GLOBAL – Over the months following the release of the Nokia N8, we’ve continued to listen and monitor discussions and requests relating to the imaging capability of the N8. Given the continued high level of interest in this area and requests for information, I thought I would take a little time out to explain what we’ve changed, improved and added. It’s turned out to be quite a lengthy list.
First, here’s the requests we heard the most from Nokia N8 owners:
Ability to record video at closer distances
Smoother video of moving subjects or when panning
Faster access to scene modes, especially close-up mode
Exposure control in video
Viewfinder grid not effected by scene modes, camera exit/reopening
Settings accessed through one control point
Red-eye reduction performance improvements
We’ve been able to respond to all of these with two new updates.
Let’s go through what we’ve done, first with the Symbian Anna update.
There are a number of UI improvements, some are very subtle but all of them combine to make life just a little bit easier and faster.
Settings are now accessed from the main toolbar, so you have a single access point for features and settings. Those settings used less frequently are grouped under the settings button in the toolbar. This is so we could maintain a single collection of features/settings used on a shot-by-shot or series-of-shots basis, without having to scroll between windows or pages of settings, trying to find the one you’re looking for, as some applications do. While I know this looks more or less the same as earlier Symbian releases, it does provide the benefit of making everything equally accessible. This isn’t perfect, but it’s better. We’re actively engaged in developing an entirely new interaction model for future products, so please add your comments and suggestions below. We may still be able to incorporate some of them.
Scene modes are now faster to set requiring two fewer clicks to change.
If you select an option from the tool bar once you’ve selected the desired parameter e.g. cloudy white balance, rather than having to back-step through to return to the viewfinder, simply press the shutter release and it will confirm the setting and return you directly to the viewfinder. If, however, you want to change further options in the tool pane, select OK to return to the toolbar.
Behind the scenes
In video, as the exposure system is very centre-weighted, we’ve added an exposure compensation control (scene brightness for those not familiar with this terminology) to give you the ability to compensate in situations where strong off-centre lighting may not be taken into account for the exposure. For example, when shooting at a live concert where there can be a great deal of off-centre strong lighting.
Previously, the ND filter would engage in bright light. However, in video this would cause a single dropped frame and if you listened carefully you could hear a quiet, short click. As a result, we’ve now disabled the ND filter in video capture, therefore helping to maintain a more stable video frame rate.
And what else?
In flash conditions, we’ve now enabled the red-eye removal algorithm in auto flash mode. Previously it was only active in the red-eye reduction flash mode. The detection and correction algorithms have also been improved. This remains an extremely challenging area – for everyone in the industry – so we can’t unfortunately achieve 100% detection and correction accuracy but, of course, we continue to aim to get as close as possible to that figure.
We’ve corrected a bug where the shutter speed in Night Portrait was set too high. This has now been resolved so the shutter speed will drop to 1/5 with flash if needed.
Smoother zoom, specifically for video, was already implemented in an earlier release.
So that’s what we’ve done in the Anna release. Whilst individually they’re small details, they all help to improve the versatility, performance and experience when using the N8.
So why have we released this update through Beta Labs?
The simple answer was that we really wanted to go further with the Nokia N8 camera but didn’t want to tie it to a future software update release. We therefore decided to create this update via our Beta Labs channel to bring these as quickly as possible, this seemed the best way of doing that. And at the same time you can use the Beta Labs discussion tools for providing feedback which we’d like to use for on-going development.
Again, this updated application will look familiar to you, but it’s much faster to use and more intuitive. Moving the video/stills mode switch to the top left has provided an extra slot on the right which we’ve used to provide direct access to the scene modes from the viewfinder and in the case of video, exposure compensation is available in place of the flash control for direct accessibility.
But the enhancements you’ve been wanting most are 30fps video and continuous autofocus.
We’ve spent a lot of time optimising the code here to make the video smooth and frame-rate stable. This allowed us to increase the video frame rate to 30fps and achieve excellent stability. Using the older code resulted in less stable frame rates. Using the Beta Labs application you’ll get 30fps in auto mode. This provides significantly smoother videos, especially during panning. There’s been a lot of online discussion around whether 30fps is really needed given movies are shot using 24fps.
With movie cameras the time interval between each frame is extremely short compared to the time the shutter is open. Whereas with electronic shutter-equipped devices such as the N8, the interval between frames can easily be greater than the time the sensor is exposed. By increasing the frame rate with such devices, the interval between frames is reduced resulting in smoother video.
To recap, the Nokia N8 uses an Active Hyperfocal System for video which means videos will be sharp from around 60-80cm through to infinity. We wanted to preserve the benefits of this system, but also allow people to shoot at closer distances. We haven’t got what I would call a perfect solution here yet but we’d be very interested to hear your feedback on this approach. I’ve been using it for quite a while and, generally-speaking, I’m very happy with the performance. I would encourage you to use it and learn where it works best for you. Personally, as I’ve used it more and more I’ve been able to record with greater predictability and therefore able to shoot higher quality video without the distraction of focus-hunting.
The Nokia N8 has the industry’s fastest focusing system for capturing stills. This is achieved by using a combination of a specially-developed focus-control algorithm and a piezo lens drive. But this speed comes at a slight cost. The downside is that piezo mechanisms can make more noise than the voice coil lens drive mechanisms used on other devices. To combat this issue, we’ve also developed a noise filtering system which specifically extracts the noise pattern the piezo lens drive emits from the audio signals. It works similarly to noise-cancelling headphones. This took quite some time to get just right, as we didn’t want to impact the already excellent audio recording capability of the N8, still one of very few devices which record audio with a stereo ambient audio track.
It is possible to use the continuous autofocus by selecting close-up mode at distances from 10cm through to infinity, but we’ve optimised it more for close-up. So at longer distances it may not work quite as expected. I’d personally recommend using the regular auto mode if you know your subject will be further away than 60-80cm and /or you’re shooting in very low light.
Staying with video, we’re also adding a viewfinder grid. You’ll see lines and intersections to indicate the rule of thirds reference points, as well as two horizontal lines which indicate the area for the 2.39:1 cinematic aspect ratio. We’d seen a number of projects where in post-production editing, the original 16:9 video had been cropped to this popular cinematic aspect ratio so I thought we could add these to make the lives of those people a little easier.
And finally, we’ve made both the stills and video viewfinder grids persistent, so after changing scene modes or closing the camera, they’ll remain active.
Does this make the N8’s camera now perfect? No, I don’t think we can ever reach perfect, but it certainly makes what many regard as the world’s best camera smartphone, even better! Please hit the comments below and tell us what you think.
NB: This camera update is for the Nokia N8 with Symbian Anna. If you do not yet have Symbian Anna, you can check for it with Ovi Suite or from your device Tools -> SW update.