The new Lumia pushes boundaries in low, bright light photography

At a recent Nokia event, where top tech honchos at the Finnish telecom major were busy talking about the physical and technical capabilities of their latest release, a small nondescript box, tucked away in the corner of one of the interview rooms, could easily have been missed.

In a casual conversation, one of the top sales executives told journalists that the little box had a big purpose: convincing the discerning smartphone shopper that Nokia indeed offered the best camera experience. Entire rooms at the launch were dedicated to proving to tech journalists that Nokia’s latest camera offering was no less than an innovation, and that it set a new standard in taking photographs using cellphones.

Inside dark rooms, Nokia’s enthusiastic engineers showed how the camera of the Nokia Lumia 925 functioned best in the dark, in dim light and in bright light.

The little box allows you to experience this, and Nokia’s retail strategy — a company whose retailing in India is hardly aggressive — is to distribute these boxes in outlets across India, and other countries. What it does is allow people to take photographs of pictures with their current phones through a hole in the box and then take the same picture with the Lumia phone.

Nokia’s technicians and executives are confident that the difference will speak for itself. But, why this emphasis on the camera? Obviously, the megapixel figure that was once a selling point for phones is passé.

More than a number

After years of simply adding megapixels to imaging capabilities, consumers and equipment-makers have realised that taking a good photograph is much more than a number.

Nokia itself has abandoned the 41 megapixel idea, offered on its Pureview 808, and settled for a humble 8.7 megapixel with its flagship Lumia series. Others, including HTC, have already stopped chasing pixel stats and are focussing on lens quality, sensors and imaging technicalities.

Today, smartphone cameras give many standalone cameras a run for their money. Culturally too, in recent years, taking pictures, editing and uploading them on the move have become part of our lifestyles.

Nokia, which is massively lagging behind in a market it once owned after conceding the top spot to Samsung and Apple Inc., feels the camera is a crucial element. In fact, it’s the third most important factor, says Jo Harlow, Nokia’s Executive Vice-President, Smart Devices Division.

Taking photographs follows brand and operating system in the list of factors that impact consumer choice, Nokia’s market research has found.

“We do a lot of research on why consumers want to purchase a smartphone and we find that imaging, taking photographs on the move, is in the top three. Yes, photographs have become part of the social fabric of our lives. Putting up photographs has replaced putting up a status update; we’re all beginning to communicate visually,” she explains.

The box, she says, was the company’s attempt to create awareness among people about what this phone can do, imaging-wise. She doesn’t just mean hardware-wise, but also smart algorithms that allow you to easily and quickly edit images using its smart camera suite. Though the smart camera itself is no innovation — competitors HTC and Samsung have their current advertisement campaigns focussing on this — what Nokia is boasting about is the fact that its smart camera images are recorded at over 5 megapixel, a feat that the company claims its competitors haven’t achieved.

So, the Lumia 925, even compared to the 920 it released in the U.S. just a week before this one, has an extra lens, adding to its existing five-lens array. The sixth lens, Ms. Harlow says, helps deliver clearer and sharper images, both in low light and bright light.

Computational photography

Having placed such big bets on the smartphone camera, what’s the logical next step for Nokia? What are the challenges that need solving in imaging?

Ms. Harlow says computational photography is what the Finnish major has its eye on.

“Computational imaging is a whole next area of exploration. If you look at where imaging is going, it’s towards being able to capture even more data… that you cannot see with the human eye… that you can only see by actually going back to the photographs and being able to do things with them,” she explains.

But the key challenge in bringing computational imaging to a smartphone is the limitation in device power. “This is a limitation, but once we get around that, there’s a whole lot we can do with computational imaging. It’s certainly an exciting area, and something to look out for.”

Pelican Imaging

Another area to look out for, going by Nokia’s announcements, is Pelican Imaging, the company’s next big bet. Last month, Nokia announced plans to invest in Pelican Imaging, a California start-up that specialises in software that allows for advanced light-field imaging, a move that aims at improving its camera experience.

This multiple-optics technology, at its simplest, allows users to adjust an image’s focus after the photo is taken, or allows a singe picture to have multiple foci. Pelican Imaging was noticed by the tech world when its demo of these capabilities on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor made headlines.

(This correspondent was in London at the invitation of the company.)