Two years ago, Google unleashed the first Pixel on the world. And pretty much redefined what we expected from phone cameras in terms of detail. Then Pixel 2 followed in its feels, further refining phone photography expectations, so much so that we called it a camera disguised as a phone. And now comes the Pixel 3, which yanks camera performance to yet another level.
Yes, we chose our words carefully. And to make things dreadfully simple, we will not get into any mode or spec sheet discussions (single 12.2 megapixel camera with a f/1.8 aperture on the back, dual 8 megapixel cameras in front, for those interested), but will simply wade into the crux of the matter – what kind of photographs does the Pixel 3 take?
The answer is simple: bloody awesome ones.
We had reviewed the cameras on the new iPhones a few days ago and had come away impressed with how, notwithstanding all the chatter of Beautygate and computational photography, they still delivered pictures that were amazingly close to reality, albeit with the sort of gentle touch up you would expect from an accomplished actor still trying to appear “natural” on camera. We had seen what Google could do with its machine learning software muscle in the Pixel 2, where it delivered the sort of pictures that even phones with two cameras struggled to produce.
With the Pixel 3, it moves those standards up a notch further – and we are not talking about the rather large and slightly unseemly notch on the XL variant of the device. Interestingly while the earlier battles between the iPhone and the Android competition had been in terms of color reproduction, the Pixel takes it and its Android brethren on in terms of another aspect of photography: detail. And with its combination of HDR photography and machine learning, batters most of them. Yes, the app does not come with the plethora of shooting options that you would get on a Huawei P20 Pro or a Xiaomi device, but as far as we are concerned, most users should be concerned with two: “camera” (the Pixel’s equivalent of “auto,” a very odd name considering that all the other modes also use the name) and “portrait.”
Note: Here is a link to the Flickr album containing unedited full resolution images.
And be prepared to save the floor from your jaw (or vice versa, depending on strength and financial inclinations) when you see the results. For make no mistake, the Pixel 3’s HDR+ mode will pretty much deliver snaps that are astonishingly brilliant. If it is great looking pictures that you seek, your search ends here. You will get good colors, which might seem a little on the brighter side but are much better than the slight tendency towards greyish blue we saw on the Pixel 2. But what is going to stun you is the level of detail you will see in the shots, more often than not, often showing you things that you had not noticed at all. It is particularly telling when you are taking pictures which have multiple objects and textures in them, such as leaves or wooden surfaces – you are going to end up seeing much more than you would from another camera.
Google has talked of its Top Shot feature which picks the best from a series of shots every time you take a picture and also lets you pick one of your choice if you do not like what the camera has chosen – it ain’t hype, it works. And works so fast that we would recommend leaving it on. There’s no setting for it, but if you simply leave “Motion On”, you will get the option to select the best shot from a series whenever you take a snap. What IS “Motion On”, you ask? It is one of the options akin to Live Photos on the iPhone in which the camera captures a small video clip and shows you the best still from it. Sadly, if you end up using Top Shot, the photo is saved in a lower resolution (3 MP as against the usual 12.2 MP), but that shouldn’t be a concern for most people. You can opt to turn it off, set it to auto (when it works on most occasions) or turn it off. Unless you are worried about storage (the Pixel 3 still does not have expandable memory), we would recommend leaving it on.
Another new feature that Google has brought into the camera is the Super-Res zoom, which it claims can match about 2X optical zoom on other devices. And to be honest, it does work rather well. No, you will not exactly get the sort of detail that you would from a “real” optical zoom, but you get close enough, which is saying something when you consider that all this is being done with a single camera allied with some very serious software magic!
Low light performance is very similar to the Pixel 2 – the camera generally handles glare very well, and can sometimes take great shots, but it can be a little inconsistent. A little bit of patience is what we recommend and oh yes, we are not great supporters of using the flash. A new Night Sight mode is expected to make low light photography even better (it will be delivered via an update soon, we are told) but even in its current state, the Pixel 3 is a decent low light performer. A hint: consider turning off that HDR+ mode sometimes as it can try to artificially light up areas that you would prefer remained dark.
Then there is the Portrait mode. Unlike many of its rivals that opt for secondary cameras to get the depth of field information (simple English: to find out what’s to be kept in focus and what has to be blurred), Google has relied on good old software muscle. And based on the results, well, we think software makes hardware look silly. No, it is not as if Portrait Mode on the Pixel 3 is perfect, but it certainly does a much better job of spotting edges than the likes of the Note 9 and the iPhone XS do. And that applies to both back and front cameras.
Which of course brings us to the front cameras, the dual 8-megapixel shooters, with the second camera intended to capture wider selfies. Does the additional camera make a difference? We honestly are not too sure – the new camera does let you cover a greater area but honestly, we cannot see people giving up their selfie sticks for it yet. That said, the selfie-loving crowd will love the Pixel 2. The selfies we captured were very good in terms of detail (the forte of the Pixel, we say), although the color was a little inconsistent (some shots looked a little too pink, especially indoors, and some seemed to err on the grey side). There is a face retouching option out there, but even with it turned off, we felt that our complexions had been lightened a little. The Photobooth feature is supposed to snap a selfie whenever you smile, but it can be fooled by some facial twitches. But all said and done, you get good detail, great group shots and a superb portrait mode – what more could one ask for from a selfie! There are also stickers and Playmojis (3D figures you can insert into your photographs – go grab a selfie with Iron Man!). Well, perhaps something akin to Portrait Lighting on the iPhone would be nice, but that’s just us quibbling.
It is not all roses, though. The camera has a penchant of being a little inconsistent – we sometimes found it missing obvious subjects or delivering slightly blurry captures. And video recording is good, but nothing to give the likes of the iPhone XS sleepless nights. And as we started earlier, there were occasions when we thought that the camera was going detail-crazy – so much so that in the cases of close-ups, we sometimes wondered if machine learning was getting artificially intelligent and inserting things that did not exist. We would recommend using the HDR option for landscape and group snaps, but if you are going for close-ups (or macros, as they call them) then we would advise you to carefully see what the camera has captured. The detail might just be a little too good to be true at times, but then that is scarcely a bad thing, is it? Be patient and you will find yourself being surprised by some of the results you will get
The Pixel 3 proves that you do not need multiple cameras to take great photographs. Which is why it goes right up there with the best in the phone photography business, in spite of seeming to be relatively modestly specced. No, it is not perfect. It can be erratic. It can be inconsistent. And sometimes it can deliver results that border on the unreal.
But then, Google did say it was a “new way of looking at the world.” You bet it is. And for the most part, the world never looked better.