Launched in 2016, Pixel and Pixel XL were Google's first in-house smartphones. Right from the get-go, Google's approach to the Pixel was very clear – a clean Android experience with great camera. It offered great colors, superlative bokeh effect that made for terrific portraits, and that signature high contrast.
It was the best camera on a smartphone, and while most manufacturers moved to dual or triple camera setup, Google stuck with a single camera and focused on its machine learning tech and computational photography for long (Pixel 4, launched in 2019, was the first one with a dual camera).
Around that time though, Samsung too upped its game and has been trying to stake a claim as the best camera on an Android smartphone. Meanwhile, the Apple iPhone has also delivered stellar advances to share the honors if not reclaim the crown.
But Google has kept its innovation engine going with new additions with every iteration. Whether it was Night Sight (more details in low-light conditions with less motion blur) on the Pixel 3/3XL or the astrophotography capabilities introduced with the Pixel 4/4XL or the AI-powered Magic Eraser (that removes strangers and unwanted objects with one tap) on the Pixel 6 series or the Photo Unblur (removes blur and visual noise in photos) on last year’s Pixel 7 and 7 Pro.
While the competition caught up, and aced in some departments along the way, Google Pixel smartphones have always been on the table in consideration for industry-leading camera capabilities.
Which brings us to the new Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro.
Let’s get done with the camera hardware details first.
Both Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro have the same flagship 50-megapixel (f/1.6 aperture) main camera capable of shooting 4K video and a 10.5-megapixel (f/2.2 aperture) front camera. The sensor and lens on the main camera have been upgraded on both phones for better light sensitivity.
The ultrawide lens on the Pro is 48MP with autofocus while it’s 12MP on the younger sibling. However, the ultrawide camera on the latter too includes autofocus now -- first time outside of the Pro series.
Pixel 8 Pro also comes with an additional 48MP (f/2.8 aperture) rear telephoto lens with 5x optical zoom.
Pixel 8 can zoom up to 8x (Google calls it ‘Super Res Zoom’) while Pixel 8 Pro can go up to 30x zoom.
More interestingly, it’s the first time that Google offers Pro Controls on the Pixel. The Pixel 8 Pro (not Pixel 8) provides greater control of the camera settings allowing you to not just control white balance, exposure, and shadows brightness but also manually adjust focus, shutter speed, and ISO.
But, of course, Pixel has never been about the specifications.
Google’s pitch through the years has been focused on the computational photography elements of Pixel phones but this time around, there’s significant effort towards enhancing the video capabilities – seemingly to offset the delta it has from iPhone’s spectacular videography prowess.
The Dual Exposure technology makes videos sharper and less grainy in scenes with tough lighting, like a sunset backdrop. Dual Exposure essentially takes two images simultaneously – one optimized for low-light and the other for high dynamic range – and produces natural-looking videos with vivid colors and low noise.
It’s always tricky to capture group photos – my six-year-old is often making faces and the missus is either blinking or looking away. In such cases, Best Take can fix my family photos.
This new feature uses an on-device face detection algorithm to match up people’s faces across group shots taken in a 10-second window. You can manually select the best look from available facial expressions. It’s wild and works for the most part.
But it’s also strange in a way. That frozen moment never happened, but most people wouldn’t mind that philosophical conundrum. Everyone wants a nice group picture for the ‘gram.
Best Take is exclusive to the Google Pixel 8 series at the moment. It might trickle down to older Pixel phones, as has been the case with some past marquee features. Since the feature is part of Google Photos, it may also come to non-Pixel smartphones (like Magic Eraser did). That said, right now on a Pixel 8, you can use the Best Take feature for existing bursts of images taken with other smartphones.
The new Magic Editor takes the existing Magic Eraser feature to the next level. Now, you can’t just erase but also reposition objects or people in the frame (with AI filling the gaps) and improve the lighting and background, like changing the color of the sky. This feature, available via the Google Photos app, is powered by generative AI.
Once you select an edit, Magic Editor gives you multiple result options to choose from, so you can get the look you want.
Like Best Take, Magic Editor is very, very good when it works. It’s almost like creating a new moment, a new picture. While professional image editing tools like Adobe Photoshop can do much more, this feature available broadly to average users with no learning curve is mindboggling and scary at the same time.
There’s an audio feature that augments camera capabilities? Something like that, yes.
Audio Magic Eraser identifies different background sounds in your videos using advanced machine learning, like speech, crowd, wind et al, and sorts them into distinct layers that can be individually controlled.
This new feature brings computational audio functionality like Magic Eraser for photos. It removes unwanted distracting sounds from your videos – like you’d remove a photobomber from a photo via Magic Eraser.
Apart from these new enhancements, there are a few more features that were introduced in the previous generation of Pixel smartphones but continue to be marquee highlights of the Pixel camera experience.
Unfortunately, cameras have historically centered on light skin – a racial bias that has crept into most modern digital imaging products. Often, people with darker complexions appear darker, brighter, or more washed out than they do in real life. Essentially, their photos are inauthentic.
It is, of course, critical that cameras work equitably for everyone. Real Tone is a work in progress towards inclusive photography. Google began working on Real Tone in 2020 and introduced its attempt at image equity with Pixel 6.
The idea is to correctly represent skin color in pictures, make skin brightness appear more natural (not unnaturally darker or brighter), reduce washed-out images, and sharpen blurry images even in low light. The improvements also extend to Google Photos, which allows optimizing color and lighting in any picture, across diverse skin tones.
Guided Frame uses a combination of audio cues, high-contrast animations, and haptic feedback to help people who are blind and have low-vision take photos.
This feature now works on both the front and rear cameras (it was conceived as a way to take selfies) and it recognizes more than just faces now – like pets or food items – to automatically take a photo when such things are centered.
And then there are some new features that are coming soon. Google did showcase a few camera capabilities at the launch of Pixel 8 that aren’t available right away but will be available as a feature drop later.
Google claims its new Video Boost feature can record smoother videos and uses cloud-based processing to automatically adjust color, improve dynamic range, lighting, and stabilization, and reduce graininess in videos. It’s an approach to computational video just like HDR+ helps you capture stunning photos via computational photography.
Processing even a one-minute 4K video is quite intensive, and therefore Google brings together the Tensor G3 chip on the phone as well as the company’s data centers to produce a cloud-enhanced video that shows up in Google Photos after a while. This feature also makes Night Sight Video possible, allowing for better videos in low-light situations, like dimly lit restaurants or cityscapes at night, for instance.
This new feature will allow you to zoom in on any photo and crop to what you want the focus of your photo to be. On top of that, using generative AI, Zoom Enhance intelligently fills in the gaps between pixels and predicts fine details to produce a photo that’s enhanced and sharper than the pixelated one as is often the case.
In its early days, camera phones focused on doing old-school optics right. As lenses and sensors improved, the biggest advancements now come with the fusion of artificial intelligence and machine learning. These allow Pixel (and other smartphones) to offer professional camera and editing capabilities powered by computational photography… things like taking sharp photos in low light, adding blur to portraits and selfies, removing distractions from a photo, unblurring photos, etc.
For example, the HDR+ feature snaps a dozen or more pictures in rapid succession and then AI aligns and combines them to form a single image that’s free of any blur from camera shake.
Some of Pixel’s camera capabilities (and other features on the phone), mind you, are further enhanced by the Tensor G3 chip that powers the Pixel 8. It’s a custom-built processor that allows the camera to perform complex AI tasks.
A lot of reviewers do believe that Google Pixel 8 Pro is the most consistent camera across a wider range of scenarios, even if the Apple iPhone 15 Pro trumps it in many departments or goes neck-in-neck. A lot of people who just want a solid point-and-shoot experience over a range of shooting environments prefer a Pixel. Additionally, the introduction of manual shooting controls on Pixel 8 Pro – something which the iPhone doesn’t offer – is a pretty solid differentiation.
In a fiercely competitive market, it is unfair and dishonest to crown one of the smartphone cameras as the absolute best. The phone needs to respond to your individual needs and expectations.
Also, there’s much more to smartphones than just their camera packages. In the case of an iPhone vs Pixel debate, for example, one would also have to consider their comfort with the operating system. Android users may also consider a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra for its stellar camera setup and a well-rounded Android experience or the new challengers like the vivo X90 Pro and Xiaomi 13 Pro, overlooking absolute camera comparisons but basing their purchase decision on user experience, design, ancillary features, and after-sales support.
Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.