On last summer's home swap, I shared my experiences using a Lumia 1020 as the family's only camera for a three-week trip to Amsterdam and Belgium. This year, we've taken well over 1000 photos with a Nokia Lumia 1520 on our home swap in Barcelona, which included a side-trip to southern Spain and Tangier, Morocco. The results were just as good, if not better, than last year. And these kinds of handsets make it hard to even consider a smart phone that doesn't have an absolutely superb camera.

You can check out some photos from last year in Lumia 1020: 1500+ Photos. And of course, I previously explained how I had intended to use the 1020 again this year, but was thwarted by AT&T's Draconian unlocking polices in What I Use (Home Swap): Photos. So, I've been using a Lumia 1520 instead.

Deplaning, Seville, Spain

Since making the switch, I've taken somewhere north of 1100 photos here in Spain (and Morocco), plus several panoramas and short videos. I've used a variety of Nokia apps exclusively for these purposes, and these apps, combined the camera improvements provided by the Windows Phone 8.1 and Lumia Cyan firmware updates, really put the 1520 over the top.

Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona at night

So my lackluster experience with AT&T worked out for the best, but as it turned out, the move to the 1520 was advantageous in other ways too. For the first few days we were in Barcelona, I did take photos with the 1020, and I had started experiencing some new and troubling behavior.

Rooftop terrace in Tangier, Morocco at dawn

First, the phone was starting to freeze up, something that actually started just before I reset it (for the first and only time) back in July. (See One Year of Lumia 1020 for more information.)

And second, some shots were coming out blurry. Sometimes I'd actually notice this when taking a picture, but other times I'd download the photos to the PC at the end of the day and see some blurry shots I had missed. It was frequent enough that I started really paying attention when I took shots, something I'd never really even thought about before.

It's what's for dinner

Aside from that, of course, are the inherent performance issues with the Lumia 1020, which (usually) takes wonderful pictures, but can be maddeningly slow between shots. This is attributed to two factors, its relatively lower specs compared to newer Lumia entries (1520, Icon/930) and the lack of dedicated camera processing to drive its mammoth 41 megapixel optics.

Moving to the Lumia 1520, I noticed a number of things immediately.

The kids get in some Segway training

Speed. It's much faster, overall, and, more important, between camera shots. With the Lumia 1020, you take a photo and then wait—one, two, three, four long seconds, sometimes even more—before you can take the next shot. This is OK for the casual vacation shots, but when you're trying to capture something happening right now, it's no good. With the 1520, I've enabled Living Images (a new feature of Nokia Camera) and it takes between one and two seconds to start the camera when you hit the camera button, and the same amount of time between shots. It's just much more responsive.

Olives in the Kasbah market, Tangier, Morocco

Heft. Actually, I noticed this first, of course. The 1520 is huge. It's awkward to hold, hard to pocket (especially when sitting in a café or whatever), and impossible to use with one hand. It's slippery as a bar of soap, and if I had known I'd been using it daily like I have, I would have gotten some kind of grippy case (which I normally don't bother with). I wish the 1020's camera strap worked with this device, and that the Lumia 1520 protective cover I did bring (and quickly discard) wasn't so freaking terrible. As noted previously, I did get used to the 1520, and I'm a bit worried I'm "stuck" using a phone that's this big now, as my other devices seem really tiny now.

Mosque in Tangier, Morocco

Reliability. Compared to the Lumia 1020, the 1520 has been very reliable. Over three weeks and 1100+ photos, I think it spontaneously reset on me once—on the streets of Seville, I think—where I felt it vibrate, looked down, and saw the AT&T logo you see when the device first comes on. But it's never frozen like the 1020 does. (Hilariously, I went out to the living room just now to grab the 1020. It had been frozen for some indeterminable amount of time. Classic.)

Tangier, Morocco

In using the Lumia 1520's camera over many days and many photos, I also discovered—well, I already knew this, so maybe confirmed—that the handset's camera takes photos that are every bit as beautiful as those you can take with the 1020. In fact, thanks to those recent updates—especially the Cyan firmware, which I've not yet gotten on the 1020—the 1520 in some ways outperforms the 1020. Especially in low-light, which has always been a problem with the big-camera Lumias (1020, 1520, Icon/930) for whatever reason.

Young camel

I used Nokia Camera for the vast majority of the photos I've taken, and in full automatic mode with no flash. This is how I used the 1020 over the past year, and it's generally worked very well (I find the focus light feature to be very annoying in low-light conditions, as do those around me, and of course a smart phone flash is like the light of 1000 suns.)

Where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, near Tangier

I used Nokia Panorama to take several panoramas. As you might expect, there were glitches in the end result from time-to-time, but most of them came out quite nicely. The biggest issue I had was with lining up the shots—you basically move the camera slowly from side to side, pausing at points indicated by the app in order to create the panorama—which often seemed to be not quite "straight." But whatever.

View from the top of Barcelona Cathedral

View from the top of Barcelona Cathedral

Camp Nou, home of Football Club Barcelona

Rooftop view, Tangiers, Morocco (dawn)

Rooftop view, Tangiers, Morocco 

Barcelona as seen from Tibadabo

I did notice that Nokia Panorama seemed to heat up the phone, too, so I was sure to use it sparingly, back-to-back, and was careful to manually shut it down when done. Battery life is always a concern when you're out in the world taking photos all day long, but aside from one, maybe two exceptions, I never needed additional juice. (When I did, I used a Nokia portable USB charger.)

Placa d'Espanya, Barcelona

I used Nokia Movie Moments to edit a handful of videos while out and about, but even with the big screen on the 1520, I find video editing to work better on the PC (Movie Maker), plus the PC is a better solution for sharing videos too. But Movie Moments also doesn't work well for portrait-oriented videos (common on phones). And I didn't want to use up bandwidth uploading videos.

Morocco ceiling detail

In short, I didn't do anything special ... because I didn't need to. The point here isn't to win a photography award, these are just vacation shots. And for that purpose, the Lumia 1520 has acquitted itself quite nicely. I suspect that in the right hands, it could win some awards as well.