Performance and Image Quality

In use, the 808 PureView behaves much like a conventional cameraphone, purely because of its form factor. If you're used to a phone like Apple's iPhone 4S, or any recent high-end Android offering, you won't have any difficulty adjusting to the 808. 

A dedicated focus/shutter button on the right side of the phone (with the screen held in the orienation shown below) acts as a shortcut to activate the camera app even when the phone is sleeping. A 'hard' press is required to open the app and wake the phone - a quick or light press will be ignored, preventing accidental operation of the camera. From sleep to image capture is roughly 2-3 seconds depending on AF acquisition time, which isn't bad at all. Unlike a lot of other smartphones with 'hard' shutter buttons, the 808's shutter release has a two-stage movement, which allows for half-pressing to focus before taking a picture.

The 808's camera controls are well thought-out and easy to access. A 'hard' button on the upper right side of the phone (when viewed in the orientation shown here) acts as a shutter button in the conventional way - half-press for focus, full press to take a picture. An on-screen shutter release is also available - it's the aperture blades icon in the centre right of the screen in this image.

In 'Creative' mode, (shown here) you'll see a panel along the left of the screen that provides access to key modes and features including ISO sensitivity, white balance and exposure compensation. Adjusting these settings is a simple matter of scrolling and selecting by touch, but we wish the icons were a little less obscure. 

With the camera app running, autofocus performance is roughly in line with my expectations from a modern compact camera - a bit of hunting in low-contrast situations, but in normal shooting conditions the 808 focusses in less than a second (usually), and almost always with unerring accuracy. Unexpectedly, the only times I had real issues with focus were when shooting pictures of people, when the face detection would very occasionally just give me a blurry image for no obvious reason. The 808's metering system is similarly, very reliable, although the match between live view brightness and final exposure can be pretty wide in especially dark and bright conditions. I've found that it's best to bracket around a little in very bright light to be sure of getting a pleasant exposure. An on-screen histogram would help a lot, but although a histogram appears when you're dialing in exposure compensation, it vanishes again when that screen is dismissed.  

Shutter lag is effectively non-existent once focus has been acquired. In poor light the 808's built-in AF illuminator kicks in and does a good job of providing enough light for focusing, but in this situation focus slows to usually at least a second for accurate acquisition.  

In full 38MP mode, there's a pause of roughly three seconds after taking a photograph and being able to view it or take another one. In the reduced resolution 3/5/8MP modes this delay is much shorter - roughly one second, for 8MP files. Viewing captured images is quick and easy. Like most modern smartphones, the 808 allows you to flip through captured images by swiping the screen, and double-tapping magnifies the view for critical analysis of detail and focus accuracy. 

Image Quality

The 808 is a perfectly pleasant phone to use for taking pictures - it has more options than most, and handles reasonably well as a camera. Where it really shines though is image quality. The 808 produces without a doubt the best quality images I have ever seen from a smartphone, and in some respects challenges a lot of 'proper' cameras, too. 

Full Resolution (38/36MP)

Let's start by looking at the big numbers - the 808's full resolution 38/36MP (depending on the aspect ratio) capture mode. 

At low ISO settings, in good light, the 808's full-resolution is excellent. Although not quite as detailed as we'd expect from a DSLR with a similar pixel count, the 808's JPEGs are very nice indeed. 100% Crop
Being a cameraphone, it's easy to forget just how big the 808's sensor is. Although not nearly as large as the sensors in DSLRs or most mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, it is big enough at the lens aperture setting of F2.4 to give a pleasant background blur when capturing subjects that are close to the camera.  100% Crop
This scene contains a lot of fairly low-contrast detail, and although output isn't not totally sharp at 100%, the 808 has done an excellent job, at least matching the average mid-range DSLR for pixel-level JPEG sharpness, and exceeding the abilities of some... 100% Crop
If you click through the images above to get to the full-sized original files you'll see that full resolution output from the 808 isn't just a 'stunt' setting. Resolution at low ISO sensitivity settings is genuinely very high, and in terms of detail, images from the camera at this setting can satisfy pretty critical requirements, including large prints. At 100%, low-contrast detail has a slightly 'digital' appearance, but to be honest, given that we're talking about a camera fitted inside a telephone it's hard to complain. 

PureView (3/5/8MP)

As I said in the introduction to this article, the 808 PureView's maximum output resolution of 38MP is far from the full story when it comes to photography. Most of the time you're unlikely to need full resolution output from a smartphone camera, and I'd expect that most serious mobile photographers will probably keep the 808 in one of its three 'PureView' reduced resolution settings. In these modes, you get the benefit of Nokia's proprietary oversampling, but remember that this doesn't apply when you're fully 'zoomed in', at which point you are effectively just looking at a crop from the full-resolution 38MP capture.  
This image was captured at ISO 64, in 8MP PureView mode. At 100%, detail is pin sharp, and resolution is truly impressive. You can count the blades of grass in the near foreground of this shot. 100% Crop
Another 8MP shot, this time taken at ISO 400. Exposure is accurate and detail capture is again, very high. Some granularity is visible in the smooth tones of the sky at the top of this image but it's subtle.  100% Crop
This image was taken in 5MP mode, with the 808 'zoomed' to the furthest possible extent to concentrate the composition on the tree branch in the foreground. This is a fairly low-contrast scene but detail capture is high.  100% Crop
When light levels drop, most cellphone cameras struggle to keep shooting without flash. But the 808 PureView has a maximum ISO sensitivity of 1600, which makes it impressively versatile in marginal light.  
This shot was taken in the 808's 8MP PureView mode and at ISO 800, JPEG image quality is impressive - certainly comparable with high-end compact cameras at 100%. It's easy to forget that despite its small form-factor the 808 is packing a sensor much larger than most of them. 100% Crop
The 808's maximum ISO sensitivity setting is 1600, and here, image noise is definitely a factor, and noise-reduction has a slight but noticeable impact on saturation as well. That said, detail capture remains high (this is an 8MP shot). 100% Crop
This shot was taken very in low light, also at ISO 1600 at the long end of the 808's 'zoom' in 3MP PureView mode. Image quality isn't great, (there's no oversampling benefit at full 'zoom', remember) and there's some banding visible too, but overall I'd call this acceptable given the conditions.  100% Crop
The 808's xenon flash isn't as powerful as those on most 'true' cameras but it's good enough for close-range portraits. Red-eye can be an issue though - I turned red-eye reduction on for this shot.  100% Crop

Highlight Clipping

When examining my sample images from the 808, the only real indication that I was looking at pictures from a compact device is dynamic range - or rather the lack thereof. This is one of the very few black marks against the 808's camera, that in scenes with a moderately wide tonal range, if you expose for the midtones you will probably see some highlight clipping.

This scene, taken at the 808's full resolution of 38MP in the 4:3 aspect ratio, demonstrates the phone's most serious weakness as a camera: highlight clipping.  100% Crop
The 808 has delivered a somewhat bright (but not overexposed) image of this lakeside scene, shot in 5MP PureView mode, and highlight clipping is very apparent. 100% Crop
I was having trouble with clipping in the log in the foreground of this shot, so I took a bracketed burst of three images at 0.7EV intervals and blended them quickly in Photoshop. Although much less convenient than an in-camera HDR function, it has worked well.  100% Crop

There's not much you can do about clipping, short of mounting the phone on a tripod and exposure bracketing (the 808 offers a 3/5 frame exposure bracketing feature of up to +/-4EV) or deliberately underexposing using exposure compensation, then pulling midtones up later using software. I have found that shooting in the 808's PureView modes improves dynamic range very slightly in real-world use, but clipped highlights are the 808's achilles heel at all of its four output resolutions. 

Clipped highlights are a pretty common problem in images shot with cameraphones and compacts, and one that manufacturers are increasingly solving using dynamic range expansion and high dynamic range (HDR) modes. Unfortunately, the 808 PureView doesn't offer an equivalent feature.  

I spoke to a Nokia representative about this, and it seems that Nokia tried to include an HDR feature in the 808, but ran into technical issues because of the huge processing bandwidth required to quickly capture then blend multiple 38MP exposures to create an HDR image. Bracketing was included in the 808's feature set to satisfy the needs of serious HDR enthusiasts who like to do their blending on a computer.

Click here to go to page 3 of our review of the Nokia PureView 808