Nokia N8 review: Director of photography

GSMArena team, 12 October 2010.

12 megapixel monster of a camera

We've now come to the one of the most important parts of the review. The 12 megapixel snapper at the back of the Nokia N8 is one of the main reasons for it to be the most popular handset in our database for the past few months.

Update, 24.08.2011: We installed the latest Nokia N8 camera update - check out our impressions of the new UI on Page 11.

Nokia created a lot of hype about the great shots the N8 produces but it also did their homework and packed the device with the largest sensor a mobile phone has seen (stretching to 1/1.83" inches). The larger sensor surface should benefit its low-light capabilities and dynamic range greatly.

But it doesn't end there - the Nokia N8 also comes with a mechanical shutter, a powerful xenon flash, a 28mm wide-angle lens and a front glass element made out of hardened glass. The built-in ND filter will compensate for the lack of variable aperture in those extremely bright conditions when you just cannot increase the shooting speed any more.

Unfortunately, this promising cameraphone has a rather uncomfortable and not user-friendly camera interface.

There are only three shortcuts available next to the viewfinder. Those allow you to change between camcorder and still camera, toggle the flash and reveal the rest of the customizable settings.

Nokia N8 Nokia N8 Nokia N8 Nokia N8
The user interface is the worst part of the N8 camera

It would have made much more sense if some of those settings were brought on the sides of the viewfinder too as it would have saved us a few clicks, but Nokia engineers didn't think so. Not to mention that those settings are the only part of the interface where you can still experience the two-taps-to-select nuisance that plagued the previous version of the Symbian touch interface.

On the other hand, the basic functionality is mostly there with the N8 allowing you to adjust white balance, color tone, exposure, ISO, contrast and sharpness. You can also go for one of the preset scene modes and there is an option for creating a custom scene.

Face detection is also available on the Nokia N8, helping you keep the faces in your photos in perfect focus.

Geo-tagging lets you record your current location in the EXIF information of the photos, using the built-in GPS.

In our blind test against Samsung Pixon 12 and Sony Cyber-shot HX5v Nokia N8 won your votes and quite convincingly at that. Unfortunately, we had a streak of really bad weather back then and all the photos were shot in overcast conditions.

This time however we got a few sunny days and decided to make another Nokia N8 vs Samsung Pixon12 shootout.

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • 100% crops

The first thing that impressed us about the Nokia N8 is its optical quality. This is not the first time we see a Carl Zeiss-certified lens on a mobile phone, but this one delivered an absolutely stellar performance. None of the dozens of camera samples we shot had any purple fringing, or any barrel distortion (which is quite badly pronounced on the Pixon12) or any other flaw whatsoever.

The amount of resolved detail is also very impressive with no noticable degradation towards the frame borders. If we had to be extremely picky we'd point the slight softness in the extreme corners but that's stretching it really.

The Nokia N8 levels of resolved detail are impressive even for a 12 megapixel camera and we are not talking cameraphones only.

What we especially like about the images produced the N8 camera is the laidback approach to the processing - the bigger sensor simply doesn't need excessive sharpening, edge enhancement or aggressive noise suppression to produce pleasing images. And that's why the N8 lets you enjoy the natural look of the images.

The sensor size has also blessed the Nokia N8 images with much better dynamic range than its competitors. You can see that on several occasions in the shootout the Nokia N8 managed to retain all the detail in the highlight areas, where one or more of the color channels of its competitor have clipped.

Low-light photography

The other area where the big sensor counts big time is low light performance. The Nokia N8 lived up to our high expectations here and produced some really impressive shots at ISO 400 and ISO 800. Sure, there is some noise, but the sparing noise suppression has left most of the details intact. In contrast, on the Pixon 12 samples almost all the fine detail is lost because of the aggressive noise suppressing routines

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12

Mind you, in low light conditions with the flash disabled the Nokia N8 tends to chose quite low shutter speeds (as low as 1/8sec). At that kind of speed it's almost impossible to make a photo without camera shake unless you use a tripod or other support for the handset. If you don't have those at hand we'd suggest that you crank the ISO setting higher.

Flash photography

Or you could just turn the on-board xenon flash on if your subjects are close enough. Let's see how that turns out.

Nokia N8 • Samsung M8910 Pixon12 • Sony DSC-HX5v

The Nokia N8 comes with a 30% smaller flash module than the Nokia N82, but Nokia engineers claim that the flash output is the same. Still, the Samsung Pixon12 has an obviously more capable unit - calculations suggest it's up to 30% more powerful.

However the Nokia N8 excellent high ISO performance compensates for the lower flash range. The Nokia N8 goes for a higher ISO setting so that it achieves the same exposure as the Pixon12 with less light coming from the flash.

The flash samples above prove our point. In this flash scene the Nokia N8 selected ISO 383, while the Pixon12 chose ISO 160, while the Sony HX5 went for ISO 200.

Despite the large ISO difference the Nokia N8 produces a slightly inferior image but it loses by a very small margin and that says a lot on its own.

What bothers us slightly more is the bluish cast that most N8 flash shots get, meaning there's something wrong with the automatic white balance setup.

According to Nokia engineers, one way to get a slightly greater flash range out of the N8 is to use the red-eye reduction mode. Reportedly, this provides around 10-20% more flash power. The team back at Nokia is hard at work on tweaking some settings so that a future software update can bring the improved flash performance to all flash modes, not just the red-eye removal mode.

Macro photography

The Macro mode on the Nokia N8 is accessible from the Scenes menu. It's called Close-up but the truth is you can't go as close to your subject as with some other handsets. Best case scenario your frame will cover about 13 cm horizontally. The quality of the shots remains great as usual.

Nokia N8 macro sample

Final verdict

It's obviously time for the Samsung Pixon12 to give up its cameraphone crown. The little fella managed to hold onto it for more than a year by using a lot smaller 1/2.5" sensor, which is an impressive achievement on its own. Now however it should make way for the new cameraphone king.

More Nokia N8 camera samples

With great dynamic range and excellent low-light performance, lots of resolved detail, geometrically perfect lens and, pleasant, but not overdone colors, the Finnish flagship leaves no doubt as to whether it is worthy of the crown. The only issues we can point out with the camera are the inconvenient user interface and the uninspiring flash photography results.

Next Page »