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Pixel 4 vs. iPhone 11 night mode battle: Touring NYC at 2 a.m.

(Image credit: Android Central)

The latest battleground for smartphone cameras is low-light photography. With tiny sensors and space-limited lenses, the quality of the nighttime photos your phone captures is heavily dependent on the software processing rather than the hardware. And that means there are lots of opinionated decisions being made about how to represent a scene. There's no single way, no "right" way, to capture a night shot with a phone — only what the phone's engineers think looks best.

And that opens us up to lots of analysis and spirited debate. The Google Pixel 4 and Apple iPhone 11 are the leaders in low-light photography, so there's no better comparison to make than putting these phones head-to-head to see which one handles the most challenging low-light scenes better.

Intrepid, imposing and brilliantly calm resting in the Hudson River at 2 a.m., was a perfect subject and backdrop to spend hours taking photos with these two cameras to see how they handle the darkest of dark outdoor scenes. Here are the results.

This first collection of shots, besides just being really cool angles of Intrepid, immediately show the philosophical differences between how the Pixel and iPhone process night shots. The biggest themes that differentiate the cameras here: brightness, color temperature and clarity.

The Pixel 4 is brighter, and downright better in sharpness and clarity in details.

The Pixel is notably brighter than the iPhone, and that doesn't just apply to the main subject, but the entire scene. Night Sight on the Pixel boosts highlights and shadows — just look at the foreground in the second image, it's dramatically brighter than the iPhone. Obviously that isn't really what the scene looks like — the iPhone, leaving the foreground dark, is more like reality. And with the dimmer overall scene, you get more of the drama and emotion of a low light shot.

Every Pixel photo is more eye-catching, but it surely isn't as natural as the iPhone's photo.

The Pixel's white balance is much cooler, perhaps too cool in some instances. While the iPhone is much warmer ... perhaps too warm. I would actually prefer to have my photos land somewhere in between, but ultimately this is personal preference. But the combination of cool white balance with a brighter overall scene is in stark contrast to the combination of a warm white balance and darker overall scene. Again the Pixel is more eye-catching, but unnatural in comparison to the more true-to-life iPhone shot. This is a perfect example of how much the post-processing matters to modern smartphone photography.

Now here's where the Pixel is just downright better: it's generally sharper and clearer than the iPhone. It isn't always entirely noticeable when viewed at smaller sizes, but zoom into any of the shots and you'll see sharper fine lines and cleaner details in all of the Pixel's photos. The Pixel is, in many cases, inexplicably sharp considering how little light is available — whereas in many cases I found the iPhone to have softness typical with a standard low-light shot that's using a longer shutter speed.

It's relatively easy to recreate a scene of inanimate objects, but our brains are particularly good at picking out issues with photos of humans. We subconsciously know what a person looks like, and sometimes when these night shooting modes do their thing they completely drop the ball.

The Pixel not only nails the scene, it also does a much better job on the actual subject: the person.

The top shot, of our very own Hayato Huseman, is pretty damning for the iPhone. The iPhone completely misses the subject of the photo, plunging everything into darkness — and despite staying dark and neutral, it's still rather noisy. I would've considered this a misfire or a Night mode fail ... but I took the shot multiple times with the same result. The scene is obviously very difficult, with most of the light coming from behind him, but just look at how well the Pixel did — bringing up the brightness across the scene, you can make out Hayato and the entire background. At the same time, zoom in and see just how much detail is left in his face, hair and clothing. That's incredible detail. It's a little over-brightened, and could be warmed up a bit, but I would take the Pixel shot here 10/10 times.

The iPhone may do a better job on the sky and surroundings, but that's not the point of this shot.

Now, the bottom shot, of the one and only MrMobile, is even tougher — not only does the camera need to figure out the person, but also a complex scene of textures in the dock, a city skyline and a night sky. (Also, this one took an extremely long capture time for both phones — but Michael's a pro and stood like a statue for this shot.) Unlike the shot of Hayato, the iPhone actually managed to get the subject and the rest of the scene exposed evenly — though obviously the Pixel is still brighter in both cases, along with its signature cool white balance.

The Pixel, once again, undeniably did a better job on the person. Better detail, better sharpness, better clarity — zoom in and see just how blotchy and soft the iPhone is by comparison. The rest of the scene is much more of a toss-up; the Pixel arguably does a better job preserving detail in the dock, but the iPhone does a better job with the skyline and most notably the sky. The warmer white balance and darker exposure better represent that entire top half of the scene. I don't think that makes up for being so far behind the Pixel in terms of the actual subject and foreground of the shot, though.

These shots show one of Google's strengths right alongside one of the Apple's: the Pixel's ability to handle motion in Night Sight, with the iPhone's better processing of skies and water at night.

The Pixel can handle movement — be it your hand or your subject — better than the iPhone's long exposure.

Looking at the top photo with the barge, the flag on the shack in the center of the frame tells an interesting tale. Whether through shorter exposures or more clever processing, Google's able to better capture the flag that's slowly waving in the wind compared to the iPhone — yes the Pixel's shot still has a soft flag, but the iPhone took so long to capture that it provided a blurry mess where the flag should be. And that characteristic actually carries over to the rest of the scene, as you start to look around — the entire barge is just a little softer on all of the edges. The water may be calm at night, but it isn't perfectly still — and even the subtle movements of the barge, paired with a handheld shot, show off the weaknesses of relying on slow shutter speeds.

The second shot, a typical nighttime skyline scene, puts the ball back in the iPhone's court. It's this kind of shot that shows the weakness of having Night Sight aggressively brighten a scene. The focal point of the scene is the dark buildings and dark sky — when you over-brighten those things, they don't look great. Building lights get blown out, and the sky gets grainy and blotchy. The iPhone's darker complexion absolutely nails the mood of this kind of shot; and if I were to take it again with the Pixel I'd absolutely crank down the exposure before capturing.

The iPhone unequivocally wins when it comes to those typical dark skyline shots with a flat sky or water.

The fourth shot of the group is the only one in this entire comparison where the iPhone unequivocally wins, top to bottom. And it's an interesting one, because it's a shot where I had the phones braced up against a flagpole to eliminate as much hand movement as possible and let the phones capture for as long as they wanted. In this scenario, the iPhone took advantage to create a clearer, better-balanced shot with better colors and smoother sky and water. The Pixel looks pretty good, but its no match for the overall look and feel of the iPhone's photo.

Armed with this knowledge, go back up and check out all of the photos above. The iPhone 11 reproduces a smoother sky (or water) with less noise in every single one. The parts of the scene where this is apparent can be more or less important in each shot you take, but it's an important component to outdoor shots, and the iPhone is way ahead in that specific aspect.

Does the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 take better night photos?

The iPhone has its strengths in more accurately representing a scene's brightness and white balance, and does a better job reproducing a smooth dark sky or still water. But the Pixel 4 is sharper and clearer in every case, manages hand shake and subject motion better, and does a dramatically better job making people look great in low-light portrait scenes.

Different types of scenes and situations lean on different strengths of every camera, but in my time testing these phones in these tough-to-manage dark conditions, the Pixel 4 with Night Sight is the winner over the iPhone 11 with Night mode. And both of these phones are considerably ahead of the rest of the competition.

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

53 Comments
  • While these 2 phones might be ahead of the competition, I won't call it 'considerable'. At least for me, everytime I took a blind camera test, I preferred OnePlus' pictures over iPhone's. Samsung has also come a long way with their night mode. Cameras on our phones are so good these days, it's really difficult to go wrong. Great article btw! A good read.
  • Not to mention the latest Huaweis.
  • That's the best way to look at it. We've come a long way from taking a photo and praying it turns out well when the film is developed to taking as many low-light photos as we want with instant feedback. While it's interesting to see how different phones compare, I'm just glad we have this technology at all.
  • Agreed, you can't go wrong with most of today's flagships. I also found my OP 7 Pro has improved a lot on Night mode and is overall an excellent camera phone in most situations. Quite an upgrade from my former Note8 (which itself had one of the best cameras 2 years ago).
  • Camera comparisons on flagship phones are splitting hairs at this point. It mainly comes down to the app and underlying software/hardware tech. Most pictures with my Note 10+ come out just fine using the default mode with Samsung's app but lower light (like in my home) with a moving subject (like my dogs) always produces blurry shots of the subjects. I can switch over to pro mode, increase the shutter speed, bump the ISO up a bit, and the shot comes out fine. I've been pleased with it though, I had the same issues with my iPhone XS Max (though subjects were less blurry, it was still annoying) but I couldn't just switch over to a Pro mode to fix it.
  • Best night mode without an Huawei phone in sight? Funny.
  • Hey friend, question: I'm a big fan of smartphones with great cameras and I'd love to get my hands on a new Huawei phone that I can use to take pictures and also, you know, make phone calls and texts via a cell phone carrier with. Problem is, I live in the Midwestern United States so if I *want* to do that, my only viable option currently would be to buy a Huawei phone and then use a third party backdoor option to get Google's services on my phone, thereby completely exposing me to malicious software. If you have a suggestion on how to deal with this particular problem I'd love to hear it. But please do not suggest something as inane as "leave the US" because clearly, if I could do that, I would have done it back in November of 2016.
  • As long as you buy a Huawei phone made before the US China ban started (so P30 Pro or older), you should be fine.
  • There is a whole world outside the US, unless that this site is US exclusive, lots of places where you can buy a P 30 Pro that is perfectly supported by Google.
  • P30 Pro is a great camera phone. My OP7 Pro improved a lot when received Android 10 but still its Night mode can't catch my mom's P30 Pro. As an amateur photographer (who owns a DSLR), she loves her P30 Pro
  • We did a comparison with the Huawei already when the iPhone 11 came out https://www.androidcentral.com/camera-comparison-iphone-11-pro-galaxy-note-10-huawei-p30-pro-google-pixel-3 Not only did the iPhone beat the Huawei, the Pixel 3 beat the Huawei. And no, I'm not really interested in including the Mate 30 Pro unless it can ship with Google Services out of the box. No camera's worth giving that up for.
  • Neither the iPhone 11 nor the pixel capture night photos better than the mate 30 pro that's a fact even the review on this site says the mate 30 pro is the best night shooter their is. The fact that as a tech review site of android phones you are saying you that you're not interested in an android phone just cause it doesn't have Google services says alot about you and your bias towards certain devices. Tech sites are to bring the best technology to the consumers via the Internet not nit pick what you the specific individual likes or deems fit to bring to the public based on your likes or dislikes.
  • It's not my bias, it's the bias of the market. No general consumer outside of mainland China wants to deal with a phone that doesn't have Google Mobile Services. And only a tiny fraction of people will ever jump through the hoops to hack GMS onto a Mate 30 Pro. It's a non-factor in the market outside of China unless it gets GMS officially.
  • It is irresponsible to even think about recommending a phone that doesn't have Google Services to someone. There is no reason to cover such a phone on an Android site and would be irresponsible to do so IMO. Would you tell your mother to use a Huawei phone that doesn't run Google Services? Nope. If you want to nerd out over such a phone, go for it. But like 5 people in the United States own it. Why waste time on it? You are the overwhelming minority and nobody wants to deal with the mess that is Huawei's current situation.
  • Irresponsible to you not to alot of other people and yes I would get my mother a phone without Google services because for 1 phones without Google services do less spying on you. Also there's no reason to cover a phone that runs android on an android site yet covering one with ios is cool? Confusing to say the least huawei not having Google services isn't their fault also this tech site isn't limited to the USA I certainly don't live there and as far as I know the majority of people on the planet don't. Either way it's good to lead and not follow android central could add it to the comparison without Google services, after the meeting next month if huawei gets removed from the blacklist will it become relevant then? Also I'm not in the overwhelming minority maybe if I lived in the states I would be but I don't and therefore I'm not in the minority, I remember being in the minority when sony was the only oem doing ip certification then apple and Samsung jumped on the bandwagon and it wasn't a gimmick anymore. Just cause something is different or because someone does something differently doesn't make them bad just saying.
  • So you would rather have the Chinese spying on you with a Huawei phone??? Okay
  • You are 100% wrong. An Android phone without Google services is not a Android phone as far as I'm concerned.
  • I agree on that IPhone have amazing hardware/processing combo and is ahead on the day time photos, at night, beside the the better job with the white balance, i can't see it.
  • Huawei is now irrelevant in the U.S. There is no sense talking about them.
  • Huawei is irrelevant in the USA you say! Yet usa companies are in talks with them to license their 5g technologies since the USA are so far behind. You sound like the kind of person who thinks that not talking about something makes it go away but unfortunately it doesn't work that way whether you like it or not.
  • They cant be in talks with Huawei to license their 5g technology because of security concerns, as stated by the US government. I wouldnt trust Chinese tech companies with a spoon, let alone providing an essential technology like 5g, where backdoors could be placed via hardware etc. Nokia, and Ericsson dominate the US market, with a little Samsung sprinkled in.
  • You mean Samsung, they're licensing Samsung's 5G tech.
  • Of course they are licensing the tech, afaik thats all they can do.
  • Last time I heard, the US was not the 1st nor the 2nd biggest smartphone market. This is a global site, btw
  • I don't think Android Central has much if any Mainland China readership
  • I mean, sure, Night Sight on the Pixel 4 brings in more light in nighttime photos to make them appear brighter, but I want to capture the nighttime ambiance in a photo, not make the photos brighter. I actually prefer many of the iPhone's night shots over the Pixel 4's night shots just because the iPhone's photos actually looks like they were taken at nighttime.
  • I agree 100% on the night ambiance. At least the Pixel 4 isn't as bad as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+. Literally it made the sky so bright it looked like day. I think you can actually adjust the Pixel 4 Night Shot ambiance, correct me if I'm wrong.
  • Is it safe to assume when Deepfusion officially releases that the iphone is going to take the lead? Also, it would be nice to add videos and different video modes at night between the two because based on what I see everywhere the 11 Pro is a better all around camera than the Pixel 4 considering photos and videos(the camera as a whole).
  • the iPhone 11 is indeed notably ahead in terms of video quality
  • Nothing is ever safe to assume
  • Of these two I prefer the Pixel's. It's not worth upgrading over my Pixel 2 though. The shots aren't $800 better than what the Pixel 2 can do.
  • All you need is Gcam 7.1 and you can get 95% of the way to a Pixel 4 camera (astrophotography mode included).
  • But the hardware, display and specs are worth it too. You're not only getting a camera for your upgrade.
  • Andrew, would like to know if you would really recommend Pixel 4 to an average consumer? From where I see, you get a similar camera experience from old Pixel phones, an outdated design here with thick bezels, innovative technology that looks gimmicky at best in it's current state with less RAM and storage with not even the latest SOC. Pixel 4 doesn't even do good with specs either. I feel Pixel 4 is the worst phone $800 can get you. Never thought would say this, but iPhone is a far better value for your money. Don't even get me started on that horrendous battery.
  • I wouldn't recommend the Pixel 4 to just about anyone. But I would recommend the Pixel 4 XL to a whole lot of people. I think a lot of the Pixel's strengths translate well to what an "average consumer" wants in a phone.
  • I see. Thanks for your reply!
  • Very close, and both very good. This is good to see.
  • I also prefer Android over iOS. However, after living with the Pixel 3 XL for the past year, I just couldn't take another phone with horrible battery life and video capabilities. I went with the Iphone 11 Pro Max and will still keep my Pixel 3 XL for my back up phone. You can't go wrong with having both. I might consider the Pixel 4 XL again if they do a solid price drop or something for Black Friday.
  • I think the Pixel 4 photos in at least two third of the cases wins out over the Iphone 11 pros, even if the wins on both sides are just barely. Both phones takes increadible good night pictures and of course day pictures. The saying that the best camera is the one that you have with you and may be an challenge both for the Pixel with rumor of bad battery endurance and iPhone with an history of the same. It would be interesting to have an test where the phones was used for night photography after a day of at least light use. No battery power, no camera, no photography. At least my Huawei P30 Pro guaranties that I will take night photos even if I have heavily used the phone all day but of course it come with an political baggage that I'm not 100% happy with.
  • Ok, but which is more accurate? In some of those photos, the Pixel is clearly over-brightening things like the sky, and it just looks bad. It doesn't matter if its brighter if its not an accurate representation of the scene, which is the biggest issue with Night Mode on the Pixel.
  • I own neither a Pixel nor an iPhone yet, so excuse my ignorance: are you doing all these photos on Auto, or are you making any adjustments with "Pro" settings (as my phone would call them)? I don't even know if NightSight is an entirely auto system tbh
  • Most of these photos were taken in simple Night Sight auto mode and the iPhone's auto mode. The Pixel's Night Sight is an automatic system. You switch to it as a camera mode, but it just does its thing from there. You can use tap to focus, of course, but other than that it's on its own. The iPhone's night mode triggers automatically whenever it feels there isn't enough light to take a "regular" photo. You can then tap the night mode button to artificially change the shutter speed from ~1 to ~4 seconds, depending on the lighting. In some cases I moved that shutter longer when the automatically chosen one didn't do well enough, but it was mostly auto v auto here.
  • Thanks for the reply :)
  • A lot of the Pixel shots look comically fake, but the extra detail is important and the fakeness can be toned down in editing. But if I'm not striving for maximum detail, the iPhone shots are far more natural without editing, despite it completely bombing some shots. However, I don't think most photographers spend much time looking for photo ops in the dark, aside from the novelty factor.
  • Now comes the "my phone is better" in the comments.
  • You might want to go to BGR for that kind of drek. THe fanboiism there is at a level ive not seen on any other site.
  • So biased here, the iPhone is obviously the better pictures in some areas and the google in others. The pixel 4 doesn’t do 4K @60 FPS video so the camera winner goes to Apple this year. Hard to admit it after years of camera dominance that the denial is great. Sorry AC, you lost my bookmark.
  • At the moment, iPhone 11 and google pixel capture the market but mate 30 pro is something that has batter camera to capture photos in low light. In fact many android phones are better and easy accessible through google. I found an article that compare the phones comparable with iPhone 11.
    Link: https://www.vajika.com/2019/09/iphone-11-by-apple-is-comparable.html
  • How about videos? Especially 4K low light.
  • Gonna have to do this all over now that iOS 13.2 with Deep Fusion is out? It is supposed to address the very things that seem to be issues here.
  • I care not about fruity products. Please refrain from this subject I'm this close to quitting AC.
  • You chose to click on the article. It's your fault for doing that, not their fault for posting the comparison.
  • Oh come on, a fair comparison is valuable for all.