Google’s big focus during the Pixel 3 launch event wasn’t on the phone’s specs or software, but its camera. The company had a lot to say about the camera’s new features and options, and now it’s time to put these claims to the test.
The Huawei P20 Pro is the current king of smartphone photography (depending on who you ask) and actually already has most of the features that Google touted for the Pixel 3. Optical and Hybrid Zoom rival Google’s new Super Res Zoom. Huawei’s Night mode aims to do the same thing as Night Shot, and software bokeh appears in both models too. Let’s dive in.
Leveraging multiple-shot exposures, machine learning, and dedicated hardware in the form of the Pixel Visual Core, HDR+ is Google’s big play in mobile photography. We’ve previously seen the Huawei P20 Pro automatically produce a very Google-esque HDR image in certain environments too, so this should make for an interesting comparison.
HDR is best used in high contrast settings, so either in very bright environments with a darker focal point or dark environments with a bright focal point. Balancing both light and shadow without under or overexposing is HDR’s goal. Let’s start with a bright shot.
The key parts to focus on here are the bright overcast sky through the window, the reflection on the countertop, and the brightness of our beautiful model — the Android figurine. Neither shot overexposes, and the P20 Pro actually retains more of background detail outside and brightens up our subject the most. Some may feel the P20 Pro removes too much shadow detail here.
The only drawback is that the picture is oversharpened compared to the Pixel 3, and other examples look far worse using Huawei’s algorithm. The Pixel 3 doesn’t oversharpen its HDR+ images.
In this darker shot, again both images are exposed rather well. Unfortunately, the Pixel 3 suffers from lens flare here and doesn’t quite capture the full look of the candle without blowing out the lighting. Detail and noise are very good though.
While Google’s Pixel Visual Core might speed up processing and lower the power consumption of HDR+ photography, it doesn’t automatically make Google’s algorithm superior. Lots of other phones can do HDR too and the results above show other companies’ algorithms are on par.
Super Res vs Hybrid vs Optical Zoom
Digital zoom has never been great, so Huawei launched its P20 Pro with both a dedicated 3x optical zoom telephoto sensor and the ability to hit up to 5x with its Hybrid Zoom software feature. Google is debuting its own Super Res Zoom with the Pixel, which is based on the same super-resolution principle as Huawei’s Hybrid Zoom. The Pixel 3 also pops straight to 3x zoom if you double tap on an object, so 3x seems like a logical comparison point.
Software zoom is never as good as the real thing. We already showed this with the P20 Pro back when it launched and the example below shows Google’s implementation is equally inferior to a dedicated optical lens at 3x.
The Pixel 3’s super-resolution shot is clearly heavily processed, boasting overzealous blacks, sharpening, and very aggressive noise reduction. The images are also clearly missing most of the textured detail you get with a proper optical zoom. The Huawei P20 Pro got similar post-processing criticism back at launch and generally, this look appears to be a common side-effect of super-resolution zoom images. For comparison, here’s the same shot comparing Google’s Super Res and Huawei’s Hybrid zoom, so we can better analyze the software differences.
Despite the claims, Super Res Zoom is no match for a proper optical zoom.
Somewhat surprisingly, the P20 Pro’s presentation appears softer and more realistic, at least in this scenario. Noise is about the same in both of the images, as is the color vibrancy and all-important detail capture. The Google Pixel 3’s algorithm produces a noticeable haloing effect, leaving a dark trail around the flower edges. The only thing really going for the Pixel 3’s picture here is the background exposure and general lighting.
The Pixel 3 performs notably better at 2x. While the P20 Pro’s Hybrid Zoom suffers from some aliased edges and a tad too much sharpening, the Pixel 3 retains a softer and natural image this time around. These small differences are tough to distinguish unless you view the 100% crop, but they are there. Details are great on both in good lighting, but at 2x I feel that the Pixel 3 is the most consistent shooter in that regard. That’s thanks to the inclusion of optical image stabilization that prevents blurry looking images and HDR+ that works well even in dimmer lighting. Having said that, the P20 Pro offers a 40MP camera mode for a simple lossless crop.
The Pixel 3's Super Res zoom appears built for 2x. It works well in that sweet spot, but I can't recommend zooming further.
Finally at 7x, the limit of the Pixel 3’s zoom, there’s no contest. A telephoto lens, combined with Hybrid Zoom software allows the P20 Pro to retain detail at much greater distances than the Pixel 3.
Software bokeh blur
Bokeh is a hot trend these days and software can perform nifty tricks to simulate that desirable DSLR look. Before we get to the pictures, the Pixel 3 presents a very narrow field of view when using the portrait mode, while the P20 Pro retains the normal full sensor angle. This is a bit frustrating if you’re trying to fit in a close scene, so I’ve cropped and matched the P20 Pro images below for an easier comparison.
Huawei P20 Pro’s software suffers from the very common transparency detection issue. The algorithm clearly can’t tell the top of the pint glass from the background, resulting in this bit of the foreground getting blurred. Google’s machine learning addition recognizes the glass and doesn’t suffer from the same problem, so big points for the Pixel 3 there.
However, the Pixel 3’s bokeh effect has a much sharper roll-off and doesn’t defocus the foreground. Note how the P20 Pro’s blur steadily increases toward the back of the plate, spoon, and cake. With the Pixel 3 we observe a distinct line on the table top where Google’s algorithm suddenly applies the blur, yet it doesn’t apply bokeh to the plate clearly occupying the same plane.
The P20 Pro doesn’t have any problems with this second shot, with more defined edges. This time the Pixel 3 seems to confuse a bit of the tree and a smudge on the glass as foreground (top left), so even Google’s algorithm isn’t perfect. Here the Google Pixel 3 employs a rather tame background blur, while the P20 Pro can dial up a more intense small aperture looking bokeh, complete with realistic light lensing effects even at this extreme setting.
It seems the Pixel 3 either blurs an object or doesn’t, with little in between. The P20 Pro offers a more natural looking gradient to its blur, but its edge detection isn’t quite as good as Google’s. You also can’t go back and just the point of focus or the amount of bokeh with the Pixel 3, so it’s not as flexible as some users may be used to.
Night Sight vs Night Mode
I was perhaps most excited about testing this feature, but unfortunately Night Sight isn’t coming to the Google Pixel 3 until next month. Huawei sets a very high bar here, so we’ll be sure to revisit this test once the update rolls out.
The pictures here are all pretty good but it’s clear that Google’s software isn’t as far ahead of the competition as the company might like us to believe. A major hat tip goes to its machine learning edge detection for bokeh blur. It passes the transparent glass test, but it isn’t immune to making the occasional mistake. The lack of post-shot bokeh customization is a shame, but at least HDR+ continues to produce good-looking results in pretty much every environment.
Google’s determination to stick with a single rear camera configuration sets it apart from its competitors, but it’s still not clear that this is the right decision. The Pixel 3’s Super Res zoom performs notably worse than an equivalent telephoto lens and there’s no wide-angle option here for those that like to cram more into their pictures either.
You can check out a wider range of camera samples from the Google Pixel 3 in our review. Before you head over there, how do you think the camera stacks up against the highly flexible Huawei P20 Pro?