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Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max vs Google Pixel 8 Pro: The camera phone face-off

The Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and Google Pixel 8 Pro are both excellent camera phones but which is the absolute best?

Apple takes the cherry and the cake with serious videography credentials on the iPhone 15 Pro Max.(Apple)

By Shouvik Das

LAST PUBLISHED 24.12.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

Since the early days of the iPhone, Apple has prided itself upon its ability to take mobile photography further with each generation. The iPhone 5s was a benchmark for its time, while the two-camera iPhone 7 Plus was a stepping stone in training Apple’s computational photography algorithms to understand object blurring. The iPhone 11 Pro series migrated Apple’s phones to three-camera setups.

Google, meanwhile, has been all about Artificial Intelligence (AI) since the very first pixel. Every enthusiast will tell you that the Pixel 8 series makes for excellent phones in their own rights—a flag-bearer of how everything in smartphones will soon be about AI. The Pixel 8 Pro, as a result, is a showcase of how it’s not just optics—software does play a legitimate role in improving photography.

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Neither, though, are particularly affordable—while the Pixel 8 Pro’s single variant costs 1.07 lakh, the iPhone 15 Pro Max starts at 1.6 lakh. At this pricing, what do each of the cameras offer? Do either of them lack anything? Or, is it simply an ecosystem choice to make?

Main camera

In pretty much every lighting condition, the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Pixel 8 Pro appear to process nearly comparable levels of detail. Apple captures better textures and depth of shadows, while Google’s camera shoots brighter images with more consistent edges around subjects. Both the cameras have nearly indiscernible differences in their processing of foreground and background blur—Pixel’s optical blurring is a whisker better.

Also read: Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max review: Vanity popsicle, velvet revolvers

The iPhone 15 Pro Max uses a “new" 48-megapixel primary camera that, on paper, upgrades the details that you would expect to see in each photograph. However, Apple’s re-engineering of its photography algorithms upgrades the standard resolution of photographs captured by the main camera to 24-megapixel, from the earlier 12-megapixel. Google’s Pixel 8 Pro, meanwhile, continues to compress and process photographs from its 50-megapixel main camera at 12-megapixel.

In simpler, real-world terms, you are likely to find the iPhone 15 Pro Max’s main camera to be better and more consistent in terms of producing the kind of photos that you would post straight to social media platforms without needing to edit them. Apple clearly processes warmer colour tones, while Google’s algorithms are biased towards cooler tones. However, Google’s photos may come across as more neutral in terms of the overall colour tonality.

Portrait

An everyday focus for both is the “portrait mode", a software-driven photography experience powered by computational photography algorithms. Apple’s portrait algorithms make photographs “pop" with greater sharpness, and look peppier, more emphatic and fun. The Pixel 8 Pro is better at uniformity of the portrait mode’s blurs and you are unlikely to see the edges of a subject suffer from random blurring.

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An attendee poses for a photo in a booth during a product launch event for the Google Pixel 8, and Pixel 8 pro phones, Pixel Watch 2, and Pixel Buds Pro earbuds, in New York on October 4, 2023. (Ed Jones/AFP)

While the essence of this mode is to replicate the natural optical blur of prime lenses (a type of photography lens that is smaller, lighter and more compact than a zoom lens), phone cameras continue to struggle to replicate the optical blurs accurately. While both Apple and Google have gotten better, it is Google that takes the more conservative approach to blurring subjects and backgrounds. Using it on the Pixel 8 Pro, you will find it to be shallower than the iPhone 15 Pro Max.

Zoom

Both iPhone 15 Pro Max and Pixel 8 Pro offer 5x telephoto optical zoom. Admittedly, you will use the telephoto mode less times than any other, but surprisingly, the 5x zoom adds an edge to the camera’s versatility.

The Google Pixel 8 Pro performs better than Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro Max both in terms of the balance of colours, shadows, brightness and details. The difference in the level of details is very evident.

Neither of the smartphones produces the kind of sharpness in optical zoom that you would expect from any optical lens. Both offer hybrid 2x zoom modes, which claim to not use sensor crops, but are a combination of sharpness algorithms and the use of available optics.

Judged on empirical terms, it is the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max that likely comes across as more consistently palatable. (Apple)

Videos

Apple takes the cherry and the cake with serious videography credentials on the iPhone 15 Pro Max. From support for Apple ProRes, recording capability of 60fps at 4K resolution, HDR Dolby Vision support at 4K 60fps, and support for industrial-grade colour encoding, the iPhone 15 Pro Max presents itself as a highly capable video shooter. Improved stabilisation support through Action Mode, even at 60fps, makes recording stabilised videos far smoother than the previous edition.

The Pixel 8 Pro makes up for falling behind on the pro features of the iPhone 15 Pro Max with AI features, which include Audio Magic Eraser to clean up background noise in any video, Video Boost for AI-powered colour and stabilization correction, Night Sight Video for amping up low-light videos, Cinematic Blur and Pan, and more.

Google’s AI-powered vision of photography’s future is still a work in progress, and there’s much to be done for the final product to come across as refined.

Verdict

Neither of the phones will, by themselves, beckon to you to switch ecosystems. If you use more Apple devices already, and are looking to upgrade your older iPhone, the Pixel 8 Pro doesn’t offer anything in terms of its camera worth a switch. Yes, the AI features are cool, but they are what they sound like—gimmicks and toys for tech enthusiasts. The same applies for Apple—if you are an Android user, the iPhone 15 Pro Max does not warrant a switchover.

Judged on empirical terms, it is the iPhone 15 Pro Max that likely comes across as more consistently palatable.

Also read: A deep dive into the photography experience on Google Pixel phones