In digital photography, there’s a direct correlation between the size of a pixel on a camera sensor and how much light it can soak up. In a smartphone, a camera sensor can only be so big, so the more megapixels you cram onto one, the smaller those pixels will be. The result? Noisier pictures and worse low-light performance. For this reason, most smartphone cameras top out at around 8 to 12 megapixels: shrink the pixels on a camera sensor down any smaller, and the pictures just end up looking terrible in anything except ideal lighting conditions.
Keeping all of this in mind, at first blush, it’s easy to dismiss the Nokia Lumia 1020’s 41-megapixel camera with a laugh. In reality, though? Thanks to great optics, a larger sensor size and clever sampling that combines the data of multiple imperfect pixels into a single super-pixel, the Lumia 1020 is the best smartphone a serious photographer can currently. And if you’re not convinced, maybe the short film NY 41×41 by director Paul Trillo will change your mind, in which the Lumia 1020’s 41-megapixel camera is used to seamlessly zoom its way down forty-one blocks of 5th Avenue.
When Trillo — a director of music videos, short films and commercials who lives in New York City — was approached by Nokia earlier this year, he was tasked with figuring out how to interpret the Lumia 1020’s zooming abilities in a way that even non-photos would understand. “We originally talked about doing some sort of tour of New York, and Nokia was especially interested in doing something inspired by the opening of the 2012 movie Limitless,” Trillo tells me. “We ended up setting ourselves some parameters: we wanted to travel the distance of 41 New York City blocks in no more than 41 different photos.”
At first, it seemed like a far-fetched goal. Using a smartphone camera to shoot a film in 1080p that would seamlessly zoom its way, block by block, over the course of two miles would be challenging, even if there weren’t a limit to the number of shots you could use. But the Lumia 1020 is a surprisingly capable camera. “The camera has a surprisingly in-depth number of manual controls that makes it much like a dSLR camera, such as white balance, exposure, focal point, and more,” Trillo says. “I don’t think I could have shot this film with any other smartphone camera.”
The shoot itself was done from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. one summer morning. Because the sun rises so fast at that time of year, each shot had to be timed at a consistent rate to maintain continuity. However, shooting so early allowed Trillo to set his tripod up in the street, allowing for a serene and empty view of an awakening Manhattan. “I originally tried shooting during rush hour, which was a terrible idea,” Trillo laughs. “I was constantly in danger of being run over by taxis.”
Once Trillo had his 41 sample images, he began the post-processing work, cropping images together, correcting their color, adding motion blur effects and then stitching them together. The biggest challenge? The city skyline on the horizon had to be Photoshopped out of every shot in post-processing so that it didn’t disrupt the zooming effect.
But the effort paid off. NY 41×41 isn’t just a film that zooms two miles down New York City’s most famous street in a little under 52 seconds. It’s a paean to a city of almost infinitely granular detail, and a testament to the only smartphone camera powerful enough to take it all in in a single shot. “I don’t think I could have shot this film with any other smartphone,” says Trillo.