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November 4, 2013

Stephen Alvarez: “it performs like they said”

During Nokia World Abu Dhabi, we sat down with National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez to talk to him about his relationship with the Lumia 1020, and Nokia.

Alvarez is a charming man. Polite, calm and reassuring, he’s a professional in every measure. His pictures of course, speak for themselves. When I found out that we’d have the opportunity to spend some time with him at Nokia World, I decided to do some research in advance.

Keen to see what people thought of his Nokia Lumia 1020 project, I discovered that there were some doubts about the project, both from Alvarez and others. The best way to get to the bottom of it, I figured, was to ask the man himself. Alvarez himself expressed doubts at the end of one of the videos he produced. So I asked him what they were:

“I’ve done a lot of cellphone work and had seven or eight camera phones, two of which I’d tried to use professionally. One of those projects where I never want to see it again, because you’ve got to make excuses about your pictures. Nokia asked me about this and I said “sure”, thinking this can’t possibly be as good as what they are saying and then the phone arrives and it does everything it’s supposed to do.”


Those doubts, it seems, didn’t last very long “It performs like they said it would perform. Those doubts were based on my previous experiences with camera phones with small sensors and they couldn’t perform. This thing has a big sensor and it performs.”

The rate of progress in smartphone cameras is incredible. Even this year, first with the Nokia Lumia 1020 and now with the Nokia Lumia 1520, the world has changed immeasurably.

According to Alvarez “Nokia’s [progress] seems to be exponential, citing other phone manufacturers’ measure of smartphone camera progress as being better than its model’s previous generation which in his view “still makes it a pretty crappy camera”. Meanwhile, he compares the Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520 favourably to his professional camera describing it as “a whole different ball park for comparison”.

Those comparisons do have limits though. With a high-end DSRL shooting seven frames per second, it’s reasonable to describe, as Alvarez does, the Nokia Lumia 1020 as “a little slow”. Lens selection is a different matter, something Alvarez’s pro camera offers but where the Lumia fall short. For now.


Could lens selection be overcome by technology? “You have the smartest people in the world working on this. I believe they will come up with a solution. I really do” is Alvarez’s take on it. It’d be a heck of a challenge, but given what’s been achieved so far, not beyond the realms of the imagination.

But what of Alvarez’s endorsement of Nokia products? One commenter on Imaging Resource suggested that should “a company pay the photographer and National Geographic enough money, they would shoot for ten days with a pinhole camera and rave about the results”. Alvarez’s response is simple:

“If you paid me enough money I would shoot with a pinhole camera but I wouldn’t pretend the images weren’t from a pinhole camera. I have a reputation. National Geographic has a reputation that has to live beyond this project. I can’t go out and say this is great and not be great. Well, I can, but I can’t expect to continue to work.”

He continues “Yes, I have kids to feed and you take the work that comes. However, the relationship wouldn’t have continued beyond me handing over the pictures”. In fact, the relationship has evolved and Alvarez is now a brand ambassador for Nokia’s imaging technology.


Alvarez moved from an iPhone to a Nokia Lumia 1020. The transition was, in his words “pretty easy”. The only apps that mattered to him were Expensify and Instagram. The latter will soon be taken care of by Instagram itself but for now Alvarez relies on 6tag. The former is already native on Windows Phone. Meanwhile the camera enables him to carry the Lumia 1020 like he used to carry his Leica M6 – as an “everyday camera capable of taking publishable pictures”.

It’s clear to anyone the impact that PureView technology has had in the last 12 months. But what if Alvarez, who’s a couple of years shy of his fiftieth birthday, had a Nokia Lumia 1020 when he started his career?

“Would I be the only one with a 1020?” Was his initial response, before explaining that if he were, he “would be like a space man.” Quite.