Google Pixel 3 XL - Camera Review

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Google Pixel 3 XL – Camera

On the back of the Google Pixel 3 is a 12.2-megapixel sensor, with an f/1.8 aperture and OIS. There’s no secondary sensor here at all, with all the portrait mode and zoom stuff taken care of by the main camera. On the front there are two cameras, both 8-megapixel sensors, with one acting as a wide-angle camera.

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Look at the specs alone and you’re missing the point, though. The Pixel 3 XL takes absolutely fantastic photos, whether you’re shooting in broad daylight or murky nights. The reliability and fuss-free approach the camera takes means your photos are likely to look great without much input from yourself. Just point, shoot and let the auto-HDR smarts do the job for you.

Pixel 3 XL

Where the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL improve over their predecessors is in much better contrast and even stronger details. The sensor can pick out intricate detailing in food and even textures, ensuring they don’t look artificial in the process. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can take very detailed snaps, but they tend to look like they’ve been heavily sharpened in an editing app. There’s nothing like that here; everything looks very natural.

This natural look extends to colours too. Bright reds and greens avoid that lurid, neon finish you’ll see elsewhere (even on the iPhone XS, which Apple claims renders colours accurately), instead having just enough pop to make them visually appealing. In landscape shots, the Pixel 3 XL’s fantastic dynamic range is most obvious. There’s serious depth to photos, something most phones still struggle with.

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Colours in landscapes look fantastic

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Colours are natural and punchy

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Dynamic range is excellent

Low-light shots are fantastic too, comfortably some of the best on a phone and up there with the Huawei P20 Pro. Skies are dark, but details aren’t lost and colours shines through even poorly lit environments. There’s a dedicated Night Sight mode too, which combines even more frames together, alters exposure and gives you the impression you can see in the dark. The results are astonishing; never before has a phone taken low-light snaps like this.

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Low-light performance retains detail and colour

Introduced with the Pixel 2, Portrait Mode makes a return here. Most cameras that do this well require two sensors, but the Pixel 3 XL does it with just one. This is the most reliable portrait mode I have ever used, doing an excellent job of silkily blurring the background and keeping the subject in sharp focus. The Portrait Mode is also much quicker to jump into: just swipe left in the new iPhone-like camera app.

It’s much-improved at cutting around hair, however it does still struggle with glasses that stick out and, oddly, hats.

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Portrait mode works well in the dark

Super Res Zoom is another new feature for the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL and one that looks to offset the lack of a secondary, optical zoom toting sensor of the type you’ll find on phones like the iPhone XS Max and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus.

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

2x zoom

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

4x zoom

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

6x zoom

In the camera app you’ll notice a magnifier button and four distinct zoom points that you can quickly jump to, and Google is combining multiple shots together to try and improve the notoriously bad digital zoom. The results are better than other iterations of digital zoom, but for me it still doesn’t match a dedicated zoom lens, and frankly it’s never going to. See below for an example of the different levels of zoom.

Google might have decided against putting two sensors on the back, but it has done just that on the front. You’ve got a standard 8-megapixel f/1.8 sensor one side of the speaker and an ultrawide f/2.2 8-megapixel sensor on the other.

The ultrawide camera is far more than a novelty or a gimmick, and in many ways I have been using it more than the standard selfie camera. It lets you fit more faces into a picture and it doesn’t sacrifice too much quality in the process. Selfies are generally excellent: full of detail and very little smoothing on skin. You can use the wide camera for video recording too.

Pixel 3 XL photo sample

Speaking of video, the Pixel 3 XL captures it very well. The rear camera takes colourful, detailed footage up to 4K 30fps (there’s no 4K 60 here), but it’s the stabilisation that really stands out. Using a mixture of the OIS (optical image stabilisation) and Google’s computational knowledge, the footage stays very stable even without a tripod. Google is also adding support for external mics in a future update.