Nokia came forth today with its new Lumia 1020 phone. As anticipated, it's all about the camera. 41 megapixels, woweeee! Xenon flash, egads! But along with those readily recognisable specs is a more subtle camera feature that will certainly warm the hearts of phone photographers everywhere: manual focus.
Every photo enthusiast wants more control. With smartphones, to this point we've been forced to deal with rudimentary manual controls, or sometimes no controls at all. Even when manufacturers have decided to let us fix our own aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO, focus has until now remained almost entirely out of our fingers. The most we've been able to to is touch an area of the display, and trust the auto-focus to get it right.
Needless to say, that doesn't always work great. Fingers are fat, auto-focus is imperfect. With the Lumia 1020, though, you get an on-screen virtual dial, letting you gradually shift focus from foreground to background, and everything in between. It's a breath of fresh air.
And in practice it's also incredibly smooth; we noticed some stuttering in our hands-on time with the 1020, but it's very responsive. Here's how it looks:
Nokia says you can set the focal plane from 15cm to infinity. It will be useful when the autofocus won't stop hunting, or when shooting objects very close up. Maybe you're shooting in a dimly lit restaurant. Or perhaps you're shooting through a window and the AF can't figure out what's important to you. Manual focusing will finally give you control over those situations. The only downside? You can't control focus manually during video recording. That would have been really great.
Of course, manual focus isn't as important on a smartphone as it is on larger cameras with larger sensors. Your depth of field for mobile pics is usually sufficiently deep for the auto-focus to get things right. But having the option in those cases when it just won't stop screwing up is going to make a huge difference.
Additional reporting by Nick Stango.