There’s been a lot of talk about how Apple and other smartphone makers have caught up with Pixel and Google’s awesome computational photography innovations. But while I was out testing the Pixel 4 XL camera system today, it occurred to me that there is a big difference between Google’s approach to photography and how its competitors implement similar functionality. And this difference is, I think, still key.
And the interesting thing is that Google sort of communicated this during its Made by Google ’19 hardware event last week. During the only truly interesting part of that presentation, Google Research’s Marc Levoy was highlighting the awesome zoom capabilities of the Pixel 4 XL when he specifically called
“By the way, super-res zoom is real multi-frame super-resolution, meaning that pinch-zooming before you take the shot gives you a sharper photo than cropping afterward,” he said, after showing off a zoomed-in shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge that elicited gasps and applause from an audience that had been awfully quiet until that point. “Don’t crop. Compose the shot you want by pinch-zooming.”
(And if you haven’t, I strongly recommend checking out Levoy’s part of the presentation, which starts about 47 minutes into the video recording of the event.)
That moment really stood out for me when he said it live, as did a subsequent comment ultra-wide zoom, which the Pixel 4 XL regrettably lacks. But now that I’m using the Pixel 4 XL, I noticed something that should have been obvious but wasn’t: Unlike virtually all modern smartphones I’ve reviewed recently, including the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, and OnePlus 7T, the Pixel 4 XL does not include dedicated on-screen buttons in the camera app to switch between each lens the handset offers.
Think about that for a second.
With these other phones, when you want to use optical zoom (typically 2X), there is a dedicated telephoto button you can use to ensure that you’re getting that optical zoom with no digital zoom trickery. Yes, you can further zoom, and possibly lose clarity while pumping up the noise, by pinching and zooming from there. But these other handsets go out of their way to prevent you from doing that.
Google takes a different approach. There are no onscreen buttons in the camera app that let you specify either of the two lenses the handset offers (telephoto and wide). You couldn’t tell the camera app to use only optical 2X zoom if you wanted to.
Instead, the Pixel 4 XL always uses computational photography. Google, the real innovator in this field, is literally staking its claim to photographic excellence on its ability to AI the hell out of any scene you’re photographing. So you can pinch to zoom, and heck, maybe you’ll end up at exactly 2X zoom. But even that shot will be processed to be as good as it can be.
What you do get are onscreen sliders, for zoom, brightness, and, new to Pixel 4 XL, shadows. So you can tweak some aspects of the shot at the time you take it, and that’s where your creativity comes into play. But what you can’t do is try and outthink the onboard AI when it comes to zoom. There, Google has your back. You mucking around with that could only screw up the shot.
As of now, I can’t claim that the Pixel 4 XL is absolutely better as a camera when compared to, say, the iPhone 11 Pro series in particular. That opinion will come in time, and we’ll see where it lands. But what I can say is that Google’s use of computational photography is almost certainly an advantage it retains over the competition. And that each year it keeps raising the bar.
But yes, the lack of an ultra-wide lens is a mistake, and a is something Google should have added this year. Maybe we’ll get one with the Pixel 5 series in 2020. And see where else the firm’s computational photography prowess has taken it.