It looks like Nokia's controversial marketing move, which involved using pro DSLRs to "simulate" low-light shooting, was even less necessary than the smartphone maker may have thought. During our visit to the company's Tampere, Finland research and development complex, we were given access to a comprehensive testing suite, enabling us to shoot with a Lumia 920 prototype and a handful of competing products in a controlled lighting environment. Technicians dimmed the lights and let us snap a static scene with each handset at just 5 lux -- a level on par with what you may expect on a dimly lit city street in the middle of the night. The 920 took the cake, without question, but the iPhone didn't fare too poorly itself, snatching up nearly as much light as the Nokia device. The 808 PureView also performed quite well, but the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III yielded unusable results.
It's one thing to snag proper exposure, though -- capturing sharp details with little noise and superior color balance is an entirely different beast, and the Lumia managed to do just that, as you'll see in our 100-percent-view shots further on. Later in the evening we hit the streets of Helsinki for a real-world shootout. The 920 did present some issues with exaggerated shake and other rapid movements, but it offered up excellent results overall, even in scenes that were too dark for us to make out any details with our own eyes. Our nighttime shoot can be found in the gallery below, followed by plenty of comparison photos after the break.
Nokia Lumia 920 Low-Light Shoot
To ensure consistency, we set all of the smartphones to auto shooting mode, with our trusted senior mobile editor Myriam Joire behind the wheel. She matched up framing and held each device perfectly still -- she describes the process described in the video below.
Then, we scaled each shot to 620 pixels wide (to fit right here) and included a 100-percent cropped view in the lower left corner. We know you might want to examine each image yourself, though, so we're including the original files at the source link at the bottom of this page.
First up is the Lumia 920, which offered the most even exposure of all of the devices we tested. Admittedly, the shot has a yellow cast, but given the dim conditions, it's certainly acceptable.
Next up is the Nokia 808 PureView, which did a fantastic job compared to the other handsets, but required a longer exposure and lost significant color detail. It also has a heavy magenta cast -- still, a commendable performance.
The iPhone was also a solid runner-up with this test -- it didn't perform as well in even dimmer light, as we experienced when capturing images from a dark rooftop late at night, but it did yield decent shots in the lab. Even so, the frame is underexposed, includes a heavy orange cast and the 100-percent view is heavily pixelated and noticeably soft.
For its part, the One X snapped some detail, but the image is hardly usable -- it's quite dark and noisy. We were able to save it in Photoshop (not pictured), so HTC's flagship will work in a bind, but certainly wouldn't be our first pick.
Finally, the Samsung Galaxy S III just barely squeezed by, snapping only the brightest elements. All in all, it really won't do.
A few hours later, we hit the streets of Helsinki for a shoot under the stars (or, well, under the clouds). We found a rather dim spot that worked well for a second comparison, which you can see just below. The Lumia and iPhone may look like they offer on-par image quality, but the latter device had more than its fair share of noise output, while the shot from Nokia's phone was much cleaner. The 808 was quite dark in normal shooting mode (seen below), but performed better with the ISO bumped to 1600, which we opted not to include considering that not all of the cameras offered this feature. The One X snap was too dark to be usable, while you can just barely make out the boat in the Galaxy S III's.
We're including untouched, full-res versions of all of these shots at the source link below, along with all of the Lumia 920 images from the gallery up above.
Myriam Joire and Joseph Volpe contributed to this report.