Sometimes, lightning strikes twice. We’ve already had the chance to review the Nokia Lumia 930 as a day-to-day phone, and Stewart found the Lumia to be the best Windows Phone to date. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a deeper look at the phone from a photographer’s perspective – to see how Nokia’s vaunted reputation for mobile photography fares here.
In this review, we won’t be just focusing on Nokia’s camera technology. We will also be looking to take a look at what the latest iteration of Windows Phone on the Lumia 930 has to offer to the mobile photographer – covering both the highlights and its shortcomings.
For a bit of context, although my day job is a software developer, I’m also an avid photographer, and teach mobile photography classes here in Sydney. While I usually have a dedicated camera or two with me wherever I go, there are plenty of moments where such a camera would either be inconvenient or outright prohibited, and smartphone cameras give mobile photographers the chance to get shots on the street that would otherwise be impractical to get.
Ask almost anyone on the street about their opinion on Nokia’s mobile phones, and the first word you’re likely to hear in response is “indestructible”. This doesn’t change with the Lumia 930. While it’s not marketed as waterproof or dustproof like some of the other flagship smartphones we’ve seen so far this year, the 930’s solidity gives confidence that it won’t fall apart if accidentally dropped – unlike most phones, one feels confident carrying the Lumia around sans case. It’s also remarkably compact for a phone with a 5” Full HD screen, being both narrower and shorter than the Galaxy S5 (albeit slightly thicker). For owners of the previous Lumia 920, the 930 has almost an identical footprint, which is all the more impressive given the spec improvements contained within.
Much of the rest of our thoughts on the Lumia 930’s hardware can be found in Stewart’s review here; but what I do want to investigate in more detail is how particular hardware specs of the Lumia 930 translate into the user experience for the mobile photographer.
Firstly, the 5-inch, Full HD 1080p AMOLED screen: it’s mostly very good news, with one drawback that may or may not be an issue for you depending on how sharp your eyes are. On the plus side, it’s an incredibly bright, colourful, contrasty screen, one that shows off Windows Phone’s typography and colours extremely well. The screen advantage is multiplied outdoors – Nokia’s ClearBlack anti-glare technology, plus per-pixel adaptive brightness first seen in the Lumia 1520, result in a display that’s unmatched in moderate to bright sunlight. Nokia ought to be pushing this advantage in stores, especially in sunny Australia – the difference between using the Lumia 930’s screen versus the Galaxy S5’s (also a 5” 1080p AMOLED display) in bright sunlight is the difference between being easily able to see a camera frame versus straining one’s eyes to make out the screen’s contents.
While it’s not marketed as waterproof or dustproof… the 930’s solidity gives confidence that it won’t fall apart if accidentally dropped – unlike most phones
Still on the Lumia 930’s display, Nokia have also included the ability to adjust settings such as sunlight readability (which boosts the entire screen’s brightness at the cost of less deep blacks), colour profile (either selectable from a list of presets, or adjustable by temperature, tint and saturation) and brightness profile (whose apparent behaviour seems to be adjusting both brightness and gamma), all of which will please those who are concerned about colour accuracy and/or readability. The default settings look a tad blue to me, but without more detailed colorimetric testing tools available it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about out-of-the-box colour accuracy.
The one potential thorn in the side of the Lumia 930’s screen is that it’s of the personally dreaded PenTile RGBG subpixel arrangement. At the 400+ ppi pixel density of the Lumia’s screen, it’s unlikely to be an issue for most people, but for those able to discern the difference between this and a standard RGB-subpixel LCD display, it’ll be jarring – there’s a certain graininess that won’t go away for those who can see it, along with some colour fringing around contrasty on-screen edges. Again, I doubt this will be a big issue for most people’s daily use (do check out an in-store demo model if you’re concerned), and PenTile does bring certain advantages (such as improved battery life due to fewer subpixels that need lighting up), but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re a stickler for display quality, like me.
Secondly, the camera itself. The camera module on the Lumia 930 is a 20-megapixel 1/3” PureView sensor with Carl Zeiss optics, the same module as found in the Lumia 1520 monster phone. It doesn’t protrude from the rest of the body like on the 1520, which is most likely due to the 930’s thicker body in general that removes the need for a camera protrusion. The position of the camera closer to the top of the phone is an improvement over the Lumia 920 from a couple of years ago, whose camera lens was easy to accidentally cover with one-handed camera operation.
The accompanying flash on the 930 is a dual-LED design, though only of a single colour temperature unlike the dual-temperature flash found on the iPhone 5S. It’s adequate, but the general rule of mobile photography still applies here – don’t bother unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. I’d really have liked to see a Xenon flash added to the 930, but no doubt that’s been left to a successor to the Lumia 1020 specialist cameraphone. The Lumia 930 supports DNG RAW capture as well as the standard PureView pixel oversampling techniques to achieve a lower-noise 5MP image, but we’ll investigate image quality further down in the software section of this review.
The hardware camera shutter button I’m mostly pleased about, but I have some minor reservations about it too. It’s in the right place, unlike the hacked-together shutter button alternatives on iOS and Android (such as adapted volume buttons), and its great-feeling double-detent operation is one that, frankly, I’m upset hasn’t appeared in more smartphones from other manufacturers. For two-handed camera operation, the hardware shutter button is a godsend, making it easier to capture sharper, less blurry photographs. For one-handed use, though, I’m less convinced of the hardware shutter button’s utility (simply because of the finger gymnastics required to control and capture photos with it), so am thankful that both first-party and third-party camera apps still have on-screen shutter functionality.
Finally, for photographers, the Lumia 930’s 32GB of onboard storage translates into 29.12GB of usable capacity. Without any microSD storage expansion, unlike its larger sibling the 1520, you’ll want to keep an eye on your storage usage, especially if you’re shooting in RAW – though the Storage Sense feature built into Windows Phone 8.1 makes this trivially easy. Personally, I’d like to have seen the inclusion of some form of storage expansion, but again may be something that’s been left for the successor to the Lumia 1020, and with ample storage provided already it’s not a huge dealbreaker.
On the software front, the Lumia 930 comes with Microsoft’s latest iteration of its mobile OS, Windows Phone 8.1, along with Nokia’s own improvements called “Cyan”. If you’ve ever used or seen Windows Phone before, it’s a very familiar look – the ever present colourful tiles on the home screen, oversized text and clean lines that have come to define Microsoft’s recent products. On the other hand, Windows Phone 8.1 also brings features that finally put it at feature parity with iOS and Android. The Notification Center is the most obvious addition, with a swipe down from the top edge of the screen bringing up a grouped list of the latest app notifications, plus access to quick settings – an instantly familiar sight to anyone who’s used a smartphone. Better file management through Microsoft’s own file manager app and start screen backgrounds are other standouts of Windows Phone 8.1 over its predecessor, but otherwise it’s the same Windows Phone as before – clean, distinctive, and polarising in its aesthetic appeal.
As for the photography software on the 930, it’s clear that Nokia’s especially invested in singling out photography as a key reason to buy a Lumia over other smartphones, and have put a lot of time and effort into building Lumia-specific photography apps. There are several fun (though occasionally gimmicky) Nokia-built photo apps, such as Cinemagraph for capturing animated images, Storyteller for building location and story based photo albums, and Living Images (technically part of Cinemagraph and Nokia Refocus) for sharing small animated snippets connected with a still photo; these are pretty neat, but not something I’d change a phone purchasing decision on.
On the other hand, Nokia Camera’s Pro mode and Nokia Creative Studio are genuinely valuable additions to the Lumia 930. The multi-dial mode to quickly change ISO, shutter speed, focus and white balance in Nokia Pro Camera make for a great camera interface for photography enthusiasts, making it easy for anyone with a little photography know-how to get outstanding photographs. With Creative Studio, previous versions have been somewhat sub-par, with uninteresting filters and poor image quality, but Nokia have turned it around with their latest release (version 6), with more realistic filters, a cleaner user interface, and a set of photo editing tools that are easier to use. I’d still like to see a wider variety of filters and photo editing tools here, but Creative Studio for the first time feels like a photo editing app that helps me get better looking images out of my camera, rather than hinders me.
Performance of the Lumia 930 as a cameraphone is somewhat mixed, but with a bit of effort some great results can be obtained. Taking a look at the minuses: firstly, it takes far too long to get the Lumia into a capture-ready state when locked, the most likely situation if something interesting has caught your photographic eye. Holding the camera button down when the phone is locked takes 4-5 seconds to launch Nokia Camera from first press to ready-to-shoot, which is just slow enough to miss the best moments, compared to less than 2 seconds to unlock and put an iPhone into camera ready mode.
Secondly, although the latest version of Nokia Camera brings continuous autofocus support, which is awesome for simple point and shoot action, the autofocus speed itself feels slower than it ought to be on a flagship device; I’ve found the Lumia 930 to take almost twice as long to focus on most subjects compared to the Samsung Galaxy S5 (the cameraphone benchmark as far as autofocus is concerned), and even longer in low light – I never felt quite confident that the Lumia would focus on exactly what I told it to, and although there’s a manual focus element that’s not present on other platforms, I’d rather not have to resort to it if I didn’t need to.
Thirdly, the auto white balance is frustrating; what appears to be the perfect look in the viewfinder ends up showing an unwanted reddish or greenish tint in the final image because the white balance algorithms have recalculated what it thinks is best just as the screen is blanked out for the exposure – something that can be fixed easily with the RAW file on a computer, or with some difficulty in a photo editing app on the phone, but also something that the Lumia ought to be getting right the first go. Finally, Windows Phone 8.1 does not allow third party apps to be set as the default camera app, which is a huge shame as there are several promising third party camera apps (touched on later) that deserve to be accessible in this way.
The good news is that, for mobile photographers who are willing to work through these drawbacks, the image quality achievable is excellent. The DNG RAW images do offer some extra flexibility for those willing to edit and process images on their computer, though don’t expect miracles if you’ve misjudged a shot – there isn’t a great deal of exposure latitude unearthed by the RAW file for recovering highlights or shadows (perhaps a stop in the highlights and half a stop in the shadows), but you do gain the freedom to correct white balance temperature (blue/yellow) and tint (red/magenta) with the RAW image.
In any case, I’m far more confident in the Lumia 930’s exposure accuracy than its white balance accuracy – the only time I felt like it was challenged was in situations where there were bright light sources in the frame, which is a tough situation for most cameraphones to handle. The 5MP PureView images are sharp and clear in daylight, and retain nearly all of their resolution and clarity indoors and in low light, albeit with more digital noise. In fact, for the vast majority of users, I’d skip the RAW and 19MP images entirely and just stick to the 5MP photo, which I’ve found processes well in third party apps on the phone.
The perennial “app gap” claims that revolve around every Windows Phone review on other sites is much, much smaller with respect to photography than in other app areas. In fact, Windows Phone is home to several outstanding photography apps exclusive to the Windows Phone platform, a testament to the photography niche that Nokia have carved out for themselves. In particular, ProShot has rightfully gained a lot of attention in the Windows Phone community for its flexibility and control in its camera interface; Rudy Huyn’s 6tag Instagram app provides in-built editing and sharing features above and beyond what Instagram provides in its official apps; and the recently-released BLACK is making waves for its stunning user interface and high-quality, film-emulating black and white filters. Big-name apps such as Adobe Photoshop Express have also made their way to Windows Phone, with close to feature parity with its iOS and Android counterparts.
That said, the two photography apps I missed on the Lumia 930 the most from other platforms were the Eye-Fi app (for transferring photos wirelessly to the phone from Eye-Fi wireless SD cards) and VSCO Cam (for their image management, editing tools and high quality filters), but for the most part the Windows Phone store does a good job of catering to the mobile photographer. (Side note, if you’d like these particular apps to come to Windows Phone, it wouldn’t be remiss to let them know on their respective Twitter accounts.)
One other side note that is worth mentioning with respect to Instagram on Windows Phone: it appears that the iOS version of Instagram uploads images at a higher quality (both in resolution and apparent compression) than the Windows Phone version, even with the same original image. Frankly, there’s no excuse for there to be such an image quality disparity between the same official app on different platforms, and Instagram need to step up their game to provide the best possible photography experience on all mobile platforms.
This review of the Lumia 930 has been a bit of a different take from the normal smartphone reviews we do here at TechGeek, but one that’s worth investigating – after all, the smartphone is an incredibly personal device that each and every person uses for different purposes.
The Lumia 930 is a great phone for the mobile photographer, one that I’d still recommend over any Android cameraphone today, despite the shortcomings mentioned. Though the upcoming version of Android is purported to bring photography improvements to that platform, the design, flexibility and control advantages that photography apps such as Nokia Camera, ProShot and BLACK deliver on the Lumia 930 are real and deliver value right now.
The comparison with iOS is trickier – apps like ProCamera 7 and VSCO Cam on iOS deliver a compelling mobile photography user experience there, and it’s hard to justify the loss of beloved apps when considering moving over from iOS to Windows Phone for a marginal improvement in image quality, but might still be worth looking at if you’re tired of the Apple ecosystem lock-in.
Words and Photography by Norman Ma
Design and Formatting by Terence Huynh