Nokia 9 Pureview Camera ongoing review

This is a start of our review of the Nokia 9 Pureview smartphone. In the coming days, this post will be updated with our findings.

The review will be focused on the camera results, because the camera would be the only reason to buy this phone instead of other similar priced devices.

The Nokia 9 is nicely build, but at the same time it just feels too thin. We would have preferred a slightly thicker device with a larger battery to go with that. Without a case, it feels like the device will drop out of your hands. There is just nothing to hold on, and the phone is slippery. The backside already picked up some scratches. This is not Gorilla Glass if you ask us.

Display is very bright and beautiful. No complaints here. But automatic brightness was a disaster at first. We had to disable it the first day. After a few days it seems to be okay now.

Call quality is very good, and sound from the single speaker is fine.

Don’t bother with the in-display fingerprint reader. It is terrible. Charging also seems slower compared to our other fast charging devices.

Software is Android One, with no bloatware. Simple and speedy (except for the camera and Google Photos), but at the same time it feels a bit too simple and unfinished. The gestures are not very intuitive, and it is clearly a “Google first” device. The fact that you can not even remove the Google search bar from the home screen, feels like the controlled environment of an Apple device. We would recommend to install a different launcher on this device to compensate for this. We installed Nova, and that seems to run fine.

We did not bother setting up most of our usual apps on this device, because we are solely going to use this as a kind of Android-camera. Just Dropbox for our images backup, and some photo-editing apps. So for a good idea about battery life you will need to look at other reviews.

Nokia confused us a bit, making us think that there would be a special version of Adobe Lightroom for this device, but this is not true. You just get a message suggesting that you should download the normal version from the Google Play store. They do not even provide a link to do this. So you just have to download it yourself. There is no indication that Lightroom contains any special profile for this device like Nokia is saying, but we assume it is there, and you will still need a paying subscription with Adobe if you want to use all of the features, just like on any other mobile device.

The default gallery and picture editor on the Nokia 9 is Google Photos. If you want to control bokeh and dept, this is actually your only choice. It s not trouble-free however. It freezes often, and feels like a work in progress. It is very slow also because of the processing of the files. On other devices we also experience some bugs in Google Photos, but on the Nokia 9 it is a lot worse than on our other devices.

Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Express and now also Snapseed can open the RAW files and offer a better way to enhance your pictures. The workflow with the Adobe apps is more complicated however, since you need to import and export your pictures each time. If you select the “edit with” function in Google Photos on a RAW file, it does not even list Adobe Lightroom. Only Photoshop Express and Snapseed are shown here. You have to use the sharing functionality to get the picture in Lightroom or add the picture yourself in the Lightroom app.

So for us: editing the pictures on this device is not a fluent as we would like, but it works.

And you will probably need to edit a lot of pictures you take with the Nokia 9 if you intend to share them to mobile users. The Nokia 9 produces pictures that are often (but not always) very flat and dull looking compared to what people are used to from other phones. Most images, however, are very sharp and realistic compared with many other smartphones. They are really true to life. But sometimes they are just too sharp and contrasty. On big screens, the results are often spectacular. But on smartphones they just look average. We did a test and took the same picture in a bar with the Nokia 9, the Asus ROG Phone, and the Crosscall Trekker X4. The Asus has a just above average camera compared to most flagship phones (we still like the results very much however), and the Crosscall is really not a good choice for pictures at all. Still most people preferred the result of the Asus, and some even the Crosscall when viewed on the devices. Nobody liked the result on the Nokia. When the same picture was viewed on a computer with a large display, however, the result of the Nokia was simply stunning compared to the other ones. This depends on the scene however. We did take some pictures with the Nokia 9 that all people were impressed by when viewed on the device without editing.

Below you see the typical difference between an image as shot, and the result after editing.

 

 

 

 

Results do vary greatly however. Sometimes the Nokia takes pictures where nothing seems to be in perfect focus. There is a serious focus problem when photographing objects that are nearby and sometimes also for scenes where nothing is nearby. The camera keeps hunting up and down for the correct focus, and often changes focus just when you press the shutter, resulting in completely blurred images. Often over-processing, smearing, strange artifacts and unsharp areas are visible. Sometimes only part of the image is not sharp, and the area to the left or right just next to it is. Probably a result from bad processing. Taking a picture where everything is in focus from foreground to background also seems to be a problem. You will need to switch off the depth function before taking the picture off course, and even then the result sometimes still shows some bokeh in the background, where other phones show a completely sharp picture from foreground to background. This is not a big issue however. Most pictures are very good, from a technical point of view. It just seems that now and then the processing makes a mistake.

Low light images also vary. Nokia says that optical image stabilisation is not needed. We disagree. We took pictures in medium light, such as inside a supermarket, and the result was not sharp due to movement of the phone, and the image contained a lot of noise and smearing. Now and then, however, the low light results are stunning, with almost no noise and smearing, even when there is almost no light at all.  Many times, the jpeg results are no better than a midrange smartphone. We think this is mostly a software issue and could maybe be improved with future updates. You can create great low light shots by using the Pro mode and selecting a low ISO, but you will need to use a tripod. Then again: you can do this with most smartphones and get the same result. For now we find that the low light performance for the jpeg images is underwhelming on many shots. The phone seems to detect when it is supported and steady, and lowers ISO with longer shutter times for better results.

Here an example of a picture we took at night. Handheld, and normal Photo mode. The jpeg is only fine on a small scale. If you look at 100%, it is not so good at all. However, the RAW file allows you to get far better results, and we put our result next to it for comparison. Both are cropped.

 

 

Some of our better sample pictures:

 

 

 

 

The image below shows a strange artifact that was visible on the RAW file. The jpeg was fine. A lot of noise and smearing in this image also. Nokia says this phone can capture ten times more light than other smartphone cameras, but we never really see this in the low light pictures. Nokia creates false expectations with statements like that.

lowlight
A strange square with blue lines showed up on the RAW file of this shot. Also: black areas such as the sky have a lot of white dots, not to be confused with the stars 😉

 

Below 2 examples of the high level of noise that is visible in dark skies in the jpeg files. Click on the images to see them full size.

 

 

A comparison of an original jpeg file and what you can achieve with the RAW file in very low light situations. Often the jpeg is just terrible with a lot of noise that is very visible due to the over-sharpening and a lot of smearing. Using the RAW file however often produces a surprisingly good result.

 

 

Taking pictures is mostly a fluid experience. The camera app feels dated however with too many large icons on top to change settings. Each change using these icons require two taps. That could be improved with single tap on/off icons like most other camera apps. The app can be really slow at times when changing settings. Sliders to change things like ISO or shutter speed are difficult to operate. A major issue is again with low light photography: almost impossible to frame your subject in very low light, because the display shows you almost nothing in dark environments. All other smartphones brighten up the scene and give you a kind of “see in the dark” possibility. Not so for this Nokia, which seems to do the opposite. Feels like a camera from 10 years ago. In Pro mode you can set a long shutter time to make dark objects visible on the display.
Outside, the display is bright enough for composing pictures in sunlight, but the composing grid lines are too thin to be visible outside however. This gives us a lot of pictures with horizons that are not level.

Changing the bokeh using the depth function could be improved also. The UI to do this in Google Photos is simply not the best. Nokia and some reviewers give you the impression that the phone takes pictures with different focal points, and that you can change the focus point afterwards to whatever part of the image. That is not how it works however. The 5 cameras all take exactly the same picture with the same focus point. When you tap the picture to change the focus point, you just set the point from where the artificial bokeh needs to start. That means that if the image had a blurry background to start with, you can never make that background sharp. That information is simply not there. So, if you focus on an object close-by, you will have a blurry background already. There is no way to make that background come into focus by tapping on it, because the cameras did not capture a picture focused on the background. The way it works is that within the range that was already sharp, you can choose to set a point and everything behind it will be blurred. There is also a function to add bokeh to the foreground. As soon as you understand how it works, it’s fine the way it is.

2019-03-15 17.19.14.jpg
Artificial bokeh using the depth function. Notice the vertical smearing artifact just to the left of the orchid near the painting on the wall.

 

Our conclusion for now is that the camera can indeed deliver very good results, but often fails to do just that. When it does, the result is really impressive. But the times it misses the mark, can be frustrating. Low light performance for jpeg files is just too many times disappointing for a phone that is sold as “gathering 10x more light”. The software is unfinished and has bugs, issues and problems. And then there is the focussing problem also. We hope that Nokia will improve things with updates but we are afraid that this will simply not happen because this smartphone is produced in a very limited quantity and sold at a low price.

2019-03-25 16.31.50
Image that shows the focussing problem. Nothing is in focus here.

We would only recommend this phone if you are really into photography, and are prepared to enhance your pictures in Lightroom or another RAW editor, and hope for Nokia to bring some updates to fix the problems. Best way is to just shoot all day long, then export the pictures to your computer and then use Lightroom or Photoshop to edit them before sharing. If you are the kind of person who wants to share pictures immediately after taking them, this might not be a good phone for you. Pictures from other smartphones will almost always look nicer (but not better) when viewed on a mobile device without editing them, and many of these phones also support RAW files so you can still edit the results on a computer afterwards.

Update: we can not explain it, but the quality of the jpeg images the Nokia 9 is producing, seems to get better every day. We get more and more pictures that do not need any editing at all. Low light pictures also improved a bit, but we still need to use the RAW files here. We did not see any update, so we do not understand why we see an improvement in image quality suddenly.

Below are 2 jpeg images straight from the phone that are not changed in any way other than setting the horizon level. Click on them for the full size.

 

 

 

 

 

Below is an example of an overprocessed jpeg straight from the phone. Contrast is too high and a lot of sharpening has been applied. The image is still usable however and looks stunning on a small-scale. Most of the time, the phone produces flat and dull jpeg files, but this time this was not the case. After studying the Raw file, it seemed that nothing in this image is truly sharp. The conceived sharpness comes from a high level of sharpening that was done in the Jpeg file. For comparison we provided our result from the RAW file. Click on the images to see the full size.

 

 

 

 

Another example of over-processing. This monochrome jpeg has so much sharpening and contrast that it almost hurts to look at it. Every stone in this building looks different. Lucky you always have the RAW file also.

2019-03-24 15.39.59.jpg
Too much sharpening and contrast makes this picture looks strange.

Below another example of a jpeg file with over-sharpening. We put our version that we created from the RAW file next to it to compare. Viewed on a small-scale, the jpeg looks better. But if you download the original files, and compare them on a big screen, the over-scharpening becomes very obvious.

 

Another example: this time a world globe against a very strong backlight. Below are 2 crops: one taken with the Asus ROG phone and the other with the Nokia 9. The Asus switched automatically to HDR mode and did a very good job here. Remember that this is a 100% crop so you will see some sharpening artifacts. Both the globe and the background have good lighting. There is some visible noise. The Nokia also found a good balance for the exposure, but the globe does not look as sharp and defined as what the Asus produced. It has less noise however. We tried to get a better result using the RAW file from the Nokia, but could never get the pleasing result of the Asus ROG image.

 

 

 

 

Some good unedited jpeg images straight from the phone. Nothing was modified.

 

 

Some amazing pictures from the Nokia 9, all jpeg files with no modifications apart from cropping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nokia 9 is perfect for close-up and macro shots. You can not go very close to your subject (minimum focus distance is about 10cm), but thanks to the amount of detail in the images, you can apply a fair amount of digital zoom afterwards.

 

Example of a close-up created by just cropping the image afterwards. A kind of digital zoom. We put the original file here too for comparison.

 

We will continue to update this post and post more sample pictures now and then.

We start to like the images that the Nokia produces more and more. It takes a bit of getting used to the HDR-look. In the beginning we used Lightroom on almost every picture we took, but now we leave more and more pictures unchanged. Maybe we are getting used to it, or maybe we just take better pictures, but it seems that the longer we use the phone, the better the results seem to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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