Every smartphone is a camera phone these days, but this year sees some phone makers really take photography to the next level.
But just as a trade war casts a shadow over Huawei’s smartphone business, its Chinese competitors Oppo and HMD-owned Nokia, step up with smartphones that boast impressive credentials on the camera front at significant discounts to the flagship handsets mentioned above.
Oppo Reno 10X Zoom
Oppo’s Reno 10X Zoom, on sale from last week, replaces the company’s R-series phones. The big selling points here are the 10x hybrid zoom functionality on the rear camera set-up and a ‘shark fin’ shaped front-facing camera that pops up for selfies and uses face recognition to unlock the phone.
Let’s start at the front. The aforementioned pop-up camera also features the LED flash and earpiece for the phone, so the Reno’s 6.6-inch screen is completely uncluttered with any sort of bezel, camera or sensors. Oppo did this last year with its high-end Find X smartphone and is continuing the pop-up theme.
The side-effect is that the smartphone can’t be waterproofed the way many other smartphones now are, a factor to consider if you want a phone for frequent outdoor use, or as a navigation aid on a boat.
Oppo claims the mechanism that moves the camera is good for 200,000 movements – which equates to five years of use if activated 100 times per day. The pop-up camera is also used to verify your face, which you activate by swiping up on the screen of the phone and it works fairly quickly.
That 16-megapixel front-facing camera does a great job with selfies and for video calls. There is a good range of effects settings to get the image tone you want. Front-facing video recording is in 720p and 1080p (though not 4K, as you get with the rear camera).
On the back, the first thing to notice is that there are no protruding cameras. The three camera set-up is encased in glass for a lovely smooth finish. If you think scratches therefore might be a problem, Oppo has taken care of that, including a small metal stud so that the area of the phone housing the camera doesn’t make contact with a surface.
Overall, the build quality screams ‘premium phone’, with a surface coating that helps reduce fingerprint smudges. It also comes with a rubber case. The gloriously smooth curved back gives way to some sharp ridges on the surround which sort of disrupts the sleek design and doesn’t feel great on the fingers.
The screen is a taller format than many other phones, so the Reno sits long in the hand. That has the unintended consequence of making it hard to swipe down from the top to show the tool tray while holding it in the same hand. There’s no shortcut to make it easier.
With a USB-C connector and SIM tray that also accommodates a micro-USB card, you’ve got good connectivity options, though there is no wireless charging. Instead, the Reno is supported by Oppo’s impressive VOOC fast-charging system, which will juice up the phone’s battery in 1 hour 20 minutes from empty, if you use the charger supplied with it.
The battery is big (4065mAh), typically allowing me to get two full days of use out of it between charges.
Three camera set-up
You get a three camera set-up with a 48-megapixel main camera, a telephoto lens (13MP) and a wide angle lens (8MP). I was impressed with the main camera’s performance, particularly in night mode, where shots came out crisp, with accurate colours, and a tolerable amount of blur that comes with the lower shutter speed of shooting at night.
For well-lit daytime photography, the results were equally good, especially when taking advantage of the phone’s AI settings and high dynamic range settings. These are what make the difference between an average shot and a great shot. I love the simple uncluttered design of the Reno’s camera interface and the ability to jump quickly between camera modes, including Google Lens, which detects what’s in the shot and offers web-results related to it.
The Reno’s cameras detect the environment and optimise the settings accordingly, whether it be for ‘inside’ shooting or ‘greenery’. This is common to smartphones and is well implemented here.
The telephoto lens uses a periscope system to pack it into a thin smartphone body, much as Huawei did earlier in the year with its 5x optical zoom system on the P30 Pro. The advantage of a good optical zoom in a phone camera is that you can zoom in closer on objects without the loss of detail that gives resulting photos a slightly fuzzy look.
Up to 5x zoom uses the optical equipment with stabilisation to counter camera shake, with 10x zoom augmented by the phone’s digital processing. The Reno conveniently lets you tap once to jump to 2x, 6x and 10x zoom so you can easily zoom in and out.
The camera will allow digital zoom out to 60x, but the results are pretty patchy at that point and there’s no optical image stabilisation. Still, it is fun to play with almost like a rudimentary pair of binoculars to see what is happening in the distance.
The wide angle lens is respectable if not quite as impressive as that of the Samsung Galaxy S10+, but good enough to help you get more in the frame. There’s a fairly effective night mode setting on the Reno, almost up there with the P30 Pro.
Oppo Reno 10X Zoom - Verdict
This is Oppo’s best phone yet when you weigh up features and value for money and will be even better in the next generation when it hopefully incorporates the under-screen camera technology Oppo has developed to make the shark fin pop-up camera redundant.
You get a great balance of features, a snappy processor and good battery life – most of the features you’d expect on a more expensive handset, for a seriously good price. That optical zoom is in a class of its own. The Reno’s size may, however, put some people off. Go in store to literally weigh it up in your hand before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Nokia 9 PureView
I was incredulous when I first saw the Nokia 9 PureView on display at the Mobile World Congress in February. I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes at the flower-shaped six camera set-up on the phone’s rear.
It seemed to be a play simply to outdo its better-known rivals by throwing in a couple of extra lenses. But Nokia is taking photography incredibly seriously here – as it did many years ago under different ownership and in its glory days, when it initially used the PureView name on a camera phone.
As the name implies, there’s a purity in its approach that will appeal to those coming from the world of digital SLR cameras who enjoy tweaking their own photos in editing apps. The question is whether there are enough people who can be bothered doing so to justify the PureView’s existence.
The 6-inch phone is a step-up in design terms for Nokia with a great curved glass back that, like the Reno, embeds the six cameras and flash below the glass so there are no bumps. It is relatively light in the hand and comfortable to hold.
Nokia hasn’t gone down the bezel-less route yet and the camera has a conventional front-facing camera, so there are margins around the screen here that reduce the display’s real estate.
The PureView runs Android One (Android 9), Google’s ‘pure’ operating system that comes loaded with all of the Google apps, which you can swipe up from the bottom to quickly access. Nokia’s only addition here really is the camera software. I love Android One and wish other phone makers would stop trying to hijack Android to try and control our experience.
The PureView has facial recognition which works well, but the same can’t be said for the under-screen fingerprint scanner. It took an age to enrol my fingerprint and subsequent scans to unlock the phone were hit and miss. The scanner is also positioned too far up the screen to be comfortably and quickly accessed. The Reno 10X Zoom, P30 Pro and S10 fingerprint scanners are miles ahead.
Powering the PureView is a Snapdragon 845 processor, which performs well, but is essentially a generation behind the one in the Reno (Snapdragon 855). Still, I didn’t notice any performance lags (except with the camera software, which I’ll get to below).
The OLED screen has a cool hue to it, but is bright and accurately displays colours. The PureView has a fairly middling battery (3,320 mAh), but does support fast charging and wireless charging.
It is also water and dustproof (IP67 rated), so will survive an encounter with the elements.
So far so average – you certainly wouldn't pay $1,049 for these specifications if the camera was uninspiring.
But camera work is what the PureView was built for. While other camera makers have a main camera sensor and lens and dedicated lenses for wide angle and telephoto shooting, the PureView takes a different approach.
It features five 12MP cameras – three of them monochrome, two colour (RGB), and a “Time of Flight” 3D camera which senses depth-of-field and is particularly useful for great portrait shots. The cameras also deliver video capability with 4K (ultra high-definition) video at 30fps (frames per second) and 4K shooting with high dynamic range. There’s a dual-tome LED flash for low-light photography too.
All of that sounds brilliant and boosts the value of the phone significantly. But does it better camera efforts from Oppo, Huawei and others?
The answer is no because Nokia is instead trying to replicate the effects of a reasonable, standalone digital camera – but in the body of a phone.
The way it works is that the PureView’s five cameras all take photos which are then combined into one image. This gives it the ability to deliver the depth of dynamic range a much larger camera is capable of. That means it does basic photography incredibly well.
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While there is some auto-tuning of the photos it is not as pronounced as what is available on other phones, which effectively take over on the artistic front to add blur here and shading there.
Instead, you are encouraged to shoot your photos in both JPG format and RAW, which is the format professional photographers favour. The latter creates a high-quality image that Nokia then encourages you to manipulate in Lightroom, Adobe’s free photo editing app.
You don’t have to resort to editing. The PureView delivers high-quality images, great contrast and colour reproduction naturally. But they are quite sharp, harsh even, in brightly-lit scenes, requiring a wash of warmth, a softening of the tone. I was really expecting more from the PureView.
There’s no optical zoom like on the Reno, just a digital zoom that effectively zooms in and crops the image. The results aren’t quite as good as dedicated optical zoom efforts.
The photo-taking process with RAW files takes a while – an icon spins while the big images are stitched together and you can tell the phone is working overtime as it becomes warm in your hand. You can look at the JPG results instantly, but you’ll need to wait to review the RAW images.
The camera software has plenty of options, from monochrome and bokeh to Google Lens. But the app lags for me, with several seconds elapsing, sometimes in changing modes. A software update better fix that, because it will frustrate keen photographers.
There is no night mode to speak of – again, the system relies on enough information being drawn out of those five cameras to make up for low light. The results frankly, aren’t great.
On the video front, there’s nothing special here – competent from the rear and front-facing 20MP camera, which also does a reasonable job as a selfie camera.
Verdict – Nokia 9 PureView
The PureView feels like the first attempt at a flagship camera phone that ultimately doesn’t succeed. We’ve been dazzled by the camera phone competition, which quite rightly has focused on making it easy for everyone to achieve fantastic photography in any situation at the touch of a button.
Most people will not want to tinker in Lightbox to get the best results. But I don’t think the PureView will necessarily excite the digital photography enthusiasts either. They want all the functionality and responsiveness a stand-alone digital camera offers.
The photos the PureView produces are okay, but frankly not stunning and the lack of dedicated zoom and night mode limits its versatility.
Elsewhere, it is a well-built phone with nothing special to justify the price point over $1,000. Wait for a decent discount.