Will the newest Android software update make the Nexus 5 a more attractive option for mobile photographers?

Google’s Nexus 5 marks a substantial advance in the frequently maligned imaging capabilities of the Nexus smartphone line. The camera’s optical image stabilization combines with its decent 8-megapixel sensor to deliver images that, while not class-leading, are certainly competitive.

However, in our review we found that the Nexus 5’s camera performance was undermined by speed issues: the camera app was slow to start up, exhibited frustrating shutter lag and felt pokey when focusing. Soon after the phone started shipping Google said it would address these issues, and it has delivered on its promise with the Android 4.4.1 update that’s been rolling out to Nexus devices since Friday. (Another update, Android 4.2.2, is already on the move as well, though it comes without the same sort of significant effects.)

We’ve put the refreshed Nexus 5 through its photographic paces and found that while the camera is indeed more responsive, Google also made other changes that may please some users but irritate others.

Need for speed

The update’s speed improvement is substantial. It doesn’t necessarily make the Nexus 5 blaze, but if the phone had shipped like this we wouldn’t have been scratching our heads so much about its stumbling pace in use.

Most importantly, shutter lag is significantly reduced: it’s still there, maybe a few tenths of a second, but there’s no longer the half-second pause that transported you back to the early days of digital photography. This means that if you lock focus, you’re more likely to catch those fast moving kid and pet moments than before. 

Start-up speeds have been cut in half. Tapping the icon gets you ready to shoot in around half-a-second. More importantly, launching the camera from the lock screen shortcut now takes around a second and a half, a rather than the three or more seconds you’d spend watching the black screen before the update. It’s still longer than ideal, but you no longer start wondering if the camera app has crashed.

Focus definitely feels snappier. It wasn’t terribly slow before, but there’s now a welcome responsiveness that was missing. In low light, focus might be a little more confident, but it still misses the mark more than a lot of the competition.

Shot-to-shot time remains unchanged at around half-a-second, and there’s still no burst mode.

New exposure priorities

Google has altered the camera’s exposure algorithms to prioritize higher shutter speeds over lower sensitivities. This is a strategic shift rather than an “improvement,” and how you feel about it will depend on the kinds of subjects you shoot the most.

As we noted in our full review, the Nexus 5 leaned hard on its optical image stabilization system in low light, using shutter speeds that would lead to shake-induced blur without OIS (as low as 1/6 sec). This worked well with static subjects, with low ISOs translating into plenty of detail and relatively low noise. However, small amounts of subject movement at those shutter speeds causes motion blur. That’s a problem because people tend to move around, and a lot of camera phone shooters take photos of people.

With the 4.4.1 update, the Nexus 5 aggressively pushes ISOs up to maintain higher shutter speeds. This makes the camera better at capturing low-light candids, since the lack of detail that comes with higher ISOs looks better than catastrophic motion blur.

Before the update, the Nexus 5 used long shutter speeds and lower ISOs (here, 1/7 sec at ISO 311), which is great for static scenes but leads to motion blur with people, even when they’re trying to hold still.
After the update, the camera prioritizes higher shutter speeds. This is a roughly equivalent exposure, but with a faster shutter speed (1/25 sec) and higher ISO (1229). The people are nicely frozen, but there’s less detail and more noise.

This is a better strategy for scenes with subjects that might move, but it can backfire when capturing static scenes.

Before the update, the Nexus 5 leveraged its stabilized lens to keep ISOs down, resulting in relatively clean, detailed images in low light. (1/11 sec at ISO 174)
After the update, the phone raises shutter speeds much higher than required for static subjects, resulting in a loss of detail because of the higher sensitivities required (here, 1/50 sec at ISO 631). That said, this image holds up well, and at screen and web resolutions is essentially indistinguishable from the “before” shot.

This new exposure policy means that the Nexus 5’s HDR+ mode is more useful than ever. Faced with a low-light, high-contrast, static scene, HDR+ really shines compared to the normal mode.

Before the update, the Nexus 5 would have used a much lower shutter speed and ISO for this scene, resulting in a cleaner sky and more foreground detail.
HDR+ mode, which both increases dynamic range and reduces noise, produces a more pleasing image.

Considering the subjects most people shoot with their phones, the new exposure logic probably delivers the greatest good to the greatest number. However, it penalizes static scenes in low light. On most Android phones, this wouldn’t be a big deal because you could always force shutter speeds down when appropriate by choosing a low ISO. However, for reasons best known to Google, manual ISO control remains absent on the Nexus 5, so you’re stuck with whatever the camera wants to do. So far, third-party developers appear unable to implement manual ISO control on the Nexus 5, though that should change when Google delivers its next generation camera API.

Additional changes

There are a few other minor changes in the update. The HDR+ mode now has a progress bar, so you have something to watch for the brief second and a half the phone takes to process an image. You can also digitally zoom in HDR+ mode, something we hadn’t missed when you couldn’t, but hey. Despite these minor improvements, there’s still an oddly long pause when toggling the HDR+ mode.

For detail sticklers, the aperture is now properly recorded in the EXIF data (though it still shows up wrong in the “Details” menu of the Gallery).

The more irksome user interface elements of the camera app have, unfortunately, been left as-is. So you still only see a cropped preview of the final photograph. The menu system is unimproved. There’s still no manual ISO control.

Finally, the Nexus 5 continues to occasionally choose a much higher shutter speed than needed, usually around 1/120 sec.

For some reason, the Nexus 5 still sometimes decides on a shutter speed of 1/120 sec, even if it means raising ISO two stops above baseline.