I stunned all of my coworkers in a morning meeting a few days ago. We were talking about smartphone cameras and the Pixel 5a, and I brought up that I had to double back to the Pixel 4a from my Galaxy S21 for taking my Chromebox 4 review photos and it was far from the first time. "Wait, you take your review photos with a phone?" "I take all my article photos with a phone."
Cue the shock and awe.
I've been using my cell phone cameras for my article photos — yes, including my reviews — for as long as I've had two phones. While that was harder back in the earlier days when I was using my HTC 10 or Galaxy S6, ever since the original Google Pixel, I've had zero issues getting good photos of any phone, Chromebook, or accessory I've been writing about. Well, zero issues until I got the Galaxy S21 because I don't know what is up with the camera here, but it seems determined to not photograph any of my tech well.
I unboxed the Galaxy S21 on February 11 and have been using the camera heavily ever since. What I noticed less than two weeks later was that I'd have to take twice as many shots (or more) to ensure I'd have at least one workable photo, especially when photographing anything with a screen at close range. I'll clean the lens religiously, keep my arms as steady as possible, and experiment with distances, brightnesses, and backgrounds. Results are always the same: within four feet of my subject, the Galaxy S21 makes everything soft.
When I used the Galaxy S20 last year, I had a few hints of this problem, but it isn't half as bad as on the S21. And to be clear, this is a limited issue; wide shots and landscapes all look great. Selfies are fine, too, so long as I can keep my hands still long enough. Even shots of my various baking are fine, with just enough bokeh to seem tasteful. It's just product photography and photographing electronics, which isn't something most people do on a daily basis.
What's more dismaying is that I'm seeing a $350 Pixel 4a consistently outshoot my $800 Galaxy S21 for medium and close-range photography.
Granted, we've talked about the Pixel 4a's overall experience — and especially its cameras — forever ruining our palette for flagships. Last summer, the second the Pixel 4a arrived, I dumped my Galaxy S20 for it, and the second the Android 12 Open Beta comes to the Pixel 4a next month, I'm hopping back over, and I'm not the only one.
It's still stunning that Google's software has allowed a years-old 12.2MP sensor to still offer up some of the best photos, especially when dealing with close-range subjects and macro photography. Samsung has stepped up its game when it comes to ultra-wide-angle and zoom photography, but at close range, it's still scrambling to compete with the Pixel's secret sauce.
When it comes to cameras, the limits of what a camera is capable of aren't nearly as compelling as what it can do consistently. The Pixel 4a's camera consistently cranks out crisp, clean photos, whether I'm snapping a 200ft castle or a 2-inch smartwatch, but the Galaxy S21 only handles the former.
The Galaxy S21 is capable of some great shots — and it may very well be the best Android phone you can buy today — but Samsung's consistency focuses more on vacation photos and selfies than on the everyday photos like photographing a rebate card or documenting the defects on that "brand new" laptop you just took delivery on. And in whatever "normal" looks like after this pandemic is finally over, that focus makes sense, but I hope that Samsung steps up its short game with the Galaxy Fold 3 and the Galaxy S22.
In the meantime, I'll be keeping my S21 close and my Pixel 4a closer.
Killer camera for less
Flagships come and go, but the Pixel 4a's consistency remains.
The Pixel 4a may not be the flashiest phone on the planet, but it is one of the best phones on the market if you care about value and camera consistency. It may not have the wide-angle lens of the Pixel 5, but the Pixel 4a is compact and punches above its weight class again and again.