Microsoft Lumia 950 XL - The best smartphone camera to date?

The Microsoft Lumia 950 XL brings something into sharp focus. (No pun intended) This smartphone has a very good camera on board. I'll deal with that later and you can also check out other reviews, which while being somewhat lukewarm about the Windows element of the phone are almost universal in their praise of the camera. And this questions just exactly what some of the mirrorless manufacturers are up to. Take, for example, the Fuji X100 series of cameras. Great retro aesthetics but a lens that suffers from some serious distortion, lousy video and the trials and tribulations of trying to get a sharp image from the X-Trans sensor. Oh and the price. The 950 XL produces sharp images with great colour (and no distortion), creates raw .DNG files that process easily and quickly in the apps. that most photographers use, has 4K video with image stabilisation, 19 as opposed to 16MP and a phone and internet access on board for just over half the price (as compared to the latest X100T.) Is it any wonder that sales of cameras are falling and sales of smartphones are rising?

Because, make no mistake, the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL turns out some magnificent images. 

And no, I haven't slipped in some Leica Q image here, the above 100% blowup is what the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL produces from a raw .DNG file in Photoshop. Just look at the definition and separation detail in the plants. This is no noise reduced, smeared, micro sensor compact camera file. Even though the sensor is only a 1/2.4" model.

Above is a macro shot taken with the sophisticated 'Triple LED RGB natural flash' (Microsoft's description) which as you can see is pretty impressive, particularly since I was about 3 inches from the flower. That's an OOC jpg. by the way.

Still not convinced? This is how the Lumia handles low light.

What the camera does in low light, unless I tell it otherwise, is reduce the shutter speed, throw in some of the very impressive stabilisation it's equipped with and keep the ISO down. In this case 1/8th. sec. and ISO 500.

So what does the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL have for photographers?

  • 1/2.4" sensor
  • 19MP (In real terms)
  • Fixed aperture f/1.9 lens - 26mm 'equivalent'. (This is actually a 6 micro lenses array from Zeiss)
  • Optical image stabilisation
  • 4K Video
  • 'Triple LED RGB natural flash'
  • Interchangeable battery
  • Slot for micro SD card

Now as per usual the Windows OS (In this case a 'smartphonised' version of Windows 10,) gets a good solid slagging off from smartphone reviewers. Plus the usual complaints about the lack of apps. None of which I care about in the slightest. The camera though has come in for almost universal praise and I think you can see why. And if I was a mirrorless camera manufacturer I would be worried. In fact I'd be VERY worried. Because this smartphone camera, at lower ISO's it has to be said, produces images that the likes of m4/3, Fuji X and Sony APS-C struggle to match. The sharpness and resolution is amazing, reminding me of nothing less than a combination of my Leica M9 with its CCD sensor and the various Sigma Foveon cameras I've owned. Plus that colour is just sensational. Realistic? hardly, but I love it. 

The Nokia Lumia 1020 I have is still a fine camera and that huge pixel count is very useful, but the 950 XL tops it for image quality, as it does a lot of cameras I have on my shelf. Fixed lens yes, but with it's AMOLED screen, which shows up well in bright sunlight and with it's dedicated camera button, this is a serious camera, for serious photographers. And that is probably the problem. Most smartphone users seem not to be that bothered about how good their onboard camera is. For the majority of their purposes, 'good enough' seems to be their criteria. Are there enough serious smartphone photographers prepared to work with Windows OS to make this a success? Well who knows, but my suspicions are that this will be another failed attempt by Microsoft to make significant inroads into the smartphone market. Unless, like me, there are others out there who relish the possibilities that something like this offers. 

Because the images that emerge from the 950 XL are just what I want. The colour, the contrast, the whole look of the image files is my idea of what a digital image should look like. Warm, saturated, sharp, punchy pictures with a film type sheen is what I try to achieve with my Photoshop editing anyway, so to have it emerge from this smartphone by default is great. And this is one of the reasons I like using smartphones. The included software 'jiggery pokery' (and there is obviously a lot of that going on here) does it all for me. And lets me get on with the important stuff of creating images I'm pleased with and can sell. 

I've been waiting for the 950 XL ever since I saw some early sample images which just blew me away and I have to say I'm not disappointed. It produces exactly the kind of images I thought it would. Obviously this is not for everyone and there will still be those who still have wet dreams about cameras like the Fuji X100T. But for me, they are welcome to that type of camera. It holds very little appeal for me anymore and if I were to use one again I would actually be taking a backward step in terms of image quality. But then camera ownership (or smartphone ownership for that matter) isn't about the quality of the images that these devices produce, it's about lots of other things including how the owner wants to be perceived. And many 'fauxtographers' just don't see a smartphone as giving them the right image. I have no such problem and the more anonymous I am the better I like it. And if I do feel the need to do a bit of head turning I'll take out my Canon 5Ds instead. 

But whatever else I go out with, I now know that that this Microsoft Lumia 950 XL is going to be my constant companion. It's just too good to leave at home. A superb camera and yet another example of what the future holds. Lots of leisure photographers haven't come round to accepting the inevitable yet and many camera manufacturers still seem to be impersonating the three monkeys, but all that R & D into micro sensors and micro lenses is starting to produce some incredible results. And I'm going to embrace that rather than attempt to deny it. And it's too late now, but if I'd bought this earlier in the year, it would have walked away with Soundimageplus camera of the year. For me, it's that good.