Google's Pixel 3a: The Best Phone Camera for Photographers

Google's Pixel 3a: The Best Phone Camera for Photographers

While the Pixel 4 may soon be upon us, right now, the Pixel 3 and 3a series arguably represent the high-water mark for smartphone photography today through a combination of decent optics and more-than-decent artificial intelligence.

As a photographer I’m not someone that’s easily swayed by cell phones claiming awesome image quality, as the small sensors and lack of lenses are always going to be the Achilles’ heel of these devices. But the Google Pixel 3a XL has almost changed that for me. Almost.

I’ve been an iPhone 6s user for a little over 3 years. I’ve never been wowed by its camera, but I’ve never expected much, so I’ve never been disappointed either. When I’m putting it head-to head against a “real” camera, the smeared-away details and small sensor noise issues are readily apparent. It’s never been a go-to device.

Given how much photography is part of #TeamPixel’s marketing campaign, and that I had purchased and returned an iPhone X because the camera upgrades were insignificant compared to the iPhone 6s, I decided to make the leap to Android with the Google Pixel 3a XL. It was a decision mostly motivated by the camera, but also price and a headphone jack.

Some Growing Pains

I’ll get this out of the way first: Android itself will be a deal-breaker that keeps Apple users from trying this experiment. I already miss the ability to AirDrop photos to and from my phone, but more perplexing is that I can’t use any built-in Mac software to interface with the Pixel to transfer any photos. Not even Image Capture, and that works with almost everything. A quick Google search revealed that it was Mojave that broke this feature, but neither Google nor Apple seem motivated to fix this issue. I was able to use a free app called “Android File Transfer” as a workaround but the solution isn’t elegant.

Android File Transfer's interface won't let me preview files without copying to a computer. The software also throws up a warning that it's not compatible with the next version of macOS.

Android File Transfer's interface won't let me preview files without copying to a computer. The software also throws up a warning that it's not compatible with the next version of macOS.

But it’s worth the hassles for better photos, and the Pixel 3a (and the Pixel 3 series which share similar cameras) definitely have the photo quality to back up Google’s claims.

But What Are the Photos Like?

I’m not going to run through a head-to-head comparison of iPhones versus Pixels, as there are plenty of sites that do that. Nor will I talk about specs, since in a phone they don't really matter. What I will do is show you some photos and talk about the shooting experience.

After a month with the Pixel 3a, it’s almost as if Apple has been standing still with photos for the last few years. While the iPhone X I briefly owned had dual lenses, portrait mode, lighting effects and all the current bells and whistles, its photo quality wasn’t as major a leap from the 6S as I was expecting, nor was the experience of the phone as a whole. The Pixel 3a is that major leap I was looking for.

iPhones have always had poor default software, lacking in raw file capture and smudging away details with sloppy processing. If I cared about a photo, I used a third party app to capture and process a DNG file, which were malleable within reason. The Pixel 3a includes raw photo capture out of the box, and the files it produced could be pushed and processed to a greater extent than an iPhone. I was pretty impressed with the details and the malleability of the file, given that it’s a phone.

The Google Pixel 3a throws out the qualification "good for a phone." The pictures it produces are colorful and detailed.

The Google Pixel 3a throws out the qualification "good for a phone." The pictures it produces are colorful and detailed.

Even the default app preserves detail in photos, and the JPG files from the phone (once I was finally able to get them into a computer) showed a level of detail I haven’t seen from a phone before.

Even better is the shooting experience. The iPhone’s panoramic mode doesn’t allow for a full 360-degree capture, nor does it let you view the photo as you would in a VR headset. The Pixel 3a does both.

If there’s one criticism of the camera, is that it sometimes gets bogged down in processing photos. Switch to portrait mode, for instance, and after a few shots, the phone won’t let you take a photo until it’s done processing what’s already in the queue. I suspect this has to do with some missing/slower hardware in this budget phone compared to the higher-priced Pixel 3, but unless you’re rapid fire shooting kids, this is less of an issue. Video quality is also one area where the iPhone seems to have Pixel beat, as the Pixel videos had some Jell-O effects and compression artifacts that shouldn’t have been an issue in the good light I was shooting in, though stabilization seemed to work well.

Computational Imaging

Computational imaging, the software “brains” behind the camera, is a bit of a hit or miss affair. Whether it’s Apple’s implementation of portrait mode or Google’s, it’s easy to spot some of the limitations. Check out how confused the portrait mode, got in this photo:

Portrait mode was often easily confused, and had poor edge detection in even moderately busy background. It can do OK, given the right conditions.

Portrait mode was often easily confused, and had poor edge detection in even moderately busy background. It can do OK, given the right conditions.

Portrait mode is supposed to simulate a wide-aperture lens portrait, blurring the background while emphasizing a subject. On a small screen, or on Instagram most people couldn’t tell the difference, but it’s pretty easy to spot on anything larger than a phone. A trained photographer can easily spot a portrait mode photo even on a phone, something I wrote about previously.

On the other hand, I was surprised at how well the software was able to lift shadows and contain highlights. In a situation with harsh contrast with sunlight and shadow, the Google Pixel 3a came surprisingly close in dynamic range to my Nikon D750. Check it out:

The Pixel 3a managed to retain highlights and shadows almost as well as a Nikon D750.

The Pixel 3a managed to retain highlights and shadows almost as well as a Nikon D750.

The bottom line is, portrait mode is a bit of a gimmick (on all phones, really) but there are some real improvements to dynamic range here, whether it's taking standard photos, or a mode that Google calls “Night Sight.”

About That Night Sight...

This is really the computational imaging that Google shines at. By taking multiple exposures and expertly lining them up and combining them, the phone is able to lift shadows and protect highlights as if by magic. Check out this photo shot in the dark and what Night Sight was able to do versus the standard camera found on an Apple iPod Touch (roughly the equivalent of an iPhone 6, so without the computational bells and whistles).

Unfortunately, I don’t make it a habit to carry around two current-gen smartphones so I don’t have a direct iPhone comparison here, but my short time with the iPhone X didn’t convince me that it would do much better. Also, if you're on the fence about upgrading an older phone, the images above might be all the proof you need. For comparison, here’s the same photo taken without Google’s Night Sight:

The Pixel 3a's capability without Night Sight enabled.

The Pixel 3a's capability without Night Sight enabled.

All the images were lightly processed and cropped in Photoshop, though the Pixel gave me the benefit of producing more flexible DNG files straight out of the camera, even with Night Sight turned on.

Final Thoughts

Photographers will probably still be reluctant to give up their real cameras, nor should they. But it’s comforting to know that your phone camera can do the job in a pinch, or that it can pull decent family photo duty when you don’t want to lug the DSLR and the kids at the same time. While other phones pack in the lenses and the fancy notches and sensors, there’s something to love about the simplistic approach that Google is going for with the Pixel 3a XL. It really just works. A sub-$500 phone camera shouldn't be this good.

The Pixel 4 may be around the corner, but the Pixel 3 series reigns supreme for smartphone photography right now.

What I Liked

  • Powerful software features.
  • Good photo quality out of the box. It's better than I’ve ever seen in any smartphone.
  • Dynamic range is surprisingly good, owing to software.
  • Digital zoom produces images a bit better than the competition (It's still digital zoom, though).

What I Didn’t Like

  • Video quality is only so-so.
  • Slows down for processing during rapid fire portrait shooting (at least on the Pixel 3a XL I purchased).
  • Only one lens, so wide/telephoto options are limited.

Purchase

Click on these links to purchase a Pixel 3 or Pixel 3a

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48 Comments

Mark Wyatt's picture

The iPhone 8 has a two lens camera (wide and tele). For most cell phone imaging purposes, this is probably a better feature than most offer.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

In good light with a good camera app that can shoot raw, an iPhone with two lenses *might* have the edge when it comes to zooming just because it's optical, but definitely not with the stock camera app or when the light drops.

Why not use Google Photos and Google Drive for files and photos? It works instantaneously.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Doesn't save in original quality with the 3a without hitting your storage limit. The Pixel 3 (non-A series) does but only for the next few years before Google compresses your stuff. Google Drive isn't the most intuitive for me.

Jeff Tung's picture

Google Photo is not an option if you need to transfer photos instantly in offline environment

Edison Wrzosek's picture

If could down vote the entire article as complete misinformation and clickbait, I would...

The Pixel 3a doesn't even compare to most older iPhones, let alone the latest versions, and to use the headline "The Best Phone Camera for Photographers" is complete and utter BS.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Have you used it? I've been an iPhone user for years and I wrote about my experience with the iPhone X in the story.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I own the iPhone X, and have had the misfortune of trying the Pixel 3 and 3a lines, and sorry, but I can get far better results with my X than most of the current Android devices. And the amazing results with the iPhone XS/XR lineup are hard to beat right now.

Hence my post.

Your experience included the following two paragraphs:

"After a month with the Pixel 3a, it’s almost as if Apple has been standing still with photos for the last few years. While the iPhone X I briefly owned had dual lenses, portrait mode, lighting effects and all the current bells and whistles, its photo quality wasn’t as major a leap from the 6S as I was expecting, nor was the experience of the phone as a whole. The Pixel 3a is that major leap I was looking for.

iPhones have always had poor default software, lacking in raw file capture and smudging away details with sloppy processing. If I cared about a photo, I used a third party app to capture and process a DNG file, which were malleable within reason. The Pixel 3a includes raw photo capture out of the box, and the files it produced could be pushed and processed to a greater extent than an iPhone. I was pretty impressed with the details and the malleability of the file, given that it’s a phone."

I really liked the hyperbolic beginning of the paragraph "it’s almost as if Apple has been standing still with photos for the last few years", seriously?? You really are looking for anti-Apple click hits aren't you?

Whilst you are correct that the out-of-the-box Camera app is basic (not poor as you imply) on iPhone, which BTW Android likes to rip off the UI/UX from, you make a completely erroneous claim about the X not being much better than the 6S (which I owned for many years), and the claim that the RAW files produced by a iPhone X with a third-party app cannot be pushed as far as the Pixel 3a RAW, which is false. I've been able to get superior RAW performance on my iPhone X to any Pixel 3/3a device using various different RAW imaging apps, including Adobe Lightroom and Halide.

This is a similar line of fallacy that Google used by providing doctored images of the Pixel 3 vs iPhone XS at their launch event, claiming the Pixel 3 dynamic range and low light performance was far superior to the iPhone XS, but the iPhone XS images actually had the HDR and dynamic functions disabled to make them appear worse (darker) than Pixel, and this was widely called out and panned by reporters.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Edison, here's a comparison of the basic iPhone camera app and a DNG shot on Procam. Yes, the iPhone 6S shows a vast improvement with the third-party app. But can I make the third party app the default camera on my phone? Will it be there when I swipe right to grab a quick picture? Do I want to process everything just to be able to get results where I can actually read the text like on that building? No.

For this example, I had the iPhone 6S mounted on a tripod and used the self timer to get the steadiest picture possible.

If I had a direct comparison of the iPhone X, I'd post it, but I returned it so fast because I saw, essentially, the same results. Do you have something from the iPhone X you'd like to share?

If you look at my post history here on Fstoppers, you'll see that I'm equal parts critical and complimentary of Apple. I own several Macs and iPhones. I'm not looking for anti-Apple anything. Calling it as I see it.

Lastly, look at the price: I paid $379 and got a $100 gift card from Amazon making this phone, essentially $279. From a photographic standpoint, what in the world justifies the pricetag on - for comparison's sake - the $750 iPhone XR, let alone the iPhone X. There's no reason for the camera tech to be that behind the curve on the iPhone at that price.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

So you flat-out admit you returned the iPhone X "so fast because I saw, essentially, the same results", and you think having spent so little time with the device you can honestly give it an honest review? Sure...

Also, if someone is "in the moment" and wants to take a quick snap, chances are the default Camera app accessible from the Lock screen will do the job just fine. Having the third-party camera app on the main home screen makes it easy to get to, simply by unlocking and boom, one tap on the icon. Is that really such a hassle?

BTW, an iPhone SE that can still be picked up for under $300 USD on occasion from Apple on clearance sales, and from many carriers on $0 packages, makes it about the same as the Pixel 3a, and that is a closer comparison of iPhone's to Pixel 3a. The XR and X/XS are much higher end phones (cameras, CPU, speed, and other items), so comparing the P3a to the 6S/SE line is more appropriate. By making comparisons to the likes of the X, you are artificially making things sounds lob-sided in terms of price.

Plus, the P3a is, by all intents and purposes, a phone with iPhone 6-generation specs and speed, so of course it is cheaper, and should NEVER be compared with a much newer, and MUCH more advanced iPhone like the X/XR/XS models. Making such comparisons is foolish in terms of price and speed, and the camera tech is NOT "that far behind" as your hyperbole insinuates.

@Wasim, I've had ProCam forever and wasn't all that impressed. Obviously they've made some good advances in the years since I first got it because you can really see the difference in your example. I played with a shot tonight and was very impressed. Thanks for giving me the impetus to take another look at the app.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Which is flat-out false, and you sound like you just waltzed in from BGR.com with that mouth of yours.

Graham Taylor's picture

I think the headline here is that a new phone-camera is better than an old one. I wouldn't say the Pixel sets the standard, it's no better than the iPhone X or P20. You've got to remember your previous benchmark is an iPhone 6.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wish I had thought about it many months ago when I had the iPhone X, but the images from it showed similar smearing that I illustrated in the above comment with the 6S comparison photos.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Then I’ll settle for not the best telephone for a photographer. No problem.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Apparently, OnePlus has an amazing Camera that surpasses Pixel's and Samsung's cameras. Personally, my Huawei 20 Pro produces excellent images even in very low light.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I've heard really good things about the Huawei phones, but I'm afraid the government will pull the Android rug right out from underneath them at any point and then that will lock out future updates. Can you share some images here? I'd love to see.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Necessity is the mother of invention. Say what you want and like it or not, China is forging ahead. What this trade war did is made them realized they have to forge ahead even harder. They might surprise us all with a new OS, who knows...

Here are a couple of quick ones from the Huawei. The only thing I did is making them smaller for web. My cats are the only 'portraits' I have (my wife will kill me if I posted any of hers). The pano is from Orlando a couple of weeks ago. It was so humid, you could taste it but the image is still sharp despite the hazy environment we had. I hope you like, Cheers.

Those photos don’t exactly show the Huawei in a good light in terms of dynamic range or overall image quality for that matter.

Peter Barta's picture

I have a friend that has the Pixel 3 and rants about the quality of just the 3. My comment is why are you comparing that (the Pixel 3a Max) to the iPhone 6s when the iPhone is up to the Xs Max? I see you had little time with the iPhone X but obviously not enough to compare to the Pixel 3a XL. This seems like a silly comparison and not up to spec compared to the iPhone 6. I would of rather seen a comparison between the Pixel 3a XL and the iPhone Xs Max. I don't care who is better...but this post generation seems extremely off.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Go have a look at NeuralCam for iPhone, not only gives it equivalent “NightSight” from Android, but does it better, especially with newer models...

Wasim Ahmad's picture

But what happens when an app developer stops supporting third-party apps?

Edison Wrzosek's picture

That's a minimal issue if you get a reputable, popular app, such as Camera+, Halide, Adobe Lightroom, VSCO, or others.

And at the end of the day, if one goes down, there are many other reputable raw camera apps to choose from.

You're trying to split hairs to make an issue where none exists.

Peter Barta's picture

Thanks, I will check out NeuralCam.

Heber Pelayo's picture

Article Absolutely on point. I found no need to transfer to computer for what I'm shooting on it. Mostly because it came with unlimited cloud storage, I'm shooting raw and editing on Lightroom in phone.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

And the author was saying iPhone’s mush out detail... There is NO skin detail left in this image, looks like a seriously over-airbrushed photo, sorry but no thanks...

Why is it processed to the bones? My pixel never gave this look. There is no skin left.

Heber Pelayo's picture

My bad. I didn't mean to make a kid with such soft skin. Clarity slider is at -4 you guys are just dicks.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Another person being unnecessarily vulgar and touchy, get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning or something?

You and others are insulting his kid, he’s got a right to be upset at you. So the kid has smooth skin. That’s not an opening to bash the image quality.

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