Nokia Lumia 1520 camera review
Image Quality and Performance
In terms of camera specification the Lumia 1520 is not quite on the same level as Nokia's current flasgship smartphone, the Lumia 1020. However, with its quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor the 1520 trumps the 1020 in terms of processing power. So it's no surprise the Nokia phablet feels very fast and responsive in general use, with the Windows tiles smoothly scrolling on the large screen.
When it comes to camera operation though, the 1520 is a little more sluggish than some of the competitors. It takes around three seconds for the camera to open and be ready for a shot. At 1.5 seconds shot-to-shot times are significantly faster than on the Lumia 1020 but not as fast as on some of the Android competition or the latest iPhone.
Once you’ve got the Nokia Camera app fired up, focus acquisition is competitive but not as snappy as the best. As usual, it slows down in low light, but accuracy is maintained and focus errors are very rare.
Daylight, Low ISO
Similar to the Lumia 1020 with its massive 38MP files and downsampled 5MP images it's not quite clear how to judge image quality from the 1520's camera. Should we look at the sensor's native resolution 20MP files or the downsampled 5MP versions? For many users both image sizes can make sense.
In a typical mobile photography scenario, where the image is edited and shared online, the smaller image will be large enough for pretty much any conceivable use case. However, occasionally you might want to print an image you've taken with the 1520. In that case having a 20MP file up your sleeve is definitely a good thing. So, it really make sense to have a closer look at both versions of the 1520 images.
It’s indisputable that the 1520 captures a very good amount of detail in good light. You'll find a lot of fine detail in the 20MP files when viewing them at a 100%, even in the corners of the frame. Only a slight softness becomes visible as you near the edges of the image. Some low-contrast detail is being smudged by noise reduction but the 1520 compares very well to its competitors in this respect. Some shadow noise is visible in the darker portions of the frame but it's not any worse than the competition.
In the 5MP file this noise is largely averaged out, creating a very clean image. Compared to the large version the loss in detail is not as significant as you would expect. Nokia appears to be applying some clever low-radius sharpening in the downsampling process and the end result looks detailed and crisp but not oversharpened. It's fair to say that there is more detail in the 1520's 5MP files than in some 8MP or even higher resolution images we have seen on other devices.
As it is common to most smartphones color and contrast are on the "punchy" side and there are no saturation or contrast controls to create a slightly more natural result. However, on the Lumia 1520 you can of process the DNG Raw files and adjust color and contrast to your taste, as we explain further down the page. Automatic white balance usually does an accurate job in most outdoor light situations.
As in almost any smartphone camera dynamic range is limited and in high-contrast scenes blown highlights are a familiar sight. It's not any worse than on the competition though and, as we demonstrate further down the page, a small amount of highlight detail can be recovered when shooting and converting Raw files.
Low Light, High ISO
The Nokia Lumia 1520's very efficient image stabilization system means in low light you can capture images at lower sensitivities than some of the competition. The stabilized lens corrects for camera shake to make 1/6 sec routinely usable and speeds as low as a 1/2 sec give good results with a solid shooting position, at least when shooting static scenes.
However, even when the light conditions do require increased ISO levels the 1520 performs very well. The ISO range spans from 100 to 4000 although in Auto ISO mode you'll hardly ever see the camera go any higher than ISO 1600. This makes sense as up to this setting the Nokia produces very decent output.
Color noise is very well under control across the ISO range and luminance noise reduction is less intrusive than what we've seen on other devices. It allows some grain in the full-scale image in return for some fine detail, even at higher settings. Overall, the 1520's noise reduction is one of the best balanced we've seen on a smartphone.
To get to the very highest settings you would typically have to switch to manual ISO. There is a lot of noise in those images and would probably only want to use them as a last resort. That said, it's great to at least have the option to shoot at such high sensitivities and while you would probably not use the 1520's ISO 3200 and 4000 files to produce a large-scale fine-art print they are more than usable for social sharing or simply capturing a memory.
Unfortunately the Lumia 1520 does not come with the powerful Xenon flash of its sister model, the 1020. That said, the new model features a dual-LED flash which is one more LED than almost all competing devices. The 1520 still has to crank up the ISO for flash photography but the unit is powerful enough to illuminate even small groups more or less evenly. This cannot be said about most smartphone flashes. Color rendition is pretty natural, too and overall the Lumia 1520 offers one of the best flash modes we have seen on a smartphone.
Raw Capture and Processing
The Nokia Lumia 1520 is the first smartphone to offer Raw capture as a standard feature. Just recently the function was also made available on the Lumia 1020 through the Nokia "Black" firmware update. Recording and processing Raw files allows you to adjust a number of shooting parameters, such as sharpening, saturation or contrast, post-capture. It's also possible (within limits) to modify exposure and adjust shadows and highlights. The 1520 records Raw files in Adobe's DNG format which can be processed by most Raw converters in the market.
The JPEG sample below had large clipped highlight areas in the sky. In Raw conversion with Adobe ACR 8.2 we tried to recover some of the lost highlight detail and also added some very fine sharpening for optimal detail. As you can see we partly succeeded in recovering some highlight detail but, not a surprise for a small sensor camera, the 1520 does not offer an awful lot of Raw "headroom". So don't expect to create HDR-like images out of one Raw file. There is also a tiny amount of extra detail in the converted image but you pay for it with more noise and grain.
Overall you should not expect DSLR-like flexibility from shooting and processing the 1520's Raw files but the feature allows you to easily adjust the white balance and make minor exposure corrections on your favorite images after you have taken them.
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