When Google announced the Pixel a few weeks ago, the company sounded extremely confident in the phone’s camera. Brian Rakowski, Google’s vice president of product management, called the camera "best in class," and backed up that claim by revealing that DxOMark — which rates the quality of smartphone and DSLR cameras — had given the Pixel’s camera an 89, the highest score ever awarded to a phone. "This isn’t only the best camera we’ve ever made, it’s the best smartphone camera anyone has ever made," Rakowski said.
That’s some big talk, especially considering how thoroughly Apple and Samsung have dominated the smartphone camera space over the last few years. When we pitted the latest phones from those two companies against each other in March — using Apple’s iPhone 6S and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 — Samsung edged out Apple in a clear way for the first time ever. But the differences between the two were also harder than ever to discern.
To put Google’s claims to the test, we decided to see how the camera stacks up against the current leaders in the field: the Galaxy S7 and the new iPhone 7. The result? Google was right to boast about the quality of that rear-facing camera. In many ways it is every bit as good or better than the ones on the iPhone 7 or the Galaxy S7. But the gap between the three cameras is now even closer, and the differences are often subtle.
Let’s start with dynamic range, because it seems to be the Pixel’s clearest advantage, especially with respect to how the camera handles highlights. When shooting scenes full of bright, direct light — like this picture of a sun-lit flower bed (right) — the Pixel lost less detail in the bright whites of the leaves than either the iPhone 7 or the S7 Edge. Those details are slightly more washed out in the S7 Edge image, and they’re very muddy in the iPhone 7 image.
While it’s good at handling the bright side of things, the Pixel doesn’t do quite as well with shadows. The iPhone 7 seemed capable of picking out a bit more detail in the shadows of most images, and overall the iPhone 7 consistently captured a flatter image in most settings. This is unsurprising behavior from the iPhone, while the S7 applies more contrast to the images it takes. The Pixel tends to follow that example. Straight out of camera, the Pixel (and the S7) will give you a more immediately pleasing image, one that needs less tweaking if you want to post it to Instagram or Facebook. The iPhone 7’s photos don’t have quite as much punch straight out of the camera. That means you have to do a little more work to them, but you also have a bit more say in what they look like.
That said, the iPhone 7’s images tend to skew warmer than those from the Pixel or the S7, though in broad daylight it can adopt a blue cast. The Pixel, if anything, tends to add a slight green tint to its images, while the S7 pumps up the deeper blues and blacks of a given scene. Otherwise, color reproduction is solid across all three cameras. The Pixel and the Galaxy S7 have a tendency to oversaturate some images when there are extremely vivid colors in the frame, but there’s no clear winner here — it varies scene by scene, but all three handle color well.
Sharpness / Detail
The Pixel produced slightly crisper images than the S7, which are in turn slightly more crisp than the iPhone 7’s images. I’d like to attribute this to Google and Samsung doing more post-processing on its JPEGS than Apple, and that seems to be the case in images like this:
This is the same section of three photos taken by each camera zoomed to 100 percent. Google’s looks the most crisp, but it also looks a bit more over-processed than the Samsung photo. There are more JPEG artifacts (especially in the green leaf at the top), making the image look a bit messy. But the iPhone 7 image looks so much softer in comparison that it’s hard to imagine a sharpening filter would result in the same level of detail that we see in the other images.
In other words, the Pixel appears to either capture a bit more fine detail than the iPhone 7, or the iPhone 7 is losing that detail at some point in the process of creating the JPEG file. Again, though, we’re talking pretty minute differences, so it’s hard to tell. Just know that the Pixel will get you a few extra blades of grass, or a finer line on a building in the distance, than the iPhone or even the S7.
Here’s one area where the Pixel still seems behind its competition. [Update: I took a closer look at Google's low light performance when the Auto HDR+ feature is turned on and published some results here. It fared much better.] At first glance Google’s new phone seems just as capable in low light as the iPhone 7 or the Galaxy S7, but a closer inspection shows some unwanted noise and blotchiness. This shows up even in moderately challenging light, like the sky at dusk:
Here are two more examples from just after sunset:
Of course, taking pictures with a smartphone is about more than just the image quality of the rear-facing camera. There are tons of other factors at play, more than ever before, when it comes to picking the best smartphone for photography. Let’s run through a few of the most important ones real quick.
This isn’t the camera Google was boasting about on stage, but it’s still important. For many users’ day-to-day lives, it’s an even more important camera than the rear-facing one.
Samsung’s front-facing camera nails the colors better than the other two here. (Samsung also offers a suite of selfie tools that let you hide blemishes, remove distortion around your face from the wide angle, or enlarge the size of your eyes — all in the native camera app.) The iPhone skews yellow and green, which is especially bad for faces and skin tones, while the Pixel turns in blueish images. Apple bumped up the resolution to 7 megapixels on its selfie shooter this time around, but it’s still not as wide angle as the Galaxy S7 or the Pixel. The Pixel has the highest resolution front camera at 8 megapixels, but it doesn’t offer a front-facing flash — something that Apple and Samsung pull off by briefly brightening up the screen when you take a selfie.
The native camera apps for each of these phones are all about as fast as you need them to be, but the iPhone is the only phone that won’t let you launch the camera by pressing a physical button. On the Galaxy S7 Edge you’re able to double-tap the home button to launch the camera, and on the Pixel you can do the same using the power button. The iPhone has cut out a step in the process of launching Apple’s camera app thanks to the new "raise to wake" feature in iOS 10 — now you can just lift your phone up and swipe right on the lock screen to get to the camera. But the S7 Edge still has the advantage here. Samsung’s combination of a double-tap launcher, quick camera app, and even quicker autofocusing make for a slightly faster shooting experience than what’s offered by Google or Apple.
All three phones have good native camera apps. You’ll be able to do most of your shooting in any of them without worrying about settings or features, and they’re all fast and reliable.
Samsung’s offers the most in-depth manual control over the camera, and you don’t even have to leave the app to change any of those settings. The Pixel’s app has some of these controls as well, though not as many. That’s not the case on the iPhone 7, where you have to leave the camera app and go into the phone’s Settings menu to enable 4K or tweak the frame rate. Apple allows access to the camera’s manual controls, but you have to use a third-party camera app to use them.
Each phone also has different photo modes, like burst, time lapse, HDR, and panorama. Comparing them is more a matter of taste than anything, except for HDR, which I found to be overly aggressive on the Pixel. Google is extremely confident in the Pixel’s HDR mode, to the point that it defaults to leaving "Auto HDR" on all the time. But in my time shooting with it the Auto HDR produced results like this:
If Google can dial this back a bit, there are glimpses of a really good HDR tool here — one that’s better than what Apple or Samsung offer. Verge senior editor Vlad Savov found it to be much more pleasing in certain situations, like this one here, where it absolutely beat out the iPhone 7 (on the left) without pushing the HDR effect too far:
All three phones are capable of shooting video at up to 4K resolution, and can also shoot slow motion video at up to 240 frames per second (at 720p resolution). The video quality is excellent across the board, though each phone exhibits some of the same tendencies that we discussed above in the photo test. (The iPhone’s video skews warmer, for example.) The biggest differentiator with video is the stabilization.
The iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 offer optical image stabilization, which works regardless of whether you’re shooting images or videos. The OIS helps both cameras pull off better low-light shots, and also helps mitigate camera shake in good light. Google’s digital image stabilization only works on videos. Instead of moving components around to compensate for vibrations, the phone samples the gyroscope at up to 200 times per second and digitally adjusts the image according to those readings.
The result is the Pixel stabilization looks smoother, but it also tends to hang in certain situations. If you’re panning across a scene, the video will sometimes try to compensate for that movement as shake, and so when it realizes that you’re trying to change what the camera is pointing at the picture darts to the new subject in a rather jarring way. Here’s hoping Google finds a way to smooth this issue out after the Pixel hits store shelves, because otherwise it works really well.
Focal length / depth of field
Google hasn’t mentioned the exact spec, but the Pixel’s camera has the widest field of view out of all three of these phones. That’s good if you want to fit more of a scene in your image, but it also means you’ll have to get closer to some subjects in order to fill up the frame. (I had to take about two to three steps back to fit the same view into the iPhone 7’s camera, for example.) For reference — the Galaxy S7’s focal length of 26mm is slightly less wide than the Pixel’s.
All three have big, bright apertures. Samsung offers an f1.7 aperture, the iPhone 7’s is f1.8, and Pixel’s is 2.0. That means Samsung’s should, in theory, let in more light, and should also produce a more blurred-out background. It’s hard to tell the difference between the depth of field of the S7 and the iPhone 7, but you can notice a touch less blur when you compare the Pixel to those two.
The elephant in the room
We used the iPhone 7 in this test, but the iPhone 7 Plus (obviously) has two rear cameras. Since the second camera on the Plus is a "telephoto," it didn’t make sense to directly compare it to the image quality offered by the Samsung or Google cameras. You can take everything we’ve said about the iPhone 7’s camera here and apply it to the wide angle lens on the iPhone 7 Plus — they’re one and the same. Just know that a second camera with a different focal length offers you more versatility, and would leave you better prepared in more situations than any of these three phones that we tested. Apple had no outright wins in these head-to-head tests, but the dual-camera setup of the Plus could make up for that depending on what you’re looking for.
If we’ve learned anything early on in our time with the Pixel, it’s that Google was right to be excited about the main camera on this phone. In most situations it is better than the iPhone 7, and it even beats out the Galaxy S7 in some others. You could make the argument that Apple offers a "flatter," more true-to-life image, or at least one that is better suited for editing. But the chances are that many people don’t want that, or at the very least, it’s not as big a deal-breaker as the rest of a phone’s features. And to my eyes, the iPhone’s photos are starting to look a bit bland in comparison to the photos that are coming out of Google’s and Samsung’s phones. How Apple decides to address this with the next iPhone will be something for photographers to keep an eye on.
For the better part of the last decade, one of the biggest demands from people in the market for a premium smartphone was a great camera. These days, though, it’s a feature you should expect. A good smartphone camera is no longer the deciding factor it once was if only because it’s now so common to find one in a high-end (or even mid-range) phone. These three phones are the perfect example of that. Google may have won the race this time around, but Samsung and Apple made it a photo finish.