The Apple iPhone 11 and Google Pixel 4 can almost see in the dark thanks to their dedicated night modes. But it was the Pixel that initially broke new ground in low-light photography thanks to Night Sight, which debuted on last year's Pixel 3. So how does Apple's new night mode compare to Google's Night Sight? Let's find out.
For this comparison I used the iPhone 11 Pro and the Pixel 4, although Apple's new night mode is also available on the less expensive iPhone 11. Google's Night Sight is available on older Pixel phones, such as the Pixel 3A. Also, the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max share the same rear cameras; so do the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, therefore results from this comparison should be the same regardless of what size phone you choose.
I spent a few nights walking around the San Francisco Bay Area to capture some low-light photos in a number of different scenes. For some photos such as the astrophotography images, I used a tripod, although others were handheld.
As with all these photo comparisons, personal preference does play a large part (as does the screen you view images on) so what I like might not be what photo you prefer.
The Pixel 4 makes skies look inky blue, while the iPhone 11 Pro is more realistic
When it comes to photographs of cityscapes, both phones do a great job of producing sharp images at night. In the image of the Ferry Building below, the photos are incredibly close. Both show good levels of detail at the 100 percent crop (inset). There is a little more noise on the image from the Pixel 4 in the night sky, while the iPhone 11 Pro's exposure on the building is slightly darker.
In some situations such as the photo below shot at dusk, the Pixel 4 can make the sky look like an inky blue. The iPhone 11 Pro's treatment of the sky is a little more true to what the scene actually looked like, but there's no denying the Pixel 4's photo is a lot more pleasing to look at.
I've looked at all these photos on a number of different screens and most of the time, the iPhone 11 Pro images have a slightly warmer white balance than those from the Pixel 4. Sometimes to my eye the Pixel 4 processing looks a little hyper-real. This works great for much of the time, such as in the example of the benches above -- the image looks incredibly crisp and it pops off the screen. But in others such as in the photo below, it can be a bit over the top.
Want more control? Both the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro have their perks
Night mode on the iPhone 11 Pro is only available on the regular wide-angle lens. You can use night mode at 2x, but it crops the image from the wide-angle camera rather than using the telephoto lens. (A quick check of the EXIF data from a 2x night mode photo shows it uses an aperture of f/1.8, which belongs to the wide-angle camera, not f/2, the aperture of the telephoto camera.)
Night mode comes on automatically when you see the yellow icon in the corner of the camera app and you can also adjust the exposure time by moving the slider that appears just above the shutter button.
On the Pixel, you can't adjust the exposure time in the default app, but you do have the option to adjust sliders to tweak shadows and highlights.
Naturally, there are plenty of third-party apps available that give you more granular exposure controls, although you may miss out on some of the computational photography magic that helps night mode photos look so good straight out of the camera on the default app.
And only the Pixel 4 lets you use Night Sight on the front-facing camera. Selfies from the iPhone 11 Pro at night look fine as long as there's enough light, or you use the flash, but the Pixel has the advantage here.
Astrophotography is where the Pixel 4 shines
Both these phones can take longer exposures in the default camera app, although you will need to use a tripod or stabilize the phone for the best results (and to actually be able to trigger the longer exposure time).
But the Pixel has a dedicated astrophotography mode that activates when the camera senses the scene is dark enough. You'll see a caption pop up on the screen to show you it's going to take a longer exposure.
Take a look at the comparison image below to see what a shot taken of the night sky looks like on the Pixel 4. This one was a 3-minute, 30-second exposure.
The iPhone 11 Pro can take a 30-second exposure and while it doesn't have a dedicated astrophotography mode, it does a fairly good job of capturing the stars in the sky.
Note that both of these photos were taken at the same time in San Francisco and there's a fair amount of light pollution, so you'll really see some even more pronounced results outside of a city.
Overall, both these phones do a great job when it comes to low-light photography. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro have made leaps and bounds over previous iPhones and the Pixel 4 continues to go from strength-to-strength with Night Sight.
I love the look of the images from the Pixel 4 straight out of the phone, but sometimes the iPhone 11 Pro produces a more natural-looking image. As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of personal preference at play and you can find lots more photo samples in the video on this page. Stay tuned for more camera comparisons between the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro.