Did Nokia fix the AT&T Lumia 900’s camera? We think they have.

Can it be improved? Yes it can.

If you’re a regular reader (and listener) of this site you know by now that myself and fellow camera-enthusiast George Ponder have been…harsh…on the AT&T Nokia Lumia 900’s camera.  We rated it as one of the worst we’ve used in quite some time (though not as bad as Dell’s) and it often prevents us from using the phone as our daily driver. The Titan II though easily blows us away.

We’ve staked our position that it’s the hardware that is the problem on the 900 and while we still believe that to be the case it does appear Nokia has finally figured out how to best optimize its software. Of course we’re talking about the un-released Tango OS and firmware update which we detailed yesterday.

For the last 24 hours we’ve been pouring over the camera, snapping pictures in different environments and we have come to this conclusion: this update dramatically fixes the Lumia 900’s camera…

We won’t spend too much time going into the details of what is different as we’ll let our photos and full-crops speak for themselves. But this is what we noticed as the main difference: improved ISO performance.

ISO deals with film speed and exposure and it has a direct impact on image-quality. To keep it short, the higher the ISO the faster the camera can take the picture. The lower the ISO, the slower the exposure. That’s why when doing sports, people used to buy “800” film and for studio shots they would shoot at “200”.

The tradeoff though is this: the higher the ISO, the more image noise (“speckles”) you get. The lower the ISO, the cleaner the image. Cameras today will adjust ISO automatically by metering the scene (measuring the ambient light) but you can also manually override it too. The reason we do this is because the camera doesn’t know if you’re shooting still-life e.g. a flower or a dog running.

Back to the Lumia 900. One complaint we previously noticed was that in forcing the ISO to a lower setting like 100 or 200, the resulting picture was simply just too dark and it still looked terrible. That shouldn’t happen. Assuming we were holding the camera still, the camera should have increased the camera exposure, letting in more light and giving us a nice, clean image (so long as nothing was moving).

This issue now seems fixed with this latest update. We were able to shoot at ISO 100 indoors while holding the phone very still and we had much cleaner, well exposed photos.

In fact, forgetting the manual ISO business for a minute, image noise overall is down significantly on our photos. Sure, when leaving it on Auto and shooting in low-light (no flash) you still get significant noise—that’s a product of the physical sensor—but overall IQ is much better than before.

As we mentioned yesterday, metering itself seems much more accurate, correctly following our tap-to-focus area and adjusting the exposure dynamically to match the scene. Image sharpness also looks to be improved whereas our previous images were much softer.

Finally, other things like white and color balance also seem to be much more accurate, resulting in very neutral looking photos.

We’re not saying the AT&T Lumia 900 with ‘Tango’ and the 12223 firmware now has the best camera but it has significantly improved our resulting images. In fact, we’re not embarrassed anymore to share them with others.

Having said that, we still think the HTC Radar with a 5MP BSI sensor will take a Lumia 900’s 8MP FSI sensor any day of the week which is a shame. Hopefully Nokia will get on the BSI-sensor bandwagon with Windows Phone 8 as they seem to have finally nailed down the software part of mobile cameras.

Current Lumia 900 users can look forward to the Tango and 12223 firmware update in the coming weeks on AT&T.

Related: Read our how-to guide on taking better photos with your Windows Phone

Images for this artile were taken with the AT&T Nokia Lumia 900 with unreleased but finalized Tango OS and 12223 firmware. Image ISO was on Auto, contrast was set to ‘High’ and the flash was never used. Crops are provided for image noise and IQ analysis.

Skydrive links for original images:

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • :)
  • Yay! On another note, is there still a significant difference between using the camera button and tap to shoot?
  • Tap to shoot has two advantages: Selective focus (it focuses where you tap it instead of just "center") You're more likely to get a still shot as you are not physically moving the camera (potentially)
  • I agree but the difference seemed to be really significant in white balance and sometimes tap to shoot doesnt focus properly, for me at least.
    Anyway, any improvement is welcome so now I will upgrade to the update when its rolled out rather than skip it like I intended.
  • The "problem" with tap to shoot is the same thing that most use as an advantage... selective focus. If you tap to shoot on just any random spot on the screen, it's likely to focus on an object you really don't want and blur the rest. You just have to know that in advance and make sure you tap on an object in the image you want clarity on (and ideally in the foreground of the image).
  • Good point.
  • Microsoft really missed the boat with it's camera in WP7. It had all the best ideas and half-baked software that let OEMs rush camare software and settings that were ho-hum. Remember wp7.0 couldn't even save camera "settings". Shocking considering how much they played up photos in the WP7 hype.
    Microsoft would be smart to bolster significantly it's "in phone" camera settings, ISO, AF, plus add crop, digital horizon/level, brighten/contrast right in the phone (no apps needed) and also noise-reduction features (before the files is even saved it should be cleaned ala Nikon Raw files).
    That said you guys are little harsh on the 900 camera. Plus att has many phones wiht great cameras (focus, titan1-2, etc.). OTOH Verizon has the Trophy. Ugh.
  • We are harsh but only because the older HTC Radar with a 5MP camera should not blow away the Lumia 900 with it's...drum roll...Carl Zeiss optics.  It really was a sub-par camera compared to its competition. It's out of love though for Nokia that we criticize..we just want the best and know they can do it ;-)
  • My Gen 1 focus was better than my L900
  • ^^This!
  • I hope they fixed the color as well. Images from my 900 have the pink spot issue.
  • Same here, on both my Lumia 800 and 900 there is a terrible pink tint in the center of the photos. I hope they fixed it.
  • From my experience its been fixed. Flashed it last night, and used a white paper bag to verify, no more giant pink blob.
  • Sweet, I'll have to flash mine today!
  • Can't wait to get a pure view lumia WP8 device. Now, its got to take great pics! I hope.
  • In the coming weeks? You have to be kidding me. What the hell is at&t doing?
  • That's just a guess on our part. Could be tomorrow for all we know, we just can't say that or "expect this software update...whenever!"
  • What about other Gen 1 devices, I have two in my control and a 900. When will AT&T allow me to get the update from MS? Any news? Waiting for 7.8?
  • I'm sure ATT is working feverishly through the weekend to get this to their valued customers as soon as possible! Pffffffft......
  • Sure it is!!! :-) I have this phone on AT&T's 4G LTE network and at least THAT'S fast. I actually like it. I've never had a problem with the NL900 camera, though come to think of it the pinkish tint in the middle is getting more obvious. Nice to know a company sees a problem, then fixes (vs. ignores) it.
  • Perhaps compare same shots from an updated phone vs a non-updated phone. 
    See if there is clearly a difference or not. 
  • +1
  • +1
  • Microsoft broke everything else...
  • Yea right
  • What a drastic improvement wow. Not stunning but alot better. Your right I won't be embarrassed to use them now
  • The smartphone beta test is over?
  • ^
    This. And Nokia's ad about the "Carl Zeiss Optics". Lol. I still love my NL900 though.
  • Hey, Dan in ur honest opinion what do think are the chances of Nokia unveiling a game changing product at Nokia world?
  • 50/50 I'm leaning towards us not seeing the Pureview in September but later in the year.
  • I have to admit I'd like to see something more exciting than 'the stuff we showed off back in March (February?) is now available on Windows Phone.' Not that I'm in the market until another year and a half...
  • I would wait for CES.
  • Have you compared them to the pictures on a European Lumia 900 with Tango? Because on mine they still look a lot worse than the ones I was taking with my Omnia 7.
  • Thanks Daniel, I just flashed my lumia, will see for myself, but any improvement with the camera is welcoming, because compared to even the original Titan camera, the Lumia sucked
  • what dish is that? looks like Thai?
  • Indian. Aloo Gohbi, I believe.
  • You eat a lot of indian food...I remember a tweet of yours about samba.
  • I'm a bachelor, so I go out to eat often--Indian, Japanese and pizza once a week ;-)  It's New York--we have the best food!
  • In Italy we have fw vers. 2175.2101.8779.12201.
    With the newer fw is macro fixed too..? Anyone tried real shutter speed improvements with turbo camera (daylight) ?
  • Macro is still finicky meaning sometimes it focuses on what I want it to other times not.
  • For me, macro works now. Before it never worked, now it actually does.
  • Same in the UK on an unbranded Lumia. Hoping the update will see the light of day here.
  • I'd like to have this update here in Canada!!
  • Hopefully this will finally shut up the "user error" trolls in the Lumia 900 forums who say the camera is fine as it is.
  • Guessing I'm one of those so called 'trolls' as mine actually does tale decent photos and yes, for a lot of individuals, photos in general on phones and digital cameras turn out poorly due to user error.
  • I'm glad you're satisfied with decent.
  • I've taken great and amazing photos with my NL900. But I know it sucks in low-light. Also, I'm glad we got new firmware to make the NL900 camera better.
  • I'd be curious to see the same scenes taken with an old-firmware phone next to those with the new firmware. However, overall the photos shown do look good and it's encouraging that Nokia has been addressing this issue. :)
  • If you have a 900, take some now, then take the exact same photo and at the exact same time(for lighting consistency) after the update. That's what I will be doing.
  • Does the Lumia 800 uses the same sensor as the Lumia 900?
    or will nokia release an update fixing lumia´s 800 camera?
  • I think so...
  • Actually the ISO is how sensitive the Sensor is, a low ISO like 100 means the sensor doesn't pick up alot of light and is useful for sunny days, an iso like 1600 is very useful for images in the dark because it allows the sensor to pick up alot of light but also creates for noise. Shutterspeed is displayed like this: 1/60 or 2". The first means the picture is "taken" in 1/60th of a second which would be a clearer picture of a fast moving object then the second one which means the sensor has 2 full seconds to take the picture. I'm not a professional photographer but that's just how I learned it!
  • That's kind of it...it's certainly complicated. It has to do with the increase in signal gain. On film, it had to do with grain size...the larger the grain, the faster the film. On digital, it's the signal gain that represents that aspect. But size of the sensor, type of sensor (BSI or FS) and the aperture (F-stop) also all play a roll too. A lens at F/1.4 can shoot at lower ISO than a lens at F/5.6 in the same lighting conditions. It's one of the reasons why the Lumia 900 has a really good FF camera--lower aperture. The general trend though is still the same: the higher the ISO, the faster the camera can shoot in low light with the byproduct of "grainy" photos. All else being equal, you want to shoot at the lowest ISO possible to get the shot as this will result in the cleanest image. If you camera is judging the scene at 800 ISO when it could grab it  at 400 ISO--that's not good. Nokia may have adjusted the curve for the Lumia 900 with this update--hard to say.
  • Ok a little off topic but sometimes when I read articles on Wpcentral I have the feeling that editors (Daniel and them) usually try to not anger fanboys lol. Small example: "We rated it as one of the worst we’ve used in quite some time (though not as bad as Dell’s) and it often prevents us from using the phone as our daily driver. The Titan II though easily blows us away". Here is the stuff that you didn't have to add. 1. though not as bad as Dell’s
    2. The Titan II though easily blows us away It's stuff that just keep fanboys from... Well... Getting all fanboy on you lol. Just an observation lol.
  • lol, actually I do it because saying something is "bad" is relative to whatever else is out there. We can't say the Lumia 900 has a bad camera and leave it at that, you need to put it in perspective (it's better than the Dell but worse than the Titan II). It's just trying to be even-handed and also to give readers a spectrum for reference.
  • I see...
  • The fanboys do enough to anger one another, lol.
  • Maybe its the truth, the titan 2 absolutely smokes the lumia 900 in at least 2 fields. Camera and sound
  • Now off to improving its sound quality
  • I use several programs that use the camera to recognize the barcode. It can take a hundred times to recognize the code using the camera but if you switch over to the search or at&t code scanner it usually identifies it in half a second. Brings up another question as to why the programmers use the camera instead of the at&t or search code?
  • It depends on specific App (or web service) recognition abilities, in your case it is not a camera problem :)
  • OR.... just use Bing vision.
  • Anyone know if the sound quality of video was improved like the 800. In the GSMArena review they had mentioned that the bitrate of audio recorded left much to be desired compared to the updated 800. Also, does this update fix battery issues, specifically those that suffer from a total battery drain?
  • Will Nokia release a similar firmware update for the 800 because the 800 still takes terrible photos indoors after Tango update.
  • There never was anything wrong with the camera. Getting good pictures requires basic knowledge of photography.
  • Yes and this is not how it should be... Getting a good picture should be as easy as pushing the camera button.
  • @lak611 If you have basic knowledge of photography, you wouldn't say that "there never was anything wrong with the camera". Clearly if the camera has improved dramatically there was something wrong. And we have two writers, including myself, who give the Lumia 900 a thumbs down on its camera.
  • Sorry but this is pure fanboy exageration. The L900 camera is not as bad as this site is claiming it to be. Using words like "blown away" and "smoked" and "crushed" is surprising because that is simply not the truth. "Having said that, our impression is this: yes, it is better. Does it still get crushed by the Titan II? Oh of course it does" http://www.wpcentral.com/initial-impressions-official-tango-update-att-n... Totally unnecessary. I also noticed a stealth edit in this article where originally it was stated the Radar "blew away" the L900. Nice.
  • Its pretty bad compared to other Windows phones...
  • Exaggeration is exaggeration. I have a Titan 2 (me), Focus S (wife), L900 (daughter) and I can guarantee that the Titan 2 does not "crush" the L900 camera. In my experience from using all these devices and comparing shots with them is that the L900 does not have great out-of-the-box-settings. I few tweaks and your off to the races. Besides, gadget sites like Engadget praised the L900 camera. Now, I'm not saying the L900 camera is the best. Not at all. But it is far from getting "crushed", just imagine....even after the update.
  • I disagree 100% and nothing you have said has convinced me or George otherwise. Sorry. Tell you what, I'll do a shot-by-shot of the Titan II, Lumia 900 and Radar if you want. I use all those phones on a regular basis. There is just no way a non-BSI sensor is as good. Not only is the Titan II's camera sensor better it has much better software like facial-recognition and smarter auto-selection. The Lumia 900 has to be manually put into Macro mode where the Titan II does it automatically. No competition and I truly think you're just trying to convince yourself.
  • "I disagree 100% and nothing you have said has convinced me or George otherwise. Sorry." That's exactly what I said about you. Admit it, I'm not saying the L900 camera is better. I'm calling you out on your ridiculous exaggerations and you are in denial. "Tell you what, I'll do a shot-by-shot of the Titan II, Lumia 900 and Radar if you want." People have been asking and you've been saying that since the L900 came out. You never did. Put your money where your mouth is. It'll just prove that nothing gets "crushed". Remember, that's my argument, your blatant exaggeration. "There is just no way a non-BSI sensor is as good." By your biased logic, Nokia's Pureview camera is already dead in the water. But read this: http://www.engadget.com/2012/06/26/nokia-808-pureview-review/ " This device instantly obliterates every other cameraphone, while simultaneously giving most dedicated point-and-shoots the proverbial finger. It's that good." Yep, no way a non-BSI sensor is as good. /s
  • Pretzel M&Ms wow!
  • Just noticed the 800 takes photos with a pink hue in the middle when shooting on low light. So hopefully this fix will come to the 800. Actually I'm sending my wifes 800 to Nokia next week to get an issue fixed. I will mention the pink hue in photos and see what they say.
  • My last phone was a Nokia N8. The camera on the Lumia 900 is a huge step down. The update looks impressive, though. Still, I'm waiting on a WP with Pureview.
  • Why would he need to convince himself, he packs a Titan 2. But, he did have a better argument.
  • They may have fixed the camera, but what about the freezing up (requiring a restart), the lag (yes it has it), and the other operational issues? Now, I have been a staunch supporter of windows for a long time, but I must say that my HTC Arrive has by far out done this Lumia 900. I own 2 of them, have had to replace 1 already, and still have multiple problems. Oh well, should probably go back to the Arrive, at least it never let me down.
  • Why are there no before/after pictures? Seems like you just did a subjective judgment call.
    I have two lumia 900, one with tango and one without and just did a comparison of pictures taken of the exact same scene (different conditions to test the range).
    I do NOT see any difference between the pictures