Although Pixel 4 may be upon us soon, right now, the Pixel 3 and 3a series are arguably the high-water mark for smartphone photography today through a combination of decent optics and artificial intelligence that is not so worthy.  As a photographer, I am not a person who swings easily from mobile phones, claiming great image quality, since small sensors and lack of lenses will always be the Achilles heel of these devices. But Google Pixel 3a XL almost changed that for me. Almost.
I've been an iPhone 6 user for a little over 3 years. I was never surprised by his camera, but I never expected much, so I was never disappointed. When I put it against a "real" camera, the blurry details and small problems with the sensor noise are readily apparent. It was never an access device.
Considering how much photography is part of # TeamPixel's marketing campaign and that I purchased and returned the iPhone X because the camera upgrades were insignificant compared to the iPhone 6s, I decided to make the leap to Android with the Google Pixel 3a XL . It was a decision, mostly motivated by the camera, but also the price and the headphone jack.
Some growing pains
First, I'll take this out: Android itself will be a bargain that keeps Apple users from trying this experiment. I already miss the ability to take AirDrop photos to and from my phone, but more puzzling is that I can't use the Mac firmware to interface with Pixel to transfer any photos. Even Image Capture, and it works with just about anything. A quick Google search revealed that Mojave had broken this feature, but neither Google nor Apple seemed motivated to fix the problem. I was able to use a free solution called "Android File Transfer", but the solution is not elegant.
But it's worth the hassle for better pictures, and the Pixel 3a (and the Pixel 3 series that share similar cameras) definitely have the quality of the photos to back up Google's claims.
But what are the pictures?
I'm not going to try to compare iPhones against Pixels, as there are many sites that do this. Nor will I talk about the specifications since they don't really matter in the phone. What I'm going to do is show you some pictures and talk about the shooting experience.
After a month with the Pixel 3a, it's almost as if Apple has been standing still with photos for the past few years. While for a short time the owner of the iPhone XI had dual lenses, portrait mode, light effects and all the current bells, his picture quality was not as big a jump from the 6S as I expected, nor was the experience of the phone as a whole. The Pixel 3a is that big jump I was looking for.
iPhoni always had bad software by default, lacking raw file capture and smudging with slimming processing. If I was interested in photography, I used a third-party application to capture and process DNG files that are mind-blowing. Pixel 3a involves taking raw pictures outside the box and the files it creates can be pushed and processed to a greater extent by the iPhone. I was pretty impressed with the details and the malleability of the file, considering it was a phone.
Even the default application saves the details in photos and jpg files from the phone (after I finally managed to get them into a computer) showed a level of detail that I had not seen from the phone before.
Even better is the shooting experience. The iPhone Panorama mode does not allow full 360 degree capture, nor does it allow you to see the picture the way you would in a VR headset. The Pixel 3a does both.
If there is one criticism of the camera, it is that it sometimes gets bogged down in photo processing. Switch to portrait mode, for example, and after a few pictures, the phone will not allow you to take a picture until what is already in the queue is processed. I suspect it has to do with some missing / slower hardware in this budget phone than the higher price of the Pixel 3, but unless you are a fast shooting kid, this is no problem. Video quality is also one area where the iPhone seems to have a Pixel bit, since the Pixel videos had some Jell-O effects and compression artifacts, which should not be a problem in the good light I was shooting, although the stabilization seems to work fine.
Computational imaging, the software behind the camera, is a bit of a hit or miss. Whether it's Apple's portrait mode or Google's application, it's easy to see some of the limitations. See how confused the portrait mode obtained in this photo:
Portrait mode should simulate a portrait of a wide-aperture lens, blurring the background while emphasizing an object. On the small screen or on Instagram, most people can't understand the difference, but it's pretty easy to spot something bigger than your phone. A trained photographer can easily spot a photo in portrait mode even on a phone, something I wrote about earlier.
On the other hand, I was surprised at how well the software can lift shadows and contain highlights. In a situation of sharp contrast with sunlight and shade, the Google Pixel 3a came in a surprisingly dynamic range to my Nikon D750. See it:
The bottom line is, portrait mode is a bit of a trick (on all phones, really), but there are some real dynamic range improvements here, whether it's taking standard shots or the mode that Google calls "Night Sight."
About the Night Sight …
These are really the computational images that Google shines on. By making multiple exposures and expertly lining and combining them, the phone is able to raise shadows and protect accents as if by magic. Check out this photo, shot in the dark and what Night Sight did to the standard camera found on the Apple iPod Touch (roughly equivalent to the iPhone 6, so without the bells and whistles).
Unfortunately, I don't make it a habit to carry two latest-generation smartphones so I don't have a direct comparison of the iPhone here, but my short time with the iPhone X didn't convince me that it would do much better. Additionally, if you are on the fence to upgrade an older phone, the images above may be all the proof you need. For comparison, here is the same photo taken without Google's night vision:
All images were lightly processed and cropped in Photoshop, though Pixel gave me the advantage of producing more flexible DNG files straight from the camera, even with Night Sight
Photographers probably still won't give up their real cameras, nor should they. But it is reassuring to know that your phone camera can do the job briefly, or that it can hold a decent family photo obligation when you do not want to entice DSLRs and children at the same time. While other phones pack in lenses and fantastic slots and sensors, there is something to enjoy about the simplistic approach that Google uses with the Pixel 3a XL. It really just works. A camera for a phone under $ 500 should not be so good.
The Pixel 4 may be around the corner, but the Pixel 3 series reigns supreme for smartphone photography right now.
What I liked
- Powerful software features.
- Good picture quality outside the box. It's better than I've ever seen on any smartphone.
- The dynamic range is surprisingly good thanks to the software.
- Digital zoom creates images slightly better than the competition (still a digital zoom).
What I didn't like
- The video quality is only that much.
- Slow to process during rapid fire portraiture of fire (at least on the Pixel 3a XL I bought).
- Only one lens, so wide / telephoto options are limited.
Click these links to buy Pixel 3 or Pixel 3a.