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As much as Nokia Lumia phones struggled, many of their cameras did not. It's the one feature that Windows Phone 8 holdouts still cling to in comment threads. I had high hopes for the Lumia 950.
It has a rear 20MP PureView camera that takes advantage of a 1/2.4-inch sensor, f/1.9 aperture and optical image stabilization. The 16:9 photos that result also benefit from a triple LED natural flash. There's also a 5MP front-facing camera with a f/2.4 aperture.
These camera specs have all the marking for a spectacular snapper, and for the most part is succeeded in taking wonderful photos during my trip to the Los Angeles Auto Show. It just couldn't always compare to the cameras on the best phones available.
I carried the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with me, two top cameras on iOS and Android, for a proper comparison. The brightness of the Lumia 950 photos fell between these two. Apple's camera suffers from darker-than-normal photos, while both the Lumia 950 and Note 5 punch up the colors and reduce shadows nicely without too much saturation.
While the main camera has a two-stage auto focus capture key, it did struggle at times to focus on moving dancers at an LA Auto Show afterparty. The lightning was appropriately odd, which you'd find in a concert venue, and no camera phone could have captured their fast motions well. However, more than a few shots were out-of-focus even when the dancers weren't moving too quickly.
There was another issue of a little less detail in the cars, especially in the grill area, when I took photos of a Nissan being spray painted. You can still see the spray-painted-over Nissan logo in the iPhone 6S Plus and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 photos, but this detail is lost in the red-orange paint on the Lumia 950.
With proper brightness, the Lumia 950 turned out fantastic and, with the flash, photos lit up with the right tones, just as Microsoft had wanted. The app, however, doesn't have as much going on as past Lumia phones.
Gone are the three Lumia camera apps, including the lauded Lumia Camera 5.0 app, and in their place in the Microsoft Camera app. It doesn't have features I like, including Series Shot, but it does have a Rich Capture Mode for automatic fans and proper Manual controls hidden that expand out of the shutter button for everyone else. I also liked the zoom-in mechanic, which requires not two fingers to pinch the screen, but one finger up (to zoom in) or down (to zoom out).
The post-processing always took five to eight seconds to pick the best version of a photo after snapping a series of shots, but the results generally turned out to be positive.
There's also a treat at the end, by way of Living Images, Nokia's trail blazed ahead of Apple's "innovative" Live Photos. The short one-second video it records before photos is just the beginning. The Lumia 950 is also capable of shooting 4K video.
Microsoft's stripped-down camera app is clearly in its infancy. There needs to be more modes, including the return of many Nokia Lumia Camera 5.0 favorites. Samsung and LG are leading the way, and I particularly like LG's wide selfie camera.
Hate selfies? Well, it's better than selfie sticks. That's the kind of innovation I'd like to see in Microsoft's budding return to phones.
I'll continue to update this portion of the review with new photos as Microsoft continues to update its bare-bones camera app.