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The Google Pixel 5’s weak camera brings me to the iPhone 12



Google's Pixel 5 smartphone

Google’s Pixel 5 smartphone has ultra-wide and wide-angle cameras, but no telephoto lens for distant subjects.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

For years I have been using Google Pixel and Apple iPhones for my daily smartphone photography needs. I’ve relied on Pixels for most of the shots because Google’s groundbreaking computer photography software brings superior image quality out of limited hardware. My current iPhone, an XS Max, was banned in situations where I needed a telephoto lens.

Two recently launched smartphones – Google’s Pixel 5 and Apple’s iPhone 12 – changed my mind. The hardware of the mid-range camera on the Pixel 5 and the high-end camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max as well as the large image sensor of the gadget and the new software options bring me to the Apple camp.

It shouldn’t be like that. I am impressed with Google’s ability to turn cutting-edge imaging research into superior smartphone photos. Google has shown how profoundly computers can modernize cameras by outperforming smartphone competitors and traditional camera makers.

Google’s decision to build a midrange phone with just two cameras seems like a task. There is simply no way to compensate for the numerous cameras that competitors like Samsung, Huawei, and Apple use. Sure, competitors haven’t necessarily found all of Google’s camera software, but Google isn’t anywhere near their hardware.

Tele or ultrawide cameras

In 2019, Google’s Pixel 4 added a second rear camera, a tele option for distant subjects. That same year, Apple added a third camera to its high-end iPhone 11 Pro models, an ultrawide camera that was used alongside the main and telephoto cameras.

The Pixel 5 photo at 2X-Tele, which was taken here with the computer-aided raw format from Google, is small, but only has a resolution of 3 megapixels. On the right, the 12-megapixel image of a 2-year-old iPhone XS Max, captured as an HDR raw photo with Adobe’s Lightroom app, offers more detail and editing flexibility. Clicking to enlarge reveals the superior iPhone details but scaled down to the Pixel 5 photo.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Google tried to match Apple’s performance this year by replacing the telephoto camera with an ultrawide camera in the Pixel 5. However, Apple has made significant improvements to the camera with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a larger image sensor, longer range telephoto lens, and improved image stabilization, Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second and Apple’s more flexible ProRaw format counteract wobbly hands. It is clear that Apple is putting tremendous resources into better photography.

Google may have made the right call for the broad market. I suspect that ultrawide cameras are better than telephotos for mainstream smartphone customers. Ultrawide cameras for group shots, indoor scenes and videos are arguably more useful than telephoto cameras for portraits and mountains.

But I want both. I enjoy the different perspectives. In fact, I usually only wore telephoto and ultrawide lenses for my DSLR for a few years.

In response to my concerns, Google says it has improved the Super Res Zoom technology for digital zooming on the Pixel 5 with better computer photography and better AI Techniques that can now be enlarged up to 7 times. The idea was

“We studied carefully to find out what was really important to people and then focused on it – saving literally hundreds of dollars in the process,” said Isaac Reynolds, product manager for the camera. A telephoto camera would have helped improve image quality, but Google’s priority this year was “to produce a phone that compares well with the upper price range but at a much lower price – and we did”.

I am not that convinced. Even with 2x telephoto zoom, my 2 year old iPhone XS Max and my 1 year old Pixel 4 offer far better images compared to the Pixel 5.

At 2X, the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom technology creates a 12-megapixel image, but it looks artificial up close, like this cropped view.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

What I like about the Pixel 5 cameras so far

Let me be clear: Google’s new phone has its merits, and I’ve experienced some of those strengths while testing the Pixel 5 cameras over the past few days. Here are a handful:

  • Google’s Computational Raw gives photo enthusiasts the best of both worlds when it comes to photo formats. It combines the exposure and color flexibility of raw unprocessed photo data with the exposure area and noise reduction of the multishot HDR + processing normally used to create a JPEG.
  • Double tapping the phone’s power button will quickly launch the camera app. It’s not new to the Pixel 5, but it’s so much faster than the iPhone’s lock screen icon.
  • The night vision device, especially the astrophotography mode, is still great for taking pictures in low light.

Google also pointed out other advantages of the Pixel 5, including a portrait lighting feature to control the apparent light source that brightens a subject’s face. Portraits that work in night vision mode; 4K video now operating at 60 frames per second, a more advanced high dynamic range processing called HDR + that is now enhanced with bracketing for better shadow details like a backlit face and better video stabilization.

Here’s the problem though: while Google is slipping in hardware, competitors are improving their software.

Google’s competitors in computer photography are catching up

Apple hasn’t commented on its photography plans for this story, but its actions speak volumes.

Pixel 5 portrait mode

The Pixel 5 offers a useful, if not unique, portrait mode that blurs the background for smooth “bokeh”.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

In the past year, Apple has done most of Google’s HDR + for challenging scenes with light and dark elements. This year’s Pixel 5 brings HDR + with bracketing technology to multishot blending technology. However, Apple’s Smart HDR alternative is in its third generation of refinement. Apple is also improving the iPhone’s night photos.

Photo enthusiasts like me prefer unprocessed, raw photo formats so that we can tweak the color balance, exposure, sharpening, and noise reduction. This is ideal when the camera does not make the right decisions in “baking” raw image data into a more convenient but limited JPEG image. Google’s HDR computational blending with the flexibility of Raw, but now Apple plans to release its ProRaw answer in an update for iPhone Pro models.

Few people use Pixel phones, and that weighs on Google too. Photo editing software powerhouse Adobe calibrates its Lightroom photo software to fix lens problems and adjust the HDR tool for some cameras and lenses. No wonder Pixel phones aren’t on that list. “We typically offer support to our customers based on device popularity,” said a statement from Adobe.

In contrast, Adobe “works closely with Apple” to take advantage of ProRaw features. Marc Levoy, a computer photography guru at Google, has left Google and is now at Adobe where he is integrating photo technology into Adobe’s camera app.

Selling a midrange smartphone like the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G may make sense when the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of jobs and made a $ 1,099 iPhone Pro Max unaffordable. But for people like me with a photo budget and an appreciation for Google’s intelligent computer photography, it’s tragic that Google has lost its lead.




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