How to: Use Scene modes in the Nokia 808 PureView camera

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As I mentioned briefly back in my review (part 2c) of the Nokia 808 PureView, the Camera interface has been completely rewritten - amidst the changes are a wider selection of Scene modes and for the casual user I really do think they bring the best out of the 808's camera hardware, giving access to a massive amount of flexibility with zero danger of messing anything up. Here's my guide to the options available.

Scene modes on the Nokia 808

As the name suggests, 'Scene mode' is where the might of the 808's rather flexible camera is managed for you by picking a 'scene' or 'use case', if you will. 'Scenes' have been part of Nokia's camera phone UIs for years, but they're taken to the next level in the 808.

Either side of 'Scenes' mode are 'Automatic', which is fine if you're in a hurry and are panicking about what settings to use - the 808's Camera software sets everything on 'Auto' and does its best (which is usually pretty good); and 'Creative', though don't go listening to the uber geeks boasting about how much they get out of 'Creative' mode.

You see, Creative mode is also quite dangerous in that the 808 remembers every tiny setting you ever change and does so through three different presets. For starters, I can never remember which preset holds which set of favourite settings. Next, I'm forever fiddling with something advanced - like 'Exposure' - to get a particular effect, and then completely forgetting to 'reset' it to default settings. So next time I head into Creative mode, I snap away and get back to base to find that exposure had been left in the wrong setting. Or the ISO. Or 'Vivid' mode was turned on. Or the focus mode was wrong. Or a hundred other things that can cause photographic disaster.

Which, as you might guess, is where Scene mode comes in - a set of nine presets, each of which has optimised groups of settings that you can't inadvertently alter. In other words, you can go to a Scene mode and know that whatever else you've done recently in the 808 camera, none of those settings will have an effect. In short, it's the power of the 808's camera but with peace of mind.

In order down the carousel of Scene modes, here are some of the subtleties that are worth bearing in mind. Note that in some cases I'm making a few educated guesses as to the settings combinations behind the scenes. Do please comment if there's more detail on all of this anywhere online.

  1. Landscape
    The core idea of this scene mode is to set the focus mode to 'infinity' (which saves time and mis-focussing), to turn off flash (since it won't have any effect at any distance anyway) and to apply a little artistic vivid colour balancing - perfect for sunsets, perhaps? 
  2. Automatic
    As it sounds, this is the default and you should get identical results to the main 'Automatic' camera mode.
  3. Close-up
    My most used scene mode, but then I'm a journalist and take loads of photos of phones and accessories(!) The only difference from 'Automatic' is that the focus 'hunting' range is much reduced, down to around 16cm if the light is good enough. This is still further than on many competing smartphones, but you can get 'optically' closer by using a degree of PureView zoom. In good light, with the 3x lossless zoom, you can produce stunning full 5MP resolution macro shots that look like they're taken from a few centimetres!
  4. Portrait
    On a DSLR camera, 'portrait' mode would involve widening the aperture to reduce the depth of field - with the 808, as with all other camera phones apart from the Nokia N86, the aperture is fixed, begging the question 'what's the point in having a portrait mode?' This is one of my least used scene modes, though note that the flash is preset in 'red-eye reducing' mode and that there's a slight colour tone adjustment to improve the flesh tone of your subject ("makes fair skinned Westerners look less 'ruddy'").
  5. Sports
    The idea here is to get the shot off as fast as possible. Which means no focussing time at all. So Sports mode sets the focus as 'hyperfocal', i.e. the distance for which depth of field is largest, typically a metre or two through to the medium distance, in good light. So you can, as the name implies, point and shoot at speeding cars or motor bikes, or at your sprinting child on sports day, or simply your dog scampering around, and you shouldn't ever 'just' miss the shot. Note also that these subjects, by their very movement, would have been almost impossible to focus on (reliably) in the first place. Sports mode is my second most used scene mode on the Nokia 808 PureView, and a great tool in my armoury.
  6. Night
    It's all very well having a big Xenon flash for lighting up low light shots indoors, but what do you do when you see a nice night time landscape (e.g. a floodlit church or moonlit night)? Two things happen in Night mode:
    1. The flash is disabled, since its effects won't be seen beyond a few metres and you really wouldn't want to see the back of someone in front's head lit up like a torch against your intended night time atmospheric shot.
    2. The 'ISO' number (another of the things you can fiddle with in Creative mode) is raised. You can think of ISO as changing the parameters of the camera sensor algorithms, such that each photon of light receives greater importance, with the tradeoff being that there will be more digital 'noise' in the photo (i.e. random photons also get more 'weight').
    Along with the ISO change, and fairly obvious, is that for most night time, low light shots, the time the 808's mechanical shutter is open for is significantly increased (to allow more photons of light in), which means that you absolutely must keep the Nokia 808 still. Use a tripod of some kind, ideally, but otherwise brace the phone against a wall, a car or a lamppost(!) - otherwise your night time photo will be blurred.
  7. Night portrait
    As the name suggests, this is designed for snapping a human subject at night, the subtlety being that, even though the Xenon flash is going to fire, the ISO is raised and the shutter time kept long, so that you get some of the atmosphere of the night scene in the background while the main subject then gets illuminated by the flash. It's a tricky balance to get right. Another scene mode that I'm guilty of not using very often - more experimentation needed!
  8. Spotlight
    A great addition to the world of camera phone scene modes, this recognises that an increasingly common use for devices like the Nokia 808 is to take photos at events, often indoors and with singers or speakers under spotlights. Traditionally, you'd take the shot on 'Automatic' and the Camera software would adjust the light levels for much of the scene, including plenty of darker areas around the spotlit subject. The end result is that your subject is over exposed and the photo is disappointing. In spotlight mode, the exposure is automatically set down two 'stops', plus there are some colour tone tweaks, ensuring that you get a better exposed spotlit subject, alone on a properly darkened background/stage.
  9. Snow
    Another addition, perhaps inspired by the 808 coming out of Finland, where there's a lot of snow for a lot of the year. The problem with snapping snow scenes on cameras is that the abundance of white confuses the auto-exposure algorithms, with the result that the whole scene comes out slightly too dull and your snow can often appear grey or blue-ish. With the 808's Snow scene mode, the exposure is increased by up to a 'stop' and, again, there are subtle colour tone tweaks so that white snow really does get registered as 'white'!

Finally, an 808 power tip. When lining up a shot and choosing a scene mode, note that you can move up and down the list of modes with the volume up/down keys, i.e. with your left hand finger(s)! In this way you can quickly try out the real time effects of the various modes before finally taking the shot.

In all this, there's one caveat - as with full 'Automatic' mode, the Nokia 808 takes all photos in Scene mode at 5 megapixels. These are 'pure' pixels, of course, and/or you can use the PureView zoom, but the resolution is fixed, like it or not. If you need 8 megapixels (perhaps you're planning on cropping a portion of the shot later or displaying it at very high resolution) then you will need to go into Creative mode after all. Hardly a showstopper though.

Comments welcome. Are you a big fan of leaving your 808 in Scene mode, too? Can you add anything to my observations on what each scene mode 'does'? Which are your favourites?

Nokia 808 camera lens/aperture