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Phone cameras are great now, but they are still not the only camera you might need

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

Phones like the Google Pixel 4 and Huawei P30 Pro take photos so good you really never need to carry around another camera. At least, that's what we all say. For the most part, it's true — but not always. Sometimes you take a photo so nice you want to turn it into a piece of art for your wall.

Above you'll see what I think is the best photograph I have ever taken. It's a shot of a sunset just starting to happen over a small lake high in the mountains, taken from the balcony of the small lodge that's there for seasonal hunters and campers.

I need more art of fishing lakes in my office and I thought this photo was perfect.

And it looks good. At least it looks good here, where you're looking at it on some sort of electronic display. It's even cropped in tight using a bit of camera zoom so I could keep some other folks out of the shot. Maybe it's not the caliber of photo you see from the famous people Apple and Google hire to use phones to take pictures around the world, but I like it.

I like it enough that I wanted to order a large print of it to hang in my office. You can do that right through Google Photos, by the way. Google will send you a large print on canvas or let you order a glossy 8 x 10 and pick it up at Walmart or CVS. That's pretty cool, but I didn't want to spend $50 on a 40-inch canvas but wanted something bigger than an 8 x 10, so I headed off to Walmart to do it myself.

Google Photos will let you order prints, but I didn't like the size options so I went directly to the source: Walmart

Walmart will let you order a 36 x 24 (opens in new tab) (or 24 x 36 depending on how you rotate things) poster-sized print that you can frame yourself for $16. That's a really great price compared to Google's real canvas offering and I love to save money. So I did it.

When I went to the store a few days later to pick it up, it had turned out so badly, the nice person behind the counter didn't even make me pay for it. She even explained that the software used to make it probably warned me it would look bad. Sure enough, it did; I retried it once I got home.

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

As I came to find out, this is a pretty common problem when you try to take a phone photo and turn it into something a lot bigger. And a three-foot wide print is a lot bigger. The nice person at Walmart who didn't force me to pay for a crappy poster wasn't sure why, but knew that almost every phone picture that someone wanted to turn into a poster looked like hot garbage. Because I just had to know exactly why, I looked on the internet.

You can make a photo taken with a good phone camera into an extra-large print. You just need to be a Photoshop wizard.

Shot On iPhone billboards look really good, and indeed, those giantic photos were shot on an iPhone. They were just edited by a professional first. It seems there is an image enlargement (dimensional, not Megapixel) technique called Bicubic interpolation that can build new pixels into a photo based on the average color value of the pixels that surround it.

In most photo editors, you can just hit a button and do it when you enlarge the size of a photo. But doing it that way still looks bad once you move past 12-inches or so. Larger photos can look good from afar, but as you move closer you see odd colored pixels scattered throughout the image. To do it right at 36-inches or roadside billboard size, you need to have a pro painstakingly edit a whole lot of pixels and do a lot of manual cropping, editing, and pasting to make a good poster.

You don't have those problem (well you do on something really big but not on a 36-inch poster) when you're using a "real" camera with a "real" sensor and a "real" lens. This is because even a phone sensor with a ridiculously large megapixel count is still using a very tiny sensor compared to a Micro 4/3 or APS-C-sized sensor, let alone a full size sensor you'll find on the most expensive full-frame cameras.

The sensor is what takes in all the image information, not just light. Software that turns that information into a photograph can do more when it has more information. When we take photos with our phones, they look great on a phone screen or even a larger monitor. But again, they aren't going to scale very well out to 36 inches because of the lack of detail once you blow them up larger than intended. It takes a lot of work in Photoshop to try and "add" information so an extra large print looks OK.

The Pixel 4 camera is still going to be good enough for almost every picture I'll ever take. But I'm still going to take a "real" camera with me sometimes.

I still think the Pixel 4 camera is plenty good enough for almost every photo I'll ever take. My Sony camera died over a year ago and every photo I've taken for work or play since has been done with a Pixel 3 or Pixel 4 and all of them were more than good enough. I also know that if I ever take a picture good enough to enlarge into a big wall print, none of them will be.

Phone makers have figured out how to take pictures of kids and dogs running around without them being blurry, so I'm hopeful that one day we can take photos that offer enough detail to blow them up to giant sizes. Until then, it might be worth packing a "real" camera (opens in new tab) for your next vacation or using one at your kid's birthday party.

Sony RX100

Sony RX100 point-and-shoot camera

For years, Sony's RX100 series has been the go-to point-and-shoot camera for photographers everywhere. While we're several cameras into the generations now, the original RX100 is still a great shooter, and costs a lot less than it used to.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

12 Comments
  • That's why i have the D850, for when i need all the power i can get
  • Same thing happened to me when I ordered a canvas print of a photo taken with my phone that looked great on Instagram. Let's just say that print is still in the box it shipped in...
  • I still find mobile phone cameras to be very lacking for anything besides social media posts. Low megapixel images that lack fine detail.
    Poor zoom quality and inferior zoom range.
    Terrible in low light, night mode can't handle motion.
    Video quality is poor in low light.
    Flash is useless compared to a speed light.
    Poor dynamic range.
    RAW files are a joke in post compared to a full frame sensor.
    Portrait modes screw up depth if field and look fake.
    Lack of aperture control.
    Ergonomics are terrible for extended shooting. I'm more than impressed with how far phone cameras have come but they have a long way to go to make the DSLR obsolete.
  • While I believe everything you're saying, how come they still look good on my 55" TV?
  • because it's 1080p.
  • I have a number of posters on my office walls of pictures that I personally took a few years ago with an LG G5 and printed at 36" x 20" on an old Canon large-format printer. I've had more than a few visitors express a combination of surprise and disbelief when they learn that that these are smartphone photos. I didn't do any fancy manipulation of these pics at all -- in fact, here's exactly how I printed them: - Open the unedited JPEG from the phone in Photoshop
    - Under Color Settings, assign the Adobe RGB (1998) profile
    - Print from Photoshop's Print dialog box, using the printer's native driver to scale to the final size Granted, I've been in the printing industry for 25 years but I think the only advantage that gives me in this case is that I have direct access to a large-format printer. I have no idea exactly how your poster was unsatisfactory (Drab colour? Loss of detail? I would guess both...) and I don't know what sort of manipulation/compression/colour profiles/who-knows-what Walmart's web-to-print software is applying to the submitted originals. However, it is certainly possible to get good printed results from smartphone pictures. Just avoid re-saving them as JPEGs (if you must edit, save them as lossless TIFFs or even PNGs then save a copy as a maximum quality JPEG as your final step before submission to a printing service *if they can't take one of the lossless formats*) and apply a colour profile with a wider gamut than sRGB so they don't go completely flat and lifeless in the RGB-to-CMYK conversion.
  • Printing on canvas will usually help cover up some of the resolution problems due to dot gain. Printing on photo paper will, therefore, look a little worse. There can also be variations in photo paper, or canvas, for that matter.
  • "Megapixels isn't everything" and "Who needs a 108MP phone camera" crowd clearly never prints their photos. MP is not everything and a sensor, software, lens, etc. all still need to be excellent, but printing is one reason why I'm interested in the S20 Ultra rumors.
  • Above 16MP the pixels, in the sensor become so small they can barely capture a single wavelength of light even on average-light scenes. Which is why smartphone manufacturers are investing in pixel aggregation technology (like the one found in the 808 PureView or the one Google Camera app has). Lenses and sensor size do matter, even plain consumers know that. Phone do what they can with the sensor and lens they have.
  • But the best camera is the one you have on you...
  • I love my Nikon P340, and hate that they never made a newer mode. Small, compact, fantastic low light... I can take a photo in a bar or a museum without flash and they are awesome. I've had it fixed several times, bought new batteries... Will keep it as long as I can long as I can get it repaired. I have a DSLR for some things, but the P340 is on my person all the time.
    I can't think of not having a real camera with me. Phone cameras work for some things, but for creativity, a real camera trumps all.
  • There are entry-level DSLRs in the $350-450 range that will embarass any phone for image quality. You just have to learn how to use them at a basic level. THe only benefit of phones in this comparison is that it requires no technical knowledge, at all, to operate. You just open the app, point, and press a button. But even cheap DSLRs with stock lenses will produce more usable photos, especially if you want to edit them. The "Shot on iPhone" (or whatever phone) marketing campaigns are incredibly misleading. For the video shots, they often use hundreds of dollars worth of accessories (snap on lenses, etc.) and third party apps, as well. These marketing campaigns are legal only due to "technicalities." They're incredibly misleading, yet, people continue to fall for them (a decade later).