The Google Pixel 3 smartphone is often acclaimed as “the best phone camera” thanks to its near-legendary software stack. Legend or reality, our Image Quality (IQ) analysis will shed more light into real-world camera performance.
Learn more: what is our Camera IQ score?
Google Pixel 3 Camera Specifications and Uber HW Camera score
- Rear Camera System (1 camera)
- Primary: 28mm, f/1.8, 12 Megapixel, OIS
Google’s Pixel 3 is one of the rare high-end smartphones ($799 / $899 XL) that still has a single-lens setup on the primary camera. When compared to the Google Pixel 2, the rear camera hardware seems near-identical to the pixel 2.
Note that both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 have a dedicated image processor called Pixel Visual Core that we don’t (yet) take into account in our Uber HW Camera score. This chip helps with the image processing that happens after images were captured by the camera and can be compared to modern digital signal processors (DSP) or Neural processing units (NPU) from the leading SoC vendors.
Learn more: what is our camera hardware score?
Image Quality Analysis
Important: let’s clarify some terminology we’ll be using:
- “image processing”: software work that improves the image data quality
- “image filtering”: software work that changes the style (aesthetic) of the photo.
- “context photo”: a great approximation of what we see
- Including how dark the scene actually is
- Only to provide the context of the shot.
- Not a quality benchmark
A note about the Uber IQ Camera score: our camera scoring system is based on four “Pillars” or sub-scores that provides much-needed nuance: day, night, zoom and ultrawide photography.
Daylight Photography: 186
In broad daylight, the Google Pixel 3 captures outstanding photos that often (but not always) captures the color hues, without excess color filtering and plenty of details.
The scene above is a good representation of the Pixel 3 camera performance in daylight conditions. The only notable thing in this scene is that the Pixel has increased contrast when compared to the more natural-looking shot of the Galaxy Note 9 (and OnePlus 6T) when it comes from areas in the shade. This happens relatively frequently, and it may be part of the Pixel 3 photo style.
Talking about style, the cropped image also shows that Samsung is using a very effective noise-reduction and sharpness filter, while Google opts for less processing but a bit more noise. This is really a style choice because Google could have used similar filters. Without using filters, the Pixel 3 has slightly better texture preservation, but overall, it will come down to personal preferences for most users.
The Oneplus 6T manages to pack more details, thanks to its slightly superior resolution (16MP), although it comes with a filtering style that makes the image seem a bit less natural-looking.
Below, this photo with the orange buildings is an example of how the Pixel 3 boosts color saturation beyond what’s natural. In this example, the OnePlus 6T has a more accurate and natural color rendering.
In conclusion, the Google Pixel 3 is great in daylight photography but has a tendency to over-contrast or over-saturate. It faces stiff competition: for bright-light photography, the difference between high-end phones is very tight: our Uber IQ Camera score shows a variation of only ~5% between the top-10 mobile cameras.
It will come down to which style you prefer, and perhaps what’s the overall performance of the cameras in other situations, which leads us to the next chapter.
Low-Light Photography: 176
Often dubbed as the “best low-light mobile camera,” the Pixel 3’s low-light shots were particularly interesting to us.
In extreme low-light situations such as this 0.5 LUX shot of these bottles, a closer look at the image shows fairly visible noise and loss of details. For example, the Pixel 3 is just behind the Huawei Mate 20 in these conditions when it comes to noise and details, but does a better job of preserving the color hues.
However, you can see that the Galaxy Note 9 easily outpaces the Pixel 3 in difficult lighting situations, particularly if you look at details from the cropped photos. Pixel 3 does a much better job than Pixel 2 with colors, and we need to praise Google for the progress, but the noise level and pattern are similar between the two phones.
In the city skyline shot, the Pixel 3 overshoots again with the color saturation, and if it wasn’t for the context shot, you would never have known. However, being able to capture natural colors is important because it makes the photo user experience controllable and predictable.
Secondly, the level of noise in the sky is visible and much higher than the Galaxy Note 9’s. In a scene like that, the Pixel 3’s filtering-style may look impressive on a small screen, but on a PC monitor, the noise level can be distracting.
When compared to the iPhone XS, the Pixel 3 has a starting advantage because of the boosted colors. However, with a simple filter, the iPhone XS can look as colorful and less noisy. The iPhone XS is more prone to detail loss in low-light, but the Pixel 3 doesn’t beat it by much.
Overall, the iPhone XS scores slightly higher than the Google Pixel 3 in low-light with a caveat: the XS will shot night photos with better noise but colors that are duller (but salvageable), while the Pixel 3 pictures are sharable right away for social media where the noise and details aren’t as important.
Context Shot, Crop
In this Pixel 3 crop, you can even see on the yellow wall a shadow that’s not there in the context shot. That’s probably coming from one of the high-ISO multiframe shot used to compose the final image.
For night photos, the Galaxy Note 9 (and S9/S9+) continues to dominate the market at the time of publishing. Right behind it are the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and P20 Pro.
A note about Night Sight
Although Night Sight is not currently taken into account in our Uber IQ Camera score (see why here), we should mention it, especially for those who have not tried it yet. In low-light, Google’s Night Sight will capture an extensive series of photos for 4-6 seconds, then merge them to build a final photo.
The idea is to gather more data using multi-frame photography and use image processing algorithms to build (hopefully great) image data.
Taking a photo in 0.3 seconds and waiting 4-6 seconds is a massive difference in usage model. Secondly, the result varies A LOT depending on the scene. For example, we found that night sight worked best with uniformly lit scenes but could yield very unnatural photos in more complex lighting. Check why Brighter isn’t always better for night photos.
Night Sight is an excellent tool to have, but just like other “modes” such as panorama, or food mode, most people won’t use it nearly as much as the automatic mode.
Zoom Photography: 62
With a single-lens main camera system, the Google Pixel 3 is getting close to the current best 2X optical zoom but doesn’t quite manage to beat them, let alone beat the top 3X optical zoom cameras.
Pixel 3 uses an ingenious multi-frame photography technique to achieve near-2X optical zoom quality by image-processing.
Don’t forget that merely having a 2X optical zoom lens isn’t enough to perform greatly. The quality of the electro-optics system (lens+sensor) is still essential. For example, look at this iPhone 7 Plus 2X optical zoom photo compared to a Galaxy Note 9:
Ultrawide Photography: N/A
Although the Google Pixel 3 has a neat ultrawide Selfie camera, there is no such option for the rear camera system. Hopefully, the Pixel 4 will feature one!
Conclusion and Uber IQ Camera Score
|Uber IQ Camera
Learn more: what is our Camera IQ score, and full rankings
The Google Pixel 3 definitely earns its place among the high-end mobile cameras. What is most impressive is how Google’s software has improved upon the Pixel 2, while using very similar camera hardware. As such, the Pixel 3 is the best single-lens camera, and possibly the last single-lens system at the high-end.
Google’s unique photography style also has die-hard followers who enjoy the specific tuning of its camera. This is a solid base that Google count on, but on the other hand, it may make it harder to attract the iPhone user base that likes a more neutral approach to photography.
With prices of $799-$899, users have a lot of options that can perform either better in absolute terms (Galaxy Note 9 at night, iPhone XS for daylight), or be more versatile (LG V40’s / Mate 20 Pro ultrawide).