First Look: Lumia Camera + Lumia Denim

Posted on January 31, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 0 Comments

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If you’re lucky enough to own one of a select few, mostly high-end Lumia smart phones, and are further lucky enough to have been updated to the very latest system update—Windows Phone 8.1.1 plus the Lumia Denim firmware—then you are in for a treat in the form of a new version of the Lumia Camera app which dramatically improves the quality of the pictures you take and the speed of the camera. Yep, it’s the fabled win-win.

Now, as I wrote in Preview: Lumia Camera + Lumia Denim, the bar is pretty high here. But if you do have a Lumia 1520, Lumia 930 or Lumia 830, or, starting in February we’re told, a Lumia Icon, then you may be in luck. Or may soon be in luck. Or something.

As you may know, I recently purchased a Lumia 930, and I love it. This device was never released in the United States—though the Lumia Icon is just about identical—and it is the most recently released Lumia flagship. Knowing that we’re not going to see a new Lumia flagship until the release of Windows 10 in Septemberish, I pulled the trigger on this $400 purchase—again, you can buy the Lumia 930 in a variety of colors for about the same price right now—and haven’t regretted it for a second. Yes, it lacks Glance and LTE speeds (in the US). But it’s unlocked, the performance is amazing, and the camera is stellar.

And it get even better with Windows Phone 8.1.1 plus Denim. Oh my, does it get even better.

To test this, I asked Microsoft for a loaner Lumia 930 with Denim preinstalled. It arrived this past week, and will let me perform side-by-side tests of the Lumia Camera app (Denim) and Nokia Camera app (the stock 930 with Cyan), of camera performance in general, and of how or whether new Camera features like Moment Capture and Rich Capture improve the experience overall.

(Irony alert: The day the loaner unit arrived, Windows Phone 8.1.1 and Denim were offered to my own Lumia 930, which is from Thailand. I will decline this upgrade so I can continue the side-by-side tests.)

Testing smart phone cameras can be problematic. Ideally, I treat such tests as I do with laptops and other portable devices, using them in the real world. This is of course difficult, and while I will also perform a few side-by-side tests around and outside the house, I do want to see how things go out in the world.

So last night was the first time to do so. It was my wife’s birthday and we took the kids into Boston for dinner out and some ice skating at Frog Pond in the Boston Common. Juggling two phones like an idiot, I tried to take several side-by-side shots to see how it went.

The first observation is that this new Denim version of the Lumia Camera app is quite different from its predecessors, and is arguably the biggest change to the app since it debuted as Nokia Pro Camera with the Lumia 1020 in mid-2013. Consider the basic user interface of the Nokia Camera app from the stock 930. Here, you see that the shooting mode is Auto and there are camera roll and previous photo buttons on the left and camera/shutter, video, and smart sequence buttons on the right. Settings and other options are accessed by tapping the hard-to-find More (“…”) app bar button.

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And when you tap the Auto control in the top middle, you get the Pro controls (hence the old Nokia Camera Pro app name), offering granular control over flash, white balance, focus, ISO, shutter speed, and brightness (in Camera mode; what you see here varies by the shooting mode).

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In Denim, the Lumia Camera app has changed to offer a revised UI with new features. In Auto mode, there is only a single (and more logical) camera roll button on the left, and Camera and Video buttons on the right, plus a more discoverable Settings button.

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As with the Cyan/Nokia Camera app, you can tap the Auto control to display the same Pro controls as before. But both the Auto and Pro toolbars have two additional choices: a camera toggle button, so you can more easily move between front and rear cameras (this was hidden under More (“…”) app bar button before as well), and a Rich Capture button (see below).

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(In both versions of the app, you can also engage Pro mode by swiping out on the Camera button.)

Lumia Camera’s handling of Settings is much nicer than with Nokia Camera. Everything, including Lenses, is available right up front in a nice pivot UI, whereas the previous version forced you to move back and forth between app bar menu items. Much better.

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If you’re familiar with previous versions of the Nokia Camera (or Lumia Camera Classic) apps, moving forward to Lumia Camera in Denim should be pretty seamless. But there is the matter of those two major new features, the promised performance improvements, and of course picture quality.

With regards to Moment Capture and Rich Capture, these features are exposed in the Lumia Camera app in interesting ways.

Moment Capture is a special 4K video recording mode that lets you pull out individual frames of the video as 8 megapixel still images. (On the Lumia 830, the quality is lower: Full HD for the video and 2 megapixels for the stills.) You engage this feature by long-pressing the hardware Camera button.

To grab a still frame, you navigate to the video in your camera roll: when you select such a video, a Select Moment button brings you to a handy UI for choosing the best frame—and yes, you can flip from frame to frame–to save as one or more stills or create an action shot. Very nice.

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Rich Capture, meanwhile, is toggled from the Lumia Camera app’s toolbar. It’s the button that looks like a little wand.

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You can think of Rich Capture as Auto mode on steroids. When enabled, Rich Capture will analyze the scene each time you take a shot and then take multiple images—as per HDR on other smart phone cameras, but also optionally with Dynamic Flash and Dynamic Exposure—and merge them into one superior photo.

What’s “rich” about Rich Capture is that the results can be edited after the fact. To do so, view such an image in the camera roll and then tap the Edit Rich Capture button. In the resulting screen, you can choose between different pre-set HDR levels or a separate customize screen that lets you select the HDR level on a slider.

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To take full advantage of Rich Capture, you need to leave the flash on (or on auto). As any Lumia user will tell you, I’ve learned to leave the flash off, so this required a bit of a gut check. The results are interesting, because with the flash on, Rich Capture will alternate between flash and no flash—or between exposure levels, depending on the scene—while taking those multiple photos. And when you go to Edit Rich Capture, you will now see flash and no flash options as appropriate.

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As you may imagine, Rich Capture requires a bit of post-snap processing. This doesn’t appear to impact the performance of the camera much, but it means you might wait a second or two before you can view that image (technically images) in the camera roll.

Moving up to the 930 from the Lumia 735 and 830, I noticed an immediate and appreciated performance jump, not just generally but in the camera specifically. Lumia Denim is supposed to further improve camera performance across the board, which is always appreciated.

In my experience, there are three performance areas that matter most when it comes to any Lumia and the camera: app startup performance, picture-taking performance, and the speed with which you can access the camera roll. All three of these things are very slow on the Lumia 735 and 830, and for the most part they’ve been quite fast on the stock 930 (if not iPhone 6 speed). So how does Denim improve things?

Oh, it’s better. In some cases, much better.

With Nokia Camera and the stock 930, I press the hardware Camera button and count off almost two seconds until I can actually see the scene and the app’s UI. With the Lumia Camera app it’s possibly half a second faster (or “closer to me counting 1 than 2,” if that makes sense.) Subtle.

Picture-taking performance is the most important of these things, I think, and here we see the biggest improvement: With Nokia Camera/stock 930, after focusing on an object, I tap the on-screen camera button and count off to the three seconds until I can take the next shot. During these three seconds, the app focuses, takes the shot, writes the photo to disk, and then finally re-displays the app UI so I can continue. With Lumia Camera/Denim, after focusing on an object, it’s less than one second. This is a remarkable improvement. You can just click, click, click away. Very nice.

(And it’s all the more remarkable when you can consider that this performance is achieved with Rich Capture and flash enabled. Dear God!)

And then there’s accessing the camera roll from the Camera app. Though this was a problem on those lesser Lumias, the stock 930 handles this task immediately and so does the Denim version.

Finally, there is picture quality to consider. It is reasonable to assume that Lumia Camera will not degrade the legendary picture quality of the Lumia 930 and other similarly-equipped Lumias (Icon, 1520). And while I’ll need more time and more test shots to prove that, my initial tests indicate that picture quality in normal Auto mode is identical. But of course, the Denim version of the Lumia Camera app can achieve even more impressive results with Rich Capture, which I will now leave enabled.

I’ll test it more. But my initial impression is quite positive, and consider the implications of Microsoft taking what is already the best smart phone camera in the market today and improving it with better photos (!) and better performance. Are you kidding me?

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