Google pioneered the way with its computational photography software. At the time of release, it rivaled anything else mid-range on the market. It helped make the most of the limited hardware. Making a cheap, low-spec camera lens into something capable of capturing something far more in line with a high-spec version. Because of this, for many, the Pixel has been a go-to smartphone choice for anyone who intends to fill their camera roll without forking out too much.

The latest Pixel 5 from Google, however, might be a turning point in the market. Priced competitively in line with its stiff competition from Apple’s new iPhone 12 series could be the nail in the coffin.

Google’s Pixel 5, offers mid-range camera hardware. Their cutting edge tech does a great job at boosting the end-result. But you can’t expect it to surpass the new high-end arrays the iPhone 12 Pro Max has onboard.

Image credit: techno.24tv.ua

The computational tech conversion that makes the Pixel range what it is, has done a great job up until now of creating superior photos. Multi-lens capture is now an expected benchmark inclusion. So some Google fans are going to find themselves swayed over to the Apple camp. Stephen Shankland spells out why he is two minds in his very personal commentary at cnet.

He was always impressed by Google’s image processing but feels that the inclusion of two cameras is comparatively lacking.

Apple, Huawei, and Samsung are all using multiple lenses in their mid-range devices. While the software isn’t up to scratch the hardware speaks for itself.

Camera competition

The previous Pixel 4 release saw the addition of a secondary rear-facing camera. It was a telephoto option for capturing things further away meant to compete with Apple’s telephoto lens. That was back in 2019, the same year that Apple upped the ante including an ultrawide lens to its iPhone 11 Pro models.

Naturally, Google then went the ultrawide route with the Pixel 5. But, they replaced their telephoto lens with it.

With the impending release of the iPhone 12 series comes some radical camera improvements for the pro-end of the line-up. The iPhone 12 Pro has a bigger image sensor and a longer-reach telephoto lens. Shaky hands are countered by improved image stabilization and the video quality has seen a step-up too. It now supports Dolby Vision HDR at a frame rate of 60fps. The ProRaw format that Apple employs also has benefits. The company has focused time and effort on the photographic capabilities of their latest release.

The Pixel 5 photo at 2X telephoto. At right, the 12 megapixel image from a 2-year-old iPhone XS Max. Image credit: cnet.com

Ultrawide, was probably the right choice for Google in terms of the wider market. They are better for group shots and indoor use. As far as mainstream smartphone customers’ needs are concerned, the Ultrawide is more widely applicable than a telephoto lens.

That said, if you value a portrait and want the best of both perspectives you might be disappointed at the company’s decision to get rid of the telephoto lens the Pixel 4 brought.

Google does state that they have updated their Super Res Zoom technique on the Pixel 5. The computational photography has also been tweaked. Their new AI techniques now allow for 7X magnification. 

“We studied carefully to determine what’s really important to folks, and then we focused on that — and shaved off literally hundreds of dollars in the process,” said camera product manager Isaac Reynolds. Having a telephoto camera would have helped image quality, but Google’s priority this year “was to produce a phone that compared well to the top end but at a much lower price — and we did that.”

Despite what google has to say, some users are a little underwhelmed. Stephen went as far as to say he felt his iPhone XS Max and Pixel 4, both outperformed the Pixel 5.

Pixel 5 camera pros

While it may not measure up to what the iPhone 12 Pro models have in store for you, the Google Pixel 5 is not without merit. So here are some of the highlights of the camera capabilities.

  • JPEG level photo format processing. The raw unprocessed multi-shot photo data is computationally processed very effectively. Noise is reduced, the exposure is offset against color with its HDR+ processing.
  • The camera app can be launched super-fast with a simple double-tap of the power button.
  • The new ultrawide camera performs well and improves indoor video quality too.
  • Video Stabilization has been dramatically improved and feels much more natural than it felt with the previous model.
  • The Night Sight options for low-light shots are fantastic. You can get some great shots with the astrophotography mode.

Another notable camera feature that Google has further developed is its portrait light ability. You can now control the light source to brighten faces for portraits, letting portrait mode function in low-light, Night Sight mode.

Google was pleased to mention faster 4K video frame rates, advanced high dynamic range processing (HDR+), and exposure bracketing. The latter of which helps with bringing out shadow details and helps with overall video stabilization.

It is fair to say Google has upped their hardware game with the Pixel 5. Unfortunately for Google, the software in development by rival companies is about to be kicked up a notch.

Rival computational software

Apple has already managed to match most of Google’s previous HDR+ capabilities over the last year and close the technological gap. The Pixel 5 now has bracketing technology to bolster the multishot blending technique. But Apple’s 3rd-gen Smart HDR has been refined. In terms of shooting a challenging scene with a lot of color-contrast, they both perform at the same level.

When Apple discussed their new release, they spent 11 minutes singing the cameras praises. They are improving the nighttime photo settings and have developed the processing engines of their A14 chip to assist. All four of their  Pro cameras now enjoy Deep Fusion technology. It works to capture the details in low lighting conditions.

Many smartphone photography enthusiasts prefer raw formats. They like to fine-tune the elements themselves instead of leaving it down to the camera’s automatic judgment. You need an unprocessed image to control the exposure, color balance, and noise reduction yourself. That’s exactly what Google had in mind when they developed their computational raw blended HDR processing. Now Apple is bringing the same to the table in the form of their new ProRaw update. 

“We want to give our pros even more control over the images they capture,” said Alok Deshpande, Apple’s senior manager of camera software engineering, during Apple’s launch event.

Something else that doesn’t go in Google’s favor is its non-compatibility with Adobe. As one of the top imaging software companies in the industry, many people turn to adobe products to finish their photos. Adobe offers smartphone support with its Lightroom photo software. It can correct lens problems and the HDR tool is calibrated to work with specific smartphone lenses. The market base for Google Pixel devices is comparatively smaller than other smartphone manufacturers. For that reason, there is no Adobe support. In a statement from the horse’s mouth, Adobe says they provide support based on the popularity of the devices.

For that reason, they are closely partnered with Apple whose new ProRaw features will be linked and likely benefit tenfold. Marc Levoy, a former computational tech expert at Google has left the company and has since jumped ship to Adobe where he is developing Adobe’s camera app.pro cameras.

The iPhone Pro Max ($1,099) was pretty pricey to consider when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Mid-range models like the Pixel 5 or Pixel 4A 5G looked much more appealing during uncertain times, with job loss at an all-time high. Google came along and provided a budget-conscious option for photography buffs shopping on a shoestring. The tech was ahead of its time and top of itś class but has since lost its edge.