Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The iPhone 11 Pro has one of the best camera settings found on all top-end phones today. It can take photos that DSLRs can run for their money, and can still be taken well when the lights go out. But how far has this technology really got in recent years?

To find out, I put the iPhone against that Nokia Lumia 1020. The Lumia 1020 was launched in 2013 and was the ultimate example of mobile imaging capabilities in its day. The maximum resolution of 41 megapixels was a first, and due to its numerous functions, it was well suited for photographers who didn't want to carry a compact camera around with them all day.

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"With the 1020, Nokia is pushing the envelope of the smartphone camera with a combination of raw image capture capabilities and close-up functions that make it one of the most artistically capable smartphone cameras we've tested." Jessica Dolcourt explained in CNET's review of the phone.

This piece is not intended as a buy recommendation – no one should try to figure out whether to buy a new iPhone or a 7 year old phone with an outdated operating system. If you are, you should really read why Using an outdated phone can pose a serious security risk. But I thought it would be interesting to see how two top shooters compare their time and how far phone cameras have come.

All pictures were taken in standard automatic camera mode. They are all in JPEG format unless otherwise stated. By default, the Nokia Lumia takes 5 megapixel JPEG pictures, which we'll see in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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Nokia Lumia 1020

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iPhone 11 Pro

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First this sunny view in Edinburgh's Dean Village. I'm already impressed with the Lumia 1020: it achieved great overall exposure, with controlled lights in the sky and lots of shadow details. I knew this kind of scene for the iPhone with its automatic HDR mode wouldn't be a challenge, but I didn't expect the Lumia to get that close. Sure, the inclusion of the iPhone has more shadow details and more punchy, vivid colors, but I like the more natural look the Lumia has achieved here.

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Lumia 1020 with 200% harvest

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Dean iPhone 11 Pro 200 Percent Harvest

iPhone 11 Pro at 200% harvest.

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However, if you crop this image to 200%, some clearer differences will become apparent. The Lumia's shot lacks detail, and some of the fine brickwork looks mushy. The Lumia's JPEG is only 5 megapixels, so I opened the raw DNG file in Photoshop and added some sharpening that the iPhone automatically applies.

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Lumia 1020 DNG file with sharpening, 200% harvest.

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It's clear that it didn't make much of a difference.

Port Lumia 1020

Lumia 1020.

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Port iPhone 11 Pro

iPhone 11 Pro.

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I am again impressed with how well the Lumia 1020 has captured this scene on Edinburgh's north coast. The overall exposure is just right, with well-preserved lights and shadows. The white balance is decent too and there are a lot of details when zooming in. Sure, the iPhone's shot is a bit brighter, with more shadow details, but it's close competition.

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Lumia 1020 processed raw file.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Based on the Lumia DNG raw file, I made only a few changes in Lightroom to raise the shadows and adjust the color balance to create this final image. I don't think anyone can guess that this shot was made on a phone recorded in 2013.

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Lumia 1020.

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iPhone 11 Pro.

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I found these shells on the beach higher up on the coast. The recording of the iPhone is sharper, but otherwise there is hardly any difference between the recordings.

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Lumia 1020.

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iPhone 11 Pro.

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The difference between the two phones is much clearer here. The iPhone's shot is brighter, with sharper details on the painted words and tree bark.

Flower Lumia 1020

Lumia 1020.

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Flower iPhone 11 Pro

iPhone 11 Pro.

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The difference is also clear in this example; The inclusion of the iPhone offers better exposure, contrast and general details.

Path Lumia 1020

Lumia 1020.

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Path iPhone 11 Pro

iPhone 11 Pro.

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The iPhone 11 Pro is really starting to withdraw in low light. The iPhone version of this river scene is brighter, with significantly more details about the trees and leaves.

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Lumia 1020.

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Bridge iPhone 11 Pro

iPhone 11 Pro.

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The story is similar here. The Lumia 1020's image is darker, with many fine details being completely lost.

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Lumia 1020 crop detail.

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Bridge iPhone 11 Pro Crop

iPhone 11 Pro crop detail.

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When cropping, there is a big difference in brightness and detail.

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Lumia 1020.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET
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iPhone 11 Pro.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Back in the house, I had to take a snapshot of my wonderful ginger boy Toulouse, who liked to pose for the camera. Again, the Lumia 1020 struggles to get even exposure, losing details on the lights outside and lots of deep shadows inside. The color balance is also switched off, which gives the beautiful Toulouse a green tone. The recording of the iPhone is brighter and with precise colors.

What did we learn?

It's no surprise that the iPhone 11 Pro takes the better pictures – I never expected the conclusion to be different. But I am impressed with how close the Lumia 1020 got to some shots. As with all cameras, the best pictures are taken in good light. And in some coastal scenes, the Lumia offers good competition for many of today's phones. It treats the exposure well and although there is no HDR mode, it is possible to retract some highlight and shadow details by editing the raw DNG file.

However, the Lumia's low-light capabilities are not that cheap. This is not a surprise either, especially since night shots have been a focus of most of today's flagship phones for some time. The iPhone 11 Pro, OnePlus 8, Pixel 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S20 all have special night modes with which excellent pictures can be taken in poor lighting conditions.

It is then clear to see where imaging progress has been made in recent years. That said, if there is to be any type of take-away from this exercise, you don't need the very latest and greatest hardware to take good pictures. And that doesn't mean you have to buy a 7-year-old phone, but you might consider whether you really need to upgrade your 2017 iPhone X for the better camera or if you could still make some life out of it.

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