Google Pixel 2: Adequate Convenience Camera For Photographers?

As a photographer, my main camera for serious shooting is a Nikon D7200 DSLR, however, it is a bit bulky and heavy to carry everywhere I go.  On the other hand, my Google Pixel 2 cell phone goes everywhere I go (well, except in the shower).  It has arguably the best camera of any cell phone, and it is periodically improved through software upgrades without having to spend more of my money on hardware.  So, is the camera on that phone good enough for those unplanned situations where I see something I just have to shoot and artistic quality is important?  While the picture below, taken with my Pixel 2 on a dawn visit to the farmers market, looks pretty nice to me, would it have been so much better with my Nikon DSLR that I would want an alternative?

Row Houses in Baltimore

Row Houses in Baltimore

Certainly, the Pixel 2 camera is a fine one for family snapshots, or for those endless pics of yet another great meal, or similar situations where the fact of recording is more important than the artistry of the shot.  But there are more than a few point-and-shoot cameras made by excellent camera companies like Sony, Canon, Nikon and others, that provide excellent images, good camera control, a small zoom lens, and raw files that can be edited in post, and are small enough for a (largish) pocket.  While they are excellent cameras for those impulse situations when I don't have my DSLR, they are a significant added expense compared to my cellphone (up to double its cost).  A point-and-shoot would be yet one more thing to try to keep in my already overloaded pockets, and I just know I would opt to leave it home some of the time.

The default Google Camera app produces stunning shots with the photographer doing nothing more than pointing the camera and tapping the screen, and that is great for snapshots of my lunch today, but when artistic quality is at stake, I want to be able to control focus, shutter speed, exposure and ISO, and I want raw files for post.  Fortunately, Google has developed the Camera2 API which enables those things I want, and there are plenty of apps in Play Store that provide handy interfaces for the photographer who has a cellphone on which that API has been enabled.  I am not an iPhone user, but there exist similar apps for the iPhone.

So, is the Pixel 2 good for those impulse art shots?  I think the answer is a qualified yes.

To arrive at this conclusion, I undertook some informal comparisons of the Pixel 2 with my Nikon DSLR, taking pictures of the same scene with both cameras.  Bottom line: while I detect slightly better richness of color from the Nikon and slightly sharper images, the biggest difference is in the noise from the sensor, and it is most noticeable in lower light settings, where, of course, ISO tends to be set higher.  However, to my eye, the differences are not large.  I prefer the Nikon, and probably will notice differences more with substantial cropping, but I think the Pixel 2 produces pretty good images, especially for a little pocket camera.  I have included a lot of gory details in what follows, so you can stop reading here if you are willing to accept my judgment.  BTW, I suspect the answer is the same for any other good smartphone camera, notably those from Samsung, Huawei, and Apple.  Furthermore, a recent DxOMark report drives this point home firmly, after an in-depth review of mobile camera technology: 

Thanks to their hardware advantages, the larger cameras don’t actually need the same level of pixel processing as smartphones to produce great images, but there is no denying that the performance gap between smartphones and DSLRs is narrowing.

First some background on the cameras and the setup.  The Google Pixel 2 creates a bit depth of 10, and my Nikon is 18; the raw files for the Pixel 2 are 3008 x 4016 pixels, while those of the Nikon are 4000 x 6000, so I expect better resolution with the Nikon than the Pixel 2.  For the Android camera app, I downloaded a well-rated camera app called Camera FV-5 which provides the controls I want and raw files in the form of DNG files.  I am using an 18-140mm f3.5-f5.6 zoom lens on the Nikon, while the Pixel 2 always defaults to f1.8 at 4.4mm.  Not much I can do to equivalize on those, though you will see I also tried a switch to an f1.8 fixed lens on the Nikon that is 85mm - hardly 4.4mm, but it is what I have available.

It is a little more complicated than just taking two pictures, one with my cell phone and the other with my Nikon, because, while both have Auto modes for just about everything, I am curious about what happens when you use manual settings, especially since I use manual for everything but focusing and white balance on my Nikon, but tend to go with Auto everything on my cell phone.  I use Auto White Balance on both phones.  Furthermore, I expect performance to vary by in-door lower light settings vs. outdoor brighter light, so I want both kinds of pictures.  Note that raw files from any source are almost never what I would consider final – I always edit them.  And finally, to prevent the size of the objects in the image from varying much, for the most part, I cropped the Nikon images to have the same aspect ratio as the Pixel 2, though the Nikon still has more pixels for the same “size” image.

Below, I describe 8 pictures.  In all cases I edited the files in Lightroom, using only the tonality and contrast tools, to try and bring them into the same tonal range, since the unedited raw files are tonally quite different.  I did nothing with the sharpness or noise in the images, and I changed nothing in colors, transform, or effects.  I did apply Lightroom’s Lens Correction using the appropriate profiles for each (yes, the Pixel 2 has a Lightroom profile).  Unfortunately, uploading those files to this web site reduces their resolutions so much that the distinctions I draw are not very visible, so I have not included them in the body of this post.  If you are interested, use this Dropbox link to view the files as I discuss them (I recommend downloading all files including the .BridgeSort file and use Adobe Bridge to view them, though you can view the images directly in Dropbox using filenames, or any photo viewer for that matter).

The first pair of pictures for the comparison (DSC_0139 and _CF11637, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) is an in-door setting (a bedroom in my house – uninspiring, but it does the trick), and I tried controlling the ISO and shutter speed for the two cameras to match (more or less) – 100 and 1/15 for the Pixel 2 and 100 and 1/13 for the Nikon.  Since I cannot control the f1.8 aperture on the Pixel 2, I set the Nikon at f3.5, with the zoom set at 18mm (as close as I could get to the Pixel 2's 4.4mm).  The third picture (DSC_0138 from the Pixel 2) is the same scene, letting the Pixel 2 default on ISO and shutter speed (294 and 1/60).  To my eye, the Nikon produced considerably less noise, with the Auto settings for the Pixel 2 producing noticeably more noise than when I controlled the ISO to 100 and the shutter speed to 1/15.  Zoom in on the Procter & Gamble trademark on the two wooden boxes between the bed and the dresser to see this.  I also feel the Nikon produces slightly richer colors and slightly sharper edges, though not by much – this probably results from the higher bit depth and the better resolution of the Nikon.

The fourth photo (_CF11640) is from the Nikon, where I just wanted to see what happened if I pushed the ISO to the limits of what I consider its acceptable noise (an ISO of 800).  I set the shutter speed to 1/13, trying to keep it where it was in the first Nikon photo, and compensating by changing the aperture to f8.0.  I think this reinforces the conclusions from the first 3 images, with noise that is only slightly worse than the Pixel 2 at ISO 100. 

The next two photos (DSC_0144 and _CF11642, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) are close-ups of the Procter & Gamble trademark, taken by walking over close to the box with the Pixel 2 and using an 85mm f1.8 fixed lens on the Nikon.  I wanted to see how the images compare when I matched the aperture for the two cameras.  I used the Auto settings on the Pixel 2 (ISO 40 and 1/40), and ISO 100 and 1/10 on the Nikon.  Even with that slow shutter speed, I think the image Nikon is a slightly cleaner image.

Finally, the last two images (DSC_0142 and _CF11646, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) are of an outdoor setting.  The Pixel 2 was on Auto where it picked an ISO of 50 and 1/350 shutter speed. The Nikon is back to the zoom lens with 18mm, f8.0, ISO 100, and shutter speed 1/60.  The noise difference is not nearly as noticeable here, nor is the sharpness of the image (given that the two cameras are focused in different places), though I still think the Nikon produces slightly richer colors.

This is hardly a carefully controlled comparison.  It was difficult/impossible to create photos where the two cameras used identical settings, or even to let just one isolated setting vary. For starters both the sensors and the lenses are different, and that immediately muddies every other comparison.  So, these comparisons are not perfect, and you might think of better comparisons for purposes of deciding if your smartphone camera works adequately for art impulse photos.  Nonetheless, I think my general conclusions hold, that, for me, the Pixel 2 is adequate, though the Nikon has slightly richer color and slightly sharper images, with the biggest difference being in the noise that is most noticeable in lower light settings.  But none of the differences are show-stoppers for the Pixel 2, in my opinion.

If you have experimented with a similar comparison, please let me know what you have found.