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From the Editor's Desk: Google's wrong about ultrawide cameras

Google Pixel 4 XL
Google Pixel 4 XL (Image credit: Android Central)

Google's Marc Levoy gave an incredibly compelling explainer on all things related to the Pixel 4's camera at the company's October hardware event. He clearly has a deep understanding of what's happening under the hood with Google's photography processing. But I took one issue with what he had to say: according to Levoy, Google thinks that a well-executed telephoto camera is more useful than an ultrawide camera on a smartphone.

A great telephoto camera is really useful; but it isn't the same as an ultrawide lens.

I agree, a great telephoto camera is really useful to have in a smartphone. A proper telephoto 2X or 3X lens with a narrower field-of-view is distinctly different than purely digital zooming. You can take great portraits, interesting street scenes, and cool macros. Being able to zoom without losing quality compared to a standard camera is of great utility in a smartphone — we've been using them for years, we know their utility.

But here's where the disconnect lies. Telephoto cameras are unique and fun to use in their own right ... but they're complementary, not a replacement for an ultrawide camera. Take a look at these wide-angle samples from my Galaxy S10+ and Note 10+ reviews:

Every single one of those photos is unique and special ... and completely different from anything you can take with a standard or telephoto lens. Each focal length has its own feel, and ultrawide cameras in particular bring a ton of emotion to your photography. You can capture the entire scene, and while you don't capture the details you get a feeling for everything the human eye can see in that scenario — and sometimes more. A telephoto lens provides its own value, but it doesn't provide anything approximating what an ultrawide offers.

When you only have two cameras in your flagship phone, you open yourself up to questions.

I'm not a fan of asking "why didn't you do ..." questions, but you open yourself up to it by making a bold statement about a telephoto camera being a better choice than an ultrawide. It makes no sense, frankly — I'm not talking about ultrawide being better than telephoto, or vice-versa, but simply recognizing that they aren't interchangeable. They're different, and each useful to have in different scenarios.

So, why not choose to include an ultrawide camera rather than a telephoto? More appropriately, the question is, "why not both?" When much of the competition is offering all three — standard, telephoto, ultrawide — cameras already. Well there are limitations in packaging, build of materials and on down the list ... but there's no physical reason why a phone couldn't have three cameras. And in that case, Google wouldn't have to come up with this silly rationalization for why it didn't put an ultrawide camera in the Pixel 4.

If you have to choose one camera, there's a lot to be said for picking ultrawide over telephoto.

But if you have to choose one or the other, there's something to be said for picking ultrawide over telephoto. It may not be the exact same, but you can digitally zoom in on a camera sensor ... you can never digitally zoom out. You can at least approximate the look of a telephoto camera with digital zoom — and Google's digital zoom is one of the best in the business. But you can never recreate the look of an ultrawide camera with its subtle edge distortion or even fisheye-like view. An ultrawide lens provides an altogether unique look that can't be replicated any other way.

The Pixel 4 would have been better-served by having an ultrawide lens alongside its standard lens. No matter how good and clear its telephoto camera is, you're being restricted by that narrow field-of-view lens in a way you wouldn't if it were a wide-angle lens instead. Google made the wrong decision on the Pixel 4, and that's frustrating — and it's even more frustrating when Google digs in its heels and tries to tell us that a telephoto camera is a suitable replacement.

-Andrew

Google Pixel 4

Google's new Pixel 4 is, in many ways, an impressive upgrade over last year's Pixel 3. It comes with a smooth 90Hz AMOLED panel that boasts a 90Hz refresh rate, a motion-sensing Soli chip that enables the face unlock and Motion Sense features, Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, 6GB of RAM, and a 12MP + 16MP dual camera setup at the back. The phone also offers an improved Night Sight mode with an astrophotography mode as well as live HDR+ previews.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

40 Comments
  • I would love it if Google did a triple camera setup with all of that machine learning. Fire all cameras at once, wide for the background, normal for the object and the zoom to make the object extra sharp with more detail. It shouldn't be hard for Google to do and the result could be truly amazing!
  • They ll add it to next year's Pixel 5
  • Along with a bigger battery! Google is always 1 year behind the competition
  • I'm happy you have an opinion but I have one too and I think you are wrong. Just because you are a tech journalist doesn't make your opinion more valid than mine because "use cases". This is the first article you have written that I actually feel dislike for. You do not get to decide for everyone what is best for a phone to include but you sure wrote the article that way. Edit: Oops this was for the article and not supposed to be a reply to a specific message.
  • I agree with you 100% I'm sick and tired of these articles. It's just one guys opinion, and doesn't make them right. If you don't like the phone, buy another one.
  • I agree also it's only an opinion and it's very subjective I actually like telephoto over ultra-wide years ago it was telephoto first and then ultra-wide. Now it's just a bunch of fanboys
  • And if you incorporate both, you avoid this discussion all together.
  • You realize their argument is that Google should put wide/normal/tele lenses on the pixel 4 because "...[they] should not get to decide for everyone what is best for a phone to include". Their argument would apply equally to a phone with only a wide/normal as it does on a phone with normal/tele. And if the pixel 4 was wide/normal, I imagine you would have cheered their argument.
  • Actually, he didn't just express his opinion; he argued for it. You're welcome to disagree, of course. All reporting is subjective, unless you're merely listing basic facts...
  • I agree 100% with Andrew. Wide is used far far more than tele on my P30 Pro. But I cannot live without any of them.
  • Google's wrong about a lot of things recently. Restricting the new Google Assistant to those using the new gesture navigation for instance, restricting it to the US (or perhaps those using US English), making the new Google Assistant unavailable if there's G-Suite account on the phone, discontinuing the original quality photo backup as of the Pixel 4, not supporting 4K video recording at 60 fps, the way it's handled dark mode in Gmail (most people are still waiting), abandoning Google Play Music for the atrocity that is YouTube Music, I could go on and on
  • Google's wrong with everything about the pixel 4 this year. It will be an epic flop..
  • Moment Lenses will fix the ultrawide issue for me. The biggest issue I see is the value for trade in phones.
  • Agree! I also have Moment lenses
  • First, I'm not a particular fan of any of the ultrawide images you posted. I hate the fish-eye look. Maybe for some landscape shots it's okay, but honestly, these just hurt my eyeballs. Secondly, if you REALLY must capture a wider field of view, you can do a panorama shot, or even a photosphere. You do not NEED to go all fish-eyed with a lens. No, sorry, the telephoto was the right call for most users. Tech reviewers are obsessed with ultrawide, but but 90% of the time people are pinch-zooming and cropping to get their pictures.
  • I completely disagree with ur comment, I think it's reverse 80% people prefer ultra wide over telephoto. I hope apple or Samsung share data on pics taken with ultra wide vs telephoto.
    N panorama is always worst than single shot, u have to change settings, keep movements aligned and still end result after stitching is not good as ultra wide.n there is no alternative for ultra wide video.
  • For the limited number of times I would take an ultra wide picture I can easily take a panoramic one. However, ultra wide is useful on the selfie cam to get everyone in the shot.
  • My problem with it that the "telephoto" lens is only 2x. When I was carrying an SLR, 4x (200mm) was the most common upper lens, and I occasionally had an 8x (~800mm) lens when at a large venue. 2x is ok ish, but it's not particularly impressive. They really should have gone to at least 3x, which their interpolation could get up to from the base lens. I would have liked to have seen a 4x or even the 5x of the Huawei P30. Oppo is working on a 10x optical zoom which is such a wonderful madness.
  • I'm sure they probably did an analysis of every google photos uploaded and determined most people do zoomed in photos over wide angle views. Just thinking about my own pictures, I certainly try to take more zoomed in photos over wide angle shots. Wide angle shots for me anyway are limited to beach, cottage, and if I'm in a hotel and want to get a shot of the city from my window. I'm sure it won't be the reason why/if Pixel 4 fails.
  • Google seems to be a generation behind Apple when it comes to camera hardware. They'll add wide angle lens next year to the camera array. It's just stupid they didn't include it this year. I'd rather take wide angle shots than zoomed in shots.
  • 100% wrong for omitting wide angle. Once I had my first phone with an ultra wide angle I was in love. I hike. Telephoto does nothing for me. Not having to stitch photos together is everything. I really wanted to consider the Pixel 4 but they absolutely missed the boat on most things I care about.
  • Strongly disagree on this one. I'll have way more use for the telephoto camera.
  • But isn't Super Res Zoom supposed to take care of telephotography? I they really feel that telephoto is more valuable, why not invest in a 3-4x telephoto lens? A 2x lens is mediocre, especially for a phone that starts at $799 and is already lacking in hardware when compared to the competition. I can't wait to see telephotography using the Pixel 4 and the competitors. The difference better be significant or they will look like fools.
  • I get your point, but the examples aren't that compelling. I would love wide angle but it's certainly not a deal breaker.
  • I only ever used the wide-angle camera once when I received my Note10 +. I feel the odds of me actually using it in real-life situations is really quite rare. It really difficult to guage whether a wide-angle lens is more-or-less useful than a telephoto lens.
  • You can always use the ultra wide photosphere mode in the Google camera. Yes, it's more time consuming but it can produce incredible results!
  • For all the people disagreeing, the bigger point is the competition offers both. Every single one of them. Having that third option is always better than not having it.
  • Don't worry...Pixel 5 will add the ultra wide and be 8 GB of RAM instead and start at 128 GB...
  • Yeah, Google's late 2020 phone will catch up to early 2019 phones from everyone else. Lol.
  • I loved the ultrawide secondary lens on my old lg g5. And miss it alot these days . I take alot of pictures of my work for my FB page and the wide angle allowed me to get the whole picture even in a small room. .miss it on my P20 pro. Should have upgraded i guess hahaha.
  • That's exactly why I got the Galaxy a20. And I can't afford a pixel 4😫
  • Just vote with your wallet. In my case it is out of my options as I do want an ultrawide.
  • Wrong. To most people a telephoto is far more useful than an ultrawide. Most people use their phone cameras for portraits (tele), macro (which is almost always better on a tele lens) events (normal to tele) general walk around (normal to tele) etc. The things an ultrawide is "helpful" for is landscapes and arquitechture and those are usually static scenes which can be shot with a normal lens on panorama mode. The only real exclusive use of an ultrawide is when a wide field of view AND fast moving subjects are in the frame. There's a reason why almost every compact camera ever made started at >24mm and telezoom lenses sales have always outsold ultrawide lenses by order of magnitudes. Stick to tech arguments and leave photography arguments to those who can actually take a shot, judging by your "samples" you are not one of the latter.
  • Having a wide-angle lens would not be a bad thing, but I have never had a need for one. I've never been taking a picture and thought having a wide angle lens would make it better. I have had times (too many to count) where I defiantly though I needed a better zoom lens. That is the primary reason I would carry my DSLR around. Now with the Pixel 4, I may not need to carry my DSLR around all the time. Only in specific situations. If I want to capture a wide shot of a landscape or some location, I will just take a couple shots that are staggered and let Google Photos stich them together. It works surprisingly well and looks just as good, without the distortion. This is not the same as the panoramic feature that is native to the camera app. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and just because it’s not the same as mine, doesn't mean I need to jump up and throw a tantrum. Most tech news website articles are just that, opinion pieces. I just use them to help form my own opinion.
  • "When you only have two cameras in your flagship phone, you open yourself up to questions." Who would have thought a few years back we would be having this conversation? I'm not much of a photographer, but have been happy with the ability to point-and-shoot with just my phone. Telescopic, ultrawide...icing on the cake for sure! But most of the time, just point-and-shoot when it comes to my phone. It's convenient, not professional.
  • With technology today having more options would have been the right choice. People are disagreeing over what photo mode is better but the fact is if they had both, this wouldn't have been an issue. Sometimes I zoom, sometimes I take wide shots and not having both options is a mark FOR ME against Pixel when deciding on my purchase.
  • Google is a year of maybe two years behind with the number of cameras that should be on the back of the Pixel. The wide angle camera DEFINITELY should've been included as one of the cameras on the back of the Pixel. Google should START listening to the users and catch up to today's standards. It's very sad to see Google lag behind with the Pixel phones in terms of coming to the stage with a half-baked Pixel phones. Also, the Pixel 4 doesn't justify the price for a supposedly premium phone. Google, please take a look at how it's done like Samsung does with it's Galaxy Note phone.
  • I disagree with this article completely. Your ultra-wide photo examples looks great! The problem is All of those examples save for 1 can be completed, albeit with a little extra end user effort, by snapping a panoramic photo and, if needed, cropping to size. Google's software is pretty good a stitching panoramic photos together and while you would likely have issues doing this on a crowded city street, that is the only example here where issues would arise. I understand the cool factor of an ultra wide, but I also understand the irritation of being at a concert, or a football game as in one of your examples, and wanting to get a close up shot of a performer / player and it being grainy because of digital zoom. a 2x telephoto may not alleviate that completely depending on use case but it certainly goes a long way towards helping it, something that an ultra-wide does not do. Im in agreement that ultimately having all three would have been best, but since we can only have 1 of the two on this phone, i absolutely think google made the right decision here.
  • I'd much rather have telephoto than wide angle. For me, cell phone cameras are wide enough. If your photos aren't good enough, get closer. Except when you can't. Then you use telephoto. (And digital zoom should just be disabled completely.)
  • First, the author needs to learn what OBVIATE means. I will read no further until this common mistake in the usage of the word OBVIATE is corrected.