At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Nokia (now owned by HMD Global) has done something it hasn’t done in a long time: It innovated.
In the past, HMD-owned Nokia leaned heavily on nostalgia to drum up interest for revamped versions of classic dumbphones like the 3310 and 8110 4G “bananaphone.” But not this year.
At Mobile World Congress 2019, Nokia unveiled the Nokia 9 PureView, a legitimate flagship Android smartphone with five rear cameras.
Five rear cameras seems like overkill when you consider other phones like the Galaxy S10 and S10+ are just now starting to add a third rear camera.
But old Nokia (before it was sold to Microsoft) was legendary for its over-the-top cameras. It’s in the brand’s DNA to be the camera phone.
Long before the iPhone or Galaxy or Pixel arrived, if you wanted the best camera you looked to Nokia to deliver. Remember the then cutting-edge 5-megapixel camera on the Nokia N95? Or how about the Windows Phone 8-powered Nokia Lumia 1020 and its insane 41-megapixel PureView camera?
So it’s not really absurd HMD’s trying to build on Nokia’s history with a new phone that emphasizes mobile photography.
But what makes the five cameras on the Nokia 9 so special? For one, they don’t work like the cameras on the Galaxy S10 or LG V40 ThinQ.
Instead of the soon-to-be-common wide, telephoto, and ultra-wide camera combination, the Nokia 9’s five-camera array consists of two 12-megapixel color image sensors and three 12-megapixel monochromatic sensors, each with an f/1.8 aperture to collect tons of light.
When you press the shutter button, the Nokia 9 takes shots from all five of these cameras and then combines them into one high-resolution photo.
By stacking the captured information from the two color cameras with the three monochrome cameras, Nokia says the Nokia 9’s able to collect 10x more light than the single color camera sensors in other phones like the iPhone XS and Pixel 3. As a result, Nokia says photos taken with the phone should have even more dynamic range.
But sharper photos isn’t the only upside to having five cameras. The combined camera sensors can also create extra high-resolution depth maps, capturing up to 1,200 layers of depth information, to more realistically mimic depth-of-field.
All of this extra depth is used to create better-looking portrait photos, where the background blur (called bokeh in photography terms) more accurately resembles photos you’d get from a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
An HMD spokesperson told me the Nokia 9 is “maxing out” the “GDepth” capabilities within Google Photos so that users can manipulate the depth during the editing process.
Furthermore, the camera can also shoot in RAW format and spit out DNG files, which range anywhere between 28-30MB, with less noise and more dynamic range compared to processed JPEGs. RAW format photos are way larger than JPEGs, but because there’s so much data to work with, you can really recover a lot of stuff like highlights and shadows during post.
And as if all of these pro-level camera features weren’t already enough, there’s also a native monochrome mode that captures black-and-white photos just like an SLR with black-and-white film would. Additionally, there’s a “Pro Camera UI” mode that includes the ability to shoot timelapses with exposure times of up to 10 seconds.
HMD gave me a brief demo of the Nokia 9 and the cameras (especially the maxed out depth-mapping) were mostly impressive. But the software was far from finished. The camera’s quick to shoot photos, but I noticed some noticeable sluggishness waiting for the software to combine images from the five cameras into a single shot.
That said, the phone was running on pre-production software, so what I saw might not be representative of the consumer release. In fact, HMD tells me they’re still tweaking the software and the final build should be much quicker for image processing. Let’s hope so because five cameras won’t mean much if you’re spending all day waiting for photos to compile.
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