Conclusion - Pros:
- Excellent detail resolution in all modes
- Very good image quality - detailed, colorful JPEGs
- Impressive photographic feature set - controllable ISO, WB, scene modes et al
- Generally reliable AF and metering
- Automatic white balance works well in all but the trickiest of light
- PureView allows 'zoom' without penalty in image quality
- Excellent video quality (and sound)
Conclusion - Cons:
- Highlight clipping problematic in scenes with wide tonal range
- No automatic HDR/dynamic range expansion function (but bracketing is available)
- Metering can be rather wayward in bright light
- On-screen histogram only available while exposure compensation dialog is open
- Interface somewhat dense in 'creative' mode
- Obscure on-screen icons for ND filter and white balance in creative mode
- On-screen ISO indication just shows 'M' when any setting other than Auto is selected
- Non-optical 'zooming' doesn't allow control over depth of field
- No image stabilization in still capture mode
- Red-eye can be an issue in flash shots (but red-eye reduction works well)
Essentially, what I've aimed to do in this article is to provide an overview of the Nokia 808 PureView as a camera, rather than as a phone, with the emphasis mainly on its still image quality. But it's not quite that simple, since inevitably, I'm judging the 808's camera in the context of its inclusion in a phone.
With this in mind, considering the 808 is still a phone first and a camera second, it's pretty impressive. The user interface is a little fussy (I'd prefer less obscure icons for ISO and white balance on the left-hand control panel, for one thing, and a proper live histogram would be useful) but it doesn't take too long to get used to. I don't much like the Symbian 'way of doing things' but I recognise that this is as much about my unfamiliarity with the operating system as much as it is about the weaknesses of Symbian itself.
In PureView mode, zooming in and out using vertical swipes soon becomes second nature. I'm an iPhone user normally, but zooming with the iPhone's pinch gesture has never felt natural to me (admittedly there is also a tiny zoom 'bar' on the iPhone too, but it's very fiddly). But more importantly, when you zoom in on the 808, you don't have to pay a huge penalty in image quality. Because images aren't upscaled, pixel-level image quality at the extent of the 808's 'zoom' in any given PureView mode is basically the same as it is at 38MP, which is to say that it's not bad at all.
For the majority of shooting situations, the 808's method of simulating an optical zoom works very well, allowing for a degree of flexibility over framing that is simply impossible when taking pictures with other smartphones. While you can get a degree of background blur in images from the 808, its actual (as opposed to effective) focal length of 8mm means you have to position your subject very close to the lens to see it. This isn't always possible (and with portraits, rarely flattering).
This is one area where an optical zoom would offer an advantage. If the 808 had a 3.6X optical zoom, even assuming its maximum aperture closed down to F5.6 or F8, depth of field at the long end, at the same subject-to-camera distance would be considerably less than at wideangle (note that the 808's hyperfocal focussing distance is approximately 2.4 meters).
The only major issue that I have with the 808's is highlight clipping. Blown-out highlights are very obvious in scenes with a wide tonal range, and this first-generation PureView phone doesn't offer an equivalent to the 'automatic' dynamic-range expansion and HDR functions that are becoming commonplace on other smartphones and compact cameras. In virtually every other respect, the 808 gives excellent image quality considering the type of device that it is. Pixel-level detail is high at low ISO settings and acceptable even at ISO 1600 for non-critical applications. In terms of sharpness and detail, the 808 is more than a match at low ISO settings for most compact cameras (and some DSLRs).
The Final Word
There are inexpensive compact cameras that offer more photographer-friendly features than the 808, but as a cameraphone, the Nokia blows its competition out of the water, and significantly narrows the gap between dedicated cameras and portable communications devices to the point where ultimate convergence seems all but inevitable (and probably sooner than some commentators had realised).
Nokia didn't release the 808 PureView in the hope of making much of a dent in the smartphone market - the Symbian operating system is obsolete, and Nokia's future plans are focussed on Microsoft's Windows Phone OS. If you want an 808 in the USA, you'll have to pay full price ($699) since no carrier (to date) is subsidizing the hardware through contracts on this side of the Atlantic. But while the Nokia 808 might not be an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy killer, it is a fascinating and compelling product, and one that has added a definite shine to Nokia's reputation in the tech industry, which was looking a little tarnished, to say the least.
The 808 proves that Nokia can innovate, and its PureView technology has piqued the interest of serious photographers, being one of the most important innovations - arguable the most important - in mobile photography since the smarphone era dawned five or so years ago. As such, the 808 is intriguing not just in itself, but because of what it represents. Things could be about to get interesting...
- Damian Dinning of Nokia responds to our 808 PureView review
- Nokia 808 PureView announcement
- Concert Footage from Nokia 808 PureView
- How Smartphones are Changing Photography
- How the iPhone Changed my Photography