Review by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday October 02, 2013.
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The Apple iPhone 5S has an advantage over the Nokia Lumia 1020 when it comes to app choices and overall experience, but the differences are less stark when it comes to the camera. The Lumia 1020 touts a 41-megapixel camera built with the primary purpose of taking fantastic photos, and it has been the best smartphone camera available since its release in June. Is the iPhone 5S a better camera than the Lumia 1020? Over the weekend, I charged up the Apple iPhone 5S and Nokia Lumia 1020 to see which takes better photos and has superior software.
The Lumia 1020 captures a wider area and takes very large photos that contain a high level of detail even at full zoom. The large photos taken make it possible to snap a photo, zoom in on a specific area, and still have a very good photo. Sadly, the Pro Camera app used to take those photos is comparatively slow. The iPhone 5S has an 8-megapixel camera that's stunningly fast and can snap dozens of photos in a few seconds. In the time it takes to snap two photos on the Nokia Lumia Pro Camera app, someone can take several photos with the iPhone 5S. Nokia has a standard Camera app that is faster but removes the 1020's powerhouse photo features.
I took dozens of photos with the Lumia 1020 Pro Camera and iPhone 5S over the weekend, and many of them can be seen below. The majority of photos were taken with default settings and no adjustments unless otherwise noted. Click the photos to see larger versions of each image.
iPhone 5s, Lumia 1020, Lumia 1020 The iPhone 5S does a good job when close to the subject, something that the Lumia 1020 Pro Camera app never gets right. The middle photo is out of focus and the only way to get a decent photo is to back away further than anticipated and then zooming in when editing.
iPhone 5s, Lumia 1020, Lumia 1020 The Lumia 1020 does a poor job of recognizing fluorescent lights in the middle photo, so the photo on the right is a better photo. The iPhone 5S got it right on its first try but made the orange flowers a tiny bit darker than I would have preferred. Similar issues with white balance are displayed in the photo below.
iPhone 5S on the left, Lumia 1020 on the right The iPhone has dual-tone flash and the Lumia 1020 has Xenon flash that is more powerful. In this example, it's a little too powerful and floods the car hood, but it's typically a good thing.
What's the best smartphone camera? "Best" depends on what the user values most. While the Nokia Lumia 1020 is the more advanced and more powerful camera, the Apple iPhone 5S is the more elegant and reliable shooter. The iPhone 5S takes lightning quick photos in succession and will make the right call on exposure and white balance settings 9 of 10 times. For most people, that automatically makes it the winner. Smartphones are supposed to simplify our lives, and there's nothing simpler than pointing, pressing, and capturing a moment with the iPhone 5S and still getting good results. However, I said 9 of 10. In the event that the 1 of 10 doesn't pull through, the iPhone 5S becomes a limitation rather than a pleasantly simple interface. As annoying as it is to see the Nokia Lumia 1020 not get the settings right on its first try, at least its camera can be tweaked to fix the problem and take a great shot.
Choosing between the Apple iPhone 5S and Nokia Lumia 1020 is about perspective. Someone who takes plenty of photos while obsessing over the details might be happier with the Lumia 1020. Nokia's phone will allow him or her to be confident that the perfect shot is always possible. People who use the camera to quickly document the surrounding world and the interesting events and people in it will be happier with the iPhone 5S. Apple's camera is my personal favorite to use because it requires the least effort and still does a great job. Unless you wish to fine-tune every single photo taken, it will be your favorite as well.
Andrew is MobileBurn.com's managing editor. He is based in Miami, Florida.