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Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Sony Xperia Pro-I camera shootout: Brains vs brawn
Google and Sony take dramatically different approaches to their smartphone cameras, and nothing showcases that more distinctly than pitting the Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Sony Xperia Pro-I. Where Google relies on artificial intelligence to produce the best possible images with a simple press of the button, Sony is more interested in delivering accurate results that leave room for subtle enhancements in post-production. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other; they’re simply different.
Even though they share “pro” monikers, Google and Sony are pitching the Pixel 6 Pro and Xperia Pro-I to entirely divergent segments of potential users. The Pixel 6 Pro is an affordable flagship meant to appeal to the masses. At the same time, the Xperia Pro-I is a pricey professional-grade smartphone/camera-replacement combo intended for serious creators.
Despite the unique paths set by these phones, they both still want to sell you on the idea of having a powerful photography partner in your pocket. Naturally, we saw fit to compare the end results.
Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Sony Xperia Pro-I: Camera specs
|Google Pixel 6 Pro||Sony Xperia Pro-I|
|Google Pixel 6 Pro|
50MP (12.5MP binned)
1/1.31" image sensor size
1.2μm pixel width
Dual Pixel PDAF
OIS + EIS
|Sony Xperia Pro-I|
1" image sensor size
|Google Pixel 6 Pro|
1.25μm pixel width
114° field of view
|Sony Xperia Pro-I|
|Google Pixel 6 Pro|
48MP (12MP binned)
OIS + EIS
|Sony Xperia Pro-I|
|Google Pixel 6 Pro|
20mm focal length
|Sony Xperia Pro-I|
The Google Pixel 6 Pro and Sony Xperia Pro-I feature radically different camera hardware. Both companies boast about the prowess of their imaging silicon compared to competing phones. Let’s see what sets them apart.
Google revamped its sensor and lens arrangement for the first time in years. The Pixel 6 Pro includes a trio of cameras, covering the standard, ultrawide, and telephoto options. The primary camera packs a 50MP, 1/1.31-inch sensor (binned to 12.5MP) at f/1.85. It features OIS and EIS. The ultrawide offers a 12MP sensor at f/2.2 with a 114-degree field of view. The telephoto includes a 48MP sensor (binned to 12MP) at ƒ/3.5. It also has OIS and EIS, and has 4x optical zoom thanks to the periscope lens.
On the other hand, Sony stuck with its favorite configuration: three 12MP shooters across the standard, wide, and telephoto ranges. The primary sensor sets the Pro-I apart, which Sony claims is a massive 1-inch Exmor RS mobile sensor. Due to internal space constraints, Sony has confirmed it’s using a 12MP crop from this large 20MP sensor. We suspect an equivalent usable area of around 1/1.3-inches. The main sensor may be big, but thanks to the f/2.0 ZEISS Optics lens, the camera is slower. Meanwhile, the 12MP ultrawide camera has an aperture of f/2.2 and a 124-degree field of view. The 12MP telephoto offers an aperture of f/2.4 and 2.1x optical zoom.
The Pixel 6 Pro and Xperia Pro-I are relying on totally different silicon to process images.
Flip the phones over and you’ll find the selfie cameras. The Google Pixel 6 Pro has an 11.1MP selfie camera at f/2.2, while the Sony Xperia Pro-I has an 8MP selfie camera at f/2.
It’s not just the camera hardware that sets these two phones apart. Each relies on totally different silicon to process images. Google designed its processor, called Google Tensor, to power the Pixel 6 Pro. This unique chip packs boatloads of machine learning and AI functionality to, among other things, better manipulate photos. Sony, meanwhile, stuck with the favorite flagship processor of 2021: the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. This top-tier SoC may be a year old now, but it’s got the image signal processing goods under the hood to help Sony manage the Pro-I’s photos.
Given the vast disparity between these approaches, is there any chance the photos will look similar at all?
A quick note on how we captured these samples. We used both phones’ out-of-the-box settings. That means we turned on the cameras and shot the photos without taking any special steps to improve them. We didn’t tweak any settings, we didn’t use any special capture modes, we didn’t edit them in post. We simply opened the camera apps and pressed the shutter button. To put things even more clearly, we used the Xperia Pro-I’s “basic” mode. This is the simple, point-and-shoot mode the phone is set to by default. We could have used the Pro-I’s more advanced, manual shooting tools, but we felt that would put images in different categories. We also left the Pro-I’s aperture set to f/2, its default setting.
Some might argue we didn’t give Sony a fair chance. Indeed, it offers a dizzying number of ways to adjust the camera’s behavior when taking photos. The point here is to demonstrate that spending double your money doesn’t automatically get you better pictures with a single click when the approaches differ so much.
Full resolution photo samples are available in this Google Drive folder.
A lot is going on in this image. The surrounding buildings shaded everything you see, but there’s still plenty of light to pull details from the shadows. The exposures are evenly matched, and clarity is about the same. Noise is nearly nonexistent. Google’s picture has a slightly bluer tint, while the Sony leans more toward yellow. The result is a more pleasing sky in the background of the image taken by the Pixel 6 Pro, but that could boil down to personal preference.
This comparison sees nearly the same results as the preceding photo. Yet, some interesting things are going on with exposure here. The Xperia Pro-I generated a cleaner look of the Oculus (the white building in the foreground), but it managed to overexpose and underexpose some background elements at the same time. Look at the painted murals and the yellowish building above them. The murals are a bit too dark, while the building is a bit too bright. The Pixel 6 Pro balanced the exposure out better and delivered more detail.
There’s no real debate about which of these samples is superior looking. The Pixel 6 Pro produced a far livelier image with richer, brighter colors. By way of comparison, the Xperia Pro-I’s image is darker with more muted colors. However, the Pro-I’s sample is more representative of what my eyes saw that day while taking photos in New York City. Whether you prefer the quick win from the Pixel or the attention-needing accuracy of the Pro-I depends on what you want from your smartphone’s camera.
These two are night and day. Google’s photo comes across as cool, and Sony’s is over-warm. The Pro-I lost its way in calculating the white balance here, and it’s obvious when you weigh the photos against one another. Moreover, there’s far better detail in the Google photo, particularly in the dark tree branches. I have to give this one to the Pixel.
More reading: The best triple camera phones available
Shooting red hues is always a great way to test cameras. In this sample, the Pixel overexposed the entire frame by just a bit, which washes out the flower’s bright red color to a small degree. It also washes out the background a bit. Furthermore, the photo from the Pixel isn’t as sharp as it could be, and there’s more noise than I care to see. The flower captured by the Pro-I is richer, and the background looks deeper and cleaner.
Here’s a shot I captured with the phones’ wide-angle cameras. Google’s image is sharper and delivers far more detail, particularly in the background. For example, you can clearly make out the support cables of the Brooklyn Bridge to the right of the underpass in the Pixel photo. These same details are obscured in the Sony sample. While the Sony photo underexposed the areas under the bridge just a bit, it managed to deliver much richer colors and even kept some blue hue in the sky rather than washing it out.
This was a fun shot, as there is plenty to put under the microscope. The photo from the Pixel looks a bit more balanced overall, thanks to the bluer sky, sharper focus, and starker detail in the shadows along the dock and tug boat. However, the photo from the Pro-I is a more accurate depiction of what I saw in real life and produces a nicer red along the boat’s waterline.
More reading: What is HDR photography?
The Pixel produced a crazy amount of contrast for this photo of a seagull and the Brooklyn Bridge. You can tell the software algorithms worked overtime to generate the range visible here. It makes the Pro-I’s sample look a little washed out in comparison. As much as I like the clarity and detail of the Pixel’s photo, there’s something pleasingly film-like about the Pro-I photo’s warmth that gives it a vintage overtone.
There's something pleasingly film-like about the Pro-I photo's warmth that gives it a vintage overtone.
This wasn’t an easy one. The bridge in the background was lit up by the sun, while the smiley face in the foreground was in a heavily shaded area. Both phones had to work overtime to balance out the exposure. In this instance, the Pixel did so with a bit more grace. The color is simply nicer to look at, and the background details are much cleaner. There are some patches of the sky that look a little over-processed, but overall the Pixel’s shot is more usable out of the gate. You’d likely want to tweak the image from the Pro-I before sharing it.
Related: 10 best photography apps for Android
Shooting directly at the sun is not easy for any camera. The Pixel did an incredible job delivering detail in the pylons in the foreground, which were heavily shaded. It also added lots of contrast to the water and kept the background details, such as the Statue of Liberty, in sharp focus. The Pro-I almost appears to have given up in comparison. While the warmer tone is more accurate to the real-world environment, there’s almost no detail at all in the pylons or the clouds, and the statue is not much more than an upright smudge.
Taking photos in Times Square is a rite of passage for tourists. Thanks to the constantly changing billboards, no two shots are ever quite the same. The Pixel photo here looks washed out. The pink overtone to the image is thanks to a brilliant ad for Coke that flashed to my left as I took the shot. What the Pixel image does do, however, is showcase some details in the background, such as the tall buildings and the not-quite-blackened evening sky. The Pro-I’s photo is more accurate in terms of color, but I wish there was more detail in the people who make up the foreground. Overall, the Pro-I’s shot wins for not being totally pink.
Then there are the concert photos. Everyone loves to take pictures when they’re at a show. Here, the Pixel delivers sharper focus, more detail in the dark regions (in this case, the guitar player), and more accurate colors throughout. Due to the changing background light, it may not be a strictly apples-to-apples comparison, but it still gives you an idea of the differences these cameras deliver. Again, there’s plenty to like in the Pro-I shot, but you might have to spend some time adjusting it.
The selfies above showcase the simple differences in how Google and Sony are processing their photos. Looking at my face, there’s plainly more detail in the images from the Pixel, in addition to a little more color. That’s not to say they are perfect. There’s lots of noise from the Pixel, which I don’t like. On the other hand, I come across as a little washed out in the images from the Sony, with less detail visible in my skin. The photos from Sony also have an old-time feel to them that makes them look as though they were taken decades ago. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they’re just different.
Google Pixel 6 Pro vs Sony Xperia Pro-I: The verdict
Pitting the Google Pixel 6 Pro vs the Sony Xperia Pro-I isn’t necessarily a fair comparison in some respects, and it isn’t strictly to declare a winner in this head-to-head. Google and Sony have taken entirely different approaches to creating these cameras and target wholly different user types. Moreover, the phones don’t play in the same economic space, given the vast price delta. Even so, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating exercise to highlight what Google and Sony are up to.
Which smartphone camera takes the better pictures?
It’s worth taking a moment to laud the Pixel 6 Pro. Though Google and Sony are coming at the cameras from wildly different directions, the Pixel 6 Pro proves that expensive hardware doesn’t always get you the best results. Google’s algorithmic approach does a great job of delivering hassle-free results that regular people can put to use right away.
Both of these phones take terrific pictures. Some may prefer the ready-to-consume results from the point-and-shoot Google Pixel 6 Pro, while others may need the accuracy and warmth of the more complicated Sony Xperia Pro-I. Whichever device you end up with depends entirely on what you need the phone — and its camera — to do.
If you want to see the Pixel 6 Pro camera battling it out with other high-end devices, we have a comparison against the iPhone 13 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Also, don’t forget to take a look at our list of the very best camera phones, as well as the best budget camera phones.
Keep in mind that all this excellent camera hardware can help, but it’s not what photography is all about. Skill and knowledge are what really take your photos from average to outstanding, and we have some content to help you polish your photographic prowess. Let’s start with a look at the most important photography terms. Also, take a look at our tips for taking your images to the next level.