Tough Story: comparing several smartphone cameras in different light

When you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I'm walking around with an interesting bunch of smartphones. I'm collecting shots with the Nokia 808 PureView, Lumia 920, Lumia 900, Samsung Galaxy Note II and HTC One X.

Except for the Nokia 808 PureView these are all 8MP camerasensors: shooting in 4:3 you get 3264 x 2448 pixels. The difference with the 808 PureView is that it has its amazing 41MP sensor and uses PureView (oversampling) technique before realizing the 8MP shot.

Making these comparisons is not very easy, at least not when you can't devote your whole day to it (this could be a daytime job if it would earn me anything :-) So last evening I did something else instead, I set up a collection of Toy Story action figures and made shots of those with the lamp bright, medium and quite dark. From that, I made a collection of shots, from which I'll present a selection of the most remarkable differences.

First of all, let me say that in general the differences are not mind-blowing, except in low-light: we already know by now the Nokia Lumia 920 is best and it absolutely stands out in the crowd. Other smartphones - even the Nokia 808 on "auto" - have a hard time.

1. DARK 

Let's start with the King of Camphones - on auto settings, since with some change of the settings you'd get a much better result.

Than the worst result, which was with the HTC One X - again on auto, but mind you: I'm convinced the result would be much better if you'd choose HDR for instance.

The runners up are the Nokia Lumia 900 and the Samsung Galaxy Note II (in that order), and the one that really stands out from the crowd is the Nokia Lumia 920, as expected.

Now, let me show a 640 x 640 crop of the Nokia 808 PureView.

And one of the Nokia Lumia 920:

You see that in these dark conditions, it did capture most of the light, as expected, although the color is more accurate in the Nokia 808 shot. Also, it looks like the Lumia 920 shows a bit more noise, but that would be because there is no oversampling PureView tech at work here - only the Nokia 808 offers that kind of PureView.


Now, let's turn the lamp on, at its brightest level (which is not extremely bright in this case). For "reference" I will show the Nokia 808 PureView first.

Now - just to show another smartphone I've used in this test - this is what the Samsung Galaxy Note II makes of it. Not bad, I'd say. As far as I know it has the exact same camera as the Galaxy S III by the way.

In fact, it seems to do a bit of a better job than the Nokia Lumia 920, that appears to let too much light in this time. But also, it's the only shot to actually show I'm using a piece of big black paper in the background.


So now, let's change the light again - not too bright, not too dark, somewhere in between (I don't have a light meter, sorry, I'm not a pro). For "reference" once more, the Nokia 808 PureView:

To show all devices used in this test, here's what the Lumia 900 makes of it - very acceptable, I think. In this case, the camera is the same as in the Nokia Lumia 800 (as far as I know)

And to show you the HTC One X doesn't just make crap pictures, here's that shot under medium light condition as well - a bit dark, but still acceptable I'd say.

How does the Nokia Lumia 920 compare to this? Not bad, but not briliant either at this moment in time (we're still waiting for an update, but we don't know what it will fix exactly).

The colors are good in itself, the picture is bright, it reveals the black paper background once more, but one might argue it still is a bit too bright.

4. Changing some settings in the Nokia Lumia 920

Now I thought there has to be a way that the Nokia Lumia 920 will handle these (medium) light conditions differently, so I started to play with the settings a bit, and I got a better result choosing ISO 100. Than you get this:

Choosing for ISO 100 and change the exposure value to -2, forcing it to record even less light, I got this, which I think is the best result I got from the Lumia 920 under medium light conditions (but it doesn't show the paper background anymore)

No here's a disclaimer: I'm not a professional photographer (although some seem to think so). I've been passionate about mobile photography since 2001, cumulating in the PureViewClub after Nokia's announcement of the 808 PureView this year.

As expected, the Nokia 808 PureView still is lightyears ahead of the competition. Nokia never claimed the Lumia 920 would be equal, let alone better. Nokia claimed that the new kind of PureView (amongst other things like OIS) would make better shots in darker circumstances.

That it does, no doubt. But the "auto" setting of the Lumia 920 seems to need an update to accept a bit less light than it does now under brighter circumstances. Under normal circumstances, the Nokia Lumia 920 doesn't always seem to perform exceptionally better than other 8MP smartphones, but I'm still working on a larger scale comparison.

Also, we'll have to wait and see what the update brings. There is nothing wrong with a software update: every device on every brand profits from it a few times a year. Let's just hope it won't take Nokia too long.

Yes, all the original shots are on Flickr. Here you will see these are not made by a pro - although I tried to make the exact same shot, I didn't always succeed, even the distance is not always exactly the same. I'm sorry 'bout that, since it will have some influence on the outcome too, no doubt.

I know some of you guys by now, you'll analyze them untill you can count the pixels. Please take into consideration this test is not a scientific approach, they are still too much variables in the shots.

To conclude: I am still in the process of making different shots under all kind of circumstances with these several smartphones. It takes time, I hope to show you a nice and representative selection within a few days. And I hope to show you a nice video today as well :-)