What Google has achieved with machine learning is nothing short of remarkable, but with just one lens and a lack of advanced control, there are still sacrifices to be made.
- Fantastic Night Sight mode
- Simple operation
- Highly detailed shots
- Great Portrait mode
- Only one rear lens
- Limited advanced shooting options
What is the Google Pixel 3?
The follow up to last year’s Pixel 2, the Pixel 3 is the latest in Google’s popular range of smartphones.
Aimed particularly towards photographers – the name is a bit of a giveaway – the Pixel 3 doesn’t represent a massive upgrade in terms of hardware, but there have been some interesting improvements made particularly to software.
As before, the rear camera is a single 12.2 megapixel unit, with dual-pixel autofocusing and an 28mm f/1.8 equivalent lens. On the front of the camera, there are now two cameras – giving you the option to shoot wider-angle selfies and group shots.
The Pixel 3 is available in two sizes – either standard, or a larger “XL” version. Both models have seen an increase in screen size, with a 5.5-inch screen for the standard version, and a 6.3-inch screen for the XL. For the purposes of this review, we have been using the standard Pixel, but since both devices have the same camera, photography performance is the same for either.
Build and Handling
If you’ve ever used a Pixel phone before, you’ll be familiar with the setup and layout. If you haven’t, it’s a relatively straightforward process. As it’s a Google phone, it will always have access to the latest version of Android – in this case, Android 9 or “Pie”.
The Android operating system on this phone is what is referred to as “clean” – meaning it hasn’t been overlaid with another company’s graphics and operating system.
For the native camera app, you can access it by double pushing the power button in quick succession when the screen is unlocked. Alternatively, you can find the camera icon in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.
Many Android phones feature advanced or detailed native camera apps. Not so for the Pixel 3 which is pretty basic in outlook. If you’re looking for something which is simple to use, it’s great news, but photographers may find themselves a little frustrated not to have a “pro” or “advanced mode.”
That said, you can switch on raw format shooting – while white balance is also controllable too. Don’t expect to change shutter speed or ISO, but you can adjust brightness by dragging up and down with your finger on the screen.
As well as the default “Camera” mode, you’ve also got a number of other different options. There’s Portrait mode, which we saw on the Pixel 2 and uses machine learning to create shallow depth of field effects, without the need for a second lens.
Also making use of machine learning is the brand new “Night Sight” mode, which is found under the “More” tab in the camera app.
We were expecting to be impressed by the Pixel 3, as we’re still impressed by what the Pixel 2 can produce. This isn’t a hugely dramatic upgrade, but rather it builds on what was already good about the Pixel 2 to bring additional features.
While it’s a shame that you can’t change settings too much yourself, the images that the Pixel 3 is capable of producing is excellent without much intervention.
Colours are realistic, but have enough vibrancy to still be attractive, while the overall impression of detail – certainly when looking at images at around A4 size or below is very good.
Although the Pixel 3 only has one lens, its Portrait mode is extremely impressive. Despite the name, you can use it with other subjects to create shallow depth of field effects, with very good results in a variety of different situations. It is easily comparable with phones like the iPhone XS or Mate 20 Pro, which both use two lenses to create similar effects.
The new Night Sight mode is the standout feature of the Pixel 3. Previously we’ve been extremely impressed by the Night Mode on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and the Huawei P20 Pro, but Google’s version is an ever so slightly better performer, resulting in more accurate colours.
You can shoot exposures up to 6 seconds completely handheld, with some shots even appearing almost as if they have been shot in a daylight or well-lit environment.
There’s no optical zoom available, so if you want to get closer to your subject, your options are limited to physically moving, or using digital zoom. There are three different levels of digital zoom, and while the first level produces useable images, the levels after that are best avoided if possible.
Google Pixel 3 Sample Photos
Below is a selection of sample photos shot with the Google Pixel 3…
Google’s Pixel phones are one of the default options for suggesting a relevant smartphone for photographers. However, in the time since the original Pixel, and even the Pixel 2, made its debut, the market has expanded considerably.
There’s now a heck of a lot of competition when it comes to smartphones for photographers, with our current pick of the bunch being either of the flagship Huawei phones (Mate 20 Pro or P20 Pro).
With the Pixel 3 you get an extremely well performing cameraphone, but there are a couple of drawbacks which make it hard to wholeheartedly recommend it for enthusiast photographers.
There’s only one lens, and while that doesn’t seem to matter for things like Portrait mode, the flexibility of being able to use a telephoto lens (or even a wider angle in the case of the Mate 20 Pro) is something which most photographers welcome.
Secondly, not giving a high degree of manual control is also disappointing – and renders the Pixel 3 more like a point-and-shoot – a very good one – but basic none-the-less.
If you’re in the market for a phone which takes great pictures with the minimum of input and fuss, the Pixel 3 is well worth investigating. It remains a recommendation for those who are concerned with their smartphone’s performance, but for serious photographers, there are more flexible options out there.