Comparing the iPhone 12 Mini to the Google Pixel 3a, the 'Photographer's Phone'

Comparing the iPhone 12 Mini to the Google Pixel 3a, the 'Photographer's Phone'

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.

Night shot comparison between Google Pixel 3a, iPhone 12 Mini, and Nikon D750.

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:

Software-based zoom comparison between iPhone 12 Mini and Google Pixel 3a.

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.

Everyday Shooting

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.

Daylight comparison between iPhone 12 Mini, Google Pixel 3a and iPhone 8.

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. 

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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Why are you comparing the newest iphone to a phone that's now 3 generations behind current?

And also thinking that Android is semi-crummy due to an entry level, $350 phone that's already 2.5 years old just now starting to run slower than a two month old $800 flagship phone from Apple.

Pretty pointless/useless comparison. If he actually wanted to make this comparison, he needed to compare the iPhone 12 Mini to the Pixel 5. THOSE are the same phones - class, shape and price wise (although the Pixel 5 would STILL be cheaper than the iPhone 12 Mini lmao).

Oh, also; side note for the author. If you're a professor assistant for journalism at Quinnapiac (I was actually going to go there a few years back), then I'd rewrite some parts of this article and ensure that you disclose your awareness that the Pixel 3a is NOT a new/recently released device and therefore (speed/software slowdowns) cannot be accurately compared to a brand spanking new, freshly released device. Aside from that, there's also a trick to make every Android device run literally twice as fast (and it doesn't have any negative side effects). I can tell you how to do that if you need me to =P.

I know that the Pixel 3a is not the newest, but the camera by and large isn't different from the new models. I also know that I can factory reset the phone to get things back to speed, but for personal reasons I can't do that now.

That said - for all its flaws, the article does say that the cheap, old Pixel beats the flagship iPhone.

I didn't mention factory resetting anything... That wouldn't speed up the device unless it's packed to the gills with unnecessary apps (but if that's the case, then you can pretty easily just remove the extra apps). Oh, and as far as the camera is concerned, it's not really the exact camera module that makes the biggest difference with Pixel phones. It has more to do with software (and the automated photo editing that all comes right out of that special chip that's been built into the Pixel phones ever since the Pixel 3 released).

If I remember correctly, the 3a didn't have that chip, but it's weird, when it was new the camera app was very responsive but it's gotten to be less so. I'll have to dig it out and try what you've listed below though anyway and see if it works. Thanks for sharing.

Ah, you're actually correct! I wasn't aware of what you had mentioned initially, but you're right - the Pixel 3a doesn't have the Pixel Visual Core (PVC) chip! So all of the automated post snapped photo-editing can't be handled in the background by that extra chip. Instead, it all relies on a bit more Snapdragon power (and maybe some Adreno power too. But this would explain why the device is starting to slow down a bit now, specifically for a few minutes after taking pictures).

Anyway, it's always good to learn some new stuff! Thank you! And hopefully that developer options trick speeds up the animations for you (especially since it will be rather necessary to keep smooth, ultra fast animations once you get a phone that outputs its display video at 120fps)!

@Bob Tamper: yes please do tell how to make any Android device run twice as fast. Thank you.

Sure thing! Which company made your phone? I ask because, depending on who made your device, the first step of the process will be slightly different.

Anyway, if you have the basic Android knowledge already, then you can go into your settings. Scroll all the way down until you see "About Phone". Then, (on Samsung devices) you need to press "Software Information". After tapping that, find where it says "Build Number". Then, tap your finger on where it says "Build Number" five times rapidly until it says that you've now enabled developer options. After seeing that message, hit the back key and now look for the "Developer Options" section in the bottom of the settings menu. Enter the "Developer Options" and then search for the word "Animation". The three developer options that you want to change are called:
"Window animation scale", "Transition animation scale" and "Animator duration scale". They should all natively be set to "1x" mode, but you need to click on them and change them all to "0.5x" (basically speeds up every device animation and makes them play back twice as fast - often adding a ton of extra speed to Android devices as the animations are often what starts to slow down as the device gets older).

And that's about it! Just a note of importance before you go about doing this though. Developer Options has A LOT of extra settings that can mess with essential features on your phone. Therefore, I highly recommend that you don't mess with any of the other developer settings that you have access to aside from the animation speed settings that I mentioned =P.

Please let me know how it works out for you! And lemme know if it was easy to do this whole thing (as I know that it'd definitely be WAY easier than a full dang factory reset as it doesn't require a full device wipe lol).

Oh, and just a small update with a little more clarification for how well this animation thing works. My old LG V20 and Pixel 3XL are still just as fast as my brand new Samsung device lol. The only noticeable difference is the higher refresh rate on the newer phones.

Thank you for the great reply. I searched on my Essential PH-1 for the settings and reset to .5X. Thanks again.

Because it's a great, light-weight 5 oz!, super-inexpensive camera to have around at all times. $100? I might just get one.