Sensor wars - Is bigger really 'better'? Nokia Lumia 1020

Nokia Lumia 1020

I was wondering about just what quality I could squeeze from my smaller sensor cameras. Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone. As can be seen from the picture above this was done with a tripod and selecting the lowest ISO. The Nokia also has the advantage that I can shoot raw .dng files with it. The following is what I got.

So despite it's comparable size, the files from this camera arent really going to challenge my Sony A7r. But then they are not that bad either and perfectly capable of being printed VERY large. When you factor in the close up ability of the camera, it's ease of use, the price and the ability to work unnoticed and freely, then then are some advantages here, particularly if you can put up with the fixed wide-angle lens. The picture below shows what happens when I downsize the file to 12MP

These days 'pixel wars', though still a marketing force, have been replaced on the photographic internet by 'sensor wars, in terms of bragging rights. And the whole 'mines bigger than yours' thing has taken over with 'full-frame' being the sensor size we should all apparently aspire to. This despite the difficulties of getting adequate depth of field, size, weight and price. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the most popular 'enthusiast size sensor' is APS-C. 

But in terms of the overall camera market it's the micro sensors of various sizes in camera equipped mobile, cell and smart phones that take the bulk of the incredible amount of images created these day. And while, in terms of image quality, bigger is (mostly) better, other considerations have to be taken into account, such as what is the best camera for what we want to achieve. 

Ansell Adams view camera above may have produced incredibly high quality images, but it's not exactly inconspicuous is it?

Below is a gallery of images shot in either 4:3 or 16:9 ratios on the Nokia.

These were taken on various occasions, either when I was on my bike and wanted something light and small to carry or when I was trying to work inconspicuously. All the images are for sale on various websites and some have already sold, so certainly picture buyers have no issue with pictures shot on smartphones. Though it has to be said that the Nokia is somewhat different to most other camera equipped phones.

Somewhat remarkably the Nokia turns in a decent performance at high ISO's. The above was shot at ISO 1600 and while it is noisy, it's actually not that bad. 

Below is a shot taken at the upper limit of the Nokia - ISO 4000. Which again somewhat surprisingly turns out a result not unlike that of high ISO colour film. The heavy luminance noise does a pretty good impression of film grain.

However as you can see there is a lot of banding, so it's not something I'll be doing again unless I fancy a bit of 'grunge photography'.

In terms of the camera / phone equation it's pretty much the case that the Nokia Lumia 1020 is more camera than phone. It's interesting that while the MP size of phones is increasing, nobody has come out with a competitor to this. From what I can find out it also seems that it hasn't really sold that well and I can understand that. I doubt there are that many customers for a phone that produces 100MB+ camera files and shoots raw, other than enthusiast photographers. And those are probably more interested in a 'conventional' camera anyway.

However, for me, the Nokia has become an important part of my photographic 'tool kit' and to be honest I love using it. The screen is terrific and I appreciate the simplicity of the whole thing. And it's that small sensor that makes this possible. So for me, bigger doesn't always necessarily mean 'better'. While it's true that I do have to compromise on quality when I use it, that compromise isn't as much as you might think. The image quality, at low ISO's, is actually pretty good, even without downsizing and for print reproduction wouldn't get a second look, even if printed up to A3. And that really is remarkable for a camera phone. Well remarkable for this moment in time, because these 'smart devices' are bound to get better and the technological advances that will push these micro sensors into creating unimagined quality is coming. 

Will these devices replace 'conventional' cameras? Well I don't think they will for 'serious' photographers, but for those who want the convenience of carrying a camera all the time for the odd snapshot, then there will be a lot of quality options available in the not so distant future. Panasonic have already started the ball rolling on that with their CM1. That and the Nokia are the start of something quite exciting, which might be described as 'smart cameras' designed to integrate with the cell phone network and the internet. The possibilities for that are immense and I can see somewhere in the not so distant future the somewhat intriguing possibly of an APS-C or even a 'full-frame' fixed lens smartphone. Now that would stir things up a bit.

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There is an interesting article on the BBC website HERE, which deals with many of the issues above.

Many Thanks

David Taylor-Hughes