn't exactly the effect I was going for with my point-and-shoot attempt with the default 'auto' settings.

But subsequent images turned out pretty well in the dimly-lit room. Indeed, the Lumia 925’s exceptional low-light performance makes the room appear a good deal brighter than it was. Here, it’s possible to make out far more detail than in the preceding shot, with text and images on the screen appearing legible and well-defined.

I had a similar experience of mixed results when I met up with my dear friends Ella and Luke for some cocktails in a dimly-lit bar, Cantina, near San Francisco’s Union Square. With the camera settings in ‘night mode’, I attempted to snap a pic of them at the bar, and while the camera did a great job of making the room appear much brighter than it was, it repeatedly failed to capture them in focus.

In the end, I had to resort to using the flash, which did a much better job, although Luke is suffering from a hint of red-eye. While the Lumia 925 – like Nokia’s other Windows Phones – does include software to remove red-eye, it’s worth noting that the company’s latest promotional video for the handset actually mocks other handsets (and in particular the iPhone 5) for relying on flash in low-lighting conditions.

The following evening, though, at a BUILD party hosted by the folks from Xamarin, the 925 snapped a great photo of the three of us on its first attempt, without the flash, and despite the relatively dim ambient lighting of the bar.

I used the Lumia 925 as my one and only camera for capturing images at BUILD, and this shot from the day 1 keynote shows how well the camera does when it’s performing at its best. Many other smartphone cameras struggle when there’s uneven lighting, such as when in a dark arena focusing on a brighter area. This is a particular frustration for those who like to use their phones to take pics at events like music concerts.

The Lumia 925 performed admirably in this regard; there’s an excellent level of detail captured across the image, from the intricacies of the Bing web page on the giant display, to the tiles visible on the Start screens of the various devices on stage. Even the colours and lighting of the scene are faithfully reproduced, with excellent contrast between the darker foreground and the much brighter areas at the front of the conference hall.

Again, the results aren’t always perfect though. As I noted in my review, the 925’s camera occasionally struggles to deal with concentrated areas of bright light. In some of my review images, this resulted in blue sky being ‘whitewashed’ out in the background of certain shots; in the image above, you can see that when ambient lighting on stage was dimmed, leaving the smaller LED displays on towards the back of the stage, the logos being shown on these displays were obliterated as the amount of light emanating from them overwhelmed the 925’s sensors. It’s a shame, because the rest of the image actually turned out pretty well, with rich, warm colours and brilliant contrasts.

The 925’s difficulty in dealing with areas of ‘concentrated’ light is perhaps the only real disappointment that I can identify in the performance of its camera. In the image above, a spotlight was shining down on the BUILD logo at the top of the archway structure, but the logo is tough to make out as the camera was overwhelmed by this lighting, despite it being far from ‘intense’ to the naked eye.

The ‘/b’ logo towards the upper left of this image suffers similarly here, albeit to a lesser degree, despite the rest of the image being brilliantly captured, with excellent definition and plenty of detail evident throughout the entire scene.

The end of BUILD followed on to a weekend of festivities across San Francisco, with its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual Pride celebrations, one of the largest and most vibrant events of its kind in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million people descending on the city from across the globe. The centrepiece of the weekend is the Pride Parade down Market Street, offering a fantastic opportunity to give the 925 a test in optimal daylight conditions, with clear blue skies and incredibly bright sunlight.

In the image above, the camera did a superb job of snapping the sea of supporters lining the parade route, with exceptional contrasts and beautiful, rich colours throughout the image, with little loss of definition even in the far background of the shot. The camera even did a good job of capturing the blue sky.

The feather boa around the SFPD policeman looks particularly vibrant in this image, although the crowd in the darker areas on the opposite side of the street are notably fuzzier and less defined than I would have expected.

Those on the other side of the street faired better in this shot, which perfectly showcases the 925’s ability to faithfully absorb all of the detail and striking colour in a scene. Here, the colourful legions of Facebook staff – one of the largest groups in the parade, numbering in their hundreds – created a stunningly vibrant montage for the camera to deal with, and it certainly rose to the challenge.

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here – particularly with the unusual dance being performed over on the left – but the Lumia 925’s camera did a great job in this shot, with excellent detail evident in the crowd in the background, and even in the leaves of the trees. Perhaps the only failing here is the considerable amount of sunlight being reflected off the lady’s enormous breasts, but with the sun shining down on her from almost directly overhead, perhaps this can be forgiven.

The parade offered a great chance to try out the camera’s video capture capabilities, and I chose the ‘Everybody Dance Now’ troupe as the subjects – mostly because there were two very, very short people standing in front of me at the time, making it easy for me to record over their heads.

The video was captured at 1080p resolution. The OIS features helped to stabilise the video recording here, particularly useful after having chugged back a load of Prosecco earlier that morning. Hey, don’t judge – my body clock was on London time… or something.

The video capture is generally pretty good, and despite my clumsy paws completely failing to keep the phone still, the camera did a competent job of ensuring that that didn’t utterly ruin the video. It’s worth noting that the colours and contrasts in the video aren’t quite as impressive as those seen in the still images.  

During a brief pause in the parade, I also got an opportunity to test the 925’s 1.2MP forward-facing camera with my friend Hamish. The rich, vibrant colours here are certainly worth noting, but the overall results aren't entirely impressive; indeed, it almost appears as though a filter has been added to the image, with some over-saturation in parts of the shot, along with a general lack of definition in many of the details of the image.

The front cam lacks much of the PureView magic and trickery that Nokia has baked into the 8.7MP rear camera, although its performance is generally decent. While the image above isn’t the best, I’ve certainly seen far, far worse pics taken in daylight with front-facing cameras, which many manufacturers have traditionally viewed as an afterthought, judging by the poor quality images that they frequently produce. The Windows Phone 8X by HTC, and the Android-based HTC One, generally offer superior performance from their front cams, compared with the Lumia 925, in my experience.  

After using the Lumia 925 as my primary device for several weeks now, and having had plenty more time to use its camera on a day-to-day basis, I'm pleased to say that my opinions of it haven’t really changed since my review was published a few weeks ago.

Like any smartphone camera, the 925’s shooter isn't perfect and won’t produce the results that you expect 100% of the time – but it does come pretty close. The sheer volume of photos that I've taken with the device – now well over 1200 – means that, naturally, I've seen a higher number of weaker images than I saw during the period of my initial review. And while I've chosen to highlight a couple of these examples above, it’s important to bear in mind that that number remains incredibly low when put into the context of how many photos I've taken overall.

I maintain that the Lumia 925 doesn't really capture “more than your eyes can see”, as Nokia claims, but while it’s not completely flawless, I stand by my assessment that it’s the best smartphone camera that I've tested, and offers the strongest all-round camera experience of any smartphone available.

I may have to revisit that statement after July 11, however, when Nokia finally launches its long-awaited ‘EOS’ Windows Phone, packing a mighty 41MP PureView camera.

After seeing what Nokia has been able to achieve with the camera in the Lumia 925, I have a feeling that it's going to be worth the wait. 

Images 2 and 3 via Nokia

More coverage of the Nokia Lumia 925 on Neowin

> Review: Nokia Lumia 925
> Side by side: Nokia's Lumia 925 vs Lumia 920 
> Analysts praise Nokia's new Lumia 925 
> Nokia's Lumia 925 ad features scary-looking folks with serious red-eye 
> New video from Nokia takes a closer look at the Lumia 925 camera 
The weight is over: Nokia announces thin and light Lumia 925

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