The Pixel 4 Still Beats the iPhone 11 Pro for Zoom Photography

Sometimes people suggest you can just pinch-to-zoom and get basically the same result with smartphone cameras. I very much disagree, and used this shot to see the difference.

I'm standing a ways away from the mailbox and tapped to focus on it in all of these shots. Here's the iPhone's difference between 1x and 2x zoom when you look at the details:

It's not even close! It may still not be that big of a deal for you, but it is for me, and the difference is massive.

But how well does this stack up to the Pixel 4, which also has a zoom lens? Well first, let's compare the details at 1x.

In terms of detail, I think these are identical. I prefer the colors a little on the iPhone one, but that's another conversation. In terms of capturing details, there's no real difference.

Now let's look at 2x zoom:

These are also pretty similar, and while the Pixel shot looks a little better, it's because the image processing is doing some more agressive noise reduction, not that it's actually capturing more data. One could certainly argue that for most people this is preferred though, and I tend to agree.

Which brings us to the 8x SUPER ZOOM SHOWDOWN…ahem, the 8x zoom test:

Amazingly, even though it's entirely digital, the Pixel takes a massive lead here, which an image that is cleaner, yes, but also has more detail. This is a pretty remarkable difference, and it shows Google's big talk around enhanced digital zoom is no joke.

And in case you're thinking "it's just the same as the 2x shot, here's those two side-by-side.

The image quality is genuinely better, and while it's a little soft, it's still very, very good for a phone.

Google gets top marks from me in their ability to do zoom better than the iPhone, especially at anything past 2x.

HDR Testing Halide, Lightroom, and Stock Camera App on the iPhone 11 Pro

HDR Testing Halide, Lightroom, and Stock Camera App on the iPhone 11 Pro

As I’m one to do, I saw a cool lighting situation this morning and decided it was a great chance to do a photo comparison. I only had my iPhone with me, so I decided to test how well the three apps I use the most for photography handle HDR situations. First, a quick recap of each app.

Halide

An amazing app for RAW image capture. As far as I know, this app does nothing special for HDR situations, but delivers a high quality RAW (DNG) image file that you can use to edit later.

Lightroom

Mostly used for editing, the camera component of Adobe Lightroom does not get the love it deserves. You can toggle the app into an HDR mode, which will capture several images, patch them together, and do some automatic edits to save your highs and lows.

Stock Camera

This is what most people use, and as of the last year or two, it’s my go-to for most mobile photography as well. It takes upwards of a dozen photos and combines them into one shot that is just a JPEG, but should have the highs and lows fixed so I can see them clearly.

Shadows

Let’s look at the dark part of the image first:

Halide

Lightroom

Stock Camera

I think Halide is the worst of the bunch here, both in terms of retaining details, as well as in image clarity. Of the two remaining, I think I have to go with the stock camera app due to its excellent clarity, lack of noise, and generally good data retention. Lightroom captures more information in the tree, but there are enough artifacts from the multi-image capture (see the top of the tree) to make it not worth the extra detail.

Highlights

Next, up let’s look at the highlights.

Halide

Lightroom

Stock Camera

Again, Halide doesn’t seem to be built to handle this as well (I can get a little more detail by cranking down the exposure of the image, but then everything else looks like trash), so this is a two horse race again. This is pretty close, because the stock camera app gets more separation between the sun and clouds, but Lightroom has much better looking clouds and lacks the overly orange color around the sun. I’m going to consider this one a personal taste issue, so whichever you prefer is the winner.

Conclusion

In this specific shot, I think the iPhone’s stock camera app does the best job of producing the best image with the most acceptable downsides. Yes, the sun has some coloring issues, but I fixed those in (ironically) Lightroom in 5 seconds. Yes, the clouds are overly “painterly” as the machine learning didn’t love the wispiness of the clouds, but I can live with that since you only really notice it when zooming in.

Overall, the stock app continues to impress me with its ability to get great photos in many situations all without making me think about much other than composition, which is excellent. Oh, and while Lightroom, which I love as well, takes about 1 second to capture it’s multiple images in its HDR mode, the stock app does it effectively instantly.

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Psst, the above photo has nothing to do with the comparison, but I had to share a picture of Sherman shortly before the comparison photos were taken.

My dog Sherman was chilling on the couch last night and I wanted to take a picture of him just lying there, loving life. The type of shot made the telephoto lens make more sense, which is all well and good, but results in worse shots in low light.

But that presented an opportunity for me: a test! Let’s see how much of a difference Deep Fusion makes when using the telephoto lens. Here’s the iPhone 11 Pro:

And here is the Pixel 4:

Pardon the yawn, but for the sake of this test it’s worth noting that he was paused in that pose for about a second, so it’s not the action shot it may look like. You can probably already tell which one looks better, but here’s a crop in on each one:

It’s really night and day, with the iPhone producing a much cleaner image. Both cameras still have that watercolor-esque look on the body fur, but the iPhone has crisper lines on his longer ear hairs and the green blanket has more texture.

I previously did a similar comparison using the main wide lens, but the difference using the telelphoto lenses is even more pronounced.

The Damn iPhone 11 Camera

The Damn iPhone 11 Camera

Look at the photo above. Really look at it.

That’s a picture of my dog, Sherman, shaking himself off this morning. He’s moving incredibly fast here and is just a blur to the naked eye, but the camera on the latest iPhone is able to get a remarkable amount of detail. The lighting was good, but even so, this picture is more sharp than I’d expect from any consumer-grade camera.

How about a few more?

Seriously, pinch to zoom in on these and see the level of detail in each shot. You can make out individual snowflakes in the two Sherman shots.

I of course have more, but those are just a few from the past week that really struck me in terms of how unbelievably crisp things can be.

Not every picture is as remarkable as these, which just means there is room to improve, but 4 months after getting the iPhone 11 Pro, I’ve had plenty of situations like where where I’m just flabbergasted by what I’m seeing in my camera roll.

Low Light Christmas Trees on 2019’s Best Phones (and an iPhone SE)

We have a little tree my wife and I put up every year and it’s a thing that is kinda hard to take good pictures of. There is quite a bit of dynamic range which typically means photos look overly darkened to compensate for the bright lights.

2019 has been a very good year for smartphone cameras, so I gave a few of them a shot last night to see how they’d do.

Samsung Galaxy S10e

Pixel 4

iPhone 11 Pro

And for fun context, the 2016 iPhone SE (with the 2015 iPhone camera)


Overall, I’m pretty impressed! Especially when you look at what we were using just 3-4 years ago, the differences in color and clarity are striking. Outside of the SE clearly being worse than the newer phones, the Pixel 4 is the outlier here in terms of color; it’s much cooler than the other images and is not an accurate representation of what the tree actually looked like. I think this has to do with Google’s new smart white balancing feature, which usually makes great choices, but sometimes results in crazy decisions1.


  1. Supposedly this was fixed in a previous update, so maybe this is a choice and not a bug, but either way I’d say this is not right. 

iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 Christmas Lights Shoot Out

I took the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 out to a public space last night that was lit up really nicely for the holidays. This is not a complete comparison for how well each phone does, but it’s a good first test and I’ll show you the comparisons before giving you my thoughts.

Point of order here, my tripod broke last night so all of these were taken handheld. Also, they were all slightly touched up in Lightroom to make the colors a little more pleasant. See this post for why I do this in my photo comparisons.

On the surface, these look pretty darn similar. Especially when viewing on a phone, the differences in quality are hard to see, so let’s zoom in on a couple of these.

The difference still isn’t huge, but my takeaways are:

  1. The iPhone maintains more detail in every single shot.
  2. The iPhone has better dynamic range, capturing the bright lights with less bloom.
  3. The raw shots came out very similar from each camera. Sometimes there is a major color temperature or white balance difference in these cameras, but not last night.
  4. In some of these, “night mode” didn’t even kick in. The lights are so bright that they don’t require an extended exposure.
  5. The iPhone has some occasional artifacts around really bright lights in the middle of frame. You can see this in the last comparison above the lights in the sky. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s not something that can be fixed by cleaning the lens. Maybe I have a defect or maybe it’s the nature of the camera, I’m not entirely sure.

I’ll be playing around more with these cameras throughout the month and will report back with anything else interesting, but for now I’d say that either of these phones are able to produce Christmas light photos unlike any other phone before them, and I think owners of both will be very happy with what they are able to accomplish.

Computational Zoom on the iPhone 11 Pro

Google talks a big game about how they enhance zoomed photos in a feature they call Super Res Zoom, which I have tested in the past and found to be less effective than the additional hardware found in the iPhone XS. The Pixel 4 will be in my hands soon and I'll be testing out zoom there, but in the mean time I got a question on Twitter I wanted to check out.

Michael Stanclift

So I was always taught not to use any digital zoom but crop it later, is that not good?

Well, Google says they're doing magic to make digital zooms better, so let's see if Apple is doing the same thing. Here's the picture from the top of this post zoomed waaaaay in on the one way sign:

The zooms on the ultra-wide and normal lenses are hilariously bad, but it shows how much benefit the 2x telephoto lens offers. but comparing the 2x optical zoom to the 5x digital zoom doesn't show much difference to my eyes. It looks like the 5x photo is softened a bit to reduce the hard edges, but it's not adding any actual details.

And here's another example, this time going from 1x, 2x, 5x, and then 10x.

And here are the crops in on the center of each photo:

Again, we see vast improvements over the 1x lens, but the 2x, 5x, and 10x zooms all look really, really similar. The 5x one looks a little fuzzy, but I'll chock that up to minor focus differences between shots, as the 2x and 10x photos are more clear.

Takeaway

It appears on the iPhone that the digital zoom does not do anything to add details that would not have gotten in the standard 2x optical zoom. It softens the image a bit to make it look better, but that's not actually adding anything and just makes the full 12MP image it spits out a little less harsh.

So if you need to zoom in on something, feel free to stick to the 2x zoom when taking the photo and cropping in later, you're not going to get better results by digitally zooming in more.