Friday, November 26, 2010

N8 Xenon Flash

Flash photography

One of the reasons the N82 was venerated for so long in the Nokia canon was its Xenon flash. See my feature on this, but essentially almost every standalone camera has a Xenon flash, while almost every camera phone has LED flash (or none at all). LED flashes are almost useless for everything but the most amateurish of shots - which is why some manufacturers haven't even bothered to fit one. In contrast, a Xenon flash is up to 10x brighter (in terms of light energy output) and also lasts for a thousandth the duration, meaning that people and objects get frozen in time and don't become a blurry, fuzzy mess.

It's a bit of a mystery (other than build cost) why more smartphones haven't appeared with Xenon flash over the years. Here's a typical example, taken in dimly lit room on the N8 (click through etc etc.), raising my glass to toast - note the extreme detail and 'frozen' action:

To compare the N8's Xenon-lit photos with the best of the competition, I tried the same action and pose on the N82 and on the Xenon-flash-equipped Motorola XT720, the only serious current smartphone competitor to Nokia with a Xenon flash:

From left to right, N82, XT720, N8. I was stunned at the difference, once zoomed in like this. The 5-megapixel N82's shot (which we'd have named the best of the bunch in any other flash photo roundup, I suspect) looks over-exposed and the detail is all fuzzed out by the noise reduction and sharpening. The XT720 does better (at its 'kludged' 8 megapixels), with better exposure and clearer detail - but it didn't quite look in focus. On the right, the N8 nails the shot, with stunning detail - look at the weave of the cloth on the right and at the buttons, plus perfect exposure.

If I had a criticism of the N8's Xenon capabilities, they would be that the flash is very centre-focussed, i.e. whatever you're focussing on will be lit perfectly, but that items at the edge of the frame don't receive enough light. But this is a very minor point.

There's a slight degree of red-eye removal in 'auto' mode, in that there's a small pre-flash, around a tenth of second before the big one - interestingly, if you explicitly set the flash mode as 'red eye reduction', the delay is raised to a second or so, but you get a brighter flash (around 10 to 20% brighter), since the flash unit has had longer to recharge. Thus your tip for the day, if trying to Xenon-shoot an subject that's more than a few metres away and wanting all the lumens you can get - turn red eye reduction on - even if your subject is a car!

Not tested here but worth noting is an extraordinary degree of intelligence in the N8's camera algorithms: if the N8 detects a face which is backlit and within the flash range then it will automatically fire the flash as a fill-in. It balances the exposure so you get an extra kick from filling in the shadows and adding a sparkle to the eyes but deliberately doesn't 'overcook' it (making it look like it was obviously shot with flash).

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