How many smartphone sensors does it take to take a detailed picture, the kind that are still reserved for DSLRs? HMD Global would put that number at five. After all, their Nokia 9 PureView has a five-camera setup, the first penta-camera setups on a mainstream phone.
So, what is unique about Nokia 9 PureView’s camera implementation? The company is not relying on the wide-angle plus telephoto plus ultra-wide angle combination that we have seen other players use. Instead, Nokia 9 PureView has all five lenses with 12MP sensors — three monochrome and the rest RGB. All sensors have f/1.82 aperture. There is no optical image stabilisation, which could impact quality of low-light performance and video results.
The camera has a seamless back panel and there is no bump to show for the five cameras at the back. Ahead of the official launch, HMD Global executives had said the phone is meant for photography enthusiasts, those who like to shoot, edit their pictures on the device itself. Clearly all the focus is on still photography and to show what this company can do. This also explains why the Nokia 9 PureView lets users shoot in RAW mode as well.
But exactly how does this five camera system work? Nokia 9 PureView is relying on computational photography, where all five sensors fire at the same time, but at different exposure levels, and the software combines to produce one detailed picture. HMD Global says the camera can shoot 60 to 240MP of data, which is then reduced back to 12MP.
Based on what the company has shown, the Nokia phone is capable of capturing a wide dynamic range, meaning it can assure details even in a brightly-lit scene, by accurately showing the sunlight and dark shadows at the same time. Most smartphones still struggle to capture so much detail.
HMD Global said “all five cameras work together to collect up to 10-times the amount of light than a single colour sensor of the same type”. This, they claimed, also results in a more accurate Portrait mode.
Of course, Nokia 9 PureView is not the first phone to rely on computational photography. Google has been doing this with the Pixel phones, combining a number of shots at different exposures to give stunning images. Apple also implemented this with the iPhone XS series and relies on computational photography to ensure more details in their photos. What Nokia is doing different though is relying on data from five sensors and processing it for “more accuracy”.
But computational photography is not easy to get right. While others have a more software driven approach, Nokia 9’s camera seems to be getting a nudge from hardware too.
This kind of approach also requires a lot of computing power on the device, as we have been told by the executives at Google’s Pixel camera team.
Nokia 9 PureView comes at a time when triple cameras have become the norm on flagships. The Samsung Galaxy S10, S10+ has triple cameras, Huawei had already introduced three cameras on the Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro, and plans to go a step ahead with the upcoming P30 Pro by adding four cameras at the back.
In comparison, Apple’s iPhone XS Max and iPhone XS with their dual-cameras might seem outdated, but the cameras on these rarely disappoint no matter what the lighting. Then there’s Google Pixel 3, which has a single camera at the back and still manages to deliver stunning still shots, both in bright daylight and low-light.
For the Nokia 9 PureView to stand out as THE camera phone in this crowded market won’t be easy, and it will have to rise above the hype it has created.