Two recent smartphone launches – Google’s Pixel 5 lines and Apple’s iPhone 12 lines – have changed my mind. The mid-range camera hardware on the Pixel 5 and the high-end camera range on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, along with the gadget’s large image sensor and new software options, are pushing me to the Apple camp.
It didn’t have to be. I was impressed with Google’s ability to convert cutting-edge image processing search into superior smartphone photos. Google has shown how deeply computers can modernize cameras, as it has outperformed smartphone competitors and traditional camera manufacturers.
Google’s decision to build a mid-range phone with just two cameras feels like an abandonment. There’s no way to compensate for the multiple cameras that rival the way Samsung, Huawei, and Apple employ. Sure, the rivals haven’t necessarily matched all of Google’s camera software, but Google isn’t close to their hardware.
Telephoto versus ultrawide cameras
In 2019, Google’s Pixel 4 took it a step further by adding a second rear camera, a telephoto option for distant subjects. That was the same year that Apple added a third camera to its high-end iPhone 11 Pro models, an ultrawide camera that sat alongside its main and telephoto camera.
Google tried to match Apple’s prowess this year by replacing the telephoto camera with an ultrawide camera in the Pixel 5. But Apple has made major improvements to the camera with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a larger image sensor, a Longer range telephoto lens, improved image stabilization to counteract hand shake, Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second, and Apple’s most flexible ProRaw format. It is clear that Apple is investing enormous resources in better photography.
Google may have made the right call for the broad market. I suspect ultrawide cameras are better for traditional smartphone customers than telephoto lenses. Ultrawide cameras for group photos, indoor scenes and video are probably more useful than tele cameras for portraits and mountains.
But I want both. I like the different perspectives. In fact, for a few years I usually only carried telephoto and ultrawide lenses for my DSLR.
In response to my concerns, Google says it has improved the Super Res Zoom technique for digital zoom on the Pixel 5 with better computational photography andtechniques that can now zoom in up to a factor of 7X. The idea was
“We studied carefully to determine what’s really important to people, and then we focused on that – and we literally cut hundreds of dollars in the process,” said Isaac Reynolds, camera product manager. Having a telephoto lens would have helped image quality, but Google’s priority this year “was to produce a phone that was well compared to the high end but at a much lower price – and we did.”
I am not so convinced. When shooting with the 2X telephoto lens too, my 2-year-old iPhone XS Max and 1-year-old Pixel 4 offer far superior images than the Pixel 5.
What I like so far about the Pixel 5 cameras
I want to be clear: Google’s new phone has its merits, and I’ve experienced some of these strengths when testing Pixel 5 cameras over the past few days. Here is a handful:
- Google’s computational raw gives photo enthusiasts the best of both worlds when it comes to photo formats. Combines the exposure and color flexibility of unprocessed raw photographic data with the exposure range and noise reduction of HDR + multishot processing normally used to create a JPEG.
- Double tapping the phone’s power button quickly launches the camera app. That’s nothing new with the Pixel 5, but it’s much faster than the iPhone’s lock screen icon.
- Night Sight, especially the astrophotography mode, is still amazing for low-light shots.
Google has also pointed out other advantages of the Pixel 5, including a portrait light ability to control the apparent light source illuminating a subject’s face; portrait shots that work in Night Sight mode; 4K video that now runs at a speed of 60 frames per second, more advanced high dynamic range processing called HDR + which is now enhanced by exposure bracketing for better shadow detail like a backlit face and better video stabilization.
Here’s the problem, though: As Google slides into hardware, rivals are improving their software.
Google’s rivals in computational photography are catching up
Apple hasn’t commented on its photography plans for this story, but its actions speak volumes.
Last year, Apple paired most of what was better than Google’s HDR + for challenging scenes with bright and dark elements. This year’s Pixel 5 boosts HDR + with bracketing technology in the multishot blending technique. Apple’s Smart HDR alternative, however, is now in its third generation of refinement. Apple is also improving the iPhone night photos.
Photography enthusiasts like me prefer raw, raw photo formats so that they can optimize color balance, exposure, sharpness and noise reduction. This is great for when the camera doesn’t make the right choices when it “bakes” the raw image data into a more convenient but limited JPEG image. Google’s raw mixed HDR processing with the flexibility of raw, but now Apple plans to release its answer, ProRaw, in an upcoming update on iPhone Pro models.
Few people use Pixel phones and this also weighs on Google. Powerful Adobe imaging software calibrates its Lightroom photo software to correct lens problems and adapt its HDR tool for certain cameras and lenses. Unsurprisingly, Pixel phones aren’t on that list. “We tend to provide support based on the popularity of devices with our customers,” Adobe said in a statement.
Instead, Adobe is “working closely with Apple” to leverage ProRaw’s capabilities. It is a Google Computational photography guru Marc Levoy has left Google and now works at Adobe, where he is developing photography technology in Adobe’s camera app.
Selling a mid-range smartphone like the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G might make sense when the COVID-19 pandemic cost millions of jobs and made a $ 1,099 iPhone Pro Max inaccessible. But for people like me with a photography budget and an appreciation for Google’s computational photography intelligence, it’s tragic that Google has lost its edge.