Google Pixel 2 is the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used and this is an unusual conclusion because I’ve been an Apple Sheeple for as long as I can remember.
A couple of months ago I first laid my hands on Pixel 2; since then, Pixel 2 has joined me in shooting my travel adventures to quite a number of places — from serene beaches of Thailand to feisty volcanoes of Indonesia, to artsy streets of Malaysia. For the record, I did travel with a Sony A7II as a backup (and heavier) camera but was always left satisfied with the photos I took from Pixel 2 — especially those of landscapes in ample light. There were only a few occasions where I reached out for my backup (read bulkier) camera after feeling that Pixel 2 did not do justice to the shot I was trying to take.
I’ve been using iPhones since iPhone 3GS. iPhone 4S was the first camera that got me excited about the prospect of photography as a creative outlet. When I saw something interesting, I snapped and shared. It was all so effortless and seamless that I never had to worry about the technical nitty-gritty. Instead, I focused on picking up the basics of composing the shot. Fast forward 9 years, I’ve been owning pretty much every “S” upgrade of iPhones. And then the switch happened.
The switch did not happen because I was losing faith in iPhones. iOS continues to delight me with their thoughtful design decisions to enhance the experience, very often. The switch happened because I became interested in Android. I remember using Android 4.0, roughly around 8 years ago and since then unarguably the system has come a long long long way.
To an extent, iPhones have been the harbinger of innovations in smartphone photography and the credit for mainstreaming the smartphone photography goes to them. However, this time around, it seems like the best value for money smartphone — for photography — is Pixel 2 by Google.
Lets get right into deconstructing this almost perfect camera phone and why it’s almost.
Speaking of specs
Pixel 2 was rated highest for the overall smartphone camera quality (by DXOMark) and that was not the only factor that drew me to the device. I kept coming across countless Twitter and Reddit threads that talked about how reasonable the camera system is. Even with one single lens it manages to outperform iPhone X which has two lenses (and costs nearly twice — more on that in Portrait Mode section). Like most of the other top-end smartphones available today, Pixel 2 has f/1.8 with 27mm focal length packed inside 12.2MP. Specs was the last piece I was interested in.
There’s one feature in particular that even in terms of specs, sets Pixel 2 apart from its rivalries — camera’s own Image Processing Unit called Pixel Visual Core. Google says when you take a picture on Pixel 2, instead of taking one, it takes ten and combines all together algorithmically to make an image that’s near to perfect in terms of White Balance, Dynamic Range and focus on the subject. These computations aren’t blazing fast (yet) and I saw the camera “processing the image” every time I shot.
Shooting in the dark
Before trying Pixel 2 to shoot the images in low light, I had to calibrate my expectations from a camera in smartphone. You see, if you’re shooting a landscape in day with enough light with Pixel 2; and as long as you decide to view those shots on the regular screen; it is hard to justify the need to carry hulking Nikons and Canons. Pixel 2 does more than “just fine.” And after repeated success, it’s only natural to take this humble thing for granted and expect it to champion every scenario.
As it turns out, Pixel 2 struggles to do “just fine” when shooting in dark. For, mildly lit shots, it produces close acceptable quality images. Shooting in dark with HDR+ mode on, makes a huge difference.
By default, Pixel 2 takes images in HDR+ which in simple terms means that it captures more details from bright and dark areas of the photos than the normal mode. Dynamic range is the ratio of light to dark in a photograph and especially helpful when taking a landscape shot or portrait or low-light or backlit scenes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of without and with HDR mode. The image in the left had high ISO (3600) but with HDR mode on, I was able to get the much smoother shot under ISO 669.
In simple terms, Portrait mode is phone being a wannabe DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. In technical terms it is emulating the shallow depth of field produced by high end cameras where the main subject is in focus and everything else is blurred. Bigger sensor cameras have a plane of focus — if the subject is out of the plane of focus i.e., too close of too far away, it will be blurred out and everything in that plane will be sharp (focused).
Smartphone cameras have smaller sensors and wider focal length. So for the most of the normal photos, almost everything is in focus. In order to get the same blurred background effect, the subject has to be either moved closed to the lens or the camera needs some kind of edge detection or depth sensing mechanism to determine what’s in the foreground (to keep it sharp) and what’s in the background (to make it blurred). iPhone X and other phones have dual cameras and they use the difference in the depth to determine the difference (similar to how we use eyes to see in 3D).
Google Pixel (and Pixel 2) does this all by single lens by split pixel technology — this allows the software to measure the difference in depth using the difference in microns between the split pixels instead of having two separate lens. But does it work?
Yes. 90.8% of the times it does work. Even for non living objects. And yes, I made that number up.
Sometimes the deal breaker is that it doesn’t show the live focus while shooting — until the image has been processed, I never know if I got the shot I was hoping for.
Face-off with Sony A7II
In the first week of may, I was in Penang, Malaysia with Pixel 2 and a Sony A7II and a rented Zeiss 50mm F1.4 attached on it. As I was walking down a road near Kek Lok Si temple, I noticed these somewhat weird sculptures (there was a series of them) smiling down at me and everyone that passed them. One of them in particular had a contagious and cute smile. I stood there in awe thinking the purpose these sculptures were serving — not that everything has to serve a purpose, but still. Was it that they were kept because people could take pictures of them? And talk or write about them later? I took a photo from Pixel 2 in Portrait mode and then I took the same photo with the Zeiss 50mm F1.4 attached on A7II. When I compared both the shots right on the phone, I was startled or rather disheartened. A rig that cost nearly 5x more than a humble phone, performed slightly better than it. Or did it?
On my travels I always took along a powerful camera, believing as I always have, that it would be indispensable creative tool. But here I am writing with unshakable feeling that I might be done with the cameras.
Another less talked, often taken for granted perk of using Pixel is unlimited Google Photos storage. Every time you take a photo, it gets backed up in cloud in the original quality (also accessed via photos.google.com from browsers). There’s no limit to how many photos you can store in original quality as long as they’ve been taken from Pixel phones. They treat the 4K videos likewise.
We live in world of “fabric of photos” which makes it difficult to think of photos we take on our phones as individual discrete elements or even memories. My camera roll has pictures of receipts, people, and most importantly screenshots. Google Photos is gradually becoming smarter in signaling which photos to get rid of that it thinks might loose relevance after certain time. It’s creepy, but convenient most of the times.
Lately I’ve also been transferring photos from my camera to Mac to Google Photos to share with friends and family. Anyone with the link to those photos or albums can view it, leave comments and even download them. Signing up for an account in-order to view photos is the last thing I want my parents to do.
Google Photos is something that only companies like Google
and Apple can afford to offer. Apart from convenience to the users, offering something like this also means that more and more people will opt for a lower internal storage variants and for corporations who are here simply to make money, it’s a tough decision to make.
When recording video, Pixel 2 has another clever trick up the sleeves. The phone can use both electronic as well as optical image stabilization (called Fused Video Stabilisation) which in lay-man terms means jitter-free clips without tripods.
If you’re interested in how they do that, Google has a detailed explanation on their AI Blog.
With Fused Video Stabilisation, both OIS and EIS are enabled simultaneously during video recording to address all the issues mentioned above. Our solution has three processing stages as shown in the system diagram below. The first processing stage, motion analysis, extracts the gyroscope signal, the OIS motion, and other properties to estimate the camera motion precisely. Then, the motion filtering stage combines machine learning and signal processing to predict a person’s intention in moving the camera. Finally, in the frame synthesis stage, we model and remove the rolling shutter and focus breathing distortion. With Fused Video Stabilisation, the videos from Pixel 2 have less motion blur and look more natural. The solution is efficient enough to run in all video modes, such as 60fps or 4K recording. — Google AI Blog
Pixel 2 as a daily smartphone
Contrary to the picture that I’ve painted in narrative above, I’ve been struggling in day-to-day life to get used to the Pixel 2 hang-ups. GPS is entirely inaccurate,
almost all the time. Battery (before I had Android P beta) didn’t use to last for a day. Android apps, when asking for permission scare the hell out of me — here’s a permission prompt from a bank app in Singapore whose only job is to show my balance and transactions, when I open the app. On Android, they would like to own my phone (in literal sense, mind you) while on iOS they are fine without anything at all.
I deeply miss iOS for Lookup/Define when I’m reading. I also miss the iMessage, Notes and other iCloudy integrations. They certainly made my life easier.
Looking back at the decision to switch I’ve no regrets but issues like GPS and battery sometimes make me wonder, if Pixel 2 is a phone with a camera or camera with a phone.
Did you make it to the end? Thanks for hanging in there. I hope the it was worthy of your time. If it was not an absolute garbage and you ended up knowing a thing or two from, consider sharing among your friends. I crave for attention too.