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We got up close and personal with the Pixel 7 Pro's new macro mode
Macro photography has quickly become a hot addition for smartphone manufacturers looking to spice up their camera credentials on budget and mid-range options. A dedicated macro lens is an easy and cheap way to bump up the number of cameras on the spec sheet, it adds an extra imaging dimension to camera-focused smartphones, and it makes for a good marketing talking point.
Last year, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro joined the growing list of premium smartphones adding a macro mode to its photography kit, but it did it by using the existing ultrawide lens (just like Samsung). This year, the Google Pixel is following suit. More specifically, only the Google Pixel 7 Pro is getting a macro mode thanks to a brand-new autofocus-capable ultrawide camera lens.
Our experience with macro lenses and modes on phones has been pretty ho-hum so far, so Google’s announcement of the addition intrigued us. Can the Google Pixel 7 Pro bring its AI-infused imaging goodness to macro photography and push it to another level?
To settle the debate, we got up close and personal with all creatures, great and small, as we walked through Paris and Luxembourg city. Read all about it in Android Authority’s deep focus on the Pixel 7 Pro’s macro capabilities.
How the Pixel 7 Pro’s macro mode works
Using an ultrawide camera for macro photography isn’t a new concept. HUAWEI pioneered it way back in 2018 with the Mate 20 Pro. However, the uptake for the feature has been rather hit or miss. Most smartphone brands tend to slap on a low-res, close-focusing lens as a halfway-there macro camera option. An ultrawide camera with auto-focusing capabilities is generally the superior solution.
Using a high-resolution ultrawide camera as a macro camera is the smart and obvious choice.
A high-resolution sensor and quality glass allow the system to snap significantly higher-quality shots than a dedicated 2MP or 5MP macro camera shoehorned between hulking lens modules.
With the Pixel 7 Pro’s camera system, that’s exactly what you get. This year, Google has added autofocusing capabilities to the ultrawide sensor allowing it to double up as a macro shooter. In typical Google fashion, the entire system is rather hands-off and automatically detects when you are close to a subject. From there, it’s a simple matter of tapping the shutter button and getting a photo right close to the action.
A closer perspective
Macro photography, by its very nature, can be challenging to get right. It takes a combination of great lighting, the right subject matter, absolute steadiness, and camera capabilities to take truly phenomenal shots.
A great macro shot needs the perfect combination of lighting, subject matter, steadiness, and camera capabilities.
The warm autumn light makes this first shot a perfect example of what the Pixel 7 Pro is capable of. The camera’s macro mode lets you get right into the weeds and get a much more aesthetic photograph. While there is some degradation in image quality compared to the standard or even ultrawide shooter, the camera still produces a usable shot that would be perfectly fine on social media.
Once again, in this shot of a flower, the ability to get right into the flower’s pistils makes for a much more interesting capture. However, close inspection reveals quite a bit of loss in detail. It appears that the camera uses a center crop from the full-resolution ultrawide shot to capture the image.
The image illustrates another common concern with macro cameras: a narrow focus area. It can make focusing on moving subjects significantly harder. The Pixel 7 Pro is no exception to this rule, and even micro shakes get amplified when capturing the final shot.
The Pixel 7 Pro's macro shots might be acceptable for social media use, but the results usually leave you wanting.
The blurry pistils further emphasize the need to hold the camera steady to get a rock-solid snap when shooting in macro mode. The result might suffice for social media use, but unlike photos from the primary camera, macro photography on the Pixel 7 Pro isn’t as point-and-shoot as we’d have liked.
Picture quality from the macro camera starts deteriorating further in less-than-perfect light. In fact, we started observing signs of an overly processed image even when shooting outside of direct sunlight. Moreover, the images tend to lack the fine detail we’ve come to expect from Google’s generally excellent image processing.
So close, yet so far
Getting up close with critters, flowers, rocks, and trees around the streets of Paris and Luxembourg city reveals some additional traits about the Pixel 7 Pro’s macro imaging system.
The Google Pixel 7 Pro's focusing system switches over to macro mode from too far a distance.
For one, we observed that the ultrawide camera tends to prompt a switch over to the macro mode from as far as ten to twelve centimeters. As a result, while the camera switches to the macro focusing mode, the subject of your macro shots is often still too far off to be fully in focus — or to render what we’d consider a real “macro” shot.
In the above shot of a ladybug, the camera locked focus on the railing instead of the bug. While we were initially inclined to write it off as a bug, heh, the issue was consistent across our testing. This indicates it’s tougher to pick your focus subject in this mode than in other Pixel camera modes.
Similarly, most would say that this photograph of a bunch of flowers isn’t a macro shot — and they wouldn’t be wrong. But the Pixel 7 Pro took it in macro mode.
The Pixel 7 Pro allows no way to manually trigger the macro mode.
This kind of confusing result would be fixed with a bit more control over when the macro mode gets activated. Unfortunately, the Pixel 7 Pro allows no way to manually trigger macro shots, making you entirely dependent on Google’s AI to figure it out.
While our first few attempts at capturing macro shots from the Pixel 7 Pro were off to a rocky start, things improved once we got the hang of it. Like most macro cameras, the sweet spot for close-up photography with the Pixel 7 Pro is between two to eight centimeters, as we noticed when clicking this photograph of a mineral.
The camera does reasonably well here and can get plenty close to the subject. The image quality itself is, however, a whole different situation.
The drop in macro quality is par for the course with macro cameras, but we had higher ambitions from the Pixel.
Noise and digital artifacts cloud the darker region behind the mineral. The camera doesn’t do a very good job of taming highlights, either. Now, most of this is on par with every smartphone macro lens that we’ve come across so far. Given Google’s general excellence at photography, we expected a better showing from the Pixel 7 Pro’s implementation.
Picture quality diminishes a lot further once you start shooting in less-than-ideal light. We observed issues with focusing, and noise levels got further amplified. The software then tries to compensate for elevated noise levels by increasing digital noise reduction. The end result is a passable shot at best and not something that would pass close scrutiny.
Still, we’d be hard-pressed not to say that you can, indeed, get some very nice shots with the Pixel 7 Pro’s macro mode. Our issue is that they’re not as consistent or as foolproof as the Pixel’s other camera modes and features.
Do you like the Pixel 7 Pro's macro mode?
While some of our issues with macro mode on the Pixel 7 Pro come with the territory, the overall implementation, too, feels a bit underbaked. The only indication for the close-shooting photography mode is a tiny icon floating in the middle of the screen. Tapping the icon toggles off macro mode. However, the icon’s location, right in the middle of the frame, comes across as an odd last-minute addition.
The entire macro photography experience comes across as a last-minute addition, instead of the polished Pixel experience we're used to.
Additionally, we found the lack of a manual trigger for macro mode annoying. Not only does it limit more creative photography opportunities, but combined with Google’s generally over-enthusiastic triggering of macro mode at not-so-macro distances, the entire experience comes across as an early experiment than the polished camera experience we’re used to.
Google Pixel 7 Pro: Close but no cigar
Overall, the macro mode on the Google Pixel 7 Pro delivers what it promises. It just falls short of pushing the envelope in any meaningful way. The results are decent but don’t stand out above what you’d manage from an iPhone or, dare I say, a OnePlus phone.
Google's physics beating magic doesn't apply to the macro mode on the Pixel 7 Pro.
While Google has traditionally managed to beat physics with its camera performance, macro mode on the Pixel 7 Pro is one example where the results are entirely within the realm of regular smartphones.