Why Pixel 6 cameras are better than reviews say — and why they can't agree on it
I've been using my Google Pixel 6 for two weeks now, and while writing its review for Android Central, the section that honestly felt the easiest to write for me was the camera section. The main sensor kicked out great photos day or night, and the videos I took were wonderful. While white levels missed every so often, it was always within the range for the highlights/shadows toggles to fix.
In short, the Pixel 6's main sensor photos were great. Once those words were written, though, the urge to change or hedge them gnawed at me for days. Once the rest of the reviews for the Google Pixel 6 series came in, that gnawing turned into a heavy stone. A lot of reviewers weren't fans of that new 50MP sensor at all, but just as many found the Pixel 6 to be a great camera that only needed some minor fine-tuning.
Source: Danny Winget
Our own Nicholas Sutrich said in his 6 Pro review that it "handily beat the iPhone 13 Pro on all counts" when it came to indoor photography, night photography, and video noise. But both Marques Brownlee and Danny Winget (seen above) said the exact opposite in their video reviews: that the iPhone 13 was a better camera in most circumstances.
And the craziest part? All of our reviews — and the rest I'm about to mention below — wrote the truth, as we experienced it on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pros we had in our hands at the time. That makes the Pixel 6 Series both the best and the worst, and actually, that's the perfect review for it.
Source: The Verge (camera discussion starts at 6:42)
The Verge said in its Pixel 6 and 6 Pro review that "the Pixel 6 images have the classic Pixel look: high contrast, slight overexposure, extreme sharpness, and cooler white balance," but also said that the Pixel 6 was neck and neck with the iPhone 13 Pro. On some shots, the 13 Pro came out on top, and on some, the Pixel 6/Pro came out on top.
And it's all absolutely right. The high contrast and overprocessing have been echoed in reviews like MKBHD's. Brownlee admitted to liking the Pixel's general look in photos for the last few years, but agreed that Google is just trying a little too hard with the Pixel 6, using too much HDR and having overcolored shots. He also noticed something that I think contributed to the grainy/glitchy look that many reviewers thought they saw, especially when taking photos or videos in more challenging conditions.
Google hitches up the ISO on the camera viewfinder to produce a more seamless high-frame-rate preview rather than getting stuttery at times as other smartphones do. A high ISO can make scenes look grainy in the preview, but once the picture is processed, the finished photos in most instances look great.
It takes getting used to, for sure, but Brownlee agrees the adaptation is worth the result: "While that seemed kind of weird to me, at first, I actually think this is a good move. So, Tensor has the horsepower to just run the stuff at high ISO and the preview might not look great, but at least it's not choppy and laggy. And then it basically under-promises and over-delivers; people will see the viewfinder and think this will be a bad photo, and then they'll be shocked at how good the final photo is."
While there were some stellar shots in his video review, just as we've seen in most if not all of the reviews, the MKBHD verdict still gave the iPhone 13 the edge over the Pixel 6 because of the 6's inconsistency. That is why opinions are so varied from person to person. Consistency is crucial when talking about how good or bad any feature or product is.
If a phone will last for 21 hours on one day and be dead by noon on the next with the same casual usage, that phone would be worthless because you couldn't count on it. Cameras are the same way; if you can't trust them to take the photos you need to take in that split second your kids are taking their first steps can you trust it at all? Mrwhosetheboss (below) highlighted that inconsistency in his head-to-head with the Pixel 6, as did Danny Winget.
Source: Arun Maini (Mrwhosetheboss)
Granted, the discrepancy isn't nearly that stark when it comes to photos. Even Google's "bad" shots are still a 6/10, and most of them are top quality. Videos can be a little more inconsistent because of a wider variety of factors — what stabilization you're using, light level, how crowded or active your scene is — but the quality is still improved on the Pixel 6 compared to previous Pixels, and even when compared to the current crop of flagships.
Of course, tech reviewers and YouTubers have drastically different expectations of cameras compared to the average person, and given how good smartphone photography has gotten in the last five years, we've had to dig deeper to distinguish the differences and deficiencies between devices. Danny Winget said, "Most of us tech folks probably care so much about dynamic range details, colors, and accuracy. But most people just care about which phone works best on social media, and I still think that's the iPhone. I feel my camera test won't apply to everyone and I nitpick the details but cameras are just so good these days I have to."
I'll confess, when I'm prepping and drafting a review, I start with the "cons." After all, it's easier to talk about what's wrong with a product, and it's what we tend to obsess over when preparing to buy something. I've been a nitpicky girl for years, and it comes in handy with reviews because it helps me find problems and ensure they won't make or break the readers' experience. When it comes to the cameras, though, the Pixel 6 hosts a great setup for the vast majority of users. It's just a shame that small minority is responsible for writing its reviews.
Despite our inability to reach a quorum on the Pixel 6's overall camera quality, there were two things every single review agreed on. Firstly, the ultrawide camera on the Pixel 6 Series is just OK, boarding on "meh." Those shots are fine for social media, at least during the day, but swap between the 50MP main camera to the 12MP ultrawide and your photo instantly gets worse in every way, as pointed out by CNET's review. If you're gonna bring us the best cameras, Google, that ultrawide camera needs to be just as good as the main sensor.
Secondly, Night Sight is just too damn slow for anything other than static landscape photography, and even then, a light breeze will turn it into a blurry mess. I had a better experience than most with Night Sight because in many instances, the Night Sight only took 1-2 seconds and the stabilization made it a little easier for people like me with tremor-prone hands. However, even I have to agree that Night Sight needs to do better for more than astrophotography and tripod work.
And of course, mentioned in most of the reviews is the fact that things could potentially get better over the course of the next few months. After all, the hardware is great — well, on the main sensor and telephoto — it's the processing and the algorithms Google's using that are throwing wrenches in the works. When I asked Winget about this issue, he agreed that the software just wasn't quite ready for launch.
"I think the biggest problem with Google is they didn't have enough time to tune this camera to the brand new sensor, and they're using their older algorithms for a newer sensor," he said. "This is why I think a lot of the images are inconsistent because they just haven't had the time to tweak properly."
Until then, the Google Pixel 6 is the best Android phone you can buy today, and I'm spending all weekend soaking in the splendor of Halloween and enjoying that sweet 50MP sensor. If you've been debating picking up a Pixel 6, I suggest making up your mind soon, especially given how back-ordered the Pro has become.
Finally, a proper Pixel flagship has arrived
After years of fatal flaws and stagnant design, Google has finally given us the shock-and-awe upgrade we've been waiting for. Tensor's AI prowess makes most Assistant features feel magically fast. Major camera updates for both hardware and processing give us significantly better photos, even if Google's still fine-tuning some of the processing for that new 50MP sensor.
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Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.