Despite all the changes Google has packed into the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL — everything from a Recorder app that provides real-time transcription to a screen with a dynamic 90-Hz refresh rate — photography remains the bread-and-butter of the Pixel lineup. And based on what we've seen so far from the Pixel 4's cameras, Google's latest phones look ready to take on all comers for the title of best camera phone.
We're still in the process of reviewing the Google's new phones — you can read our Pixel 4 hands-on as well as our look at the Pixel 4 XL — and we need to put the cameras to the test against some of the other top camera phones. But just looking at the shots produced by the Pixel 4's cameras, we can already see the effect the extra rear lens and improved software are having on the phone's picture-taking prowess.
Here's a closer look at the Pixel 4's camera and what we've found out so far about the phone's new photography features.
What's new with the Pixel 4 camera
The most prominent change Google made to the Pixel 4's camera is visible when you flip the phone around. Previous Pixels relied on a single lens. But with both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, the 12.2-MP main camera is joined by a 16-MP telephoto lens. That gives the Pixel 4 a 2x optical zoom, and when you combine that with Super Res Zoom feature introduced with last year's Pixel 3, even digital zooms should be sharper and more detailed thanks to the new Pixel's additional hardware.
Google didn't stop with adding an extra lens. It also beefed up the computational photography features that have been a highlight for past Pixel phones. The Pixel 4 augments the high dynamic range (HDR+) capabilities built-into previous Google phones with dual exposure controls for tweaking brightness and shadows in real time with handy sliders. A Live HDR+ feature lets you see how your optimized photo will look in the view finder before you've even taken the shot.
Other camera improvements in the Pixel 4 include white balance powered by machine learning, which should produce more accurate colors particularly in difficult lighting. The Night Sight mode that impressed everyone in the Pixel 3 is back, and in addition to detailed low-light photos, you'll now be able to take photos of stars in the Night Sky and not just get a photo that's an indistinct black smudge.
How the Pixel 4 camera performs
We haven't had a chance to test all those new features yet, but my colleague Adam Ismail has been taking the Pixel 4 around New York City to capture some initial images with the new phone. The results have been impressive, and exactly what you'd expect a camera phone from Google, given the Pixel's reputation.
This close-up of a flower shows off the Pixel 4's flair for color, with the red petals and yellow stamen standing out against a slightly blurred background. I also like how the Pixel 4 doesn't skimp on the details: You can see the textured ridges on the flower's petals, and I can even make out a drop of water here and there.
New York Public Library
Outside the New York library, the Pixel 4 also thrives with distinct white clouds standing out from a bright blue sky. You get a lot of detail in the columns and nearby buildings, and even with all the hustle and bustle of library patrons moving in front of our camera, the shot remains in focus.
Moving inside the library, we had a slightly different experience. There's some noticeable blur from all those passersby, particularly around the edges of the shot. The light streaming in from the window in the upper part of the picture also proved to be challenging for the Pixel 4, and that part of the shot looks a little blown out. (You have a hard time seeing the chandelier hanging down in front of the window.)
Even with those issues, this is a well-composed shot — you can make out the McGraw Rotunda text carved into the wall, and candle-shaped lights maintain their distinctive shape.
Google says it's been working on the portrait mode features for the phone, and we see those in effect with this shot of of my impeccably named colleague Phil. He pops out from the background, and the Pixel 4 has done a good job separating him from the blur behind him. Past Pixels have struggled with hair on portrait mode shots, but here, Phil's hair escapes the blur that occupies the photo's background. Portrait mode also works with the Pixel's new telephoto lens, too.
Night Sight, park
We're pleased to report that the Pixel 4 continues to take great pictures when the lights are low thanks to the camera's Night Sight mode. Not a lot of detail is lost in this shot of Bryant Park at night, with the yellow traffic cone contrasting nicely with the green plants in the foregrounds pictures. The lamps do cast noticeable artifacts in the right side of the shot, but we'll make the tradeoff for the string of blue lights flanking the building just off the center of the shot in the background.
We're looking forward to seeing how the new and improved Night Sight compares to the the new Night mode on the iPhone 11, especially given the iPhone's newfound dominance when it comes to low-light photos. And we hope for a clear night soon to be able to put the Pixel 4's night sky-shooting capabilities to the test.
Thus far, it looks like the Pixel 4 cameras are living up to the hype but we have a lot more testing to do. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive look at just what the Pixel 4's camera do, including comparisons to other camera phones.