Nokia Lumia 1020 Camera – Sensor and Lens Explained

September 4, 2013

Nokia Lumia 1020 cameraIn this article we’ll take a look deeper into the Nokia Lumia 1020 camera features and see what makes its PureView camera so special. To Nokia 808 PureView Symbian OS based smartphone was able to beat any other mobile phone camera on the market when it comes to image quality, image noise and low-light performance.  The reason for that was obviously due to its 1/1.2″ 10.67×8.00 mm size sensor.  The Nokia Lumia 1020 features a slightly smaller sensor (1/1.5″ 8.80 x 6.60 mm), but still a relatively large sensor in mobile phone camera terms and a wide range of complimentary technologies that helps the Lumia 1020 to prevail when it comes to image quality.

The Sensor & PureView Technology

The first most important aspects of any digital camera is its sensor size. It’s all starts from there. In matter effect, what matters most is actually the pixel size, as bigger pixels can store more light photons. You look at it as the amount of data that is stored per pixel site — which will eventually represent an RGB value for the final image. However, the pixel size is not the only thing that counts though.

The Lumia 1020 uses some great technologies. The first one is choosing to go with a Back-illuminated sensor technology. In this BSI sensor technology, the the wires that transfers the data from the pixel out to the A/D converter are behind the light sensitive area, rather than at the front in front-illuminated sensors. This means that there is more room for the light to pass through. This lead to an improved light gathering performance that lead to a better high ISO performance and better image quality overall, including much less image noise. The 808 PureView uses a Front-illuminated sensor, rather than BSI.

As I’ve mentioned, the Lumia 1020 features a 1/1.5″ (8.80 x 6.60 mm) size sensor.  Each sensor is 1.12 microns in size and  the sensor has 41 megapixel resolution, with 7728×5368 pixels. Furthermore, the Lumia 1020 can utilize part of the sensor for taking images in either 16:9 aspect ratio (34MP) or at 4:3 (38MP) aspect ratio.  It’s worth mentioning that the total sensor pixels are different from the effective ones (34MP/38MP), this because only part of the sensor area / pixels is used for a specific image in a certain aspect ratio. So if you shoot an image with 16:9 aspect ratio, you will be using less of the vertical pixels compare to 4:3 aspect ratio.

A 1/1.5″ is relatively very large sensor.  If we compare it to some other popular smartphone cameras, you can see why the Lumia 1020 sensor is so unique.

Apple iPhone 5 sensor: 1/3.2″ | 4.54 x 3.42 mm | 3264×2448 pixels
Samsung Galaxy S4: 1/3.06″ | 4.69 x 3.53 mm | 4128×3096 pixels
HTC One sensor: 1/3″ | 4.80 x 3.60 mm | 2688×1520 pixels
Nokia Lumia 920: 1/3″ | 4.80 x 3.60 mm | 3553×2448 pixels
Nokia Lumia 1020: 1/1.5″ | 8.80 x 6.60 mm | 7728×5368 pixels

The difference is obvious, the Lumia 1020 sensor is almost twice larger than the Apple iPhone 5, and much larger than the other popular smartphones on the market, including the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One. A few words about the HTC One. The Lumia 1020 features a 1.12 micron size pixels. The 808 PureView has 1.4 micron pixels and the HTC One has a whopping 2.0 micron pixels.

The HTC One obviously enjoys much larger pixels, but that comes at the expensive of a lower resolution. The HTC One features a much smaller sensor than the Lumia 1020. The only way to use large pixels was to reduce the amount of pixels — and in fact, the HTC One features a 4MP rear-facing camera.  HTC took a different approach than Nokia — instead of using a large sensor, it reduced the image resolution and used large pixels on the sensor. This helps the HTC One to perform great in low-light, but you get much less details in good light compare to other phone cameras on the market.

For sharing images on social media website like Facebook or Twitter, 4MP is way than enough, even for making small prints. However, it gives you less freedom when editing your photos (e.g. cropping) using photo editing software or using your phone’s built-in image editing apps. If you love taking photos and thinking of buying the HTC One for its great camera, don’t forget to take this little but important detail into account.

As I mentioned, the Lumia 1020 has 1.12 micron pixels. You might think that this might lead to a worse low-light performance than the HTC One. However, Nokia uses another technology that helps the Lumia 1020 prevail in certain areas: image details, low-light performance and optical zoom. I will talk about the lens in the next section, but now let me explain about what technologies makes the Lumia 1020 so unique among other cameras.

When you take a photo with a full 38MP/34MP resolution, the camera will utilize all the effective pixels on the sensor. This will lead to the best detailed image, as the camera utilizes more pixels for the final image. You get amazing amount of detail, but this still makes the camera to have less impressive low light performance compare to other cameras due to its relatively small pixels. This resolution is great when shooting in bright daylight, and you can expect amazing image quality when the camera is set to shoot at low ISO.

Pixel Oversampling

When its start getting dark outside, using the full camera resolution isn’t the best choice. Nokia combats this restriction using Pixel Oversampling Technology.  This technology allows the camera to utilize only part of the sensor pixels for the final image.  The Nokia Lumia 1020 camera can also snap a 5 megapixel image — but instead of utilizing only part of the sensor’s pixel, the Pixel Oversampling technology allows the camera to group seven individual pixels that will represent a single pixel in the final image. This way the camera can take full advantage of its sensor size, but again, with the expense of reduced image resolution.

you might ask yourself, if so, what’s the difference between the 1020 camera and the HTC One camera? — The difference is that the 1020 has a much larger sensor area, and by utilizing 7 adjacent pixels to represent a single data pixel, this actually makes the 1020 camera have much larger light data gathering capability area for each data pixel. The result is second to none. The 1020 camera therefore outperform any other camera on the market with that same 5MP resolution, allowing much better low-light performance.

The Lumia 1020 camera can capture 38MP/34MP plus a 5MP image simultaneously.  This means that you don’t need to break your head thinking which one to use for a given time, when you snap an image, you get both resolutions. This way you can use the lower-resolution image for online sharing on Facebook for example, and the higher-resolution for image editing or large prints. The lower resolution image will be the preferred method to go with when shooting in low-light obviously and the result are nothing but astonishing. At the end of the day, you get a 5MP image with less noise, better dynamic range and sharpness.

High Resolution Zoom

In addition to all that, the Nokia Lumia 1020 uses what is called “High Resolution Zoom”.  The Lumia 1020 rear-facing camera lens doesn’t have an optical zoom, it’ has a fixed focal length like many other phone cameras. As many of you already know, Digital zoom doesn’t work like optical zoom. Its a destructive zoom method that reduced the image quality. What digital zoom does is crop the image at its center and enlarge it to be the same of the original resolution. This of course leads to a great degradation in image quality, depends on the amount of digital zoom used.

Using the “High Resolution Zoom”, Nokia used the pixel oversampling technique to address this issue.  The 1020 is capable of lossless zoom. “Lossless” means that you can zoom in without reducing the image quality. Other phones use upscaling to give the user a zoom, the 1020 doesn’t need to upscale the image, it just utilizes different area of the sensor.

For example, when you shoot an image with the highest resolution, you take advantage of all the effective pixels of the sensor for that image resolution.  If you shoot a 4:3 full resolution image, the camera will use 7136 x 4252 pixels. When you shoot at 16:9 aspect ration in full resolution, the camera will use 7712 x 4352 pixels on the sensor.

Now, when you zoom in, the camera will use only use a partial area of the sensor, and a smaller one as you use a higher zoom factor. Of course the further you zoom in, the less pixels will be used for the oversampling because less area of the sensor is being utilizing for a given image output.  So yes, the Lumia 1020 actually uses a crop from the sensor area to achieve its lossless zoom.

You can get up to 3x lossless zoom (5MP) for stills and up to 6x lossless zoom for video recording (4x on 1080p and 6x for 720p). This method has several advantages:

  • No drop in the aperture size compare to conventional optical zoom lenses that have variable aperture across the zoom range
  • You enjoy the same macro distance across the zoom range
  • No mechanical moving parts, so it’s silent and fast

When you take a full resolution image, the camera captures two images, one oversampled 5MP image and a second full-resolution image.  Nokia uses the high-resolution image to allow people to zoom out even after they’ve taken a zoom-in image.  This allows what Nokia is referring to as “after capture reframing”. The great thing about that dual-capture is that even when you took the image with a lossless zoom, you can still zoom back out and reframe your image!

It’s worth mentioning that you can zoom in up to 25x lossless zoom in post-capture phase or up to 31x for 4:3 images.

By using a larger sensor and utilizing the oversampling technology, Nokia provided lossless zoom, graet low light performance as well as pose-capture image processing with great versatility.

Before we move on to talk about the lens, let’s take a look at a Nokia Lumia 1020 zoom test video shot in 720p HD. It shows you the lossless zooming feature in videos.

As you can see, when you zoom in, there isn’t any loss of image quality.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 Lens

The sensor and its complementary oversampling technology makes a big difference when it comes to image quality — however, the camera lens is not less important. A good synergy between the two should yield the optimal performance.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 utilizes a  f/2.2 Zeiss lens with 3-axis optical image stabilization. When you shoot at 16:9 aspect ratio, you shoot at 25 mm equivalent focal length, and 27 mm equivalent when you shoot at 4:3 aspect ratio. The reason there is a difference between the focal lengths in those two aspect ratio, is because different sensor area is used, representing a different field of view, slightly different though. The 808 PureView uses a f/2.4 aperture lens.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 rear-facing camera is built with 6 lenses, five of them made of molded high performance plastic and on glass (the rear).

There are a few things to note here. First of all, Nokia 1020 features Carl Zeiss Tessar optics. For those of you who don’t know that brand name, Carl Zeiss is a World Leader when it comes to optics, and it’s well known for its high-quality professional lenses used by professional photographers worldwide. This means that the assembly and quality of the optics are second-to-none.  This means that you get less distortions, less lens aberrations and less loss of light when it passes through the lens to the sensor.

Second, Lumia 1020 has a very fast f/2.2 lens. This is the maximum aperture of the lens. the larger the f-number, the larger the size of the hole in which light passes through. This allows the 1020 to gathered a large amount of light and improve its low-light performance. Because more light can pass through the lens, there is less nee to bump up the ISO, which can then lead to more image noise.

Third, the Nokia Lumia 1020 camera uses an optical image stabilization technology with floating lens technology, OIS for short. This mechanism works inside the camera to compensate for camera movement. When you hold the phone in your hand, your hands shakes a bit which lead to image blur. You can of course shoot at higher shutter speeds, but with higher shutter speeds you get less light. The Rule of thumb for shutter speed is that you should shoot with at least 1 divided by the focal length which you are using to capture the image. So if you shoot at 25mm, you should be shooting with a shutter speed of 1/25 sec to minimize the occurrence of getting a blurred image.

You can use slower shutter speed to allow more light, but the problem is that the longer you shutter speed is opened, the higher the chance you get a blurred image for a given focal length/shutter speed combination. This is where an optical image stabilization helps. The optical image stabilization moves the lens elements to compensate for the camera movement.  This allows the camera to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get a sharp image.

Lumia 1020 Xenon Flash demo

Lumia 1020 Xenon Flash demonstration vs Samsung Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5

The combination of a large sensor, oversampling technology, faster aperture lens, optical image stabilization and smart image processing — all lead to an excellent low-light performance for both stills and videos.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 camera can shoot up to ISO 3200, with shutter speeds ranging from 4 seconds to 1/16,000 sec.  The camera gives you full control over the exposure, including the option to change the shutter speed and ISO.  Having an optical image stabilization, allows you to to capture an image with longer exposure and still use a lower ISO for better noise performance.

The Lumia 1020 is backed with both LED light for illuminating subject when shooting videos and a strong next-gen Xenon Flash. This new Xenon flash uses a flat capacitor, which makes it smaller and consumes less power.


The Nokia Lumia 1020 rear-facing camera features some great technologies which makes it a unique offering in this competitive market. If you are an enthusiast photographer and tired of carrying both a phone and a conventional compact digital camera, the Lumia 1020 is the phone for you. There are other aspects that you should examine before buying a smartphone, but when it comes to camera performance, nothing on the market right now beats the Lumia 1020.

The combination of fast aperture lens, the oversampling technology, large sensor size , optical image stabilization and full manual control over the exposure — all give enthusiast photographers the tool they need to capture gorgeous images. Due to the sensor size, you get even shallower depth of field (background blur).  The 1020 is certainly the ultimate phone camera for low-light shooting for both stills and videos.

All is left is to see what Nokia comes up next. Nokia always strove to improve its technologies and it is known for its innovation. If you are searching for a phone with great camera features and high image quality, you should put the Lumia 1020 at the top of your list.


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  • mark walch

    Can a Nokia 1020. Take photograph in black and white. Or have Nokia produce a lenses that can produce great black and white. Please any body who knows. Let me know. With theses many millions of pixies of 41 million. Surely the Nokia 1020. Would do amazing black and white photography. Thank you.