Why Pixel 6 cameras are better than reviews say — and why they can't agree on it

Google Pixel 6 Pro Camera Bar
Google Pixel 6 Pro Camera Bar (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

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.

The Google Pixel 6 is capable of amazing shots. It's just not amazing every single time.

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."

Source: MKBHD

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.

Source: CNET

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.

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.

  • Great points all. I found everything your mention spot on. One thing I see more of than indicated here though, is that every other review I’ve seen has the iPhone 13 pro video looking superior in side by side results. This was the only site that had a review declaring the Pixel the clear video winner. While the videos used in the review comparison did have the Pixel looking better, those iPhone videos looked so much worse than on basically every other site and YouTube side by side. So I am not sure what was going on with those videos, but clearly there was something off in that comparison.
  • Well, this is called ANDROID central…so, there is some BS with the reviews here when compared with iOS stuff…..
  • "I'm spending all weekend soaking in the splendor" I'd be doing the same if OnTrac hadn't messed up my 6 Pro delivery. ugh!!! Looking forward to the improved photography.
  • Ontrac is killing me right now. No updates since it was labeled on the 26th
  • I'm not in the market for an upgrade any time soon... Maybe 2024 or 2025 if something transformation comes along to replace my Samsung Note 20 Ultra, or unless I break it. My only complaint about the Pixel 6 reviews was the nonsense that Google had come out with the magic eraser photo feature... It's nothing new to Samsung. On my Note 20 Ultra : Select photo
    Tap the Pencil icon to edit
    Tap top right three point button to open menu.
    Tap Labs
    Enable Object Eraser The object Eraser feature will now be available on the bottom menu, lower right. It works very well.
  • 2024 or 2025? I guess you're going to replace the battery on that Note 20 Ultra yourself, then at some point?
  • Please... The battery will be fine. I don't replace laptops frequently either... Same battery.
  • All reviews are subjective to the viewer. For movie, I would give it to iPhone every time, for photos, toss up between all three.
    As for night shots, tripod or on a stationary object.
    However, although the pictures in all reviews are ok for comparison they are PICTURES. For photos, I'll stick with my Nikon 850s and four pro lenses that retain at over 8K, my Gitzo tripod and make a photo, not a picture. However, I am not a person to purchase a phone due to the camera. The majority of my pictures taken with a cell phone are messaged to friends showing off my dogs, a cool (in the middle of nowhere) camp site with my truck and trailer, or in many cases, a photo of a serial number of some item I am registering or calling about warranty.
  • The problem a lot of people/reviewers are forgetting is that Pixel 6 camera Samsung sensors date back to 2019! Remember Samsung S20? Well, hello Pixel 6! It is NOT cutting edge technology…it is for Pixel relatively, but for the rest of the field, its camera hardware is dated. In contrast, Apple iPhone 13 Pro uses the latest camera sensor from Sony. And note that iPhone camera sensor is significantly smaller than Pixel 6’s in almost all lenses…yet outperforms it. How did this happen? The iPhone concentrated this year on using the latest and most efficient Sony sensors…smaller than most flagships but with latest technology from Sony (series 7 hardware). Then Apple widened the f-stop to make up for the smaller (but efficient) sensor…thus closing the gap on big sensor camera hardware from other brands. The question is…as proposed above…can Google update it? Maybe. Remember, P6 hardware is from 2019…so, Google likely had its hands on it before then (as Samsung was shopping this sensor around hard prior to intro into S20). So Google has at least 3 years with it. At the very least, 2 years. And yet, the P6 is so widely inconsistent. This is a BAD sign! 2-3 years with the sensor…and this is what you get?! Pixel used to be consistent like no other in what you get out of the phone. Not anymore. Besides a few Android enthusiast sites (such as this), the consensus is clear…check out the MANY OTHER popular Youtubers: Supersaf, MKBHD, Max Tech, Sakitech, and Mrwhosetheboss. They all say the same thing…Pixel 6 is very inconsistent, way too much HDR effect, poor night sight due to having to hold too long leading to blurry pics, and video that jitters. Some pics from P6 are fabulous…but then some are just pure crap that won’t even look good on Instagram! And this is why iPhone 13 Pro outperforms the Pixel 6. A more balanced approach to camera quality.
  • Yes, good of you to point out the dates Pixel 6 sensors... Among other things, it further proves how biased Android Central is to promoting Pixel 6.
  • What do you expect? Apple fanboys hang out in their safe place at iMore. Apple can absolutely do no wrong there.
  • Aren't we all biased? No need to judge anyone for biases we all have.
  • All very interesting points. It puts the 6 into some perspective, for sure. I'd love for Google to be a force in the smartphone market as an OEM. I gave up on them after a 3+ year commitment (Nexus 4-6). They just don't seem serious about it. Hell, even MSFT efforts with the Surface line in computing demonstrate its commitment to the brand...and they do it without harming their relationships with other OEMs (Dell, HP, etc.) Missed opportunities every year. BUT, maybe they're trying to change things...who knows. 🤷‍♂️
  • Google: spends 3 years developing the Tensor chip in-house so that their phones can start doing what they have always imagined they'd be able to do dkpcowboy: They just don't seem serious about it
  • A 2019 sensor doesn't suddenly go bad compared a newer sensor. The improvements in smartphones sensors are relatively minor, Google already stated that's why they didn't change the sensor for so long. The Pixel 6 sensor is more than good enough to compete. The inconsistencies are down to software and that can be fixed with software updates.
  • A 2021 new phone should not have a 2019 sensor, lolololol
  • Google's been using the IMX363 for years until now, and that thing is far older. Additionally, basically all Android devices use cortex a fifty five (comment gets starred out if I write 55) cores for efficiency which are like four years old at this point
  • While true, don’t forget Google aspiration with the pixel 6 and it’s relatively high asking price (compared to previous pixel).
  • Google should have went with the gn2 sensor which came out earlier this year. I know it would have caused a small increase in cost but Google is probably going to stick with this sensor for 3+ years
  • Samsung didn't announce the GN2 sensor until February of this year - too late for them to have realistically implemented it into the Pixel 6. The GN1 may have been a 2019 sensor, but it was the latest from Samsung till Google was cementing the design, and even if they could have switched to the GN2 they would have had virtually no time to tune for it.
  • Although it was into this year, the development of the sensor and thus Google would have access to it before.
  • I can't believe anyone has the gull to call this the highest quality smartphone camera. It's unbelievably inconsistent. Just within Danny Winget's reviews are shots that I'd not be happy to share. Strange casting. Overly lifted shadows. Flawed HDR processing. Strange color on the videos. To make matters worse, the 50mp sensor looks really bad when cropped in for zoomed portraits. Bizarre.
  • It is ridiculously inconsistent - videos are TOTAL TRASH! I can't believe this was acceptable in 2021 and it's now obvious why that ******* Rick Osterloh didn't show a single clip and spent just 2 lines on the video performance over the 50 minutes. They spend more time about BS RealTone messaging and socio-political nonsense than the actual product and user experience.
  • Google could have put the latest sensor in and, along with it, the latest 5G modem. It also would've cost over a grand, and the same people ******** about the camera quality and slower modem would be ******** about the price. Most people loved the price of the Pixel 6, so compromises were made. As someone said below: if I want great photos, I'll use my Lumix.
  • I think the Pixel 6 base model price is an amazing value, but it's hard to say the same thing about the Pro at 900 USD. For that money maybe it should have the S21's camera hardware or something like that.
  • It's almost entirely bias based on Google abusing their control of information. They've successfully brainwashed a group of people the same way the fruity toy company does it. Cater the conversation, get people talking about controlled specifics instead of being honest with themselves.
    This site is definitely one of those promoting half truths like these.
  • People are entitled to like what they want, don't get mad because of their choices, I like the iPhone and the Pixel is the only Android phone I'd be interested in because of the bloat free Pixel software experience and fast updates and now the Pixel 6 series with Google's Tensor chip has finally positioned the Pixel as a true iPhone competitor now that Google is free from the shackles of Qualcomm with them having total control of the entire stack now like Apple does.
  • My 4a 5G takes great pictures! No need to spend more money.
  • Too much attention given to the camera which by and large is awesome already. No one is talking about the very important add-ons Google made which are already a life saver...
    Good battery life
    Voice typing
    Google assistant
    Live transcribe
    Google lens
    Material You
    And a ton of other beautiful features.
  • I agree. Way too much focus on cameras in phones. That's only one part of a phone.
  • Good battery life ?? Have you read the reviews...lol.
  • Aren't the reviewers you mentioned highly subjective and expert Youtubers vs. Camera experts?
  • True…but these are very seasoned Youtubers that know more about the phone camera features than any pure camera experts. In addition, these Youtubers have done a lot camera comparisons through the years…how many camera experts have that experience?
  • “YouTubers” aren’t experts at phone camera test at all! Anybody can grab a phone and give an opinion on it. Leave that up to DXO mark. They’re the true experts, which BTW, DXO mark has the iPhone nowhere near the best camera on a phone! Climb back over that gardened wall and leave us alone, sheep! We love our pixel phones no matter what reviewers say.
  • And how does DxO reflect real life shooting performance? Pixel is always at the bottom of top 10 or top 15? How’s that argument working out for you?
  • Camera tests are worthless because most YouTubers don't have a reference. When comparing smartphones, they really should have both smartphones and a reference DSLR in the comparison to see how these stack up against a professional camera. Espeically since you can get really good DSLRs for $600 or less, and these phones cost almost the same price as a BMPCC4K. There is almost never a neutral product in these comparisons, and I think this is done strategically because it makes every thing they say regarding saturation, white balance, dynamic range (often the result of HDR Processing in the phone), etc. subjective and you never have a neutral "control" to balance those "opinions" against. People in these comments (and reviewers) talk as if they're professional photographers or videographers taking these phones to a photo shoot or video shoot. In any case, the hyper focus on cameras exists because smartphones have gotten so powerful that they've run into the PC issue. People don't really need to upgrade every year, or even every 2 years. So, the only way to market these is to focus on something they can act - year over year - like it has made a quantum leap and is distinct from the device's raw computational performance. At the end of the day, Reviewers are basically part of companies' marketing departments AFAIC.
  • No, that's nonsense.
    Phones are not cameras, they are multipurpose devices that take usable photos. They don't need to compete with a reference standard they only need to produce photographs that ordinary people are happy with - that's why they replaced those cheap digital cameras in people's pockets.
    Cameras are important and yes they are pretty much the only defining feature these days, but they don't need to be as good as a "proper" camera to relevent.
    However, if you're using a phone to produce professional content, you don't know what that word means. I agree with you on that point.
  • A lot of people…their smartphone IS their ONLY camera. So, having a good camera in a smartphone is a huge benefit to 80-90% of folks.
  • my galaxy s20 fe takes pretty damn good pics too.
  • I have a S20 FE and the photos are just ok, my iPhone 11 Pro Max takes better photos and that phone is 2 years old.
  • In my opinion, Google will fine tune the software to better compliment the new hardware with time and as more images shot on Pixel 6 roll into their database(s). At the same time, I find that there are some reviewers who mocked Samsung for pushing more powerful zooming capabilities in the mainstream and some of those reviewers are now acting like "Google figured it out," with regards to zoom. Based on samples and some hands on time with Pixel 6 Pro, Google really hasn't moved the needle for zoom here in my opinion. I have taken some exceptional shots on the S21 Ultra at 20-30x but even then, its limitations and the Pixel's are very close.
  • If I'm being honest, I almost never will buy a phone expecting a FW or software update to fix an issue I have with the launch revision. This rarely happens as companies are spending their R&D on the next hardware revision, as this brings in the profit margins. With the way reviews work - most are not objective - and how blindly follow reviewers that align with their biases (cause smartphones are the tech politics of the modern era) there is very little incentive to do that. So if hte phone isn't borderline flawless for my needs at release, I 100% will not buy it.
  • Bingo. Relying on future updates is a recipe for disaster, especially once the short return window expires. Then you're stuck with whatever **** you bought.
  • Google keeps breaking Maps on my phone, I never know of it's going to work or not these days. It worked perfectly for a month or so then updates made it much, much worse.
    I'm going to have a look at the other side for a bit, if Apple can keep their Maps working consistently I'm not coming back.
  • Apple Maps is very consistent these days. The latest update is quite awesome and I much prefer navigation using Apple Maps. I love how it will say things like "at the next light take a left". Give it a shot. You will not be disappointed about how consistent Apple is with most things. They may not be super exciting but they build upon what they have and it works so well.
  • Honestly I love what I'm hearing about the Pixel 6 series but I'm gonna be loyal to Apple because well I still love iOS and my iPhone but honestly the Pixel 6 series is a really tempting but I'm honestly happy with my iPhone.
  • But you're roped into an inflexible system, they can't even get widgets right. And how's your home screen looking these days LOL!!
  • You may want to check again…iOS widgets are superior to Android……..and iOS implementation of widget is what forced Google to improve theirs on Android 12.
  • Reviewers like MKBHD are about as AppleVerse as you can get, so of course the reviews are going to be biased - and obviously so. I don't even think those people are necessarily coy about their biases. They aren't exactly new to YouTube, either. Many reviews are pretty well known in terms of their biases. Some are clearly Pro iOS, while others are clearly Pro Android.
  • You do realize that MKBHD has been raving about Pixels for YEARS, right? he actually uses Pixels. He reviews iPhones but prefers Pixels for past 3-4 years…until THIS year. Look at his past Pixel reviews. He loves Pixels! Biggest fanboy if i ever saw one! In fact, when SuperSaf pointed out how iPhone 11 beats Pixel 3, MKBHD still refuse to get off Pixel bandwagon.
  • The problem Google will face is that opinions are being created and cemented RIGHT NOW. Software updates addressing issues will hardly matter later because, as usual, Google has proven itself as not up to the task TODAY.
    Expectations were probably too high anyway. The competition has gotten REALLY good, to the point that Google is finally even able to compete in the camera department again. So that's a definite plus,