Nokia PureView showdown: Comparing the Lumia 920, 925 and 1020 cameras

There's little debate that Nokia has changed the way we look at our Windows Phone cameras. From the PureView technology to optical image stabilization (OIS) to making Zeiss a household name, Nokia has designed a healthy, quality assortment of cameras for their Lumia Windows Phones.

While the weather wasn't exactly agreeable all the time, we took the Nokia Lumia 1020, 925 and 920 out to see how these three cameras compared. All three are solid contenders to satisfy your smartphone photographic needs but is the Lumia 1020 the clear winner? The answer may surprise you.

Specifications - How they differ, how they are the same

Each camera has optical image stabilization (OIS) to minimize camera motion, allowing longer exposures and less blur. Backside illuminated sensors (BSI) are present as well, which puts the wires behind the hardware allowing better low-light images. Finally, all three have PureView technology (Nokia's secret sauce so to speak) and each utilizes Zeiss optics.

However, the Lumia 925 and 1020 have six lens-elements versus the five in the Lumia 920. The extra lens element allows the 925 and 1020 to capture slightly sharper daylight images and yes, it matters.

Lumia 1020 Sensor

Now for the differences in the lens and sensor sizes...

  • Lumia 920: 8.7 MP 1/3.2" sensor and a f/2.0 26 mm lens.
  • Lumia 925: 8.7 MP 1/3" sensor and a f/2.0 26 mm lens.
  • Lumia 1020: 41 MP 1/1.5" sensor and a f/2.2 26 mm lens.

The Lumia 1020 and 925 have access to Nokia's Pro Cam camera app. The Lumia 920 does too if you are one of the fortunate souls to be able to update your Lumia 920 to the Lumia Amber firmware. Nokia's Pro Cam gives you more control over the camera's settings (shutter speed, focus, ISO, etc.) and it has that cool "zoom later" feature. While we are a fan of Nokia's Pro Cam, the native Windows Phone app performs rather spot on within it's own right.

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, 1020 (left to right)

And with my AT&T Lumia 920 not yet updated (come on AT&T release it already!) to be fair, we used the native camera app for the comparison between these three Windows Phones.  Each image was shot at the 16:9 ratio with the settings on automatic and handheld (thus the slight differences in framing).

Results - Comparing the Lumia 920, 925 and 1020

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925 and 1020 (left to right)

In many respects, I saw little or no difference in the performance of these three Lumia cameras in optimum conditions. However, I feel comfortable in making the following assertions after looking at images taken across a wide variety of lighting conditions.

  • The Nokia Lumia 1020 had the better color saturation, warmer white balance and sharpness.  The Lumia 920 and 925 camera's saturation, white balance and sharpness wasn't terrible or beyond correction through post-processing apps.

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925 and 1020 (left to right)

  • The Nokia Lumia 925 performed better in lower lighting conditions with regards to exposure, but the optical stabilization wasn't as strong as the Lumia 1020's at slower shutter speeds. The Lumia 925 seemed to allow a lot more light to the sensor, but the Lumia 1020's images were a touch sharper.  On a side note, I also found that the native Windows Phone camera app captured better low light images than what Nokia's Pro Cam captured. Why that is, is not clear at the moment.

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, 1020 (left to right)

  • While still a solid performer, the Lumia 920's images were a touch softer and had a cooler white balance (slightly blue overcast) at times. The softness can be attributed to having only 5 lens elements versus the 6 found in the Lumia 925 and 1020 mentioned earlier. I also noticed a few cases where the Lumia 920's images were slightly underexposed.  The photos taken from the bridge were shot under rainy, over cast skies.  The Lumia 1020 and Lumia 925 seemed to handle the lighting conditions a bit better than the Lumia 920.

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, and 1020 (left to right)

  • It is challenging to shoot pictures with any of these cameras while holding an umbrella.  Makes me wish Nokia had a waterproof housing (hint, hint).

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, and 1020 (top to bottom)

Nokia Pro Cam

While the AT&T Lumia 920 lacks the ability to take advantage of Nokia's Pro Cam at this time, we did take a peak at how the Lumia 1020 and 925 handled one of Pro Cam's main features, zoom later.

Nokia Lumia Photo Sample Uncropped

Nokia Lumia "Zoom Later" - Lumia 925 (left) and Lumia 1020 (right)

Obviously with the higher resolution and larger sensor, the Lumia 1020 has more room to work with as far as re-cropping an image. While you can zoom a good bit with the Lumia 925, the further you zoom the more image quality suffers. The Lumia 925's zoom later sample is zoomed to the max, focusing on the yellow paint remover cans.  We zoomed into the same photo using the Lumia 1020, trying to match the crop as closely as possible.  To further match the images, the Lumia 925's image was resized up to that of the Lumia 1020.  When zoomed to the max, the original Lumia 925 image was 231x174 pixels while the 1020's image was 465x348 pixels.

Nokia Lumia 925 Pro Cam Sample Image

Lumia 925 Zoom Later

Nokia Lumia 925 "Zoom Later" Sample

While the Lumia 1020's larger image file has more pixels to manipulate, the zoom later isn't a bust with the Lumia 925. The above image, zoomed far less than the max on the Lumia 925, allows you to zoom in rather nicely on the lettering on the vise.  While you may not have as much room to zoom on the Lumia 925, this Pro Cam feature can come in handy when you need to crop an image to get things just right, whether it's cropping a landscape image just right or keying in on details of an item in the picture.  It will be interesting to see how well it performs once the AT&T Lumia 920's are able to use this app.

If forced to choose just one...

Nokia Lumia 1020

If I was forced to choose just one Lumia Windows Phone solely for it's camera what would I choose?

The Lumia 920 was a ground breaker. The optical stabilization and low light performance brought smiles to many. While it is a fantastic camera, images were a smidgen soft and at times under saturated or had a cooler white balance. All easily corrected through post-processing software such as Nokia's Creative Studio but still, it left room for improvement on an otherwise very nice Windows Phone camera.

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, and 1020 (left to right)

While the Lumia 920 was a ground breaker, the Lumia 1020 is a game changer. It built upon the foundation the Lumia 920 created, took a few pages from the 808 PureView camera, and throws in a few new ingredients for good measure.  Some may not like the camera hump but it's hard to dispute the quality of the images the Lumia 1020 spits out.

The Lumia 925 feels and performs like a finely tuned or refined Lumia 920 camera. Taking all the good from the Lumia 920 and improving on its short comings, the Lumia 925 captures sharper images with a touch more color saturation. Low light performance has improved and it may be the best option if you find yourself constantly in dimly lit rooms in need of taking a photo.  You still have a slight camera hump but it's no where as obvious as what you have with the Lumia 1020.

Of the three, I see the Lumia 1020 as the more capable camera across the board, which is probably not a shocker. The Lumia 925 has a lot going for it, but it's hard to ignore the larger camera sensor and higher resolution found in the 1020. I also think the Lumia 1020's optical stabilization is better tuned.

But what about for the average consumer? The Lumia 925 is easily the best all around Lumia device in terms of pricing, features and even there camera. It excels in nearly every area and it holds its own against the iPhone 5S (more on that tomorrow). While the Lumia 1020 will attract the prosumer market, the Lumia 925 is better suited for the more casual user--it's lighter, cheaper and thinner than the Lumia 1020. It's really an impressive Windows Phone and the best value (so long as you are okay with 16GB of storage).

Are you going to feel short changed with the Lumia 920? Not at all. But I do think the Lumia 925 (and the Lumia 928 for that matter) is a more refined camera than the 920.  Those moving from the Lumia 920 to the 925 will be pleased with the fine tuning Nokia has made with the camera.

When all is said and done, the great thing about these three cameras is that there's really not a bad egg in the bunch. 

Nokia Lumia Photo Samples - Lumia 920, 925, and 1020 (top to bottom)

George Ponder

George is the Reviews Editor at Windows Central, concentrating on Windows 10 PC and Mobile apps. He's been a supporter of the platform since the days of Windows CE and uses his current Windows 10 Mobile phone daily to keep up with life and enjoy a game during down time.