Taking Pictures With the Pixel 3: Some Thoughts

When I was heading to France last week, I considered taking my Nikon d750 with me, because I thought, not unreasonably, that France might be a photogenic country and that I might want to get some high quality photos of the place. I decided against it for a number of reasons, but one of the major reasons was that a couple of weeks ago I got myself a Pixel 3 phone, which reviewers have suggested may have the best camera on a phone out there. I’d previously had a Pixel 2, the former “best cell phone camera out there,” so I was curious as to how the Pixel 3 would improve on the camera.

So I left the Nikon at home and used only the Pixel 3 to take shots while I was in France. I ended up taking something around 500 pictures while I was in country (many of the best of which I have collected in this Flickr photo album), and can now tell you what I think about the experience. Here are my notes, in no particular order, with occasional art. Please remember that these thoughts are from someone who loves taking pictures but is not a professional photographer, so I’m not going to go into the weeds with technical issues and jargon. I’m mostly noting the experience of just trying to take pictures.

1. Overall I was very happy with the quality of the photos and the intelligence of the camera — the latter perhaps being a weird thing to say, but the fact is what separates the Pixel line of cell phones as cameras is not the hardware (which is mostly high-end but standard issue for a cell phone), but the processing Google applies to the photo data once the photo is taken. The camera makes choices, basically, about how it interprets the data you give it once you snap the photos.

And those choices are generally very good! There wasn’t a situation where I thought the Pixel 3 wasn’t capable of handling itself. As with nearly all cell phone cameras (and, honestly, nearly every camera, period), the Pixel 3 works best when it has a lot of good, bright, natural light, but it did very well inside and also very well in visually challenging environments with a lot of contrast between bright and dark (like, for example, the interior of the Notre Dame cathedral). Not every picture I took was perfect or even good, but the reason for that had as much to do (and perhaps even more so) with operator error as it did with the camera itself. Which is to say I can’t blame the bad pictures on the cell phone camera; a lot of it was me.

2. What do the photos look like coming out of the camera? Here are five, which I’ve not done any post-processing to (i.e., no tweaking with the various photo editors I have). These pictures were taken with the settings the Pixel 3 has right out of the box, including the HDR+ processing turned on, without zoom, and recording to jpg. Right-click on the pictures to get a larger versions of them (choose the “open image in new tab” option), and see the various details.

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Right out of the camera, the Pixel 3 a pretty good job of things. The colors are correct and not overly saturated, and the HDR+ mode does a good job of bringing out details in shadows without making them look overly processed. Note in particular the picture of the musicians in the conference room; the light’s behind them and their faces are shadowed, but the Pixel 3 does a pretty good job of balancing the data so you can see their faces clearly. In the rose picture there’s decent depth of field — not a lot, but the Pixel 3 knows what it’s looking at. There are limits, and you can see some of the choices the Pixel 3 has to make in the photo of the Notre Dame alcove, but those limits mostly show themselves in challenging situations where most any camera would show limitations of some sort.

I personally do a fair amount of photo-editing of my pictures, both to bring up details and for aesthetic effect, and the Pixel 3 gives me a fair amount to work with, even as it records the data into a lossy format like jpg (there is an option to have the camera record in RAW — the lossless format that gives photographers the most information to work with — but I didn’t turn that on and don’t really plan to except on very special occasions, because the files sizes are huge). It’s a fact that for a lot of photos, I don’t really have to do much editing at all — I merely straighten out sightlines or crop for better composition as much as I tweak colors or bring up shadows.

Out of the box, the Pixel 3 takes pictures that are better than “good enough,” and that’s a good thing. For people who like fiddling with photos like me, what comes out of the camera is even better than that.

3. One of the — perfectly reasonable — knocks on the Pixel 3 is that where other high-end cell phone cameras have an optical zoom function, the Pixel 3 doesn’t, Google instead opting to try to deal with zoom through processing (involving the minute unsteadiness of the human hand, or something, to help fill in interpolative gaps). I used the zoom function a lot while walking around and trying to get details that would otherwise be too far away. My verdict on the zoom is: well, it does something, but razor-sharp details isn’t it.

This is again probably best viewed, so here are four photos at or close to full zoom, three of statutes or architectural details at the Louvre, and one, of that tower they have there in Paris. Again, right-click on the picture for details (or in this case, lack thereof). Again, these pictures are straight out of the camera and otherwise unedited:

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My impression of these zoomed in pictures is that they don’t look like photos, they look like pastel drawings, or what happens when you use a very light “oil painting” photo filter from Photoshop or some other photo app. They don’t look bad? But at the same time, this is not what I want when I zoom in. I zoom in because I want a closer look at something, not an artful, detail-smoothed representation of that thing.

I read in a review of the Pixel 3 where a reviewer notes that the zoom works as intended up to about a 1.5x zoom, and after that things start getting overly interpretive. My experience has been that this estimation is largely correct. I have some pictures that are moderately zoomed in that are perfectly good. But too much zoom means you’re getting the AI version of impressionism. My thought on this is that this iteration of AI zoom is only the first, and that Google will probably get better at it as it goes along, because that’s what Google generally does. So two Pixel generations from now, this will likely be a solved issue (or alternately, Google will throw up its hands and just put an optical zoom on future Pixels). Here with the Pixel 3 and today, however, be aware that the zoom works up to a point (1.5x or so), and then it gets kind of wacky.

4. The only other real issue with the Pixel 3 that I’ve noticed is that it feels a bit slower than the Pixel 2; sometimes there seems to be a lag between when I press the button to take the picture and the camera registers the picture being taken. It’s a relatively small issue but it’s been noticeable to me, and I wonder if other people have been experiencing it as well. I’ve not missed any photos because of it, fortunately. But be aware of the possibility of a bit of shutter lag.

5. On the selfie front, the Pixel 3 features a “wide angle selfie” mode — an optical zoom out, if you will, thanks to two cameras on the front of the phone. This actually is very useful for when you’re trying to get a lot of people into frame while taking selfies:

Do be aware the the wide-angle selfie mode has some distortion. But then, selfie cameras have distortion anyway (it’s why your nose always looks big in a selfie), so I guess you pick your poison with selfie distortion. What I do know is that I’ve used the wide-angle selfie function several times already, so this was a smart add-on on Google’s part.

6. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of the Pixel 3 camera, but one that touches on how I’ve been using it. I’m not covering a lot of the functionality of the thing — I haven’t used the video mode, or the panorama mode or tried the “HDR+ enhanced” mode, or sideloaded the apparently super-cool but not-officially-released “night mode” into the phone to try it out (the night mode apparently makes it possible to take super clear pictures in very low light, and the key as far as I can tell is a long exposure time, which, well, yes, it would be, wouldn’t it). I’m not covering any of those things because, as noted, this is not how I’ve been using the camera. I’ve been using the camera in a pretty straightforward fashion, as I suspect most people will.

And as a “daily driver” camera, the Pixel 3 really works. It takes great pictures and in all sorts of circumstances, and with the exception of the zoom above a certain point, steps up when you need it to (also, as an aside, the fact that the Pixel 3 comes with unlimited storage in Google Photos is a point well in its favor, since you can store your photos there and keep your phone’s memory relatively uncluttered). We’re now well past the point where the average person has to wonder whether they’re missing out on really excellent photos if they only have their cell phone with them. With the Pixel 3, the answer to that is definitively “you’re not missing out.” This phone will get that great shot for you, most of the time.

7. Does this mean I’m ready to ditch my dSLR for the Pixel 3 full time? No; the dSLR still has a better sensor, better lenses, and does specific things much better than the Pixel 3 does or will (like, sorry, Google, zoom). But this isn’t an either/or situation; this is a “this, and” situation. I no longer have one excellent camera and one camera that I just happen to carry around; I have two excellent cameras whose use cases overlap but are not a perfect circle on the Venn diagram. I don’t suspect I’ll ever stop using a dedicated camera for particular things where a high-end, single-use piece of machinery makes sense. But, as noted above, when I have my Pixel 3 with me, I don’t worry that I don’t generally have enough camera with me.

8. Does it make sense for people to upgrade to a Pixel 3? I’m very happy I did, but I also acknowledge I’m a tech geek with a particular interest in photography, and I have enough money to indulge in this sort of thing (my other phone stopped working, which prompted me to get the Pixel 3, but let’s not pretend there wasn’t a good chance I would have gotten one anyway).

If you already have a Pixel 2 (or the first generation Pixel), some of the new capabilities of the Pixel 3 camera are going to be available to you with software upgrades. So unless you’re already at the part of your upgrade cycle where you’re getting a new phone anyway, you can probably sit tight and be fine. If you have the latest generation of “flagship” phone from Apple, Samsung or any other high-end phone manufacturer, you’re also probably just fine. Cameras are the new hotness on phones and every manufacturer will tell you why their iteration of cellphone camera tech is the best. It’s getting a little silly (some upcoming phones will have up to five cameras on the back of a phone, which seems much of a muchness), but on the other hand if you’ve got a high end, recent phone, you probably have a very good cell phone camera no matter what. Finally, if you just don’t care about photos, either from your cell phone or in general, the Pixel 3’s camera capabilities won’t matter regardless.

But if you are looking to upgrade, do like taking pictures and want to have the possibility of taking genuinely good photos with your phone, are fine with Google knowing everything about your digital life, and (not trivially) have between $800 and $1,000 to splash out on a phone (or have Verizon, which will let you slide it into your existing plan for a monthly fee), then I can really very highly recommend the Pixel 3. Aside from (yes) taking some of the best photos possible on a cell phone, it is also otherwise a very solid high-end phone, with some features (call screening, I’m looking at you) that are amazing differentiators, and an operating system upgrade cycle that means you always have the best, most recent version of Android first.

For me, in any event, it’s been well worth the upgrade, and not just for the photos, although the photos probably would have been enough. I really like this camera, and I really like this phone.

19 Comments on “Taking Pictures With the Pixel 3: Some Thoughts”

  1. Disclaimers: I bought the Pixel 3 I’ve used for this review, but have gotten free tech from Google in the past, because I know people there, and sometimes they send me stuff. At no point has Google ever sent me something with the expectation of a review, and at no point have have I ever accepted money from Google (or, in point of fact, from anyone) to review their products.

  2. One of the reasons why the Pixel 3 is so good at cleaning up images is neatly described (if you want the tech descriptions) in this excellent New Yorker article. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/12/in-the-age-of-ai-is-seeing-still-believing

    What I wish is that DSLR’s were better at capturing geolocation data, and its a shame the wifi SD cards have gone the way of the dodo as they were way more seamless that the wifi option in my Fuji camera. Still, imagine what you could do with a DSLR if it had that google software built into it…..

  3. Broken phone emergency caused me to need a new one, got the Pixel 3, so far very happy with it. I say this as a person who uses a phone more to take pictures than to make calls.
    I’ll recommend you ditch your dSLR and get a mirrorless camera in the near future. The savings in size and weight worth considering for someone who travels as much as you do. Nikon has the Z6 and Z7, but take a look at the Sony Alpha cameras.

  4. “The camera makes choices, basically, about how it interprets the data you give it once you snap the photos.”

    This sounds like a science-fiction novel…

  5. I received a Pixel 3 from my employer and it’s a godsend for taking photos of my 3 yo daughter. I’m not good at photography and this phone doesn’t care, it’s gonna find a way to make my terrible lighting work.

  6. I was getting a new phone anyway, so I upgraded my Pixel to the Pixel 3 last weekend. I haven’t played with the camera yet, but I don’t see it displacing my D600 for much the same reasons you note. Digital zoom is always interpolated, so Google not offering it isn’t as big a deal as it might seem since the phone is not great with what the camera can manage with the physical lens and sensor at max zoom.

  7. @starbird2005
    Here’s an android camera that takes Canon glass:

    I have a Pixel 2 which is good enough for 90% of my needs. But there are times when I really need my Canon EOS t5i. I’d like to get a full frame, but can’t really justify the money. Especially as full-frame glass is Very Expensive. What I’d like is a full frame with full manual controls that don’t require going into menus. F-stop dial, shutter speed dial, and ISO dial. All easily accessible. But I carried a Nikon FM-2 and then a Pentax K-1000 (no batteries required for either of them!) for a few decades total.

    I have an Olympus TG-3, which is a highly ruggedized point ‘n’ shoot, for when I need it. Mostly bike riding, but I’ll be carrying it when I go to Costa Rica in January since the DSLR will take up too much room in the carry-on, and I’d take the Olympus anyway since it’s waterproof. A digital camera that you can take surfing is nice. I just wish it had a viewfinder instead of , or in addition to, a display, since I don’t wear the reading glasses in the water.

    I’ve got a bunch of pictures up at Flickr, mostly DSLR, but some scans of slides.

  8. So does two cameras on the phone mean that 3-D pictures are just a software upgrade away? Make your own stereopticon cards?

  9. A note about “digital zoom” on cameras that don’t have an optical zoom, including most phone cameras: Some experts suggest that you photograph the thing you want to capture *without* zooming, and then zoom in only in your photo editor. The logic is this: when you zoom, the camera accomplishes this by progressively reducing the image resolution*. So, for example, if you zoom in to 3x magnification, you end up with an image that has 1/3 the number of pixels in each dimension, thus it has 1/3 x 1/3 = 1/9 the total number of pixels. That’s why the image quality degrades so rapidly. In contrast, if you zoom in on the unzoomed (1x) image using Photoshop, Photoshop has the full image data (typically 10 megapixels these days) that it can use to retain image quality. Counterintuitive until you know the math and learn to overcome your optical-zoom reflexes.

    * This description isn’t precise. I’m trying to figure out how to clearly explain the idea of subsampling pixels and failing. More coffee required! In essence, the image sensor takes 1 pixel of data from the cropped image and divides it among p pixels on the image sensor. At 3x zoom, one pixel gets spread over 9 pixels, producing one large 3×3 pixel blot instead of 9 highly precise pixels.

    Ignoring my explanation for the moment, you should be able to confirm this in about 5 minutes of experimentation. I know it worked on my iPhone when I tried this years ago, so I imagine it will work on the PIxel too.

  10. Camera phones have gotten pretty good but they still lack optical zoom. I use a Canon super zoom (35X) on monopod for serious work and a Pentax RZ (10X) for everyday shooting. Phone only for casual work.

  11. You might take a look at the Panasonic Lumix line of pocket cameras: Panasonic makes the electronics for Leica’s digital cameras. Zeiss optics, 20 megapixel+ resolution, 5 axis stabilization, and 4K video. I bought my first one for a river cruise from Prague to Berlin in ’15 and didn’t want to carry two DSLRs: I used it as my outdoor camera and my Canon 6D with a 17-40 as my indoor camera and it worked amazingly well. I upgraded my Lumix to a ZS70 and am extremely happy, gave my old one to my niece for her high school graduation. And the flip-up LCD is wonderful for taking close to the ground photos, according to my approaching 60 year-old back. Pretty much whenever I walk out my front door it’s in my pocket. And you would not believe the optical zoom range: the built-in lens is the 35mm equivalent of a 26-780mm zoom – no digital zoom!

  12. I have an ancient DSLR and Pixel 2. The thing I like about the DSLR is the lens and the flexibility to futz with the settings. Both take great pictures. For pictures of my halloween jack’o lanterns I used to use the DSLR. This year I used the Pixel 2 and I think the results are superior, given the more modern sensor and the software figuring out how to make the best advantage of it.

    Most of the software improvements going into the Pixel 3 trickle down to the Pixel 2 pretty quickly. I’ve played with the depth of field “portrait mode” settings. If I lost/destroyed my Pixel 2, I’d probably get a Pixel 3 but I’ll stick with the 2 for another few years. At nearly $1000, I can’t justify replacing it yet.

  13. Great pictures, the Pixel 3 phone is sweet too. Like WayneZombie I quit carrying a DSLR (Nikon D70s) some time back after I saw what the Panasonic FZ-200 could do. Then I got the more pixels bigger glass FZ 1000. Both these cameras can shoot in the dark, zoom from wide angle to tele, great for travel. Highly recommended by me. Leica lens.

    We took a whole watching trip with Nat Geographic last March, for which I got a Olympus TG5, which is a great outdoors camera, with a great macro function, like a microscope!

    But Scalzi, your eye is what counts, a great eye for what makes a great image. Jealous of your European trip, want to go back soonest.