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Google Pixel vs. iPhone 7 Plus: Which camera is better?

Google says its newest phone has the best camera on a phone, ever. Can it beat the iPhone 7 Plus?

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET
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This year, Google broke convention with its flagship phone by scrapping the old Nexus brand and calling it something new: Pixel. And while previous Nexus phones had decent cameras, Google says this Pixel has the best camera ever on a phone.

But Google isn't the only phone maker hyper-focused on photography this year. Apple's new iPhone 7 Plus included, for the first time, a dual-camera system with optical zoom and a game-changing portrait mode.

So let's compare the two. I set out on a day-long photo shoot in California wine country, a scenic backdrop perfect for pitting Pixel against the iPhone 7 Plus.

Full disclosure: I'm not a professional photographer, but I am an Instagram addict. My phone is my primary lens and, like many other people, I care most about camera quality when upgrading my phone.

Camera specs

Pixel XL iPhone 7 Plus
Resolution 12.3 megapixels 2x 12 megapixels (wide-angle and telephoto)
Aperture f/2.0 f1.8 (wide-angle); f/2.8 (telephoto)
Stablization Built-in gyroscope Optical Image Stabilization (wide-angle only)
Front camera resolution 8 megapixels 7 megapixels
Front camera aperture f/2.4 f/2.2

Setting up the cameras

Launching the camera on the iPhone is easy: raise to wake (the screen automatically wakes up when lifted), then swipe left. To launch the Pixel's camera from the lock screen, you have to press the camera icon in the bottom-right corner and drag up.

In theory, it should take seconds, but because of the size of the Pixel XL (5.5 inches), I had issues getting it across the screen on the first try, which added a few seconds to the launch. The less obvious shortcut involves double clicking the power button -- which is way more effective -- but I only discovered this after the shoot.

The first thing you might notice in this comparison is that the crop on the iPhone is significantly smaller than the Pixel. That's because the Pixel has a slightly wider-angle lens than the iPhone, which means shots look as if they were taken from farther away on Google's phone despite having been taken from the exact same position.

Auto HDR was left enabled (the default) and no other camera settings were changed (save for Portrait mode -- we'll get to that later).

The wider lens on the Pixel makes the shot appear farther away than on the iPhone.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET


The first thing I noticed while shooting outdoors was how hard it was to see the screen of the Pixel -- even with maximum brightness, I had a hard time previewing my shot. This would likely only bother you when shooting in direct sunlight, but it seems like the iPhone has a brighter screen than its predecessors, which keeps the inconvenience of glare down to a minimum in direct sunlight. Odd, because when you look at them indoors, the shots appear brighter on the Pixel's 2K AMOLED display. Anyways, onto the photo comparison.

Take a look at the results for yourself in this gallery and the examples below. Which phone do you think won our shootout?

Landscape

Landscapes look great on both phones, but the Pixel appears to have the upper hand. The colors are slightly more saturated in this shot (appropriately so), the texture on the leaves is more identifiable and the background appears to be sharper. The iPhone's shot looks slightly flatter (albeit more accurately colored) and the background gets muddy sooner than the Pixel.

The colors on the iPhone shot look muted compared to the Pixel with less texture on the leaves of the vines. Winner: Pixel.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Action

When you're photographing sporting events, small children, or (in my case) animals, a fast shutter speed is crucial. I took the phones to the stables to see if they could keep up with the beautiful steeds at the Napa Valley Horse Company.

Getting the exact same shot on both phones while the horse was in motion proved nearly impossible, so the photos below are different.

In this scenario, neither phone had any perceptible shutter lag and both were able to capture the horse midair, within seconds of each other. The horse is sharp and in focus in both shots, which is impressive considering how fast it was galloping. As with the vineyard photo, the colors are slightly more saturated on the Pixel and the image is sharper with greater detail on the clouds both above the horizon and the sand below the horse's hooves.

You can really see the amount of detail in the Pixel's shot if you look at the vineyards behind the corral. Overall the shot looks crisper with better contrast. Winner: Pixel.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Close-up

We hit the vineyards of the Jarvis Winery at the tail end of the harvest, where there were still ripe grapes hanging on the vines, just waiting to be photographed.

Neither phone has a dedicated macro feature so I used the automatic mode on both to see how they'd handle an extreme close-up of the grapes. And here's where it got tricky: the white balance seemed to be different on each shot. The colors in the iPhone image appear cooler with deeper blues and in the Pixel's image, the colors are warmer, with richer golds.

The grapes appear to be brighter on the Pixel, allowing you to see more detail, and darker on the iPhone, creating a greater sense of depth in the shot. And for lack of a clear winner here I'm declaring this one a tie.

The deeper hues on the iPhone create a greater sense of depth in the shot, while the golden tones of the Pixel bring out the details in the grapes.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Food (and macro)

For lunch we took a break from the horses and the vineyards for a quick culinary tour of the Oxbow Market in Napa.

This shot made one thing clear: The minimum focus distance on the iPhone is significantly shorter than the Pixel. No matter how many times I tried to focus the Pixel on the pastry closest to me, it was only able to focus on the second and third tartlets. The iPhone didn't have that problem. The pastry on the iPhone is brighter, giving the shot more depth, even though the background is a hint overexposed. The iPhone may be the better choice if you're looking for tighter shots of your food, or anything else very close-up.

After three attempts, the Pixel was unable to focus on the first fruit tart. The iPhone had no problem with this and made the shot appear to have more depth. Winner: iPhone.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Portrait

Next it was back to the vineyards for some portrait shots. Both phones have a feature that uses software to mimic the bokeh effect, or blurred background, otherwise only achieved with a dSLR camera.

On the Pixel it's called Lens Blur. It's buried under the settings icon in the top-left corner of the camera app. On the iPhone it's actually called Portrait -- which was still in beta at the time of our shoot -- and it's just a swipe away from the main camera interface.

I've used Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus and it's really easy to use. The Pixel makes it a little more difficult. Once you home in on your subject, you have to angle the phone up or down by following the arrow on the screen. Sounds simple, but the Pixel has a tough time distinguishing between the subject and the background. The end result rendered blurred-out limbs, leaving fly-aways (and everything else behind them) in focus. TL;DR: It's not much better than using tilt-shift on Instagram. The images taken on this mode are also half the size of the standard shots, which deteriorates the quality even more.

The iPhone uses the telephoto lens for to create this effect, so you'll likely have to step back to get the mode to work. You'll know it's ready when the "Depth Effect" flag appears on-screen. The iPhone was more effective at distinguishing between the the subject and background, thanks to that dual-lens setup and though the edges still aren't perfect, the overall quality of the portrait is significantly better than that of the Pixel. And this is an important win for the iPhone.

No competition here. Because pictures taken with the "lens blur" effect on the Pixel are half the size of the regular photos, this picture taken on the Pixel has been stretched out to fit the dimensions. Winner: iPhone.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Selfies

If you ever feel like flipping the shot on yourself, the Pixel may be the better choice with an 8-megapixel sensor compared to the iPhone's 7 megapixels. Not only did the selfie look sharper, it was also wider-angle, letting me get more in the shot without having to over stretch my arm. (Win!)

The same held true for low-lit selfies. Even though the iPhone has that "retina flash," which illuminates the screen to light up your selfie, the selfie shot on the Pixel was sharper and better lit.

The front camera on the Pixel outperformed the iPhone's both outside and indoors. Winner: Pixel.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Low light

The wine cellars at the Jarvis Winery are burrowed inside a cave, the ultimate backdrop for a low-light shootout.

We mounted the phones on a tripod to get the exact same angle on both phones and reduce blur. Both shots came out looking great, considering how dark the cellars were, but the Pixel was the clear winner. The camera was able to capture more light in the shot with greater contrast, creating a sense of depth more accurately resembling the real scene.

Both phones were placed on a tripod for this shot to avoid blur. The Pixel's photo is better lit and closer to what we saw in real life. Winner: Pixel.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Flash

So what happens when they get some help from the flash? The iPhone 7 Plus has a Quad LED true-tone flash while the Pixel has a dual-LED, dual-tone flash which means -- if you buy into the jargon -- the iPhone should have the upper hand.

But the results speak for themselves. The model on the iPhone shot looks well lit, but everything else is dark, and it's clear it was taken with a flash. The light on the Pixel is more dispersed, making it look more natural and less flash-like.

flash-1.jpg

Had it not been for the hint of red in the model's eye, it would've been hard to tell that the image shot on the Pixel was taken with a flash. The Pixel distributes the light evenly across the entire space while the iPhone only focuses on the subject. Winner: Pixel.

Photo by Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

The winner

Let's get one thing out of the way: Both phones have -- you might say are -- impressive cameras.

If you tend to shoot portraits and that's what matters to you most, the iPhone 7 Plus is an obvious choice. Portrait mode is dSLR-esque, and we only expect it to improve by the time it gets a public release.

But if brighter colors, sharper detail throughout the backgrounds of photos and capable low-light photography is more important, it's the Pixel. I have to admit, I initially thought Google over-promised on its new flagship -- especially after those disappointing Nexus cameras -- but I was wrong. It's a new chapter for Google phones and this one earned its name.