How to take incredible photos with the Nokia Lumia 1020
Taking incredible photos is not really so much about the smoothness or sharpness of the image or the resolution or the technical superiority of the photo or the equipment used to create it. Really incredible photos come from imagery that communicates emotion to the viewer. That’s what photography or any kind of art is all about and sometimes people forget that. You don’t always need amazingly powerful equipment to capture and communicate powerful emotions. That being said, amazingly powerful equipment can give you less limitations when trying to capture those emotions and it can let you communicate them much more effectively. On the other hand, many of those powerful photography tools can be very expensive, large, and heavy to carry around.
That’s where the Nokia Lumia 1020 comes in. It feels like an average smartphone; very pocket-able and easy to carry, but it packs a 41 megapixel camera that makes other smartphone camera photos look like cave paintings. You’ve also got a new professional camera app interface for even more control over your photos.
Crop and re-crop
Nokia calls it “Zoom Reinvented”, but really it’s just cropping. Photographers have been doing this for decades to change the photo’s composition using film and darkroom enlargers. The process is generally frowned upon since it degrades image quality. You’ll see this very prominently on other smartphones if you’ve ever used digital zoom. The part that Nokia reinvented is the non-destructive digital zoom. The Lumia 1020 still takes a full wide-angle 38 megapixel photo no matter how far you zoom and you can always go back to the full resolution version and re-crop to your heart’s content. That’s an excellent feature that gives you a great amount of flexibility.
While cropping the Lumia 1020’s 38 megapixel photo does affect the image quality the tighter you crop, due to the immense amount of data that the camera is capturing, you can still get quite good results that are certainly going to be just fine for social network photo sharing aspects that are so very popular these days. If you really want something print quality, you should physically get as close to the subject as you can, but be aware that the wide angle lens can cause some distortion, so you may want to crop in a bit anyway.
Timing is everything
While the shutter response time on the Lumia 1020 is pretty good… photos are generally captured at the time that you press the button… saving both a large 38 megapixel JPG and a down-sampled 5 megapixel JPG image after that shutter goes off can take quite a long time relatively speaking. During that time you can’t take more photos since there isn’t a buffer that can offload that processing time. So you really have to get your timing right, because you’re not going to be able to take another picture for a few seconds. Launching the camera app takes a couple seconds too. These wait times are not really a big deal if you’re setting up a photo of some people standing there waiting for you or a landscape scene or some food or other stationary objects. However, it can be very limiting if you’re trying to capture some action.
That means you really have to keep your eyes open and try to predict where the shot is going to be before it happens. Nokia’s Smart Cam app can help out in this regard with its multi-frame shooting capabilities that takes a whole series of photos during a period of time and allows you to do some creative combining or selecting, however this method doesn’t get you the full 38 megapixel high resolution photos that allow you creative cropping controls.
Learn to use the white balance controls
The Nokia Lumia 1020 sometimes doesn’t automatically calculate proper white balance values in certain scenarios. This can cause undesired color shifts. It’s important to set the white balance before hand since the Lumia 1020 produces JPGs. I generally shoot RAW photos on my larger DSLR cameras which are much more forgiving about white balance and it’s much easier to change those values in post on my tablet. When I do set the white balance in camera, I usually use Kelvin temperature measurements, however the Lumia 1020 does not include those capabilities. It only offers white balance presets along with the automatic mode. Instead of trying to remember what each of those icons mean, sometimes it’s best to carry around a white card that you can hold up and visually adjust the camera white balance in your environment’s lighting conditions in order to find what looks best. That might be a little too much work sometimes, but flipping through the presets to find the one that looks best before you take a photo is a good idea.
By touching the screen on the part of the frame where you want to focus, you can set your focus point to be something off-center. This is great for more interesting compositions and that usually works well in good lighting situations. However, in areas with poor light, automatic focusing can be very slow. The camera can’t always see well enough to calculate the focus itself. The Lumia 1020 has a focus assist light to help out with that, but even that can be difficult in certain lighting situations… especially dark areas with lots of flashing lights and high speed movement. In order to avoid the slowness and lag that will come from using auto-focus in those situations, set the focus manually before hand. This will greatly speed up your ability to capture the action at the right time since the phone isn’t even going to try to auto-focus first.
The close-up macro focusing capabilities of the Lumia 1020 are not as good as other phones. You need to be further away to get sharp focus. However, since you’ve got a huge amount of creative cropping control, you can always crop much closer in order to get those great macro-images. Also, try to keep your focus point away from the corners of the fully zoomed-out frame since the corners of the lens tend to have less sharpness and more chromatic aberrations.
Manual controls are your friend
Especially in challenging lighting scenarios, automatic mode doesn’t always cut it. The ISO settings control changes how quickly the sensor absorbs light. Low ISO numbers mean the sensor takes a longer amount of time to take in the light values. High ISO numbers mean the sensor takes in light values very quickly. The disadvantage to high ISO settings is that the sensor light measurements are going to be much less accurate and you’re going to see an increase in noise and often a decrease in color accuracy.
In order to control the amount of light that gets absorbed by the sensor during the exposure is the shutter speed. The Lumia 1020 has a mechanical shutter where many cameras simply turn the sensor on or off for a specific amount of time. The mechanical shutter is useful for managing light absorption especially when combined with the high speed Xenon flash (see Damian Dinning’s explanation). Shutter speeds are listed in fractions of a second or full seconds. You’ll want to use fast shutter speeds when you have plenty of light and you want to freeze some high-speed movement. Slower shutter speeds let more light in over a period of time, but that means the position of the light coming into the sensor may change during that time… and that’s going to cause motion blur.
There are two things about the Nokia Lumia 1020’s camera that you still have no control over; aperture and focal length. The lens is a 25mm equivalent prime wide-angle focal length and the aperture is a static f2.2. Having such a wide aperture is great for letting a lot of light into the sensor very quickly, however that also means you have a fairly narrow depth of field to work with. In most cases that’s a good thing since you really do want the background to blur away while your subject remains sharp. Not being able to control the f-stop values or depth of field range can be limiting for some photographers though.
The 26mm prime Carl Zeiss lens offers great wide angle views, but it can also cause some distortion in your images as well. Cropping in somewhat can reduce this effect though and as we’ve said before, there’s plenty of room for cropping.
Avoid filters and special effects
I know all those image filters out there are really popular, but more often than not, they don’t make your pictures look better. They make them look worse or, at best, clichéd… certainly not incredible at all. Remember, photography is about creating an emotional connection and putting a barrier of fuzz between the viewer and that connection more often than not will degrade the photo’s emotional value. Does that film negative photo frame or poop-like discoloration add to the photo’s ability to communicate a real feeling or does it detract from its message?
The first photo above was actually shot at a wide angle where you could see the stove and the chef preparing these lasagna cup-cakes, but once I zoomed in on the resulting photo, I decided to re-crop it as a close-up that really makes my mouth water. The second photo shows off a chipotle spiced chicken breast sandwich with Havarti cheese, cole slaw, & ranch dressing with the Lumia 1020’s narrow depth of field which nicely blurs the background in order to put emphasis on the food in the foreground.
Scenic waterfalls are something that I love taking photos of and always find them incredible. The first photo above shows a wide-angle view from Croton Gorge Park. The second photo is making use of point focus lock and a narrow depth of field to emphasize a plant growing in front of a scenic view. The third photo is the same Patterson Falls from the second photo, but with a different focus point and in-camera zoom/cropping.
High Dynamic Range photos
HDR photos are worth mentioning here. While the Lumia 1020 does not have an HDR capability built into the camera software, it does have a bracketing feature. Bracketing allows you to take a series of full resolution 38 megapixel photos with exposure value variations. Try to keep the camera very still since it will take quite a long time for the Lumia 1020 to shoot and process 3 consecutive full resolution photos and you want them to line up perfectly in post. I held the Lumia 1020 against a railing in this shot to help keep it steady. The above was shot with +/- 2 EV in order to get three photos with different exposure value ranges.
Then the photos were merged using Adobe Photoshop’s HDR Pro capabilities to get extra detail out of the shadow and highlight areas. Personally I think this effect can sometimes look a bit too unrealistic.
You can pixel peep all you want and criticize noise levels, blown-out highlights, accurate color reproduction, etc., but as mentioned in the beginning, incredible photography is all about communicating emotion to your viewers. That’s the most important thing, and when it comes to smartphones with cameras built in, the Nokia Lumia 1020 gives you the widest range of tools and capabilities to create those incredible photos that clearly communicate those amazing emotions you may experience in real life.