Google has finally outclassed other companies when it comes to cameras. This is a statement that some individuals might have thought they never would have heard. When it comes to the camera, Google’s line of hardware which up until now resided in the Nexus camp for smartphones, was never thought of as the best phone on the market for photos. Each passing year presented consumers with a new Nexus phone that ultimately had better pictures than the phone that was released the year before, but they have never actually had the best smartphone camera. That changed this year with the Pixel and the Pixel XL, which has helped push Google past other OEMs in the photo department. This isn’t just due to the sensor that Google has used inside of the phone, although that does factor in quite a bit, but rather a large part of it has to do with the camera software. This is the real magic behind the curtain.
Google’s Pixel and Pixel XL have a handful of special little tweaks and perks that are part of the software side of things which are aimed at enhancing the smartphone experience for users, and while Google did pack special features in throughout the software in numerous areas, such as with the unlimited photo and video storage backups at full resolution, the special software used in the camera is a huge focus this year it seems, and that’s a good thing because it will help Google’s two new phones succeed more than they likely would have if their camera wasn’t rated the highest smartphone camera to date. On the specifics, a large portion of the camera software on the Pixel and Pixel XL are automatic and intelligent. When you pick up the Pixel and snap a photo, things happen quickly and rather effortlessly, the camera opens extremely fast and is ready to take a shot in pretty much no time at all. Now, speed of the camera is one very good aspect of what Google has done here with the camera software, but more of what makes this camera great should be attributed to the HDR+ mode that Google has switched on by default.
It’s HDR+ that is the real star of the show for the way the Pixel and Pixel XL handle images, and there are more than a few elements to this, but one important factor that boosts the camera up is the way HDR+ takes multiple image shots before the shutter button is pressed. This makes it so that capturing pictures is more of an instant affair and aside from giving a person more time to take more shots, it also better ensures that people are going to get the “right” shot, and that’s the key detail. Getting the right shot. While HDR+ is on by default and Google trusts it to give you the perfect photo every time (and it expects you to trust it as well), the reality is that it likely isn’t going to give you the perfect picture every single time you press the shutter button. That said, the likelihood of getting a great image that you can feel proud to show off to friends and family is much higher than on past Nexus devices, and probably much higher than on other top-end flagships from this year. You might be asking, if the pictures are already saved to the sensor (which is a state of the art Sony IMX378 sensor) before the shutter button is pressed, then what does the shutter button actually do? Well, you still have to press the shutter button to get the image and have it saved, it just isn’t taking the image at that time any more. It does however use the time you pressed the shutter button as a timestamp for the photo.
The other thing that HDR+ does differently than HDR modes on other devices is combining multiple images that are taken only in low exposure instead of mixing multiple images in high, medium, and low exposure levels. Google’s argument here is that using multiple low exposure shots helps them get a better set of low-light image results. In shorter terms, underexposing the images is key to what makes the camera on the pixel produce the shots that it can. Google’s software is great at denoising images (getting rid of most of the noise in images taken in low-light) which is a point we made in our full review of the Pixel and Pixel XL, and this leads to Google being able to keep colors saturated in those low exposure shots which makes for a vibrant and colorful picture with more depth and clarity than you would expect with less light. The Pixel’s software also keeps a little bit of the noise in images, as this allows the pictures to keep some of the texture that add to the overall quality of the shot. Of course, it’s important to note that you can switch HDR+ off if you want to, but as mentioned above it’s set to HDR+ Auto as the default setting, and even though HDR+ auto takes multiple images at low-exposure, you can easily adjust the exposure manually by simply dragging your finger up and down the screen to fine tune things to just the way you want them, with a range of +2.0 all the way down to -2.0.
While the Pixel and Pixel XL lack optical image stabilization, they do carry electronic image stabilization so there is still some stabilizing of photos going on, and OIS, according to Google, is actually not needed as much with HDR+, making for yet another way that the Pixel's default camera mode helps to push the pictures on the device past those of its competitors. Because HDR+ is capable of taking multiple shots at low exposure and then blending those together for the end result, the image doesn't really need to be stabilized in the way that OIS would provide, as OIS is typically meant for a photo at longer exposure times. This doesn't mean that the Pixel camera will win out every single time against competing devices with similar hardware that do have OIS included, but it's quickly becoming apparent that HDR+ was Google's ace in the hole as far as the camera is concerned, as it seems to have allowed them to achieve a really great image quality in a number of ways. Having said that, HDR+ is not the only thing that makes this a great camera, as there are still options for other camera modes and there are a handful of other elements that you can adjust to make your pictures your own. As with past Google devices, those of which belonged to the Nexus line, panorama is a mode that has returned to allow you to grab wide frame shots by stitching together multiple images. Other modes like Photo Sphere, and Lens Blur have returned as well, and there's even a Slow Motion mode which can grab imagery at either 120fps in 1080p resolution, or 240fps in 720p resolution. While the 720p resolution is lower quality, the 240fps is something that not many other high-end flagships have included in their smartphone cameras, giving the Pixel an edge here too. If this is a feature that you plan to use.
While relatively small compared to something like HDR+, other features in the software like a quick double tap on the power button to the open the camera (which works both while the screen is sleeping and while it's awake) give the camera an extra boost. It is also worth noting that the Pixel is not the only phone which allows for such quick access to the camera, but when paired with everything else in the software it simply adds to appeal. So, while Google's Pixel camera software may not have as many modes or scene effects that can be applied when taking pictures, HDR+, and the capability to snap photos extremely fast still helps it to achieve greatness beyond what other OEMs have done with their phone cameras so far. Of course, each person is different and other users will appreciate the unique features that their own device provides, but it's still hard to argue against Google coming closer to perfecting the camera software on an Android device when they were able to grab the best rating for a smartphone so far. That said, it's highly likely and very probable that Google as well as other OEMs will continue to improve their cameras and camera software as new devices are developed, so this is really a win for everyone.