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Google Pixel 3 camera shootout
Smartphone cameras have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. The Google Pixel 3 hasn’t improved too much on the Pixel 2’s impressive performance, but it does a few key things differently. To see just how well the Pixel 3 stacks up against the rest of the premium smartphone crop, we put it up against the Pixel 2, iPhone Xs Max, LG V40, Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and HUAWEI P20 Pro (I unfortunately did not have access to a Mate 20 Pro at the time).
In this shootout, you’ll be able to clearly see where each device leads the pack, where things are too close to call, and where things go terribly wrong. Night Sight was not officially available on my Pixel 3 at the time these shots were taken, so we’ll have to come back to that. Let’s dive right in. To truly see the differences, you can see all of the hi-res original photo samples for each device at the links below:
Both Pixels have high contrast and saturate the red in the vehicle nicely. The iPhone handles the red similarly but is a little flatter throughout. Both Pixels look slightly underexposed compared to the rest of the phones, with the shaded areas of ivy under the scaffolding particularly losing detail where the dynamic range of other phones pick up more detail.
The V40 and Note 9 struggle to clearly define the smaller text on the signs and the P20 Pro’s heavy processing doesn’t do it any favors. HUAWEI’s device does manage to get as much detail as the top contenders, though. Especially if you zoom into the brick wall. You can clearly see more sharpening in the newer Pixel compared to last year’s model and less noise overall.
The V40 is the worst performer here, followed by the Note 9 and P20 Pro, with the iPhone Xs Max and two Pixels at the top — which you prefer will depend on whether you like the higher contrast and darker result of the Pixels or the flatter and more evenly exposed iPhone shot.
Manhattan skyline – wide
On a gloomy day in NYC, the iPhone Xs Max managed to add the most texture to the flat gray sky. The Note 9 and P20 Pro had the best white balance despite the tricky lighting, while the Pixel 3 and iPhone Xs Max tried too hard to turn the sky blue (which it most definitely was not).
Zoom in on the Empire State Building and you can see the Pixels and iPhone produced very similar detail and clarity. The Note 9 and P20 Pro exhibit the same degree of sharpening which looks great at a distance but a little fake up close. The V40 is far too muddy and noisy to be a contender here.
Manhattan skyline – zoomed
The P20 Pro has a 3x optical zoom while the iPhone Xs Max, LG V40 and Note 9 all have 2x optical. The Pixels use digital zoom only. As you might expect, the 3x optical zoom on the P20 Pro reveals far more detail on the Empire State Building’s spire and it is the only camera to clearly recreate the horizontal lines on the building at the base of the Empire State. Looking at the 2x optical devices, the Note 9 and iPhone Xs Max are the best up close, producing very similar results. The Note 9 manages slightly better detail and better contrast than the iPhone.
When zooming, the Pixels struggle due to the lack of a secondary lens - but are still comparable to the LG V40 which has a 2x lens.
The Pixels struggle without a secondary lens, but their images are still comparable to the LG V40 (which has one). The Pixel 3 has significantly less noise than the Pixel 2 and resolves more detail, as seen in the glass building at the base of the Empire State. The Pixel 3’s processing starts to wade into P20 Pro territory with artificial sharpness replacing the noisy realism of the Pixel 2. I prefer this approach — less noise and sharper detail — but it likely won’t please fans of previous Pixels. The V40 is again quite muddy with plenty of artifacts surrounding the buildings.
This colorful mural of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat reveals a lot about how each camera saturates color. Looking at the yellow triangle in the center, the iPhone and Pixels saturate it a lot, while the P20 Pro (with Master AI enabled) sits at the other end of the spectrum. The iPhone and Pixels saturate to the same degree but the Pixel 3 plucks out slightly greater texture on the wall. In terms of realism, I’d say it’s a close race between these three phones. The Note 9 exhibits a metric ton of detail — it’s actually too much — by unrealistically enhancing the edges of every single part of the wall.
There are three parts worth noting in this dark interior: the wine glasses on the table, the window to the left of frame, and the dark area behind the bench closer to the camera.
All phones handle the glasses similarly. The Note 9’s effort is a little noisy, but maintains fine detail the best. The Pixels are noisier and demonstrate less sharpness, but the Pixel 3 slightly outperforms its predecessor. The iPhone really struggles to define the edges of the glasses or napkins with the image breaking down noticeably. The P20 Pro shot is the worst of the bunch. Given the gloomy interior, all phones performed pretty admirably.
The window is where things get interesting. The Pixel 3 is by far the best here, capturing the most realistic and detailed scene. The Pixel 2 is more blown out and demonstrates far less dynamic range. The P20 Pro is less detailed, but still quite realistic. The iPhone has better clarity but the flat coloring generates a bizarre otherworldly scene. Once again, the V40’s aggressive processing produces a comically bizarre-looking result. The Note 9 is just plain fuzzy.
As for the third factor (the back of the bench), this is a clear way to distinguish dynamic range capabilities. The more detail and better exposed this shaded area is, the more a phone can do to level out exposure in a scene with multiple light levels. The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 2 are the obvious winners here, with a wider well-exposed area and more texture in the details. The HUAWEI P20 Pro follows with fair quality, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, LG V40, and iPhone Xs Max fail miserably. Balancing out the glasses against the window and the bench, the Pixel 3 is the clear winner here.
At first glance, the street scene at dusk shows just how far low light performance and noise reduction has come. There’s still plenty of light in this scene though and it proves tricky for more than a few of these phones. The P20 Pro does the best job of not blowing out the shop’s interior, though it leans heavily on processing to define features around the neon open sign to the right of the open door. The V40 and Note 9 follow not too far behind. While the Pixel 2, Pixel 3 and iPhone Xs Max all blow out the interior highlights, all three show much greater detail on the shelves inside. The three results are almost indistinguishable up close.
The Note 9 resolves the least detail on the white window ledges at the top of the building and is much darker than the other shots. The V40 doesn’t capture much more detail on the ledges but does lighten up the left side of the building noticeably. The P20 Pro provides marginally better detail, but only the Pixels and the iPhone offered realistic-looking detail, where we can clearly make out the brickwork. The iPhone exhibits less noise in this area, however, and overall comes out on top.
The P20 Pro provides marginally better detail but it isn't until you get to the Pixels and iPhone that realistic-looking detail is visible.
One more subject I would like to touch on is motion blur. Because these shots are taken in the dark, the shutter speed usually needs to slow down, which might affect the image if there are moving objects or you just happen to have shaky hands. The LG V40 and Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can’t manage freezing the moving cars, for example. This would look cool if done on purpose and the shutter speed was even slower, but it just looks like a mishap here. For these specific photos, much of the detail is lost. This could be simple over-softening, though.
First up, faces. The first thing to notice here is the iPhone Xs Max’s exposure is darker than the Android phones. It also over-saturates the skin, making it far pinker than the rest. The Note 9 and P20 Pro show evidence of a residual beauty mode, even though I had all settings turned off, with the pores on my nose noticeably less visible on the Note 9. Both the P20 Pro and Note 9 are also softer on detail. Sharpness is better on the Pixel 3 than the Pixel 2, most easily seen in the whiskers of my beard while the iPhone sits somewhere in the middle. The Pixel 3 wins this part.
Now, on to portrait mode background blurring.
Before we move onto edge detection around my hair, let’s look at the earbud cables in these portrait mode selfies. Only the Pixel 3 manages to keep them entirely in the foreground, but that was also the only shot where they lay close to my face. The Note 9 does a decent job keeping the earbud cables in focus. The iPhone Xs Max and P20 Pro do a comically bad job of blurring them out. The V40 gets the wires wrong, but does a better job of obfuscating them than most.
My unruly hair is the ultimate test for portrait mode edge detection and I'm yet to see any phone do a really good job of it.
My unruly hair is the ultimate test for portrait mode edge detection and I’ve yet to see any phone do a really good job with it. Surprisingly the LG V40 managed the best here, with only a little weird blurring going on where the skyline in the back meets my hair. Notably, the wild strands at the top of my head remain in focus, something no other phone got right.
The Note 9 did perhaps the best job at gradually blurring out my hair realistically (rather than having the hard edge between foreground and background hair most phones demonstrate), but I think the overall image is just too soft. The iPhone attempts a similar graduated effect but fails at it. Both the Pixels do a decent job at cutting my head out, but the effect is unrealistic. The P20 Pro does a decent job until you get to my right cheek when everything goes to crap fast.
While no phone did an exceptional job, it’s still interesting to see the approach each camera takes: whether it tries to differentiate between hair at the front of my head and hair at the back, or if it takes all of my hair as foreground and only tries to separate the actual background.
All phones did a nice job on the actual background, but I prefer the added detail in the water closer to the bottom of the frame in the shots by the iPhone, Pixel 3 and Note 9 to the generic background blur of the V40. Given the iPhone’s issues with skin and horrendous earbud treatment, it’s out of the running for me. The Note 9 managed the background and earbud wires well but the super soft skin is wrong. That leaves me with the Pixel 3, which handled the earbuds well (perhaps through unfair advantage), did a pretty good job on my hair, and handled the background nicely with plenty of good detail in the face.
In the high contrast shot of the corner of the old brick building, none of the cameras manage to get much out of the cloudy sky. The iPhone Xs Max fails the most miserably, completely blowing out the right-hand side of the shot while turning the left hand side unnaturally blue. The P20 Pro gets the best texture across the sky, followed by the Note 9. Note: In all of these shots, the focal point was on the front-most corner of the building.
Looking at the rest of the shot, the P20 Pro turned the sky too gray, messed with the white balance and made the building a little too orange. I suspect this was the work of Master AI, but I can’t recall if it kicked in or not when I took the shot. The other phones handled colors much better, barring the iPhone which overexposed the shot.
If we zoom into the set of windows at the corner above the white wall, we can see only the iPhone managed to properly outline the columns inside and does a good job at creating realistic detail on the building’s exterior. Both Pixels are very close to the iPhone and look almost identical to one another. The Note 9 and P20 Pro exhibit similar sharpening around the brickwork and windows, with just a bit more contrast in the P20 Pro. Neither looks terribly good up close. The V40 is muddy and lacks detail once again. This one definitely goes to the iPhone and the Pixels.
Fruit and vegetable stand
All six phones did a great job with the produce stand at night, mainly differing in saturation and white balance. Looking at the pickles and tomatoes on the corner, the Pixel 3 does a much better job than the Pixel 2, handling both the highlights on the tomatoes and detail on the pickles better. There’s also a bit less noise. The iPhone handles the highlights well too, but doesn’t get as much detail as the Pixel 3. The V40 is a little soft and washed out, but not terribly so. The Note 9 produces a slightly more lively palette, but lacks details on the pickles. The P20 Pro processes too hard as usual, with too much contrast and no real detail.
Dynamic range is important in night time photography (especially when artificial light is present). With darkness and harsh lights, shadows are tough to deal with. To see performance in this matter just look at that shadow under the shelf above the pickles, right below the watermelon in the center. How much can you see down there?
All six phones did a great job of the fruit and veg stand at night, but I'm giving this one to the Pixel 3.
The HUAWEI P20 Pro’s aggressive approach to crushing blacks performs the worst in this area. The contrast is too high, so the shaded area is almost totally blacked out. The iPhone Xs seems to do pretty well at this, and the Pixel 3 is probably the next best contender. The other phones provide varying degrees of OK.
Looking at the top left corner of the shot, the P20 Pro again crushes the blacks in the hanging flowers and is altogether too contrasty. The Note 9 and Pixel 2 get a little noisy on the white underside of the roof but both offer similar levels of detail. The iPhone displays less noise than the Note 9 or Pixel 2. The V40 does a surprisingly good job in this section, with little noise and good detail, but the contrasty processing lets it down a bit, producing an unrealistic effect under scrutiny. The Pixel 3 produces less noise and more detail than the Pixel 2 in this section and is altogether a more balanced and pleasing result overall. I’m giving this one to the Pixel 3.
Low light bar interior
The bar interior shows just how far smartphone cameras have come in low light situations. The Pixels handled the lamp very well, again with less noise and better detail in the Pixel 3. The V40 brings out the shadows just as well, but over-processes too much, highlighting edges at the cost of realism. The Note 9 seems a little soft and the P20 Pro completely blows out the lamplight. Both phones get the white balance wrong. The iPhone balances out the extremes very well but captures the least lively lamp shade.
White balance isn’t just about being warmer or cooler, it’s also about the tint — the balance between green and purple. See how the V40 image looks really purple? It is way off. You can tell the difference in things like the skin and the paper by the lamp.
The bar interior shows just how far smartphone cameras have come in low light situations.
The iPhone struggles to bring out the alcohol bottles on the bottom shelf but is arguably more authentic looking than some. The Pixel 2 lightens things up a bit but is again quite noisy. The Pixel 3 reduces that visible grain and adds a little sharpening for better definition without going overboard. The Note 9 has a natural look in this area, even with the yellowish white balance. However, it can’t produce as much detail as the P20 Pro, which for a change doesn’t overdo the processing. As expected, the V40 does, and ends up looking a little cartoonish. All in all, every phone did great in this very tricky situation but I’m giving this one to the Pixel 3 as well.
The story the images above tell is pretty consistent. For starters, each phone performed very well across a variety of different scenarios, barring perhaps the LG V40. These days you need to really nitpick a flagship phone’s camera to claim it’s significantly better than the rest — they’re all just that good.
I would happily trade in a perfect shot every now and then for an almost-perfect shot every single time - that is what the Pixel 3 provides.
Some conclusions are clear, as you likely noticed with the recurring observations I made about phones in different sections. These results are not one-off accidents, but because of how each company has tuned its image processing and the capabilities of the hardware. While each camera performed exceedingly well in several specific areas or lighting conditions, I can confidently say the Google Pixel 3 performed the most reliably the most often. I, like most people, would happily trade in a perfect shot every now and then for an almost-perfect shot every single time — that’s what the Pixel 3 offers. For that fact alone it is my choice here.
Note: We’ll be comparing the Pixel 3 to the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro soon enough, and as soon as Night Sight is officially available we’ll be revisiting the Pixel 3 camera.