Google claims its Pixel and Pixel XL have the best cameras ever fitted inside a phone. But is this just marketing hyperbole?
The Google Pixel XL (and Google Pixel) packs in one of the most impressive cameras I have ever tested. Whether shooting video or images, the camera constantly impresses me.
Tack on that Google’s support – unlimited 4K storage and uploads inside Drive – and you have one hell of a handset that is great for professional and casual shooters alike.
Dig down into the specs of the handset and you will see that it has been built with photography in mind:
1/2.3” 12MP CMOS sensor with 1.55µm pixels
AF with on-sensor phase detection and laser-assistance
Dual-tone LED flash
4K video at 30 fps
1080p slow-motion at 120fps, 720p at 240fps
Manual controls and Raw-support with third-party camera apps
Gyroscope-based video stabilization
8MP front camera, 1/3.2" sensor, 1.4 µm pixels, F2.4, 1080p video
Unlimited cloud storage for full-resolution images and videos
On paper, the Pixel’s camera tech isn’t all that different from last year’s Nexus 6P. It has the same 1/2.3" 12MP sensor is paired with an F2.0 aperture and it does not feature Optical Image Stabilisation. But where things get decidedly more impressive is on the software front.
Google’s added in a new piece of gyroscope-based video stabilisation that can read gyro data 200 times per second. This creates infinitely smoother video, especially when panning and/or using the camera without a tripod, as you can see in the video samples below:
In addition to this, advancements in CPU technology now mean the Pixel XL and Pixel images are automatically captured in HDR+ mode. This brings more detail to shots, increased dynamic range and, best of all, it is all done with ZERO shutter lag.
The spec of the camera itself is pretty impressive too. You’re shooting images with a a 1/2.3" 12MP sensor with 1.55µm pixel size that is stacked atop a six element lens system with an f2.0 aperture. The Pixel handsets also use a laser to read the distance of objects.
A dual-tone LED flash is also included for when you’re shooting in low light; this type of flash helps balance skin tones of subjects, for instance, while autofocus automatically sorts out any contrast issues. I’ve been using this phone for close to 12 months now and I have yet to find something that it cannot do.
Google Pixel Camera App
Unlike previous Nexus handsets, Google’s Pixel phones run a different looking camera app, which is designed to give you more control over what you’re shooting.
There are plenty of modes for shooting – panorama, photo sphere and lens blue – and you can get some really impressive shots using these.
It DOES NOT feature a “Pro Mode” however, unlike the Huawei P10, for instance, so if you want to access things like shutter speed, DNG raw capture, you will need to download a third-party app like Manual Camera.
The odd thing here is that Google’s Pixel phones support all these Pro features but for whatever reason Google has omitted them from its default app. Why? I have no idea. But given how popular Pro Mode is on the Huawei P10 and Samsung’s phones, I’d love to see this change inside a future update.
HDR+ Mode: Just Leave It On
You can leave the HDR+ mode on all the time with the Pixel, as it will not impact the handset’s overall performance. Advancements in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon CPUs mean imaging, while still power intensive, is handled a lot better than it was in 2015/16.
HDR+ will also make your shots look a lot better; whether shooting in optimal light or low light, HDR+ mode will always deliver superb shots by increasing the dynamic range in high contrast scenes, reducing noise across the board and, in low light, it will add in more detail for better overall results.
For instance, if you’re shooting in harsh direct sunlight, like when you’re on holiday, there can be a lot of clipping present in your shots as well as a loss of detail. With HDR+ mode, the exposure will be automatically tweaked, it’ll make the contrast softer in this context, in order to reduce clipping and produce a more natural, detailed shot.
As a point and shoot camera, the Google Pixel phones are definitely up there with the best in the business, meaning Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S8.
I wish Google had included a Pro Mode option inside the Camera app, however, and I do think the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7s Plus do perform better with respect to Lens Blur and Panorama shots.
For video though I have zero complaints with the Pixel phones; they’ll shoot 4K, 1080p or 720p. Tack onto this its ability to shoot slow-motion footage at 120 fps in 1080p quality and you have some great options for capturing very impressive video footage.
The 4K mode offers some of the best – and steady – video capture I have ever seen on a phone. Put the Pixel on a tripod, as I have in the footage below, and you can shoot some really cool, judder-free video in super-high quality.