Until August 2021, my Google Photos library was basically a wall of cat photos. Then, a small human entered the picture, and you can see a distinct dividing line in my photographic priorities: one day it was Cat, the next day, Baby.
Many of the other parents I know have experienced the same phenomenon. And while cats aren’t the most willing photo subjects on earth, well, have you met a toddler? They are agents of chaos. This makes for a special kind of dilemma: you must photograph Baby because they are the cutest being to ever grace the planet, but they also refuse to sit still or stop moving for even one goddamn second while you take a picture.
Have you met a toddler? They are agents of chaos
This spurs you to take even more photos in the hopes that just one will be in focus and, if you’re lucky, your subject will be looking at the camera. This is how you wind up with gigabytes of kid photos and not a single one that’s suitable for your holiday card. Phone cameras have gotten better over the past few years, with features that take a burst of photos and pick the best shot, and low-light image quality has generally improved, too. But there’s one phone in particular that uses some clever tricks to solve a lot of the pain points associated with kid photography: the Google Pixel 8.
By Google Pixel 8, I mean either the Pixel 8 or the pricier Pixel 8 Pro. The 8 Pro comes with a 5x telephoto lens that you don’t get on the standard model, and it certainly has its benefits. Same with the manual camera controls on the Pro model. They’re both nice to have, and if you want ’em, go for it. But they’re not must-have features — especially if you’re just after nice snapshots of your kids in their day-to-day environment.
It starts with shutter speed
The Pixel 8 does a particularly good job of recognizing when you’re taking pictures of a moving subject and raises the shutter speed, vastly increasing your chances of getting a sharp shot. I took the Pixel 8 Pro and the iPhone 15 Pro Max to the playground and used them side by side as my kid ran around and did kid stuff. I got many more sharp photos with the Pixel 8 Pro, mainly because the iPhone insisted on limiting the shutter speed to 1/60sec, while the Pixel went up to 1/400sec.
Part of the reason I got more sharp photos with the Pixel 8 comes down to another useful feature: Face Unblur. It’s been around since the Pixel 6 and combines data from the ultrawide with the main camera to help sharpen up an otherwise blurry face. You don’t know it’s even working until you see a little icon on your thumbnail image in Google Photos. Sure enough, almost all of my playground photos from the Pixel 8 Pro are at least acceptably in-focus, many with the help of Face Unblur. To be sure, I got some shots I really liked with the iPhone 15 Pro Max, but my overall hit rate was lower than with the Pixel.
AI-powered face swaps
The Pixel 8 and 8 Pro introduce a handful of new AI-powered editing tools in Google Photos, and the most parent-friendly of all is probably Best Take. When you take a series of very similar photos within a 10-second timeframe, Google Photos will let you change the expressions of the people in the scene by allowing you to pick a face from a different image in the series.
It’s wild, and in good lighting, it works spookily well (the example above is, uh, not good lighting, but it gets the point across). Things get a little wonky if someone’s shoulders change position between shots or they raise their hand up next to their face. I tried it on a picture of our family in which my kid raised his arm halfway through the series, and some of my suggested face swaps included an extra arm. There’s also the potential for, you know, evildoing and general mayhem when you make a tool like this so easy to access. But truthfully, this is a feature I’m going to use again and again when I take pictures of my child and husband or our friends and their agents of chaos. It feels weird to be literally inventing a moment in time that never really happened, but hey! It’s all for the cute family photo.
Better audio for the cute kid videos
Audio Magic Eraser is another AI feature in Google Photos that anyone can appreciate but I suspect parents will find especially useful. It will automatically identify and isolate different audio channels in your video, separating background noise from speech, for example, and allows you to turn down or completely mute each channel. This immediately spoke to me as a parent because a) I frequently record video of my kid doing cute and ridiculous things to send to the grandparents, and b) there’s almost always some background noise like the washing machine or the radio playing that get in the way of the cuteness.
Case in point, the first clip I tried it on was a video of my kid in the back seat of the car singing an improvised version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” — a real classic of the kid video genre. The car radio is playing in my video, which makes him harder to hear, but if I had turned the stereo down before taking the video, it might have tipped him off. Audio Magic Eraser did exactly what it’s supposed to do: identified the music and allowed me to turn it all the way down so his voice comes through much clearer.
We just can’t have it all
For all of the parent-friendly tools on the Pixel 8, there’s one important feature that’s still lagging behind the competition: portrait mode. This is a real bummer because a lot of the photos I take of my kid are in portrait mode no matter which phone I’m using at the moment. Take a look at the Pixel 8 Pro’s portrait mode versus the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s below.
The iPhone image is a flat-out better photo in several ways, at least to me. I like the warmer color rendering — to be fair, the Pixel does a much better job with this than it used to, and the iPhone goes a little too green in this photo, but I prefer its color choices overall. I also appreciate that the iPhone blurs some of the foreground and not just the background, which helps it look a little more convincing. The detail in his hair also looks a little better in the iPhone photo; fine details in the Pixel’s portrait photos in general look a little crunchy.
Realistically, I know there isn’t one perfect camera for parents — or any other kind of photographer — and there never will be. Tools like the ones offered by the Pixel 8 certainly help, but what matters above all else is that you like the photos that you’re taking. For some people, the color science of an iPhone or the portrait mode on a Samsung Galaxy phone will be its most compelling photographic feature, and that’s great. Just as long as we don’t all end up taking pictures of our kids with our Vision Pro headsets.