Google Pixel 6 Pro Camera Review: Hardware that is finally worthy of Google’s AI smarts
Ever since its inception, Google’s Pixel phones have proudly prioritized software over hardware. This philosophy was applied across the entire smartphone, but it was particularly noticeable in the camera department, where past Pixels almost went out of their way to avoid new camera hardware trends. When many phone brands began adding secondary and even tertiary cameras in 2017, Google stuck with just the singular primary. When even Apple offered an ultra-wide sensor in 2019, the Pixel 4 said “nah.” A year later in 2020, when Android brands engaged in an image sensor size arms race, Google sat back and recycled the same pedestrian Sony IMX363 image sensor for a third straight generation in the Pixel 5.
Google’s idea was essentially “our software is so good at processing images, we don’t really need fancy hardware.” This worked initially and it worked very well. The first two, maybe three Pixels were almost undisputedly the best camera phones at the time of release. Thanks to Google’s machine learning wizardry, the early Pixels offered impeccable HDR, realistic digital bokeh, and an industry-best night mode. But even the greatest software on earth (which Google probably/arguably does offer) can’t overcome aging, mediocre hardware, especially since rivals like Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and many others were following in Google’s footsteps to prioritize computational photography while also upgrading camera hardware to boot.
And so by the Pixel 4, Google’s smartphone camera was no longer leading the pack. I’d argue the Pixel 3 had already lost the throne to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, but that’s debatable.
Google finally learned this for the Pixel 6 series, because these new Pixel phones, in particular the Pixel 6 Pro, bring significant camera hardware upgrades over previous Pixels. But of course, upgrading camera hardware doesn’t mean Google has abandoned its “computational photography is king” philosophy. This new camera hardware merely adds to Google’s machine-learning digital imaging processing software, which itself got a big hardware boost in the form of a new custom-built Tensor SoC.
The big question everyone wants to know: does the Google Pixel 6 Pro regain the throne as the best camera phone out there? The answer isn’t so simple because there’s a lot to digital photography these days. We already have our Pixel 6 Pro review out there, but it is worth dedicating more words to the camera on the Pixel 6 Pro simply because of the potential it opens up for the future.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Specifications
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About this review: We purchased our own Google Pixel 6 Pro for this review. Google Ireland did provide my colleague Adam Conway with a Pixel 6 Pro for review — however, this was not used here. Google did not have any inputs in this review.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Camera Hardware
The Google Pixel 6 Pro’s upgraded camera hardware is headlined by a 50MP Samsung GN1 sensor with a 1.2 micron-pixels and 1/1.31 inches image sensor size. This is a massive jump from the previous Sony IMX363 sensor Google used in the Pixel 3 to the 5a.
The Pixel 6 Pro also brings a Periscope zoom lens for the first time in the series, a 48MP shooter that can produce 4x lossless optical zoom images. Wrapping up the triple-lens main system is a 16MP ultra-wide camera. Around the front is an 11MP ultra-wide camera with a 94-degree field of view.
These hardware improvements are huge. The GN1 sensor has a significantly larger image sensor than the Sony IMX363, which means it can take in a lot more light naturally, as well as produce more natural bokeh due to a shallower depth-of-field.
Likewise, the switch to Periscope technology for zoom photos is a major technical upgrade over the previous telephoto zoom lenses.
Processing all these new sensors is a new brain: the Google Tensor, an SoC custom-built by Google to handle AI-powered machine learning tasks. To use a racing metaphor: the Pixel 6 Pro didn’t just add a more powerful motor and newer wheels (these would be camera hardware) but also got a much smarter and skilled driver to handle the vehicle too.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Camera App Experience
The Pixel 6 Pro’s camera app appears simple at first glance — there are only six modes to swipe through horizontally (unlike some Chinese phones which seem to have like 10), and there are only two icons at the top of the screen, as opposed to four on the iPhone 13 camera app and six on the Vivo X70’s app. There also isn’t any hidden menu that’s activated by swiping up, like in Huawei or Apple’s camera apps. The buttons to toggle between lenses are also conveniently located at the bottom of the viewfinder for easy thumb access. This means people who just want to point and shoot should be able to grab the photos or videos they need easily, without much distraction.
This makes complete sense because time-lapse and slow-motion videos are just videos playing out at different speeds. Likewise, you know the camera setting menu that allows you to change video framerate, photo aspect ratio, and whether or not flash is on by default (always leave it off, by the way)? Other phones tend to group all these options into one generic settings page. On the Pixel 6 Pro’s camera app, these settings show up within the context of your shooting mode. For example, if you tap on the settings menu in photo mode, you won’t see video frame rate options, because you’re in photo mode. Switch to video mode, and the ability to change frame rate shows up.
When you’re taking photos, the Pixel is also smart enough to understand context and show on-screen guides only when needed. For example, if you’re holding the phone upright in good lighting conditions, you get a clean viewfinder free of interruptions. But if the Pixel senses your phone is tilted at an awkward angle, a virtual horizon line shows up, so you can line up the shot properly (unless you like the Dutch angle). A tap on the viewfinder as you’re composing will also bring up sliders to adjust color temperature, shadow brightness, or overall exposure.
By just playing with these dials, you can already drastically alter the mood of a shot.
If I do have to nitpick, it’s that the camera app can get too complicated once you dive into sub-menus. In video mode, for example, there’s a button with a palm on it to signify stabilization. But once you tap on the palm, you’re hit with four different stabilization modes. There are also pop-up windows with full paragraphs of text explaining a feature. The average consumer would probably find these menus confusing, and there is room for simplification here.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Main Camera
The strength of a Google Pixel’s main camera has always been its ease-of-use, in that you can point, tap the shutter, and very likely get a photo that has excellent dynamic range (even if you’ve shot against backlight); color reproduction (Google livens up photos a bit, but not overboard like Samsung cameras); artificial bokeh that looks natural enough; and a lag-free shutter (something that not all recent Android flagships can claim in 2021).
All of these strengths return here, but because of the improved 50MP GN1 sensor, photography has taken a leap. The larger sensor pulls in more light, so Google doesn’t have to resort to night mode as often. There’s more natural bokeh if you shoot close enough to an object or subject; and having 50 million pixels to play with allows Google to use pixel-binning tech to produce a 12.5 million pixel shot that contains “bigger” pixels with more image information.
GN1 sensors bring natural bokeh and more depth in close-up shots
The shutter speed is so responsive, and along with the natural bokeh I get when I am close to a subject, I can get impressive shots like this that I just captured on a whim.
If you zoom in to 100% size and pixel peep, the shot still holds up.
I had been a big fan of the Pixel phones’ Portrait Mode in the past because of the convincing artificial bokeh. But now that the Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera can produce real bokeh like this, I have used the software Portrait mode a lot less.
Live HDR+ works magic again
One of the conventional wisdom in the world of “real” photography is “keep the sun behind you,” which means not to shoot into harsh light, as a “real” camera won’t be able to know whether to properly expose the light and keep any subject/object in foreground drenched in shadows, or expose the subject/object and let the light be completely blown out. This rule held true in digital photography for many years too, until smartphones developed the ability to produce HDR images by using software tricks, and Google’s HDR+ has been one of the leaders in the space. Essentially, the Pixel camera will capture a rapid burst of underexposed and overexposed shots, and then use all the image information from those shots to produce a single shot with proper exposure. With Tensor handling the image signal processing this year, the Pixel 6 Pro seems to be able to do this computation faster and better than ever. Below are all shots featuring bright sunny spots and areas drenched in shadows, and all four shots are, as Thanos would say, “perfectly balanced” with accurate colors and shadows that are brightened slightly to not be total darkness, but still keep the contrasty vibe of the scene.
The last shot, in particular, was a very challenging scene to shoot: harsh mid-afternoon Southern California sun blasted through the window while the middle section of the photo (showing the wooden shelve) was drenched in shadows. The Pixel 6 found an almost perfect balance, which is even more noticeable when you see how competitors performed.
The iPhone 13 Pro completely blew out the lights coming from the window in order to expose the wooden shelf properly, while Vivo X70 Pro Plus produced a shot with proper exposure everywhere, including artificially dialing up the contrast of blues and yellows for a photo that pops more. But Vivo’s shot also looks unrealistic, almost fake — our brains know there should be some shadows in this scene.
Colors that pop — but not too much
In general, the Pixel 6 Pro will dial-up contrast a bit too much instead of keeping things completely “natural” (aka boring) like an iPhone camera, but it does so in small doses, not the overkill levels like Vivo’s or Samsung’s cameras. In other words, the colors produced by Pixel 6 images pop a bit, but still stay close to the real-life scene.
Low light shots are on point
As mentioned, with a drastically larger image sensor and the help of pixel-binning, the Pixel 6 Pro does not need to resort to its “Night Sight” night mode as often as previous Pixels. But even if it does, it’s not a big deal because night mode kicks in automatically, as seamlessly as an iPhone’s. In the four shots below, the first two photos did not require night mode, while the latter two did.
The last shot in particular — of the Chinese statues — was taken in a really dark room, at 1 am, with all lights off. The shot is stunning. But again, it’s worth comparing to competition to see just how much Google nailed this shot.
The iPhone 13 Pro’s shot is very noisy if you zoom in, Vivo’s shot messed up white balance completely for some reason, and the iPhone 8, well I just included it as a reference of how the scene looked to my eyes. The Pixel 6 Pro’s Night Sight-assisted shot is jaw-droppingly good. It’s worth mentioning the Vivo X70 Pro Plus uses the exact same GN1 sensor, so this is purely Google’s software beating Vivo’s.
Portrait shots are still useful, but lacking a dedicated zoom lens for it limits use cases
Portrait shots, aka shots with artificial bokeh, have been a strong (the strongest?) point of Pixel cameras in the past. And on the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s still very good, but it’s a bit more of an afterthought. As mentioned, natural bokeh from the main camera is already very good if you shoot close enough. Second, unlike virtually all other top flagship phones right now, the Pixel 6 Pro lacks a dedicated zoom lens for portraits.
It’s not because the Pixel 6 Pro doesn’t have a zoom lens — it has an excellent 4x Periscope zoom which we’ll get to soon — but that focal length is too long (ideally, the zoom lens used for portraits should be 2x to 3x). So instead, the Pixel 6 Pro just shoots with the main camera, but with this digital crop to simulate that it’s a more traditional portrait focal length. Still, results are quite pleasing, with accurate edge detection and while the bokeh effect is a bit strong, you can easily dial this down after the shot. As usual, the Pixel’s portrait mode works well with inanimate objects too.
The Pixel 6 Pro introduces two new shooting modes that can be considered either gimmicky or useful depending on the user. The first is “Action Pan,” which simulates the effects of shooting with a fast-moving subject while the camera is also in motion — essentially, the Pixel 6 Pro adds artificial motion lines around the moving subject.
Using Action Pan is simple, you just point and shoot at a moving object, and Google will apply the speed line effects after the shot. But it doesn’t always work — Google even puts a “beta” label on the mode within the camera app — when it misses, shots can look like this.
In my week of testing, I’d say Action Pan produced a good-looking shot one out of every four or five tries.
Part of this is likely because I am currently in Los Angeles, a sprawling, spread-out city that just doesn’t have enough going on in the background for these types of dynamic action shots. I think in a more densely populated urban jungle, ideally a neon lights-drenched one like Hong Kong or Tokyo, Action Pan shots would look better. In fact, Bloomberg‘s Vlad Savov captured really great shots with his Pixel 6 in Tokyo.
Google’s Action Pan on the Pixel 6 makes it stupidly easy to take these excellent shots. It even works through the window of the moving car, just deeply impressive. pic.twitter.com/PSvyajLPBW
— Vlad Savov (@vladsavov) October 25, 2021
The other trick shot is “Long Exposure,” which does exactly what the name suggests, except on traditional cameras and most other smartphones in the past, you almost certainly have to use a tripod to get a useable shot. But Google’s AI helps account for the inevitable hand shakiness and also adjusts dynamic range on the fly. If you use this mode during the day, you can get some stylistic motion blur background. Or if you shoot at night with moving cars, you’ll get light trail shots like the ones below.
Notice in the last paragraph I said “most” other smartphones would have needed a tripod to take these shots. That’s because the Pixel 6 phones aren’t the first to be able to pull this off — Huawei’s flagship smartphones from the P9 series onwards have been able to capture similar hand-held long exposure modes.
The Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera can shoot up to 4K60fps. This falls short of the 8K capabilities of other Snapdragon 888-powered Android phones, but it doesn’t really matter, as 8K footage doesn’t have much use right now. The Pixel 6 Pro’s video performance is very good for the most part, with impressive stabilization and real-time handling of shifting dynamic range. I do notice, however, that in low light conditions, sometimes the video becomes very noisy for a split-second before the Tensor’s brain can jump in to fix it. In the video sample below, you can see the Pixel 6 Pro’s videos keep up with the iPhone 13 Pro for the most part, and has noticeably sharper zoom footage, but at the 0:14 mark, there’s noticeable noise in the Pixel footage, while the iPhone footage did not suffer such problems.I’m confident in saying the Pixel 6 Pro is at least a top-three best video camera phone on the market right now. The iPhone is still king, but the Pixel 6 Pro could be anywhere from second- to third-best. I have to do more side-by-side testing against the Vivo X70 Pro+ in the coming days to determine where exactly the Pixel 6 Pro camera sits.
Overall, the Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera experience lives up to the hype and the Pixel’s reputation. It’s a camera that can almost always find the perfect dynamic range, produce sharp details and vivid colors, and pull light out of thin air even in pitch dark scenes. The only type of shots that other phones can do that the Pixel 6 Pro can’t are macro shots — there is no macro sensor or mode here so you can’t get too close to an object the way an iPhone 13 or Galaxy S21 Ultra can.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Ultra-wide camera
The Pixel 6 Pro’s 12MP ultra-wide camera performs well also, although its 114-degree field-of-view is noticeably tighter than the iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 120-plus degree field-of-view.
The Pixel 6 Pro mostly does a good job of keeping color and dynamic range consistent between main and ultra-wide cameras.
However, the Pixel 6 Pro’s ultra-wide camera does not have autofocus (the iPhone 13 Pro has it), which means you can’t specifically lock focus on a portion of the photo. A bit of a bummer.
For example, in the above shot, the iPhone photo has a better sense of depth, because I was able to focus on the flowers in the foreground, resulting in more separation between the foreground (flower) and background (the blue car). If we zoom in 100%, we can see that not only are the flowers sharper in the iPhone image, but the car in the back has a slight bokeh to it, while the Pixel 6 Pro photo looks a bit flat.
At night, the ultra-wide camera has to resort to night mode almost every shot due to its smaller image sensor and slower aperture compared to the main camera. Considering it was very dark at the time, the blown ultra-wide shot is still okay, but there’s noticeable noise and artifact.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Periscope zoom
Ever since I got my first taste of Periscope zoom cameras in the spring of 2019 from the Huawei P30 Pro and OPPO Reno 10x Zoom, I could not go back to the standard telephoto lens. In fact, I think a 2x telephoto is essentially a waste of space at this point. And so I was happy with the news that Google was giving the Pixel 6 Pro a Periscope camera — even if I was a bit skeptical if Google could get it right. I’m happy to report the Pixel 6 Pro’s zoom lens is legit.
Not only are 4x zoom photos razor-sharp, even digital zoom up to 15 or 16x still produces a usable shot (digital zoom can max out at 20x).
At night, zooming beyond 4x (which activates digital zoom) will see major quality dropoff, but stick with 4x and the shot can still come out clean.
Now, is the Pixel 6 Pro the best zoom camera on the market? No, because it lacks the versatility of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or Vivo X70 Pro+, which have two zoom lenses each to cover short and long zooms. The Galaxy S21 Ultra in particular, uses a 3x telephoto for short zoom and a 10x Periscope for long zooms. The Pixel 6 Pro doesn’t have such versatility. And as mentioned earlier in the portrait section — a more commonly used portrait zoom distance is 2x or 3x, and with the Pixel 6 Pro, that’s entirely digital zoom there. Still, the Pixel 6 Pro is a major step up from previous Pixels.
Google Pixel 6 Pro: Selfies
The Pixel 6 Pro’s 11MP selfie camera may not have the greatest camera hardware, but Google’s software processing is top-notch. Whether it’s creating artificial bokeh, or night mode (which kicks in automatically), or shooting against backlight, selfies look great.
If you dive into settings, there is an option to turn on a skin smoothener effect. I’m happy to see this is the only type of beautification option offered, as Chinese and Korean Android brands tend to offer skin whitening too, which only enforces colorism. And with Google, when it is turned off, it is actually turned off too — Chinese and Korean brands will just tell you it is off and still continue to apply a mild layer of the effect on top.
I already said earlier the Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera is one of the best shooters I’ve ever tested. And while the other lenses don’t reach those same heights, they are still good enough to not compromise the system. The ultra-wide camera is not the sharpest ultra-wide I’ve ever tested — the Vivo X70 Pro+, OPPO Find X3 Pro, and OnePlus 9 Pro all have better ultra-wide sensors that produce sharper, brighter images — but Google does a great job of keeping consistency between its photos from the main camera and ultra wide. Switching between lenses is also relatively seamless, though not as smooth as an iPhone’s.
Likewise, for the zoom lens, the Pixel 6 Pro’s zoom system is not the best or most versatile, but it’s got OIS, fast focus, and fast shutter, and overall it’s a joy to use.
Ultimately, the Pixel 6 Pro’s camera system is more than the sum of its parts. Google’s Pixel phones have always had a distinct, personal touch that other Android phones lack. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a sense of personality and joy when I shoot with the Pixel cameras that I don’t get with a technically more impressive, but also more mechanical/robotic camera. For example, because I use vivid wallpapers with a lot of colors, Google’s Material You has adopted a pink color scheme across the entire phone, which carries over to the camera app too. A camera app with pink buttons sure does stand out from the staid black-and-white affairs everywhere else.
I’m not quite ready to say the Pixel 6 Pro is the best camera system of the year yet — I have yet to test it thoroughly against the Vivo X70 Pro+, and considering Vivo’s system has everything but the kitchen sink (including a gimbal ultra-wide camera, Zeiss T*coating lenses, and an extra zoom lens), I’m not sure the Pixel 6 Pro can beat the X70 Pro+. But I do know that the Pixel 6 Pro camera has more character, and confidence. It is a whimsical, personal Google phone through and through, and I like that.