Is the Google Pixel 3 a Good Camera or Just a Good Camera for a Phone?

When Google announced the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, the company touted its camera as the best in its class, becoming the first camera manufacturer to ever partner with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. In this in-depth look into the camera's capabilities, we can see just how great the camera can be.

It's been said that the best camera is the one you have with you, and that is even more true with how great phone cameras have become. In this review from Chris Niccolls and DPReview, they give a great in-depth look into the capabilities and the drawbacks of the Google Pixel 3 XL, from the (fantastic) portrait mode to the fact that computational photography makes us lose some control of our images, which can result in needing to take a few images at a time in order to dial in exactly the settings we want, which may be a nice exercise from time to time, but shooting JPEG isn't great practice. 

Yes, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL shoot raw, but I've played with the files, and the noise reduction that Google does is better than any I can do in post; this makes the raw capabilities only good in an emergency, in my opinion. The video functions on the 3 XL may not be the best out there; iPhones have two lenses, allowing you to have some choice, along with a slightly better codec, but it's really dang good. (Last year, I shot an entire short film on the 2 XL, and the 3/3 XL is even better) 

Overall, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are fantastic cameras that can get you above a snapsho,t but smartphone cameras aren't quite ready to replace your DSLR just yet. Maybe soon, though. A man can dream.

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7 Comments

Correction: The premium Pixel 3 phone and the budget Pixel 3a phone do share the same camera. However...

The more expensive Pixel 3 (and Pixel 3XL) feature an extra image processing chip (the Pixel Visual Core chip) that allows photos to be taken at a faster rate. So there are differences apart from the waterproofing and screen.

But all the Pixel phones do have truly wonderful cameras, the best in the business, in my opinion.

Jerome Brill's picture

I personally use the Pixel 3 XL. Before that I had the Nexus 6P. When it comes to photos from a camera phone I honestly judge the raw output straight from the sensor without any extra processing.

My method for testing was using the Lightroom app and shooting Raw DNG. Without any computational processing I feel my older Nexus 6P actually took cleaner photos. Notably less noise. There are a lot of factors in play though. 1/2.3 sensor in the Nexus vs 1/2.5 in Pixel. f2 in Nexus vs f/1.8 in Pixel. And last 12.3mp Nexus vs 12.2mp Pixel. But remember, the Nexus 6P is a phone that came out in 2015 and there were two pixel phones after that. It was also only $500.

Now If you're just using the built in Google camera then the Pixel 3 will take better photos. It can process and combine more photos than the Nexus could. Although I personally don't like the way these are processed. I wish I had more control over the sharpening within the HDR processing.

In the end it's a great camera but not the huge leap as people think. I just hope they continue to improve sensors as well so they are not leaning on computational AI as a crutch.

C Fisher's picture

I had the Nexus 5X, I found the stock camera always pulled blue w the wb.

C Fisher's picture

I absolutely love the camera on my og pixel xl. I have a few "dlsr" camera apps to take advantage of the camera2api, manual focus oh my! I even figured out how to do focus stacking completely in phone.

I love Apple for its interface but wish its camera were on par with the Pixel 3 or Huawei P30 Pro. The only advantage Apple has over the Pixel is that its true 2X camera is better than the Pixel's interpolated 2X result.

I'm still stunned that no P&S has been issued which uses these computational techniques on a 1" sensor. I can only imagine some of these capabilities on an RX100. I think it would revolutionize that segment.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I have a Pixel 3 and it takes great pictures. Compared to even an older Canon 5DM3 it's still way behind.
However, I get really sick of how people rave about the cameras on phones. Each time someone says it's getting close to DSLR and really never does. Takes good pictures for the web but considering the cameras are by far the #1 marketing tool to sell phones today, to me it still makes phones look like over priced photo gadget. Beside, how many people really take underwater pictures or videos on with their phones on regular basis?
I have done thousands of clipping path for clients from 8x10 drum scans to about any camera the market has seen over the years. My eyes are trained to look at the details and while the ugly mixed color clusters of pixels are no longer a visual issue on modern phones, the pixels rendering still does not look natural to me. There is still a lot of that plastic effect

Alex Herbert's picture

Though I'm quite the techie I haven't paid serious attention to smartphone cameras in a few years. I had to get an image at work last year for someone to use in a presentation the same day. My camera was at home and the work camera wasn't in the building. So I used someone's iPhone XS...

I was horrified when I got the images into Lightroom.