The Google Pixel Series is one of the most powerful and trusted mobile camera brands on the market. With the Google Pixel 5 out on the market at a price of ~$699, let’s take a closer look at how its camera system performs in Day/Night/Ultrawide and Zoom photography and what Camera IQ benchmark score it gets.
Since we also have the older Pixel 3a, 4, 4a, and the new Pixel 4 5G, we took them all for a photo safari.
Pixel 5 Camera Hardware: What’s New?
Looking at Google’s Pixel 3 phone to today’s Pixel 5, one can notice that the hardware has not evolved that much, especially in light of the mobile camera war between Samsung vs. Apple and Huawei’s rise to camera superpower status.
The Pixel 3, 3a, 4, 4a and Pixel 5 models use the same camera sensor. However, Pixel 3 and 3a have an f/1.8 lens, while 4, 4a, and Pixel 5 have an f/1.7 lens. The new Pixel 4a 5G has the same camera system as the Pixel 5.
The Google Pixel 5 has a Wide 27mm Wide camera and an Ultrawide 16.5mm Ultrawide camera. The Ultrawide camera is the big differentiator between Pixel 4 and Pixel 5 as the Pixel 4 has a 50mm Zoom camera as a secondary camera instead."THE PIXEL 5’S WIDE+ULTRAWIDE CONFIGURATION IS BETTER"
The Pixel 5’s Wide+Ultrawide configuration is better by our mobile camera standards because people tend to use Ultrawide much more than Zoom, so we are off to a good start.
Strangely, the Google Pixel 5 has a less powerful processor platform than the Pixel 4, opting for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G instead of the Pixel 4 Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. Although the Snapdragon 855 became available in 2019, it is architected to be faster and more expensive than the 765G chip.
From a photography perspective, a performance difference could impact Image Quality (IQ) because the Google Pixel Camera heavily relies on Software improvements rather than Camera Hardware evolution.
Image Quality Analysis
If you want to learn more about our Camera IQ benchmark, check the official page. From a high-level, we’re rating photo image quality for Day, Night, Ultrawide, and Zoom photography.
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”: an excellent approximation of how the scene looks to the eyes
A global camera score is clear and straightforward, but individual sub-scores help tell a better story for those who want to have a more nuanced view of the camera’s Image Quality. If you want to know more about how the score works, head to our Camera IQ benchmark page.
- Good performance
- Photos never over-exposed
- Agreable colors
- Exposure can look unrealistic
In daylight photography, the Google Pixel 5 delivers a good performance and is faithful to our high-dynamic-range photography expectations.
Like other Pixel phones, the Pixel 5 camera emphasizes “never over-exposing anything,” so, in very bright scenes, the output can be somewhat different from what your eyes see. In some locations, it looks great. In others, it makes the scene darker.
From an Image Quality (IQ) perspective, it doesn’t always change things much (unless contrast is lost), but this is an element of aesthetics (style) that you should be aware of. You can decide based on the context photo and the sample photos we’re presenting here."GOOGLE AND APPLE TAKE DIFFERENT APPROACHES"
From a Photographic Details point of view, the Google Pixel 5 captures details on par with other phones using comparable camera hardware, like the iPhone 11 Pro’s primary camera, according to our Camera HW score.
Google and Apple take different approaches: Apple tolerates noise to achieve higher levels of details, while Google chooses to remove the noise at the price of introducing blur. Both companies are hitting the limits of their electro-optics (sensors+lenses) for that generation of cameras.
Phones like Huawei’s P30, P40 series, and Samsung’s 20 Ultra series have much larger sensors and enjoy low-noise and high-details.
Below, I’ve included a 12MP photo from the excellent Huawei P40 Pro+ side by side with a 108 MP photo from the Note 20 Ultra, just to show you what happens when you push the Megapixel count higher with these new sensors.
- Very decent night photography
- Noise is visible
- Details & Texture could be better
HDR Night Photography
At first, the differences between Pixel 3/3a, Pixel 4/4a, and Pixel 5 are not very noticeable beyond color differences. For instance, the Google Pixel 3 tends to over-saturate colors. Some of that has improved in the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5.
Upon analyzing cropped-images, we find small differences in image noise and details. In the same scene, the Google Pixel 3 photos are noisier than the Pixel 4, 4a, or Pixel 5. In our tests, the Pixel 3a performed marginally better than the original Pixel 3."LAGS BEHINDS CAMERAS THAT USE MORE EXPENSIVE CAMERA HARDWARE"
Unfortunately, they all feature more image noise than the iPhone 11 Pro, which has a noticeably lower Night image quality than the Galaxy Note 20 Pro.
The Pixel 4 cropped images are just a little sharper than the Pixel 5. That is due to a difference in the noise-reduction settings, which adds some blur on the Pixel 5.
Essentially, Pixel 5 is giving-up a little bit of sharpness to reduce noise. Quality-wise, it’s a toss-up, but it will depend on your personal preferences between noise and sharpness.
In the end, the Pixel 5’s low-light performance lags behinds cameras that use more expensive camera hardware.
Non-HDR Night Photography (0.04 LUX)
In soft-lighting Night scenes, we can see how light-sensitive the various cameras are. Although there are small improvements in colors, noise, and details: the Pixel 3/4/5 phones remain within the same generational level of performance as the Google Pixel 3.
A comparison with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra shows a rather large gap in low-light performance with today’s best. These results reveal how leaving the camera hardware virtually unchanged for years takes a toll on the overall competitiveness of the Pixel 5 against the best competitors.
Even with the low-resolution web photos, you can probably see the difference in clarity, sharpness, and details, below. However, the cropped photos show the huge image quality gap between the Pixel 5/4/3 with today’s high-end camera phones.
Yes, there’s Google Night Sight, But…
We have already explained in our Pixel 3 camera review why we consider long-exposure night modes like “Night Sight” as pseudo image filters and therefore don’t give them Camera IQ points. We still need to highlight that topic because Night Sight has a massive impact on the user experience.
Long-exposure photos require you to wait 3 to 6 seconds without moving to take a shot. A normal-exposure Night shot takes 0.05 seconds or less. Given similar image quality, it is much better to not have to wait.
Long-exposure modes are a great way to compensate for less powerful hardware but are not an ideal user experience. It usually creates shots that can look quite unnatural (read: brighter is not always better). Other phones can take more natural photos instantly.
Finally, a higher-performance camera could also use a long-exposure mode and potentially produce an even better photo anyway.
- Good colors
- Agreable smoothing filter
- Not competitive against dedicated zoom cameras
Without a dedicated zoom lens, the Pixel 5 level of detail is just a little bit better than Pixel 3/3a. Still, if Zooming is more important to you than Ultrawide, we recommend looking at the Google Pixel 4, which has a 2X optical zoom lens instead of the Ultrawide lens.
Google has some of the best software algorithms to enhance zoom photos. However, looking at a cropped image of a Pixel 5 Zoom phot and comparing it with a long-zoom such as the Galaxy S20 Ultra proves that some of the best camera Software can only help so much in the face of overwhelmingly more powerful hardware.
Below, here’s an example of zoom photo, taken with the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, which has a camera hardware that is comparable to the Google Pixel 5. As you can see, the result is not far off.
The next image greatly highlights image quality tradeoffs between having more details, but more noise, versus smoothing/blurring things out to perhaps make a more agreable image but loose details. Look at the rocks and various places to see how details are blurred out.
Below, the Pixel 4 demonstrates how having just a 2X dedicated zoom lens immediately increases the image quality (IQ).
Finally, the best solution is to have more powerfull camera hardware. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has more powerful hardware, and no amount of software can make up for data that was not captured.
- Great addition to the Pixel camera
- On-par with Samsung’s Ultrawide
- Better than iPhone 11 Pro’s Ultrawide
- Huawei’s Ultrawide remains the best on the market
Note that the 13mm Samsung Ultrawide camera is “wider” (more expansive field of view or FoV), so that’s almost 30% more FoV. The orange rectangle in the S20U photo sample below shows the Pixel 5 FoV compared to the S20U’s ultrawide camera FoV.
It is difficult to measure how much value the user puts into having a “wider” view, so we’re raising the issue and providing photo samples for your to judge."A GREAT ULTRAWIDE CAMERA"
A narrower field of view also gives a natural image quality advantage because it is less prone to distortion, vignetting, and things like that. For now, “wider” doesn’t bring more Image Quality points.
There are other trade-offs between Pixel and competitors: Google is much more willing than Samsung to leave some image noise instead of aggressively removing it. Overall, this is a great Ultrawide camera.
Daylight Ultrawide Photography
In daylight photography, the Google Pixel 5 shoots great photos. However, we noticed that the high-dynamic-range image processing is a bit aggressive and leads to some contrast loss.
The Blue sky at the center-top becomes duller than it should be, while the shady areas are sometimes brighter than they would naturally be. The comparison with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra illustrates this well.
In this particular scene, both the Google Pixel 5 and the iPhone 11 Pro overall tint are slightly off, a bit red on the Pixel and a bit Yellow on the iPhone 11 Pro, but overall, major OEMs have good color management.
Of the three phones, the iPhone 11 Pro has larger noise spots, and doesn’t quite capture details in shaded areas. The Note 20 Ultra has an overall advantage, with great image quality, low-noise and a wider FoV.
Night Ultrawide Photography
In Night Ultrawide Photography, the Google Pixel 5 16.5mm camera is doing well and manages to be on-par Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s Ultrawide camera in sheer image quality for this type of scene.
The Pixel 5’s Ultrawide camera is clearly superior to the iPhone 11 Pro’s, and a little bit better than the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s Ultrawide camera because it features better details at the price of having more noise (and the narrower FoV). If you dislike noise in your photography, pick the Note 20U for ultrawide shots.
Google has been made minimal hardware improvements since the Pixel 3 and has probably squeezed every bit of image quality it could from this level of hardware.
There are small differences between the Pixel 3, 3a, Pixel 4a, 4a, 4a 5G, and Pixel 5. Still, the primary camera hardware strength has remained within a small percentage of what Pixel 3 was, and we show it in our image analysis.
The Google Pixel 5 offers a good photo image quality (IQ), but it is no longer as edgy as it once was. Google is going mainstream instead of fighting for the top position and that could be a good strategy."GOOGLE IS GOING MAINSTREAM INSTEAD OF FIGHTING FOR THE TOP POSITION"
The $180 Pixel 3a offers an excellent camera experience for the price. The Pixel 3a camera could arguably be a better than phones Xiaomi Redmi Note 8 Pro (read our Redmi Note 8 Pro camera review), and certainly a better value than most iPhone cameras.
It is more difficult for the $699 Google Pixel 5 camera to compete in terms of value. Phones like the Xiaomi Mi Note 10, Huawei P30 Pro, and probably the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition (FE) are ferocious camera-value competitors.
The $499 Google Pixel 4a with 5G is a great Google camera for the money since it has an identical camera system to the Pixel 5 and costs $200 less.
Fortunately for Google, the Pixel camera “image filtering style” has a considerable fan base that might want to stick to a familiar and likable camera user experience, despite a growing image quality gap.
For example, seasoned reviewers like Judie @ GearDiary loved Google’s Pixel 4 software features such as camera controls or the specific Pixel Camera tuning of the Bokeh (blur) effect portrait mode.
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