Saturday, January 31, 2015

Urban Exploring With A Nokia Lumia 1020

Keep Out The Sun - Tehachapi, California
"The best camera is the one that's with you." --Chase Jarvis
Nokia Lumia 1020
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is a cell phone. It's a computer, too, and a camera. Like a lot of digital gadgetry nowadays, it's a lot of different things all in one. I want to talk about the camera aspect of this device--specifically using it for urban exploration photography.

The camera has a 1/1.5 inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor with a whopping 41 megapixels, a 26mm equivalent f2.2 Carl Zeiss lens, image stabilization and the ability to save in RAW (DNG) format. On paper it seems to be a serious photography tool.
Boss Hog - Tehachapi, California
The Nokia Lumia 1020 is capable of saving in RAW (DNG) format. Dynamic range is limited and high ISO performance is marginal on this camera (more on that later), so having the ability to capture in RAW is great. But, what I have discovered is that the JPEGs are actually pretty good, especially at low ISO.

I had dismissed the JPEGs before I even started using the camera, just assuming that they were not good. I immediately set up the camera to capture in RAW. The camera also saves a small JPEG file of each image (this cannot be turned off). After post-processing the RAW files, I discovered that they didn't look all that much different than the JPEGs that the camera was saving. Perhaps a half-stop of dynamic range was lost due to the contrast that the camera applied, but the images were so similar that I stopped saving in RAW in most cases.
Ghosts of the Past - Mojave, California
The camera is very easy to use once you find your way around. The screen is a touch screen and that's where you'll find all of the controls. Nothing is difficult to adjust (except aperture, which is fixed at f2.2). One thing that I don't like is that the camera does not remember your previous settings. When you exit the camera and then return, everything is in auto and, if you don't want it in auto, must be set up again as you want it. It's not a real big deal, but it sometimes is annoying.

The slowest shutter speed on the camera is four seconds. In order to use the shutter that slow you'll need to secure it somehow. There are some companies that make tripod mounts for cell phones, so that could be one solution. Otherwise, the image stabilization on the camera will allow you to hand-hold with a shutter speed as slow as 1/15th of a second.
Knob - Mojave, California
The camera can be manually focused or auto focused. Manual focus is pretty simple, but there is no focus-peeking, so it's a matter of how good one is at eyeballing it. For auto focus, simply tap on the screen where you'd like to focus and the camera does a good job of nailing it. If you don't tap on the screen to tell it where to focus the camera will focus in the center of the image. Auto focus speed is anywhere from about half a second (in bright, contrasty light) to two seconds (in dim light). Minimum focus distance on the Lumia 1020 is just under six inches.

Nokia claims that the Lumia 1020 has loss-less digital zoom. That's nonsense. The camera zooms by cropping, and anytime you crop you lose something. However, with all that resolution the camera has, one can crop quite a bit without a noticeable loss in image quality.
Shadows of Abandonment - Mojave, California
The built-in flash works well (especially as a fill-flash), but it does have a short effective distance. Nokia claims the flash will reach 13 feet, but in practical use I would put it at about half that. Auto-white-balance works pretty well overall, but sometimes the flash seems to throw it off.

One can post-process the images right on the camera, but I prefer to upload the full size files to my computer and edit them there. It gives me more control and better results. However, if one needs to post-process and share immediately, the Lumia 1020 is certainly capable.
Better Days Behind - Tehachapi, California
The Lumia 1020 has 41 megapixels on a small sensor. Yes, the sensor is large for a cell-phone, but it is small compared to what is found in most cameras used by serious photographers. Pixels are not created equal, and in fact there are many different pixel sizes, all of which respond differently to light. Bigger pixels will produce a higher dynamic range and less digital noise while smaller pixels will produce a smaller dynamic range and higher digital noise.

In order for Nokia to get such high resolution out of the small sensor it needed to use tiny light sensors. Nokia made a camera that could capture images capable of mural-sized prints, but at the expense of dynamic range and high ISO image quality. But what surprised me is that the sacrifice was not nearly as severe as I would have guessed.
Forgotten Cans - Mojave, California
The Lumia 1020 has 38 megapixels if used in the 4:3 aspect ratio or 34 megapixels if used in the 16:9 aspect ratio. The resolution from this camera is up there with the highest megapixel full-frame cameras and almost that of medium-format cameras.

Dynamic range on the Lumia 1020 is not great but it's not terrible, either. I would put it into the "acceptable" category. In fact, it's about the same as the dynamic range on Fuji Velvia 50 film, the standard film for color landscape photography. The Lumia 1020's dynamic range is also very similar to full-frame sensors from about 10 years ago (such as the Canon EOS 5D introduced in 2005), APS-C sensors from about five years ago (such as the Pentax K-7 introduced in 2009), and micro-four-thirds sensors from three years ago (such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 introduced in 2011).
Living Room View - Tehachapi, California
If you think about it, that's pretty amazing! A very small sensor stuffed with 41 megapixels is able to maintain a dynamic range almost identical to the Canon EOS 5D, Pentax K-7 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1, as well as many other cameras that have been well regarded. Even though the dynamic range on the Lumia 1020 isn't particularly great, Nokia deserves some recognition for somehow getting it to be as good as it is.

At low ISO, the Nokia Lumia 1020 will have similar digital noise to any other quality digital camera. However, the camera drops significantly in image quality as ISO increases. This is no surprise because of all those tiny pixels. Even so, the camera produces acceptable results up to ISO 1600. However, for best results, one should keep the ISO at 400 or less.
Forgotten Folding Chair - Cuddy Valley, California
The Carl Zeiss lens on the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a sharp, high quality lens. There is some softness in the corners (especially in the 16:9 aspect ratio), but not a significant amount. The lens is equivalent to 26mm in full-frame terms.

Size matters in photography, but bigger isn't better. The smaller and lighter a camera is, the more likely it will get used. A camera that fits into one's pocket is much more pleasant to have than something that must be strapped around the neck.
Home Love - Cuddy Valley, California
I paid $100 for my Nokia Lumia 1020 one year ago (with a two-year contract). That's a great price for a camera of this caliber. Oh, and it doubles as my cell phone. You can probably find one for less now, especially if you don't mind buying used.

Specifically for urban exploration, the biggest drawbacks of the Lumia 1020 are the dynamic range and high-ISO capabilities. Urban explorers are constantly trying to capture images in difficult lighting situations, and this camera isn't ideal for that. But that does not mean that this camera can't be used for urbex.
Old Broken Hinge - Mojave, California
What makes this camera an excellent choice is that it's with you. Because it is also a cell phone, it's going to be in your pocket. You don't have to worry about always carrying around that bulky DSLR.

Besides that, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a great value. You will not find a better camera anywhere near the price-point of this one. It's the cheapest good-quality digital camera on the market.
Dips In Pavement - Mojave, California

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