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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49 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.

Chris Foley's picture

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.

Paul Scharff's picture

@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.

Deleted Account'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.

Martin Andersen's picture

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...

Michael Dougherty's picture

The photo looks great. Portrait photographers will spend hours processing a portrait like this to smooth out the skin.

Rhonald Rose's picture

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?

Martin Andersen's picture

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.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I'm sorry, but where exactly did I make any personal reference or insult to the OP's kid? I only commented on the image looking overly airbrushed, that's it, I made ZERO reference to the child.

If the OP, and you, choose to read more into a comment then was actually stated, that's not my problem, and it's unreasonable to lash out at posters with vulgarity because of it. Ease up a little and don't read more into a comment than there is.

Paul Scharff's picture

I almost got the Pixel 3A but want to see what Apple introduces on September 10. I particularly like the stacking technique of the 3A which adds resolution and dynamic range, and its Night Sight feature, both of which Apple does not so far really match.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Go download NeuralCam for iPhone and give any iPhone from the 6 and up not only NightSight capability, but capability that surpasses the Pixel phones.

https://www.dpreview.com/news/4446773972/neuralcam-night-photo-app-bring...

The hardware is actually more capable than Pixel, and this software proves it.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I used a similar program called Cortex Cam on my iPhone for similar results. I have no doubt that the iPhone XS's hardware is superior (I mean, it has double the number of lenses) but Apple's software is just lousy, and relying on third parties to pick up the slack doesn't cut it.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Again, you're making hyperbolic claims that Apple's camera app is "lousy" when in fact this is completely false. The camera app does the job for 99% of consumers who purchase the device(s), and their use-case scenarios. For those select few who wish to get better results, Apple has the camera API's available so developers can extend the hardware abilities even further.

Android users always tout that platform and its freedom of "choice" as a positive, yet when Apple does the same for its users, you scold them. That's the stance of a hypocrite.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Right, but since this is a site geared for photographers, the app that is good enough for the 99 percent is under scrutiny here, and it is lacking, as you say. That a phone that costs three times as much as a Pixel 3a needs third party apps just to bring it to parity with it photographically means that the Pixel 3a, out of the box, is a better phone for photography, as I've written. I also don't agree that the apps even bring the iPhone to parity, but one man's smeared look is another man's painterly aesthetic, I suppose.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I guess you didn’t read the post where I stated a cheap, old, iPhone SE can match the P3a on both image quality, and price, not to mention a superior platform as a whole with a stronger, more diverse and user-friendly ecosystem of apps and accessories.

The P3a isn’t competing against the iPhone X or more expensive models, it’s competing against the likes of the SE and 6S, and it’s beaten in pretty much every metric.

Case closed.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Having had the iPhone 5 and also just replacing the 6S, I can say with certainty that the camera is definitely better on this than the 6S and that I wouldn't want to have the super-tiny screen of the SE in 2019 (it was fine in its day, but we are not in its day anymore).

I used to think iOS was a superior platform, even after using a Samsung Galaxy S tab for a couple of years, but now that I've seen Google's take on Android, it feels like a better system (that other manufacturers actually mess up with their own modifications)

Paul Scharff's picture

@Edison, thanks. I found the NeuralCam app not quite as good as using the Lux+ feature of the ProCamera app, which does a slightly better job of holding highlights. But both require some stability whereas Night Sight is so fast in both the capture and the process.

@Wasim, I love Cortex Cam because it will stack photos using the 2X lens, and it removes ghosts so it can work with rustling leaves on trees, etc. But it has a sharpening feature I can't disable that adds some funky artifacts when you see the output at full size. When I don't need de-ghosting, I use the Hydra app which has an even cleaner output but limits your camera to the 1X lens -- but does pixel shifting yielding a 36 MP output that really is incredibly sharp.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

That sounds pretty cool, Paul, can you share an image from the Hydra App? I am curious. Not ruling out iPhones in the future, just taking a pass on this generation.

Night Sight can be fast or slow for me depending on the scene but I am surprised at how the software can line everything up and keep it all sharp!

Paul Scharff's picture

I tried but the resolution is reduced to 1,333 x 1,000 on the site which kind of kills the analysis you would need as my original was 6,528 x 4,896. Too bad, as it looked really good and is from my three year old iPhone 7.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Hi Paul,

I see you're using the iPhone 7. I have a friend who also has one, and I do find the apps lag on it just a little, but perform far better on my X because of the A10 SoC and new ISP within it.

Also, the iP7 doesn't quite have the dynamic range of the X and newer models, so that may also impact the available dynamic range.

Cheers

Paul Scharff's picture

Sorry to beat this dead horse, but I just recalled that on my ancient iPhone 7, NeuralCam saves images at significantly-reduced size. I think original sizes are only saved on the X's and above. So I'll continue to use the Lux+ feature of ProCamera until my upgrade, which could be this year depending on what we hear about the new camera on Tuesday.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Your response is unnecessarily vulgar and indicative of a typical Android troll from BGR.com, I won't have anything to do with you.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Pixel phones are good in general, but I won't use it for printing, maybe for mobile viewing. None of the phones are good for night shooting similar to dedicated cameras, but adequate to capture moments. I mainly use my phone during location scouting, family trips, framing a composition, etc...

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Yeah I find that going larger than 4x6 with any phone camera is noticeable. If I must, I use the RAW file from the phone.

Joel Hernandez's picture

Seems like a lot of people have been missing out on ultra wide cameras on phones :D
Once, you've had one, it's hard to go back. I say this not only for pictures, but for video as well. The ability to record in ultra wide angle, then change to the normal lens, without having to pause or stop the video is sick.

LG has had these for couple years now. You can download a Google Camera app apk file and get really good shots.
Really, any Android phone now with the gcam app can get really good pics and take advantage of night sight.

Huawei P30 is crazy with the periscope lens and low light performance.
Some people say the Note 10+ has the best overall video and stills set up out right now.

Martin Andersen's picture

I realise for a lot of people, their phone IS their camera, or it is the camera always with you; at times it’s practical as a stand-in when you have nothing better, but since you are talking about photographers, it is a moot point; I always have my small mirrorless with me, a phone is no substitute. For video, it can be great, though, it is measured by a different metric from stills. In both cases, the caveat is ‘in good light’, AI-powered ‘night-sight’ or not. For people who,only live on their phone posting to social media etc, the quality is more than enough whichever phone you get; but as a photographer, I don’t enjoy shooting with a phone; in the daytime, the light makes it hard to see the screen for the glare, and unless you have it eye-height, it is hard to square anything up, even then I somehow manage to get things crooked. The one thing it has, is software to process and post your images, and I find I much prefer to transfer them to my iPad’s much-larger screen for that. I haven’t found a good workflow that works for me, though, as I don’t use Lightroom anymore, and don’t want to clog up my I-devices with Raws. Once iOS 13 is out, we’ll see if working off something like a Gnarbox makes it viable.
At any rate, I don’t see any point in most of the phone photography posts; it is stealthy and always with you, so it has a place, including family happy snaps and street photography, but no substitute for even a small mirrorless with a decent small lens.
Btw, I’m still on an iPhone 6, and while my wife tells me the camera on her iPhone 8 IS much better, and having done a quick comparison on a recent holiday with a sunrise shot with a lighthouse in partial silhouette and other elements, with her phone, my phone, and my Fuji, I have to say the 8 IS far better, and did a great job, where I had to massage my Fuji shot (single shot, no HDR, whereas that is automatic in the iPhone) later in development, the out-of-camera jpg doesn’t look nearly as nice from the camera as the computational one from the iPhone 8 (and not so much the 6). I did get to appreciate what can be done with computational photography, and it is obvious it is an area camera companies could learn.