Two recent smartphone launches – of Google’s Pixel 5 and Apple’s iPhone 12 lines – have changed their minds. The mid-range camera hardware on the Pixel 5 and the advanced range of cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, along with the gadget’s large image sensor and new software capabilities, push me to the Apple camp.
It should not be like that. I have been impressed with Google’s ability to convert groundbreaking imaging research into superior smartphone photos. Google demonstrated how deeply computers can modernize cameras as it surpassed smartphone rivals and traditional camera makers.
Google’s decision to build a mid-range camera with just two cameras feels like a foregone conclusion. There is just no way to compensate for the many cameras that rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Apple use. Sure, rivals did not necessarily match all of Google’s camera software, but Google is not close to their hardware.
Tele Vs. ultrawide cameras
In 2019, Google’s Pixel 4 took a step up by adding another rear-facing camera, a telephoto setting for distant subjects. It was the same year that Apple added a third camera to its advanced iPhone 11 Pro models, an ultra-wide camera that sat next to its main and telecom cameras.
Google tried to match Apple’s ability this year by replacing the tele-camera with an ultra-wide camera in the Pixel 5. But Apple made major camera improvements with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a larger image sensor, a longer-range telephoto lens, improved image stabilization to counter shake hands, Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second and Apple’s more flexible ProRaw format. Clearly, Apple is lowering huge resources for better photography.
Google may have made the right call to the broad market. I suppose ultra-wide cameras are better for regular smartphone customers than telephones. Ultrawide cameras for group shots, indoor scenes and video are without a doubt more useful than tele-cameras for portraits and mountains.
But I want both. I enjoy the different perspectives. In fact, for some years I usually only wore tele- and ultrasound lenses for my DSLR.
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 magnify up to a factor of 7X. The idea was
“We studied closely to find out what’s really important to people, and then we focused on it – and literally shaved off hundreds of dollars in the process,” said camera product manager Isaac Reynolds. Having a tele-camera would have helped image quality, but Google’s priority this year “was to produce a phone that compares well with the top end, but at a much lower price – and we did.”
I’m not so convinced. When I shoot even at 2X telephoto zoom, my 2-year-old iPhone XS Max and my 1-year-old Pixel 4 both offer far better images compared to the Pixel 5.
What I like so far about the Pixel 5 cameras
I want to be clear: Google’s new phone has its benefits, and I’ve experienced some of these strengths while testing the Pixel 5 cameras over the last few days. Here are a handful:
- Google’s computing raw materials give photo enthusiasts the best of both worlds when it comes to photo formats. It marries the exposure and color flexibility of unprocessed raw photo data with the exposure range and noise reduction of the multishot HDR + process normally used to make a JPEG.
- Double-clicking the phone’s power button starts the camera app quickly. It’s not new with the Pixel 5, but it’s so much faster than the iPhone’s lock screen icon.
- Night Sight, especially astrophotography mode, is still great for shooting in low light.
Google also pointed to other Pixel 5 perks, including a standing light capability to control the apparent light source that illuminates a subject’s face; portrait images operating in Night Sight mode; 4K video that now works at fast 60 frames per second, more advanced high-dynamic range processing called HDR +, which is now enhanced by exposure brackets for better shadow information such as a backlit face and better video stabilization.
Here’s the friction though: As Google slips into hardware, rivals improve their software.
Google’s rivals in computational photography are catching up
Apple did not comment on its shooting plans for this story, but its actions speak volumes.
Last year, Apple matched most of what was best about Google’s HDR + to challenging scenes with light and dark elements. This year’s Pixel 5 enhances HDR + with bracketing technology for multishot blending technology. However, Apple’s Smart HDR alternative is now in its third generation of refinement. Apple also enhances iPhone night photos.
Photo enthusiasts like me prefer unprocessed, raw photo formats so we can fine-tune color balance, exposure, sharpening and noise reduction. It’s great when the camera is not making the right choices when “baking” raw image data for a more convenient but limited JPEG image. Google’s computationally mixed HDR processing with raw flexibility, but now Apple plans to release its answer, ProRaw, in an update coming soon to iPhone Pro models.
Few people use Pixel phones, and so does Google. Image software powerhouse Adobe calibrates its Lightroom photo software to correct lens problems and adapt its HDR tool to some cameras and lenses. No surprise that Pixel phones are not on the list. “We tend to provide support based on the popularity of the devices with our customers,” Adobe said in a statement.
In contrast, Adobe “works closely with Apple” to leverage ProRaw capabilities. And a Google computational photography guru, Marc Levoy, has left Google and is now with Adobe, where he builds photo technology in Adobe’s camera app.
Selling a mid-range smartphone like a Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G may well make sense when the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of jobs and made an iPhone Pro Max at $ 1,099 unaffordable. But for people like me with a photography budget and appreciation of Google’s computational photography, it’s tragic that Google has lost its lead.