The Pixel was one of the only smartphone brands that continued to equip its phones with a single camera and Google claimed it only needed one camera to take great photos and portraits. The passing of time always tends to make things change, especially in the tech industry, because this year, Google added a second camera to the mix.
Alongside an optically stabilized 12.2MP main camera with large 1.4-micron pixels and f/1.7 aperture is a 16MP telephoto camera (also stabilized) with 1.0-micron pixels and an f/2.4 aperture lens, which allows the Pixel 4 XL to shoot 2X zoom photos. Google's Super Res Zoom allows it to go comfortably beyond that zoom level too. Also both cameras benefit from Google's HDR+ algorithms for improving image quality.
The industry has already moved past dual cameras and are already established with triple cameras, including the latest iPhone 11 Pro. So Google's decision to go with a telephoto camera instead of an ultra-wide - which many OEMs have been adding to the mix - raised many eyebrows. This depends on personal preference and the kinds of environments people tend to shoot, but Google believes that the average consumer is more likely to take zoomed photos over ultra-widened snapshots. We are not going to take a side here in favor of one type of camera or the other, but we'd just say that many manufacturers are happy to provide all three without the need for compromise.
Google has introduced a few new features on the Pixel's camera. The first is Live HDR+, which should show you what your final image was going to look like in the viewfinder after it processes it. Before that, especially in more demanding situations, the live viewfinder was only really used to compose your shots, then you'd only see the resulting HDR+ photo in the camera roll. We're glad to see this change implemented as it makes a huge difference in the picture taking process.
Another new feature is dual exposure controls - baked right into the camera UI.
What's more, now you can manually adjust the shadows and highlights as you are composing a shot, useful if you want to get a more artistic photo like the silhouette of a person against a bright background. Since Google doesn't offer fully manual controls on the Pixel, this is a welcome feature. The feature combines well with Live HDR+ so you see the photo's exposure before you hit capture.
Apart from improvements in Night Sight and portrait mode - thanks to the second camera, "learning-based automatic white balance" is available in all shooting modes where it was previously only used in Night Sight.
The camera interface is mostly unchanged from the Pixel 3. You can swipe between shooting modes and the most important ones are easily accessible: Night Sight, Portrait, Camera, Video, and a More tab containing Panorama, Photo Sphere, Slow Motion, Time Lapse, Playground, and Lens.
To make the viewfinder less cluttered, Google put the flash, timer, and Motion settings in a drawer, opposite the shutter button. It's an extra step to reach the Flash settings, but Google did mention at its presentation that it hopes you never need to use the Flash. Still, the drawer makes it easier to focus on the viewfinder.
Even with the drawer open, you can still hit the shutter key, so you don't miss the shot. Hitting the shutter does hide the drawer so you can keep snapping away.
Image quality on the Pixel 4 is slightly improved over the Pixel 3. Google has cleaned up the noisy remnants we used to often see on the Pixel 3. Exposure is excellent and well-balanced thanks to HDR+. Colors are almost always true-to-life and white balance leans to cool - which gives the photos their signature Google Pixel look.
Where colors aren't true to life is mostly when the camera is trying to compensate for strong highlights. For instance, the photo of the tree barrier in front of the rope fence is a perfect example. This was a very demanding shot, as the sun was just peeking behind the hotel building and during golden hour. The photo was exposed well, but colors were washed out as a result. You can also see lots of noise where there was an attempt to capture more details.
Capturing details in the high-contrast areas of a scene is where the Pixel excels, but if you take away the high-contrast, like if you try to shoot photos in the shade, you'll start to see some noise.
Comparing some of the shots to the OnePlus 7T, we surprisingly preferred some of the shots it took over the Pixel. Although the Pixel managed to grab more details, OnePlus did a really good job with HDR mode (which kicks in automatically on the 7T) and here, we thought the Pixel's colors were a little dull by comparison. This is shaping up to be a very interesting comparison.
Next up is the telephoto camera, which is new on the Pixel 4 XL. We expected samples to look a little different since the cameras' apertures don't match. Although the telephoto camera has a 16MP sensor, it outputs images in 12.2MP, just like the main camera.
The truth is, photos shot with the telephoto are indistinguishable from the main camera, at least at first glance. Pixel peeping will reveal slightly more noise and, naturally, a slight loss of detail. The only time you might notice a more significant difference is in lower light conditions. After all, it does have a dimmer aperture.
The telephoto's camera performance is strong, and especially so when comparing it back to the OnePlus 7T. Let's see how it did.
In stark contrast to the shots from the main camera, the OnePlus 7T's telephoto shots are nowhere near as nice in detail and colors. Fine details are mostly, if not completely, lost when switching to the telephoto camera.
Super Res Zoom was Google's solution to the Pixel 3's lack of a second telephoto camera, so its nice that Google included the feature on the telephoto camera as well so you can shoot photos from even further away. Let's see how it did.
Once you get past 2X zoom on the telephoto, 4X images are decent and there isn't even too much noise. There is however, a good amount of pixelation happening as a result of the moving waters of the Atlantic. Even from the distance, we can still make out the container ship that's anchored further out.
We've seen some incredible zoom shots from Chinese makers like Huawei with the P30 Pro and Oppo with the Reno 10X Zoom, so if you're someone who wants to shoot birds or subjects from afar, we'd nudge you away from the Pixel.
Moving on, let's look at some portrait photos. Thanks to the second telephoto camera, Google can capture more depth information to synthesize a bokeh effect that more closely resembles that of a DSLR.
Portrait photos are among the best we've seen from a smartphone. The subject line is near-perfect and the resulting bokeh, especially in the second shot in front of the green hedges, is exactly how we'd expect a DSLR camera to blur an image. Whatever Google did, we're really impressed with the result.
Night Sight was first introduced last year with the Google Pixel 3 and 3 XL. Before that, the Pixel was regarded as one of the best cameras in low light, but in the span of the last two or three years, most OEMs now have some form of a long-exposure shooting mode that stacks images without needing a tripod.
We tested Night Sight in very demanding lighting situations. Let's see how the Pixel 4 does with low light images and then compare them to the same scene with the Night Sight mode enabled.
Naturally, low-lit photos are noisy and lack details while some can't even focus properly. The photos look just fine overall but quality really sinks when you zoom into the pictures.
With Night Sight, images are instantly better and more usable. They have more detail, albeit still with a bit of noise due to the processing. Although Google mentioned that learning-based AWB (automatic white balance) is present in all shooting modes, we didn't find white balance to be consistent between the regular shooting mode and Night Sight.
Of course, some of these images are extreme lighting situations like the beach, which was solely lit by the dim lights of the boardwalk and nearby buildings. Let's compare these night photos to the Nightscape ones shot with the OnePlus 7T.
Both the 7T and Pixel 4 XL were able to improve the night scene by using their respective dedicated low-light modes. Both had similar tonal reproduction and were quite similar in the boosting of shadows and highlights. However, we found the OnePlus 7T to produce sharper images.
We prefer the 7T's Nightscape shot of the purply lit hotel with the swimming pool. Details are better preserved on the 7T and the image has applied better sharpening. Of course, too much sharpening can sometimes be a bad thing - you'll notice excess noise if you pixel peep at the top areas of the hotel building in the 7T's Nightscape shot.
Now let's see how the telephoto camera deals with Night Sight.
Resulting photos aren't very good, and that's likely due to the f/2.4 aperture. Although we expected the camera wouldn't take as good of Night Sight photos, at least the Pixel 4 XL gives you the option, Nightscape photos with the 7T's telephoto camera is not possible, and it's probably for the best.
A new feature is an Astrophotography mode. Since there is no fully manual operation of the camera, it was previously not possible to capture long-exposure shots with 20-second exposure. Now, thanks to the magic of image stacking and software, Astrophotography can capture starry skyscapes.
To enter the mode, all you need to do is open Night Sight and then stabilize the Pixel 4 XL against something or put it on a tripod. Once stable, you'll see an Astrophotography label on the viewfinder, and then all you need to do is hit the shutter key. Then the camera decides how long it should capture on its own, based on the amount of light available. It takes anywhere between one to four minutes to capture something.
Here are a couple of shots we managed to get with the mode.
We do admit the images are impressive, and the mere fact that a smartphone captured them is awesome. These images are mostly processed by Google's algorithms, so you may see some light noise as a result, but nothing that distracts at all.
Whatever you manage to capture in the scene also has a lot of detail if its exposed enough. If you inspec the last shot closely, you can see the texture of the paint on the pillar of the balcony. Of course, this one did take almost four minutes to capture.
While this is a cool feature, not everyone will be able to use it. You'll have to travel outside of brightly lit cities and find a dark sky to shoot. While its not a mode that people will use frequently, it's certainly a cool niche feature.
The front-facing camera no longer has the same dual-setup like on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, but the 8MP selfie camera is paired with a 3D ToF sensor to keep up with portrait depth with the front camera.
To switch between the front and rear cameras on the Pixel, you can make a double-twist gesture right from the viewfinder.
Although the second selfie camera is gone, the Pixel 4 XL has a wide field-of-view than some other flagships. At a 35mm equivalent length of 22mm (90° field of view), which sits somewhere between the 19mm ultra-wide and 28mm lenses on each of the Pixel 3's dual selfie cameras.
Selfies have well-balanced exposures both in the foreground and way in the background. Skin tones are well reproduced, and you can spot details in the shadows. Let's look at portrait selfies now.
We're not as content with these selfie portraits. In the first image, there's a strange halo around the subject line, although we can give it a pass since the sun is directly behind our reviewer Ricky. Otherwise, the synthesized bokeh line is not as well refined as the main camera's was.
Here's a couple of Selfies from the OnePlus 7T to compare.
There's a significant difference in the amount of details and softness from the 7T. Pixels have always been more about capturing details (sometimes too many details) in the face while most other OEMs would prefer to soften features - this makes for a more flattering image. Between these samples, we prefer the selfie portraits from the 7T.
Most selfie cameras don't play well in lower light, but the Pixel 4 XL's is surprisingly good at capturing selfies and exposing everything else properly. Though the background (and sometimes foreground) can appear noisy at times, its nothing compared to taking a selfie that you can't use because its too dark to see anything.
Although much attention was given to the fact that the Pixel 4 XL cannot record in 4K @ 60fps, we can't say many of us at the office record 60fps video at all, much less 60fps in 4K. With that out of the way, the Pixel 4 XL can still record 4K video at 30fps, and 1080p video in both 30 fps and 60 fps. You can also capture any of the modes mentioned with the telephoto camera.
1080p videos pack great detail and minimal noise. Exposures and colors are spot on. You may notice some fuzziness in the foliage, but that's because these samples were all shot handheld. On that note, the Pixel 4 XL's stabilization is quite good.
Details in 60 fps video are about as good at their 30fps counterparts. In the areas of foliage, you can see a bit more noise because of the faster frame rate. Otherwise, colors, dynamic range, and exposure are consistent with standard 30fps video.
We've seen many smartphone cameras have issues with exposure metering when shooting in 60 fps, but there was no such hiccup with the Pixel 4 XL.
4K video packs pleasant details and colors. Although the scene is lit by a setting sun, we are happy with the way the scene was exposed. We can still see what's in the shadows of the scene while we also get the warmth of the sun shining on the palm trees. You can see slight fluctuation of noise in the grass, but again, that's due to the handheld nature of the video.