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The shoddy camera of Google Pixel 5 drives me to iPhone 12

The Google Pixel 5 smartphone

The Google Pixel 5 smartphone has ultra-wide and wide-angle cameras, but no telephoto for more distant objects.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

I have been using Google Pixels and Apple iPhones for years for my daily smartphone photography needs. For most shots, I relied on Pixels for Google’s pioneering computational photography software, which pushes superb image quality out of limited hardware. My current iPhone, the XS Max, has been dropped in cases where I need a telephoto lens.

Two recent smartphone launches – the Google Pixel 5 and Apple’s iPhone 12 – have changed my mind. The Pixel 5’s mid-range camera hardware and iPhone 12 Pro Max’s high-quality camera range, along with the gadget’s large image sensor and new software options, push me to Apple’s camp.

It didn’t have to be that way. I’m impressed with Google’s ability to turn modern image processing research into superb smartphone photos. Google is demonstrating how deeply computers can upgrade cameras, as they have outperformed competitors from smartphones and traditional camera manufacturers.

Google’s decision to build a mid-range phone with just two cameras seems like an abandonment. There is simply no way to compensate for the numerous cameras that rivals such as Samsung, Huawei and Apple use. Of course, rivals don’t necessarily match all of Google’s camera software, but Google isn’t close to their hardware.

The phone against ultra-wide cameras

In 2019, Google’s Pixel 4 took a step forward by adding a second rear camera, the telephoto option for remote objects. That same year, Apple added a third camera to its higher-end iPhone 11 Pro models, an ultra-wide camera that sat next to the main and telephoto cameras.

The Pixel 5 photo on the 2X telephoto, taken here with Google’s raw computing format, is well-watched small, but has only 3 megapixel resolution. On the right, the 12-megapixel image from the 2-year-old iPhone XS Max, taken as an HDR raw photo with Adobe’s Lightroom app, offers more detail and editing flexibility. The click to enlarge reveals the superb detail of the iPhone, although it has been reduced to match the picture of the Pixel 5.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Google tried to match Apple’s capabilities this year by replacing the telephoto camera with an ultra-wide camera in the Pixel 5. But Apple has made big improvements to the camera with its iPhone 12 Pro, including a larger image sensor, a longer-range telephoto lens , improved image stabilization to counteract shaken hands, Dolby Vision HDR video at 60 frames per second and the more flexible format of Apple ProRaw. It is clear that Apple is investing huge resources in better photography.

Google may have made the right call for the broader market. I suspect that ultra-wide cameras are better for mass smartphone customers than telegraphs. Ultra-wide cameras for group photos, indoor scenes and video are undoubtedly more useful than telephoto cameras for portraits and mountains.

But I want both. I enjoy the different perspectives. In fact, for several years I only wore telephoto and ultra-wide lenses for my DSLR.

In response to my concerns, Google says it has improved the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom digital zoom technique with better computational photography and AI techniques that can now increase to a factor of 7X. The idea was

“We researched carefully to determine what was really important to people, and then we focused on that – and we literally shaved hundreds of dollars in the process,” said Isaac Reynolds, the camera’s product manager. Having a telephoto camera would help with image quality, but Google’s priority this year was “to produce a phone that compares well to the top, but at a much lower price – and we did.”

I’m not so convinced. When shooting even at 2X telephoto magnification, my 2-year-old iPhone XS Max and my 1-year-old Pixel 4 offer much better images than the Pixel 5.

Magnifying 2X, the Pixel 5’s Super Res Zoom technology generates a 12-megapixel image, but looks artificially close-up, as in this cropped view.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

What I like so far about the Pixel 5 cameras

I want to be clear: Google’s new phone has its merits, and I’ve experienced some of these strengths while testing the Pixel 5’s cameras over the last few days. Here are a few:

  • Google’s computing raw material offers photo enthusiasts the best of both worlds when it comes to photo formats. It combines the exposure and color flexibility of raw raw photo data with the exposure range and noise reduction of HDR + multishot processing typically used to create JPEGs.
  • Double-tapping the phone’s power button quickly launches the camera app. It’s not new with the Pixel 5, but it’s much faster than the iPhone’s lock screen icon.
  • Night Sight, especially astrophoto mode, is still amazing for low light shots.

Google also mentioned other advantages of the Pixel 5, including the ability for portrait light to control the visible light source illuminating the subject’s face; portrait photos that work in Night Sight mode; 4K video that now works at a fast 60 frames per second, more advanced high dynamic range processing called HDR +, which is now enhanced by exposure bracketing for better shadow detail such as face lighting and better stabilization on the video.

Here’s the friction: As Google gets into hardware, competitors are improving their software.

Google’s rivals in computing photography are catching up

Apple has not commented on its photographic plans for this story, but its actions say a lot.

Pixel 5 portrait mode

Pixel 5 offers a useful, if not unique, portrait mode that blurs the background for a smooth bokeh.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Last year, Apple compared most of Google’s best in HDR + to challenging scenes with bright and dark elements. This year’s Pixel 5 enhances HDR + with bracketing technology in the technique of mixing multiple photos. However, Apple’s Smart HDR alternative is already in the third generation of improvement. Apple is also improving night photos on the iPhone.

Photo enthusiasts like me prefer raw, raw photo formats so we can refine color balance, exposure, sharpening and noise reduction. This is great when the camera doesn’t make the right choice, when it “bakes” raw data from images into a more convenient but limited JPEG image. Google’s HDR computing with raw material and raw material flexibility, but now Apple plans to release its answer, ProRaw, in an update that will soon appear for iPhone Pro models.

Few people use Pixel phones, and that weighs on Google. Powerhouse Adobe imaging software calibrates its Lightroom photo software to correct lens problems and adapt its HDR tool for some cameras and lenses. Not surprisingly, Pixel phones are not on this list. “We tend to provide support based on the popularity of the devices with our customers,” said a statement from Adobe.

In contrast, Adobe has “partnered closely with Apple” to take advantage of ProRaw’s capabilities. And Google’s computational photography guru, Mark Levoy, has left Google and is now at Adobe, where he incorporates photo technology into the Adobe camera app.

Selling a mid-range smartphone like the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4a 5G could make sense when the COVID-19 pandemic cost millions of jobs and made the iPhone Pro Max unaffordable for $ 1,099. But for people like me with a photography budget and an appreciation for Google’s smart computing, it’s tragic that Google has lost its leadership.

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