Windows Phone users have long wished for a handset with a camera that can rival that of the industry leading iPhone. Sadly, the Nokia Lumia 900 is not that phone. But it does set a new high water mark for Windows Phone devices, with some nice camera features like widescreen stills and scene choices.

There are bogus complaints and then there are legitimate complaints.

And while few aspects of even the first generation of Windows Phone handsets were truly disappointing, the one that always rankled was the low quality of the included cameras. There wasn’t a single decent camera among that first generation of devices, and I was hoping that we’d see some better alternatives with the second generation, Windows Phone 7.5-based handsets. And we did, though whatever improvements we saw were rightfully overshadowed by the absolutely incredible—by smart phone standards—camera that Apple included with the iPhone 4S.

The iPhone 4S camera raises the bar for what people expect from smart phone cameras much in the same way that the original iPhone raised the bar on our overall smart phone expectations. It’s not quite a viable replacement for a point and click camera. But it’s close. Very close.

Since experiencing the iPhone 4S camera, I’ve been looking for a Windows Phone handset that can approximate that device, offering a combination of quantity (8 megapixels or higher) and quality (like the iPhone’s HDR capabilities) that matches or maybe even surpasses it.

It’s never happened. Some of the Windows Phone 7.5 handsets we saw last October at the launch event, include the Lumia 800, HTC Titan and even the Samsung Focus S which I eventually settled on, all offered decent cameras, much nicer than anything from the first generation Windows Phones. But nowhere near as clear, crisp, and color correct as the iPhone 4S.

And now I have a Nokia Lumia 900. How does it measure up?

From a tech specs perspective, it looks like a close race. The iPhone 4S features an 8 megapixel camera with a large f/2.4 aperture, auto focus, and LED flash. The Lumia 900 features an 8 megapixel camera with a somewhat larger f/2.2 aperture, auto focus, and dual LED flash.

I’m not a photography expert, but my understanding of the aperture rating is that it essentially measures the amount of light that can be let into the camera and the speed at which it can do so, where the lower number—f/2.2—is “better,” all other things being equal. Of course, it’s never that tidy. Quality of optics matters, for example, and while Nokia often touts its “Carl Zeiss” optics, that’s no guarantee of superiority.

So I took some pictures.

For the test, I took several shots inside and out, without flash, and without changing most of the default settings on either. (I enabled HDR mode on the iPhone 4S, because it also provides an unchanged original, and I used the Lumia in a unique widescreen mode I prefer and will discuss more below.) I took two shots of each scene with each camera and discarded the less desirable of the pair for each, after acquiring them directly to the PC.

It’s no contest. The iPhone 4S photos are superior, across the board. You really have to look at them, and zoom in the same way with each, but in every single scene I shot, an iPhone version of the photo was superior to the Lumia shots, with crisper details, better color, and less pixelation. Not once did the Lumia come out ahead.

Here are some sample comparisons, with the Lumia shots on the left and the iPhone 4S on the right.

xbox_controller

tomatoes

flower

outside

Now, before anyone gets too depressed by this, there are a few caveats.

Universally, I chose the HDR versions of the photos over the non-HDR versions, on the iPhone side. This is, in my opinion, one of many reasons to choose the iPhone 4S camera over the competition, but I could see some photographer purists not liking the more contrasty HDR shots. And it’s fair to say that there wasn’t a single non-HDR shot out of the iPhone I wouldn’t want to post-process in some way using Photoshop or whatever. The normal shots were very washed out.

I did shoot the Lumia pictures in widescreen mode. This feature is a plus for the Nokia device, since the iPhone only shoots 4 x 3 stills, which is a curious omission. The widescreen Lumia shots were framed a bit differently than the iPhone shots, and generally had to be zoomed in a bit so that the in-picture objects were the same relative size.

And the Lumia pictures, by and large, were not horrible at all. In fact, some are downright excellent for a smart phone camera. As with the Samsung Focus S, this phone offers a fine photo experience for everything but vacations and important events. As they say, the best camera is the one you have with you.

(While it’s unlikely that many people would base a two-year smart phone commitment on just the camera, it’s an important component of that purchase, I think, and even more so when you consider that normal consumers aren’t far off from never needing to buy a dedicated camera again. But we’re not there yet ... unless you use an iPhone 4S. That one smart phone, still, is about the only one I’ve seen that comes anywhere close to this level of quality.)

With that out of the way, there are still some other aspects to the Lumia 900 camera that I appreciate.

The Windows Phone 7.5 camera experience is excellent, overall. Microsoft added the ability to save camera settings in that release, and there are indeed a stunning number of settings you can configure if you want to screw around with it. I tend to turn off the flash—phone camera flashes are notoriously bad, like the light of a thousand suns, an issue that’s true on the iPhone 4S, too, by the way—but I was interested to see where the options here varied from those on the Focus S.

And there are a few camera settings in the Lumia 900 that aren’t present in that other phone, including:

Scenes. You can choose between Auto, Beach, Candlelight, Macro, Landscape, Night, Portrait, Sports, and Sunset. I tend to forget about this kind of feature when it would be most useful, but I also have a hard time imagining that the, say, Sports mode would actually make much of a difference while photographing people running around a basketball court. There’s only so much you can do with such tiny cameras.

Widescreen. While both the Lumia and Focus S offer varying resolutions, only the Lumia offers a widescreen (16:9) mode, which is 7 megapixels (vs. 8 for the top-end 4:3 resolution). This is, for me, a huge advantage, not just over the Focus, but over the iPhone as well.

Some options are present on both phones but, oddly, had different names. And the Focus S has a “wide dynamic range” option that I don’t believe is present on the Lumia. I’m surprised these things aren’t more consistent: I expect the Lumia to offer a superset of camera features compared to older phones. But I don’t expect individual settings to have different names.

Put simply, the camera isn’t a reason to choose the Lumia 900, unless you’re a fan of widescreen shots. It’s a great smart phone camera, but not up to the level of quality we see with the iPhone 4S. If camera quality is your big concern, you’ll want to pay attention to the HTC Titan II as well. That phone features a 16 megapixel camera, which could provide interesting competition if the quality is high enough. I hope to review that phone—which is otherwise unexceptional looking—soon.