I’ve waffled and flip-flopped on Apple’s computational imaging claims in its new iPhone 12 series, and so, to finally put my curiosity to rest, I decided to pit what’s (to me) the most compelling iPhone, the iPhone 12 Mini, against my previous favorite phone photography standard-bearer, the Google Pixel 3a.
While the Pixel 3a is still a great camera, software updates have seemed to slow the entire phone down, and most importantly, the camera, which now takes some time to start up and take photos. It’s a recipe for a lot of missed moments. The shiny new iPhone 12 Mini has no such issues at the moment, and Apple’s claims about its camera are bold, but do they hold up? How, for that matter, do they hold up to a previous generation iPhone, such as the iPhone 8 and a DSLR?
One of the most crucial functions of the Pixel 3a that have gone a long way towards making me feel comfortable leaving the DSLR at home is its “Night Sight” feature, which uses Google’s computational imaging chops to create a sharp, well-exposed scene in even the darkest conditions. Having a phone with Apple’s competing technology, “Night Mode,” was exciting. Here’s a head-to-head look.
While I compared straight JPG files from each phone (in the iPhone 12 Mini’s case, the only way to access the computational imaging benefits), to see the full extent of what’s possible, I processed the D750 file from a raw file to my taste. All of the images were taken on a tripod using each phone’s respective night modes, and I picked the sharpest image I could find in both cases. That said, none of this is scientific. I’m a photographer; I shot the way a photographer would with these phones, and I looked at the results with my eyes.
At a quick glance, they all look about the same, but after some studying, the iPhone doesn’t hold up as well to my eyes. While there’s slightly less noise than before and exposure is better balanced across the frame, it isn't of the level of the sharp, noise-free image of the Google Pixel 3a. I would even go so far to say as that the Pixel gives the Nikon D750 a run for its money, albeit at half the resolution.
I tried several other night shots, but the iPhone never came close to the Pixel 3a (which costs about $500 less than the iPhone 12 Mini).
What About Zoom?
OK, while the iPhone 12 Mini doesn’t have a telephoto lens, it does have a super-wide angle lens that racks out to about 14mm. While it’s nothing to write home about, with its narrower f/2.4 aperture and middling image quality, it does give you more options than the one standard lens on the Pixel.
But what about those times you need to zoom? How does Apple’s computational imaging handle that compared to Google? No need to wonder:
Both of these images were taken at each phone’s 2x setting, meaning that software was scaling up each image rather than any physical lens. The results are about the same. The exposure seems to be a bit brighter on the iPhone, but each is pretty close. Computational imaging techniques when it comes to telephoto shots produce nothing that can hold a candle to a DSLR and a telephoto lens.
This is where things finally, truly don’t matter. For fun, I threw in a comparison with an iPhone 8. While there are some differences in highlight retention and color balance, each phone did the same when computational imaging smarts weren’t involved.
So if you find yourself shooting in only the best and brightest of light, your iPhone won’t produce appreciably worse results than the basic Pixel that’s been destroying it at night in all of these photos.
It makes me wonder why companies are even bothering to produce point-and-shoot cameras these days when this is the one area where the phones, even with lackluster computational imaging tech, easily outperform most compact cameras.
What Does It All Mean
Unfortunately, while the Pixel 3a excels at being a camera, its budget phone internals are starting to show. While my iPhones have each gotten several years of use before I noticed slowdowns and crashes, the Pixel 3a, like other my other previous Android phones, got there much more quickly. As a photographer, I put up with it for the sake of having a really good camera in my pocket at all times, but everybody reaches a breaking point.
While computational imaging can help with holding onto highlights and shadows, and there’s an additional wide-angle lens, detail on the iPhone 12 is not quite that of my Pixel 3a, at least to my eyes.
So, it’s still true. The Google Pixel line is the photographer’s camera phone and the one to get if you want a truly decent camera in your pocket at all times.