The Pixel 3 XL has a 12MP f/1.8 camera on the back with dual pixel phase detection autofocus and optical image stabilization. The camera is also capable of recording 4K video at 30fps.
The default Camera app sees some definite improvements over the initial version from last year. The different camera modes are now laid out at the bottom, similar to the iOS camera app, and can be switched between by swiping sideways on the display. You only see some modes by default and the rest are inside the More option at the right.
At the top are the controls for timer, motion mode (Google's version of Apple's Live View), white balance and flash settings. You can choose to show HDR+ controls here, which lets you choose from HDR+ off, HDR+ On, and HDR+ Advanced. If you hide this option, the camera will use HDR+ On at all times.
One new feature this year is the ability to capture RAW images. The phone will save both JPEG and RAW files together, when the option is enabled.
The good thing this year is that the Camera app remembers your settings when you close the app. The HDR+ or RAW settings remain where you left them. Unfortunately, the white balance settings do reset, which is probably for the best for most people but can be annoying if you use this control often.
As with previous Pixel phones, the Camera app still doesn't have any manual mode. Google relies heavily on computational photography that is entirely automated and controlled by the software. Even the RAW files you capture are not data from a single RAW frame but a file made from stacked RAW images. Google really wants to ensure you get the kind of images it wants you to have, and there is little scope for manual adjustments outside of adjusting the white balance and exposure.
One cool new feature this year is focus tracking. When you tap on an object in the frame, the focus isn't locked at a particular point in the frame but on the subject itself. This means if the subject moves around in the frame or if you move the camera around while keeping the subject in frame, the focus will keep track and stay locked on the subject. This is extremely useful, especially for video but also for taking pictures of moving subjects such as pets or children.
Like the previous Pixel phones, the Pixel 3 XL captures images constantly in the background when the camera is open. When the shutter is pressed, it stacks the last several images and creates a composite after correcting hand and subject movements. The images are captured underexposed, which allows the camera to capture the details in highlights and raise the shadows in post. Because it is capturing multiple images, the noise can be zeroed out after stacking, which allows it to push harder while raising the shadow detail. This is basically what happens when you take a picture on this phone with HDR+ On.
The image quality was lauded on the previous two Pixels and is obviously also very good this year. There isn't a dramatic difference from last year but you can still see some refinements, especially in the overall look of the images, which now looks a bit less processed and more like what a single shot, naturally wide dynamic range image would look.
The Pixel 3 XL images still do have that characteristically Pixel look, though. As before, the images are always a bit underexposed, which creates a darker appearance that favors highlight detail over shadows. The images are very contrasty, with vibrant colors and a cooler white balance. It's fairly easy to spot a Pixel image in the crowd after you've seen a few.
Lowlight image quality is decent but there is a fair bit of noise in the shadows. The results are still usable for sharing online or for viewing on the phone itself but viewing them on a big screen makes the noise quite apparent. It also makes it difficult to edit these photos as the noise can get extreme when you start tinkering with the images.
There is also a major issue with image flicker under fluorescent lighting. This is due to the camera not being able to match its refresh rate with the frequency of the lighting. The Pixel 3 XL camera struggles with lighting that refreshes at 50Hz and can have severe flicker and banding in images. In some shots that won't be easily noticeable but in others it's hard to miss.
Previous years' Pixel phones had an issue where the HDR+ processing was only limited to the main Camera app. This year, other apps such as Instagram and Snapchat can also take advantage of the HDR+ processing. The image doesn't look quite as good as it does in the main Camera app still but it's a lot better than having no HDR+ processing at all.
The Pixel 3 XL also comes with a feature called Super Res Zoom, which uses a technique found on some high-end cameras to create high resolution images. The technique originally involves shifting the sensor one pixel along each axis so each pixel can capture red, green and blue information independently but on the Pixel 3 XL, Google achieves this by shifting the OIS system. Using additional computational techniques on top, Google can create a fairly high resolution digitally zoomed image within the 2x-5x range.
In our testing, the 2x digital zoomed images from the Pixel 3 XL were some of the sharpest we have seen from any phone. Most of the time, the 2x digital zoom images on the Pixel 3 XL display look very similar to optically 2x zoomed images on other phones. For casual viewing and sharing online, these images are perfectly acceptable.
Google has also introduced a new feature called Top Shot. This feature works automatically and doesn't require any user intervention. When the camera detects a moment when someone in the frame is blinking at the time when the shutter is pressed or has an awkward expression, it will suggest one of the previous frames from its buffer instead. Only the picture you actually captured will be saved in the full resolution and the suggested frame will be in a lower resolution but it's still better than having a bad picture or no picture at all.
Portrait mode is back once again and works pretty much the same way it did last year. The Pixel 3 XL camera uses the depth information from the two photo sites on each pixel on the sensor to capture different perspectives, which creates a rough depth map. The camera then uses AI and machine learning to further refine the edges of the subject and separate it from the background.
The quality of portrait mode images is two part. The first is the separation of the subject, which Google does really well, better even than some phones that have two cameras on the back. Most of the Pixel 3 XL Portrait mode images have well-defined subject edges separating them from the background. As a bonus, it also works on most objects, unlike the Portrait mode on the iPhone XR that only works with people.
The other part is the quality of the background blur, which is okay on the Pixel 3 XL. The default strength of the background blur is a bit aggressive and looks somewhat unrealistic. You can adjust this but only after the image has been captured. Google also doesn't make any special effort to make the point light sources in the background look like natural bokeh balls like some phones do. The blur also flows less smoothly as you go from foreground to background compared to something like the iPhone XS, which has a much finer stepping up of the blur as it moves into the distance, mimicking a real camera. Lastly, Google does not show a live preview of the background blur and you only see it once the image has been captured.
Every time you capture a Portrait mode image, the camera saves two images, one with and one without the effect. There is no setting to change this behavior, so you always end up with two images regardless of whether you want them or not.
To reduce the clutter, they take one slot in the Google Photos app gallery. However, things do get messy in every other image gallery app. You see, Google saves the set of two images - one with and the other without the effect - in its own separate folder on the phone's storage for every single Portrait mode photo you take. Each of those shots gets its own folder on the phone. This becomes an absolute nightmare if you choose to use any other image gallery app that sorts using folders. It's also a nightmare if you plug the phone into a computer and are trying to find that one particular Portrait mode photo and then having to go through dozens upon dozens of individual folders on the phone's storage.
Google also has a feature called Night Sight, which is supposed to make pictures taken in extremely dark situations look bright and usable. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, this feature had still not rolled out officially and we are still waiting on Google to push the update.
In terms of video, the Pixel 3 XL can capture video in 720p, 1080p and 4K in 30fps. You can choose to record in 60fps in 720p or 1080p but not in 4K. However, it's not a fixed 60fps; you get an option of fixed 30fps or Auto in 720p and 1080p. Auto will use 60fps when there is plenty of light or fall back to 30fps in low light situations. There's no way to force it to always use 60fps.
The camera can also record videos in 720p at 240fps or 1080p at 120fps for slow motion. You can choose to save the files in H.264 for maximum compatibility or HEVC to reduce file sizes without sacrificing quality.
The 4K video quality is really good, with good detail, excellent dynamic range and superb stabilization. The electronic stabilization can still be confused with a sideways pan as it struggles with natural shake and deliberate motion, which results in some jerk, but by and large it works out well. We would like to have 60fps option at 4K for those who want to capture smoother videos or create slow motion movies like we have on the recent iPhones and some other devices, such as the OnePlus 6T.
Slow motion videos also look pretty good. Google doesn't give you resolution options but just has a 1/4x and 1/8x toggles in slow motion mode, which switches between 1080p120 and 720p240 respectively. Again, Apple has an advantage here in the form of 1080p240 slow motion but Apple also designs its own processors so it can pretty much do anything it wants at this point.