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.
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.
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, 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 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 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:
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.
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.