For many years, I used Google Pixels and Apple iPhones for my daily smartphone photography needs. For most shots, I relied on pixels thanks to Google’s innovative computing photography software, which limits the excellent image quality from limited equipment. My current iPhone, the XS Max, was carried over to cases where I needed a telephoto lens.
The last two releases of smartphones – Google Pixel 5 and Apple iPhone 12 – have changed their minds. The mid-range camera hardware on the Pixel 5 and the high-end camera range on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, as well as the large gadget image sensor and new software options are pushing me to Apple’s camp.
That should have been wrong. I was struck by Google’s ability to turn advanced image processing into great smartphone photos. Google has demonstrated how deeply computers can upgrade cameras, as it has outperformed smartphone competitors and traditional camera manufacturers.
Google’s decision to build a mid-range phone with only two cameras feels like a failure. There is simply no way to compensate for the many cameras used by rivals such as Samsung, Huawei and Apple. Of course, competitors don’t necessarily match all of Google’s camera software, but Google doesn’t come close to their hardware.
TV object against ultra-wide cameras
In 2019, Google Pixel 4 took a step up by adding a second rear view camera – the telephoto option for remote objects. That same year, Apple added a third camera to its higher-end iPhone 11 Pro models, an ultra-wide camera that sat next to its main and camera cameras.
Google tried to achieve Apple’s mastery this year by replacing the telephoto lens with an ultra-wide camera in the Pixel 5. But Apple has made significant improvements to the camera with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a larger image sensor, a more powerful telephoto lens Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second and a more flexible ProRaw format from Apple. It is clear that Apple spends a lot of resources to improve photography.
Google may have made the right call for the wider market. I suspect that ultra-wide cameras are better for regular smartphone buyers than telephoto. Ultra-wide cameras for group shots, indoor scenes and videos may be more useful than telephoto cameras for portraits and mountains.
But I want both. I like different points of view. Indeed, for a few years I usually only wore SLRs and ultra-wide lenses.
In response to my concerns, Google says it has improved the Super Res Zoom technology for digital zoom on the Pixel 5 with better computational photography andtechniques that can now be increased to a factor of 7X. The idea was
“We studied it carefully to determine what really mattered to people, and then we focused on that – and shaved literally hundreds of dollars in the process,” said camera manager Isaac Reynolds. Having a telephoto lens could help with image quality, but Google’s priority this year “was to make a phone that would compare well to the top end, but at a much lower price – and we did.”
I’m not so sure. When shooting even with a 2x telephoto zoom, my 2-year-old iPhone XS Max and 1-year-old Pixel 4 provide much more beautiful images compared to the Pixel 5.
What I like now about the Pixel 5 cameras
I want to understand: Google’s new phone has its merits, and I’ve experienced some of these strengths while testing the Pixel 5 cameras over the past few days. Here are a few:
- Google’s computing technology offers photo enthusiasts the best of both worlds when it comes to photo formats. It combines the exposure and color flexibility of raw raw photo data with the exposure range and noise reduction of HDR + multi-shot processing typically used to create JPEGs.
- Pressing the phone’s power button twice quickly launches the camera application. This is not new with the Pixel 5, but much faster than the iPhone screen lock icon.
- The night sight, especially the astrophotography mode, is still impressive for low light shots.
Google has also pointed to other Pixel 5 bonuses, including the ability for portrait light to control the visible light source that illuminates the subject’s face; portrait shots that work in Night Sight mode; The 4K video, which now runs at 60 frames per second, has been enhanced with high dynamic range processing called HDR +, which is now enhanced by exposure bracketing for better shadow details such as backlit faces and better video stabilization.
Here’s the thing: At a time when Google is not working in hardware, competitors are improving their software.
Google’s rivals in computing photography are catching up
Apple has not commented on its photographic plans for this story, but its actions say a lot.
Last year, Apple combined most of Google’s best HDR + results for complex scenes with bright and dark elements. This year’s Pixel 5 enhances HDR + using bracketing technology to the overlay technique. However, Apple’s Smart HDR alternative is now in the third generation of improvement. Apple is also improving iPhone night photos.
Photo enthusiasts like me prefer raw, raw photo formats so we can fine-tune color balance, exposure, sharpness and noise reduction. This is great when the camera doesn’t make the right choice, when it “bakes” raw image data into a more convenient but limited JPEG image. Computing computing HDR from HDR with raw material flexibility, but now Apple plans to release its answer, ProRaw, in an update that will soon appear for iPhone Pro models.
Few people use Pixel phones, and this is also true at Google. Image processing software Adobe calibrates its Lightroom photo software to fix lens problems and adapt the HDR tool for some cameras and lenses. Not surprisingly, Pixel phones are not on this list. “We are committed to providing support based on the popularity of devices among our customers,” the statement said.
In contrast, Adobe “works closely with Apple” to take advantage of ProRaw. And Google’s computer photography guru, Mark Levoy, has left Google and is in Adobe, where he is embedding photo technology in an application for the Adobe camera.
Selling mid-range smartphones such as the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G may well make sense when the COVID-19 pandemic cost millions of jobs and made the $ 1,099 iPhone Pro Max unavailable. But for people like me who have a budget for photos and are grateful for Google’s smart computing photo, it’s tragic that Google has lost ground.