A Snapper for Camera Geeks


Nokia 9 primary cameras

Introduction

We knew the Nokia 9 PureView was coming, and we understood it was going to be all about cameras. The announcement of the device went live during 2019’s staging of the MWC, where the Finnish manufacturer that is under the leadership of HMD Global released a bunch of other phones. The 9 stole the show because, while being a completely different device in terms of the OS, it was and still is an obvious successor to the 1020 PureView that was released about six years ago. Nokia packed all the cameras it could on the handheld, which add up to seven if you count the TOF sensor on the rear for depth sensing. Besides the camera tech that we are going to explore in the following couple of paragraphs, Nokia launched the smartphone with last year’s Snapdragon 845 that is still an excellent performer. Folks at the company say the decision to use the chip was arrived at after performing a series of collaborations with Qualcomm that aimed to optimize it for the device. Additional specifications can be read here.

Quick overview and box contents

Nokia 9 Back

The Nokia 9 graces the smartphone space in space that has seen players up their game in terms of camera performance, and for the most part, it is ahead of what the competition offers. While the likes of Samsung with its recently launched Note10 and Huawei still prefer a triple camera system, Nokia really pushed the limit here with six rear camera sensors. However, you should not be excited as much if you want versatility in your shots (which you still can, but there is no easy way to do it for the ordinary user, including yours truly) because none of the sensors are wide-angled or a telephoto. I bet Nokia did not make this phone for the usual, snap-one-picture-a-day user, but camera experts who prefer taking RAW samples on their pricier dedicated cameras, but want the same experience on a pocket device. You can view and edit those images on a bright and good-looking OLED 6-inch screen that supports HDR, and is not curved as is the case with Samsung high-end phones. It is also worth noting that the Nokia 9 does not have a headphone port, although it includes very good earphones with a USB dongle. The phone is also IP67 certified for water and dust resistance. The package is serviced by speedy Android 9 Pie experience, and similar to other Nokia phones, this one is under the Android One umbrella.

Besides the aforementioned earphones and a dongle, the Nokia 9 ships with an 18W charging brick and a USB C cable.



Software

Nokia 9 Software I have come to like stock Android that ships in all Nokia devices. It is fast on the 9 and is furnished with regular updates faster than the competition (I received three updates in less than a week). Under the Android One program, users are assured of future updates, and for the most part, Nokia has delivered even for its lowly-priced handhelds.

Nokia has not abandoned the Glance Screen feature that has been around since the Lumia days. It is not on as is the case with ordinary always-on displays; it is only triggered when you lift the device. The phone would pop up quite often, so I had the feature deactivated in the gestures settings.

Nokia chose an in-screen fingerprint reader. It is of the optical kind, unlike that in Samsung line of devices. While it has since been improved via several software updates, I still find it a little slow and requires harder presses to read. So, I dropped the reader for a pattern, which I encourage you to do.

Nokia decided to get rid of the three-button navigation system for a gesture-based replacement. It is quite useful once you get used to it, and considering most of Nokia phones are running Android 9 Pie, and I’m reasonably certain users are okay with this new solution.

I have always had issues with gesture response in budget Nokia phones, probably due to pedestrian specifications. This issue is unheard of on the 9 because it is one of the most fluid experience, even surpassing an already impressive system on the Nokia 8.1. Summoning the task switcher is fast, and so is the experience when jumping in and out of apps.

You are not going to struggle with bloatware because Nokia ships the 9 PureView with a respectable number of Google apps. Nokia worked with Google to tune the Photos app for a more delightful experience with shots captured by the device’s many sensors, including the ability to display RAW shots.

The same collaboration has been done with Adobe to support RAW edits. The mobile version of the Lightroom app is not preinstalled; you are prompted to do so on first boot.

Camera: Incredibly Niche

Nokia 9 camera interfaceOur camera expert Kiruti Itimu took the 9 for a spin, and here are his findings:

Smartphone cameras have come a long way. One of the companies that have spearheaded the betterment of cameras on phones is Nokia.
Nokia had the PureView brand, which was their unique ‘camera phones’ that pushed the boundaries of smartphone photography. It started with the Nokia 808 Pureview, The Nokia Lumia 1020 and now we have another one: The Nokia 9

The Nokia 9 Pureview is the first Nokia phone under the ‘Pureview’ name that came after HMD took over the Nokia branding. The PureVew brand is an exclusive brand, and the Nokia 9 is very special.

Let us start first with the camera specifications. The Nokia 9’s primary camera system consists of an insane Penta-camera array with two 12MP colour cameras and three 12MP monochrome cameras. The 2 colour cameras are the ones in the middle while the monochrome ones surround them. They all feature f/1.8 lenses with Zeiss optics. There is also a time of flight depth sensor and a dual-tone flash to complete the weird look. There is no optical image stabilization, but there is a reason for that, which I’ll explain later on.

You’ll need to use the default camera app to take advantage of the cameras. The app experience is pretty fast and has several modes: Square, Panorama, Monochrome, Bokeh, Pro, Photo, Video, Slow-motion, and Timelapse. There are also quick settings to zoom on an image, add depth, set timers, trigger the flash, add motion, or use both the selfie and primary cameras.

The whole point about this phone is that it enables you to capture photos with an incredible dynamic range. Dynamic range is the ability to capture both the brightest and darkest parts of a scene, and it is severely limited on phones. The Nokia 9 attempts to do this by combining all that data from its 5 primary cameras and stitching them all together to have a file that has a high dynamic range.

Nokia says that these cameras work together and collect up to 10 times more light than a single smartphone camera. The 5 cameras shoot simultaneously, and all the data that is obtained from the 5 cameras is fused into a single HDR photo. You can decide to shoot in RAW+JPEG or JPEG only, but with this phone, you want to keep the RAW files. RAW files contain all the data you need to create your own JPEGS and needs special programs like Adobe Lightroom to process them. I’ll explain more about that. The RAW photos from this phone are huge, averaging 30MB each and are bigger than what I get from my Nikon DSLR. Nokia was gracious to give the Nokia 9 Pureview 128GB of internal storage, which is decent.

The image fusion process from all the 5 cameras is some pretty nerdy stuff. It involves a custom application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and the Snapdragon 845’s Image Signal Processor (ISP) and Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and Nokia’s special algorithms. The ASIC controls the camera modules by calculating exposure levels, white balance, and all of that. It fuses all of that data into a single RAW image which has all that information that you’ll use to process further in an app like Lightroom. When the data is pushed to the Snapdragon 845, its DSP an ISP, Nokia’s special algorithms are used to further process the photos. This allows the Nokia 9 to process these huge files without dramatically harming battery life.

Thanks to this image fusion, the Nokia 9 shooting experience is what I’ll call ‘slow.’ When you take a photo, it takes a while for the phone to process a JPEG and even longer if you want both the RAW and JPEG files. During the image fusion process, you will not be able to see the resulting RAW image, but you may see the JPEG that you made.

Nokia 9 image fusion processTo view these RAW files, you need an app like Adobe Lightroom. Nokia partnered with Adobe where they even added a lens profile to it so that you can better process the files. It is interesting that this app doesn’t come preloaded, but it is an easy download from the app store.

When you load these RAW files to Lightroom and start playing with it, that is when you notice what Nokia is aiming with this phone. The phone has an extensive dynamic range for a phone, and it was awe-inspiring in some cases. The colours were also rich, and you can do a lot with these RAW files.

The other trick with this phone is that you can shoot portrait photos. I’ll say it now. This phone shoots the BEST portrait photos I’ve ever seen with a smartphone. HMD says that the Nokia 9 Pureview can identify over 1200 layers which it uses for depth mapping which is insane. There is a toggle on the camera for ‘depth’ which allows you to take photos with background blur enabled. When you have an obvious subject, turn that setting on and take the picture. Wait for it to process (this is the Nokia 9 way) and you can adjust the depth level on Google Photos. The results were surprisingly good.

Since this phone has 3 monochrome sensors, it also has a dedicated monochrome mode. For those people who love taking black and white photos, you will love the output from this camera.

Low light performance is pretty bad, and it is thanks to the lack of OIS. I believe the reason they didn’t put OIS is that it would have affected the resulting stitched photo since the cameras would have shifted slightly about in the process of stabilizing your shot. This phone is only to be used during the day or in a place with good lighting.

The selfie camera is the normal part of this phone. It is a regular 20MP camera that shoots decent photos, and it could be the same one on the Nokia 8.1.

Nokia 9 front cameraThe Nokia 9 PureView also has high-end video shooting options. You can shoot up to 4K HDR on both the selfie and main cameras which is uncommon. There is also Nokia’s Ozo audio, which always sounds great.

You can only take advantage of the Nokia 9 PureView’s primary cameras with the Nokia camera. However, there is still a Google Camera app mod for it in the webs that could make your photo taking experience great.

In sum, the Nokia 9 PureView’s camera experience is not for the average shooter. A typical person might find the image fusion process a little too slow for their taste. This phone will be appreciated by camera enthusiasts like me who understand how to take those RAW photos and edit them on Adobe Lightroom. Photographers who shoot with dedicated cameras will understand this process of thinking about a shot, taking it, processing the RAW files, and enjoying the outcome.
That’s why I say this phone is a niche product, but it is good that Nokia made it since it is unlike any other camera phone experience I’ve experienced reviewing phones.

Final thoughts

The Nokia 9 is a terrific device for people who know what to do with. It is also an excellent day-to-day smartphone with its PureView moniker that has succeeded before. While local availability is limited, third-party retailers have the handheld at KES 70,000, a substantial amount, to say the least. It is also Nokia’s current champ in the market, and selling it in limited units is a good move because HMD is trying to sneak the Nokia brand to popularity, hence can cushion itself in case sales turn out to be unimpressive.

Some may say that the images captured by the phone are very good, although low-light performance fails to deliver compared to rivals from Samsung. Nevertheless, you can get groundbreaking photos if you capture RAW images and wait for the device to process them. Afterward, you can edit them to suit your needs with apps such as Lightroom and Snapseed.

To this end, the Nokia 9 is a niche device for specific people who can all this stuff.

At the moment, the Nokia 9 rivals with Samsung Galaxy S10 and Huawei P30 Pro, both of which are KES 20,000 more than the 9’s selling price. The P30 Pro has a more diverse camera with X50 zooming capability on its periscope lens; the S10 has an ultra-wide lens with more pluses like a headphone jack and a much better screen.

FOR

  • Terrific OLED display
  • IP certification
  • Class-leading RAW output
  • Excellent software experience
  • Priced less than the competition

AGAINST

  • S845 is not the fastest chips around, although it performs admirably on the 9
  • The fingerprint reader is slow
  • No external memory support for those large RAW files
  • Image processing is annoyingly slow



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