Can the Lumia 1020 take on a compact system camera?

21st Aug 2013 | 22:44

Can the Lumia 1020 take on a compact system camera?

How does the Lumia 1020 camera compare to the Olympus E-PL5 - and to the iPhone 5?


The Nokia Lumia 1020 may have changed the mobile photography landscape, but is it going to cause any disruption in the compact system camera class, too? If you aren't already familiar with the Lumia 1020's camera, it's basically a point-and-shoot or compact camera stuffed into a smartphone body. Sort of.

After reviewing Nokia's latest flagship smartphone, we were left wondering why the Finnish company would put a 41MP camera sensor into a device intended for messaging and making phone calls. Is it just to give phone a big number on a spec sheet? Or is it intended to replace your compact or compact system camera?

Nokia Lumia 1020 review photo

We've decided to put it up against the iPhone 5, which has a respectable 8MP shooter on board, and the Olympus E-PL5 - a nice compact system camera loaded with features and really good image quality.

The first comparison is obvious. The iPhone 5 is a smartphone that you'll find in most hands when you're out and about, and its camera has always performed well against other smartphones. Pitting it against the Lumia 1020 seems fair.

We were tempted to compare the 1020 to a full-frame DSLR given the smartphone's incredibly high megapixel count. Nokia also claims in its Lumia 1020 white paper that some of the features on the 41MP PureView camera were only found on DSLRs. But regardless of pixel count, a full-frame sensor from the likes of Nikon or Canon would stomp on any tiny, smartphone camera sensor any day of the week.

Nokia Lumia 1020 review photo

Instead, we decided to go with the Olympus E-PL5 because it seems more in line with what the Lumia 1020 is trying to be: a compact camera replacement. The Lumia's size and portability is much closer to a compact camera than a DSLR, and like many compact cameras, it has a fixed focal length lens. It's worth noting, however, that the E-PL5 is a micro four-thirds compact system camera that supports interchangeable lenses.

The E-PL5 has a 16MP sensor - a far cry from the Nokia's 41MP unit - but the sensor is much larger than the one found in the 1020. So we're going to find out whether megapixels trumps sensor size in this comparison, although if you're familiar with cameras and camera technology, you may already have your money on the bigger sensor.

In this image comparison, we're going to take a look at overall image quality, which takes into account color, contrast, details and dynamic range. We're also going to consider performance. How long does it take to fire up the device and snap a photo, and how quickly can you snap photos in rapid succession?

Another area we'll consider is low-light performance and how well each of the three devices handles noise.

Because of Nokia's claims, we're going to push each camera as far as they will go, even if one camera has capabilities that another doesn't (e.g. aperture controls and high ISO settings). This isn't going to be the sort of comparison where we try to get each camera's settings as close to each other as possible, then pixel-peep the photos. There will be a little bit of that, but for the most part we're going to push these cameras to see whether any can be considered a replacement for the other, or if they're truly in separate classes.

Lumia 1020 vs. iPhone 5

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Up top is the Lumia 1020. Everyone loves taking flower photos in broad daylight for some reason, so we'll get it kicked off with that. Below is the iPhone 5.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Immediately, we can see that the Nokia Lumia 1020 looks slightly more favorable since it does a better job in this case of isolating the subject. That's because it offers slightly shallower depth of field, so the flowers behind the main flower are a little more blurry. With the iPhone photo, everything is a little more in focus, so the image looks more muddled.

The iPhone's color saturation and white balance might be too rich and warm compared to the Lumia 1020. So we're giving this one to the Lumia 1020.

At 900 pixels wide, which is how big these images are when you click on them, details appear similar, though the iPhone 5 seems a bit sharper.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The blurry image above is the Lumia's sad attempt at taking a macro shot. Whether you have it set to autofocus or manual focus, it just isn't meant to shoot closer than six or seven inches away from its subject. The photo below, however, is the iPhone's attempt at taking the same macro shot. It does much better than the Lumia here.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The next two photos are low-light shots taken at my desk.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The iPhone 5 is the first image, and it surprisingly did better in terms of exposure. However, it's obvious that the Lumia 1020 does better with focus and overall clarity--it has less noise than the iPhone image. Colors are accurate for both photos, but we're giving the edge to the Lumia here for its sharpness, focus and for being a little cleaner when it comes to noise.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The top ocean scene is shot by the Lumia 1020, and the one right below it is by the iPhone 5. Colors aren't that great for either photo, but the iPhone does a little better with exposure. You can see more detail in the shadows.

However, the Lumia's overall image quality and sharpness seems a little better, and it captured the sky color a bit better than the iPhone 5. Perhaps that's because the Lumia underexposed the photo just a little.

In this case, it's really hard to pick either one as a clear winner because it's a matter of preference. We like the Lumia 1020's photo overall because of its sharpness and clarity, and we really don't mind the underexposed trees and buildings.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The two photos above are with mixed lighting: tungsten indoors, with the door open and letting daylight into the room. As you can see, it's really a toss up, but the top photo is the Lumia 1020 and its colors are a little more rich than the iPhone 5. So we'll give the Nokia points for that.

iPhone vs. Lumia 1020 conclusion

No surprises here, really. The Nokia Lumia 1020 camera is better than the iPhone 5's camera. Though the iPhone 5 has bigger pixel sites than the 1020, 1.4 microns vs. 1.12 microns, it seems that the Nokia's bigger sensor and overwhelming number of pixels makes for better image quality.

We already know that you can "zoom" or at least crop in on the Lumia's images without much loss of quality. Its advantage over the iPhone 5, aside from general image quality, is the fact that you have so much room to play with when it comes to cropping.

However, it's not all in favor of the Lumia 1020. Before we forget, it's still on the Windows Phone 8 platform, which means it doesn't have nearly as many apps as the iPhone 5 for photo editing and sharing.

With the iPhone 5, you get Instagram, Vine, Snapseed, Camera+, Pro Camera and thousands of other image editing apps.

The iPhone's camera can also shoot faster and in rapid succession, whereas the Lumia 1020's camera is sluggish and slow to process images.

If you're looking for the best quality images out of your smartphone, and speed and timing are of no importance (like with landscape photography), then the Lumia 1020 owns the iPhone 5 all day long. But if speed and ease of use matters to you in capturing fleeting moments, the iPhone 5 will run circles around the Nokia.

Lumia 1020 vs. Olympus E-PL5

Now comes the real test. The Nokia Lumia 1020 has been touted as a point-and-shoot killer by some blogs, and even a DSLR replacement by others. Give us a break. The 1020 is definitely easier to carry around and use compared to larger cameras, but it will never compare with a DSLR.

But how does the 41MP PureView camera on the Nokia stack up against a decent compact system camera like the Olympus E-PL5? Let's find out.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

There's that sad Lumia 1020 macro shot again. Not much to say here besides the fact that the Olympus E-PL5 stomps all over Nokia in this category.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The first desk/phone photo was taken by the Olympus E-PL5, and it's pretty clear that the winner here is the Olympus. The image is brighter, cleaner, sharper and has better color accuracy than the Lumia 1020.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Now this flower shot is where things aren't so black and white. The Lumia 1020 did a bit better with color and saturation here, and it seems a bit sharper than the Olympus, too. We think we're going to give this one to the Lumia 1020.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

In this ocean scene again, we can see that the Olympus has better dynamic range in the top image. The Lumia tends to underexpose, and as a result you lose some shadow details. The clear winner here is the Olympus because you have that much more flexibility if you want to edit the image.

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

Nokia Lumia camera sample comparison

The first image is from the Olympus E-PL5, and the second one is the Nokia. Because the Olympus does a better job of balancing the two sources of light, colors look a little better, too. The Lumia has better contrast, but overall we have to give this one to the E-PL5 for better balance, color and dynamic range.

Lumia 1020 vs. Olympus E-PL5 conclusion

So, it's obvious that the Nokia Lumia 1020 isn't going to be replacing a modern compact system camera. Megapixel counts generally don't mean much when it comes to sensor size and image processing. The bigger sensor and better image processor usually wins.

The Olympus, being a Micro Four-Thirds camera, also has interchangeable lenses and better controls and options. It has more in common with a DSLR than the Lumia phone, so there really is no sense in comparing the two.

If you want a compact camera for more serious still photography, don't count on the Lumia 1020 to handle that job for you. A nice compact system camera like the Sony NEX-6 or Olympus E-PL5 will do a better job, at a cost.

But if you just want the best images you can possibly get out of a smartphone, the Lumia 1020 is still the king of phone cameras.


The Nokia Lumia 1020 has shown us what the current limits of smartphone photography are. It has the best smartphone camera you can buy today, and it's a nice bridge between smartphones and compact system cameras. However, it isn't going to replace your dedicated camera system.

Below is a 100% crop of a flower taken by the Olympus E-PL5, Nokia Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5, respectively. As you can see, the Olympus didn't quite nail the focus on flower's stigma like the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5 did. However, you can see that even with its lower pixel count, it reveals more detail than either of the smartphones. Just take a look at the fine, white hairs behind the star-shaped stigma.

Nokia Lumia 1020 review comparison photos

The Lumia 1020, which did nail the focus perfectly, looks pretty incredible. We never would have imagined this kind of quality and resolution from a smartphone five or six years ago. In fact, it would've been hard to imagine this kind of performance from a phone camera just three years ago.

The iPhone 5 turns out to be a great all-around camera for snapshots and taken fun photos for filters and edits. It also does pretty well for prints up to a certain size. But if we are going to continue pixel peeping photos for their technical quality rather than their beauty and content, the Lumia is the better phone camera.

In the end, it turns out there is really no comparing the three cameras. The Olympus offers so much more flexibility and control, and its picture quality and performance is arguably better than either of the smartphone cameras.

The Lumia 1020 has its triumphs over the iPhone 5, but at the sacrifice of speed and performance, as well as operating system. After all, when you buy a phone, you're not just buying the camera, but the entire device and software as a package.

Whatever you take away from this comparison, we hope that we can shift focus away from all the technical stuff at the end of the day, and enjoy taking nice, meaningful pictures instead.

Nokia Nokia Lumia 1020 Lumia 1020 Lumia phone iPhone 5 Olympus E-PL5 photography smartphone
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