Rad A. Drew Photography: The New Google Pixel Phone Camera

Continental Divide at Dawn

Continental Divide at Dawn
Continental Divide at Dawn

Friday, January 13, 2017

The New Google Pixel Phone Camera

Editor's Note:

Special thanks to Verizon for providing the demo Pixel for this review. Click here to learn more about Rad Drew, and click here to sign up for the Rad Drew Photography Newsletter.


Recently I was asked by Verizon News to share my thoughts about the camera in Google’s new phone, Pixel. The folks at Verizon sent me the Pixel so I could put it through its paces and share my experience.

Google’s new mobile phone, Pixel, is marketed as a competitor to the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy, and many of the reviews seem to show that image quality with the Pixel does rival or even exceed that of the iPhone under some circumstances. I was not disappointed in the Pixel. I found it to be a terrific camera. The general operation of the Pixel’s native camera is very similar to the interface on other devices, and it’s very intuitive. As I compared images under different conditions with images from the phone I know best, the iPhone 7 Plus, I found them comparable, but with some differences.

Are Pixel images better? Not necessarily; just different. The Pixel's performance equaled that of the iPhone 7 Plus in every area except one. Pixel's Blur Mode can't compete with the iPhone 7 Plus for consistently creating great portraits with that beautiful blur, or bokeh, that makes portraits shot in this way so attractive. For portraits with this narrow depth of field blur, the Pixel is adequate, but can’t compare to the quality portraits produced by the iPhone 7 Plus and its dual lens system. When the Portrait feature on the iPhone is selected, the camera switches to its alternate 56mm, f2.8 lens. This lens combined with the iPhone 7 Plus’s Depth Effect element of Portrait mode is currently an unbeatable combination for achieving bokeh for portraits and other types of shots. The Pixel takes a decent portrait, but the iPhone 7 Plus is more consistent, and produces better results.

Another difference between the Pixel and the iPhone using the native standard camera is the difference in white balance. White balance refers to the aspect of digital photography that allows us to create natural-looking color in our images. Images from the iPhone 7 Plus were somewhat cooler (bluer) than those from the Pixel, which are warmer (yellower). The difference is so insignificant that it’s only discernable when images of the same scene taken with each camera are viewed side-by-side. One is not necessarily wrong and the other right, they're just different.

Regardless of which of these white balance outcomes you prefer, if you are willing to do some post-processing, the great app, SnapSeed, which runs on both the iPhone and Android platforms, now has a white balance adjustment feature for achieving the color that looks most natural to you.

You must look very closely at the images below to notice that the Pixel image is warmer than the cooler iPhone image.

Image 1: Pixel
Image 2: iPhone 7 Plus
There’s also been considerable buzz about Pixel lens flares – unattractive light spots and light arcs in an image – occurring when shooting into the sun. In image comparisons between the iPhone 7 Plus and the Pixel below, I shot into the sun with both cameras to see if I could produce lens flares. It’s important to note that any camera shooting into the sun is likely to create lens flares because that’s just what happens as light encounters any lens system directly. The iPhone image below actually showed more significant flaring than the Pixel. But, in my opinion, this is not a defect because it is something that one would expect to occur when shooting into the sun with almost any lens. The fact that both cameras produced lens flares under these conditions supports that. I think it’s an unfair criticism of the Pixel.

In comparing the images below, the lens flares appear as green spots in both images. The iPhone image also has a crescent-shaped lens flare just left of center.

Image 3: Pixel
Image 4: iPhone 7 Plus
The Pano feature in both the iPhone and the Pixel is very good and produces comparable results. Although they have different methods of capturing the image, both features are relatively intuitive and produce sharp, color-correct panoramas. It took me a while to warm to the Pixel’s capture method (which involves centering a blue dot in a circle on the screen until the shutter fires) but once I did, I came to appreciate it for its simplicity.

On these panoramas, I intentionally shot into the sun again to see if either camera would produce lens flares. Both cameras did, but the iPhone produced two spots while the Pixel only one. And as I said before, it's an unfair criticism of the Pixel, as any camera when shooting into the sun is likely to produce lens flares.

Image 5: Pixel Pano
Image 6: iPhone 7 Plus Pano

Pixel's Lens Blur Mode Falls Short

One feature of the Pixel that failed to measure up is its Lens Blur mode, which is marketed as its portrait mode, loosely comparable to the iPhone 7 Plus’ Portrait mode with Depth Effect.

These features – the Lens Blur on the Pixel, and the Portrait mode on the iPhone – are intended to create that wonderful blur or, as it’s called, bokeh, that is produced when only a narrow part of the image is in focus. This is referred to as having a narrow depth of field in photography lingo. When done right, the subject in a portrait appears sharp while the foreground and background can be slightly blurry. The features on both cameras can produce decent results, but I found the Portrait mode with Depth Effect on the iPhone 7 Plus produced higher quality results with greater consistency.

Lens Blur on the Pixel sometimes had a hard time determining what was to be in focus and what should be blurred. Although the iPhone was more consistent, it did require one to be within about eight feet of the subject to activate the Depth Effect, and sometimes it didn’t work even within that range without resetting by switching to another camera mode and then back to the Portrait mode.

From approximately the same distance, the results with each camera are very different. In the comparison below, the iPhone clearly defines the subject and keeps it sharp while blurring the background. The Pixel image blurs part of the subject’s hat, confusing it with the background.

Because of the dual lens system, the iPhone 7 Plus consistently produces superior portraits. This is really not a fair comparison because the technology of the two phones is not comparable. When the iPhone Portrait mode is selected in the native camera, the camera switches to its 56mm, f2.8 lens and engages the Depth Effect feature, which not only allows for a beautiful blur around the subject, but due to the longer lens (56mm) also makes the subject much larger in the frame.

Although the Pixel can produce a great blur effect, one has to get uncomfortably close to the subject to get a portrait that fills the frame like the iPhone 7 Plus. While the iPhone had no difficulty recognizing the face or other subject in a portrait, the Pixel camera didn’t always know where the blur should stop and start. In image 7 the subject’s hat is blurred when it shouldn’t be. Similarly, in the Pixel portraits taken on the bridge the camera wouldn’t readily differentiate between the subject and the background. It repeatedly blurred the subject, leaving the background in focus. It took several attempts before the camera focused on the person and blurred the background instead of the other way around.

Image 7: Pixel Blur Mode
Image 8: iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode with Depth Effect
In the first Pixel shot below (Image 9), the camera focused on the correct spot, but only after several attempts. It wanted to focus on the background, blurring the subject, as shown in the second image. The iPhone 7 Plus (Image 11) created a beautiful portrait repeatedly without fail.

Image 9: Pixel Blur Mode
Image 10: Pixel Blur Mode
Image 11: iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode with Depth Effect

Pixel Does Well in Low Light

Night captures are challenging with any mobile phone, so I was very curious to see how the Pixel managed night shots. Overall, the Pixel performed very well, but the iPhone produced a slightly sharper image when enlarged. Still, if not looking at them side-by-side, there’s no noticeable difference in color or noise.

Image 12: Pixel at Night

Image 13: iPhone 7 Plus at Night

Image 14: Pixel at Night

Image 15: iPhone 7 Plus at Night

Pixel's Photo Sphere Mode 
Creates Fun 360 Pano

The PhotoSphere is a fun feature unique to Pixel’s native camera that allows you to take a 360 degree panoramic image of your surroundings. Although there are camera apps you can purchase that will enable the iPhone to create an image like this (360 Panorama by Occipital, Inc. is one), the Pixel is one of the few phones that has this feature built in. It produces very wide and wildly distorted images, which are a lot of fun.

Image 16: Pixel Photo Sphere
So, what’s the best technique for a good Photo Sphere result? Follow this process:
  1. Hold the camera in a vertical position close to you at eye level.
  2. Rotate smoothly in a circle, waiting for the shutter to fire each time the focus circle fills. Be sure not to vary the distance between your body and the camera as you rotate.
  3. Tilt the camera up and repeat step two.
  4. Tilt the camera down and repeat step two.
  5. Press the check mark to process and save your image.
The Photo Sphere image above is right out of the Pixel camera with no editing. The image below I edited on the Pixel phone using the app, SnapSeed, to show how any image can be improved with minimal post-processing. The SnapSeed app runs on Android and IOS devices and it’s free.

Image 17: Pixel Photo Sphere with SnapSeed Edits

Pixel Pros and Cons
Double click power button to quickly opens camera
No home button takes some getting used to.
Very fast, no shutter lag
Not water proof
Multiple grids to choose from to aid in composition, and grids can be selected and changed from the camera interface, instead of only through the phone settings like the iPhone, which is annoying.
Limited quality post-processing apps
Can produce a greater than 180 degree pano
No high quality accessory lenses available

Lens Blur mode produces adequate portraits for the persistent photographer
Lens Blur is difficult to control; often fails to blur correct part of image. It can’t compete with the iPhone’s 56mm, f2.8 portrait lens and the built in Depth Effect feature.
Very sharp images, especially when taken in bright light

Built in Photo Sphere feature is lots of fun

Charges quickly

A Final Clarifying Word

I need to confess that I’ve been an iPhone proponent since getting my first iPhone 4 in 2010. Since then, we’ve all watched the mobile phone camera wars as people move snugly into one camp or the other. Just as we have those who favor a Chevy over a Ford, we have those who favor the Android over the Apple operating system. And, just like the Chevy and Ford will get you where you want to go, so will the Android and the IOS devices. Among the flagship phones in any line today, the camera differences that lead us to purchase one phone over another are more personal preferences than real and noticeable differences in image quality.

For most of the things an average mobile phone shooter will want to achieve like great vacation shots, family photos, and images to be shared on social media, any of the flagship mobile devices will do just fine. They are all remarkable!

But if you’re looking for a great portrait camera, and, particularly, if you want to post-process extensively to create fine art, then you are going to want a phone for which there is a boatload of quality apps. I know I’m biased toward the iPhone, but when I look for Android apps that rival apps for the iPhone, I’m don't find them. Apps like Camera +, Image Blender, Stackables, Formulas, Mextures, and a host of others which are bread-and-butter iPhone apps for creatives don’t run in the Android realm and I’ve found no alternative Android apps that equal them.

If you’re looking for a camera that will take great photographs and do a decent job with portraits, then you can’t go wrong with the Pixel (or the Samsung, or the iPhone). But, if you’re intending to create fine art, I believe the iPhone is the best choice for the simple reason that you’ll have more quality apps for post-processing and transforming your image into something beyond the straight photograph.

For the mobile photography I do, it’s very rare that I don’t do some processing of the image with other apps after taking the photo, or even take the photo with apps other than the native camera that comes in the phone, so, frankly, the quality of the image right out of the phone is not the most important thing for me. Regardless of the phone these days, you’re most likely going to have to squint and look pretty hard to see any significant quality differences in the images they produce.

In addition to finding apps that will allow me to capture, edit and stylize to my heart’s content, it’s also important to me to be able find quality attachable lenses that allow me to get closer to my subject, get wider angle shots, and macro shots. To date, I’ve yet to see anyone making a decent accessory lens for any Android phone, while lenses by Olloclip and Moment do a very good job for a range of iPhone cameras.

These are the main reasons that no Android phone to date – regardless of its camera quality – has attracted my attention; the Android phones simply can’t compete with the iPhone for the number of high quality apps available for post processing, and the availability of quality accessory lenses.

Fortunately for Android phones users, some of the best apps for post processing, such as SnapSeed, PS Express, and Lightroom, are available for and run on the Android platform. But many other leading stylizing apps that are essential in the work I do are simply not available (yet) for the Android phones.

For photographers interested in manipulating images after capturing them, here is a list of apps that work for both Android and IOS devices.

Apps for Android and IOS Devices

SnapSeed (Free)
Editing, Cropping, Stylizing and more
PS Express (Free)
Editing, stylizing, noise reduction
Handy Photo
General purpose app, great tools for removing telephone wires, etc.
Vintage Scene
Stylizing to look line old photos
Portrait Painter
Painterly look, cartoons, and smoothing
Photo Studio
Best app for removing wires, spots, and other unwanted items from image.
Jixi Pix apps
Makers of Vintage Scene and Portrait Painter make a host of stylizing apps to explore