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Night Sight camera update for Pixel 3 is awesome

Taking low-light pictures on the Pixel 3 just got a whole lot better.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The camera on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL is already fantastic, but with Google's latest over-the-air update available Wednesday, it gets even better. Known as Night Sight, Google first touted the feature during the Pixel 3's original launch in October. The update lets you take better low-light pictures without a harsh, unnatural flash, meaning you can capture a clear photo of your dinnerplate the next time you whip out your phone in a dim restaurant. 

Both the Pixel 3's front- and rear-facing cameras will have Night Sight and the update will roll out to all Pixels, including the Pixel 2/2 XL and original Pixel/XL in the next few days. (The feature works best, however, on the Pixel 3 and its updated hardware.)

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Night Sight works by taking up to 15 frames in a third of a second, so you'll need to hold the phone steady for a second or two after firing the shutter as it renders the image. The camera uses machine learning to judge the right color, white balance and lighting conditions based on the content of the image, and if the camera's gyroscope senses a notable amount of motion blur, it'll shorten its shutter speed to reduce blur. Click here for more information behind the Pixel 3's camera tech.

"Night Sight is HDR+ on steroids," said Google engineer Marc Levoy in a previous CNET interview.  

Night Sight is available in the camera's menu option More, but if the camera senses a low-light scenario, a small dialog box will automatically pop up in the camera's viewfinder to suggest turning it on.

20181109-snoozing-family-pixel-3-xl-night-sight

This Night Sight photo was taken in a nearly pitch-black room. Though there is some motion blur (especially around the faces), the camera still churned out an impressive picture.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The feature works impressively well. With dusk and night settings, Night Sight brightened up scenes with accurate colors and lighting sources that were true-to-life. But where it really shone (no pun intended) was in environments that had very, very little lighting. Cameras will always need some light to take a picture, but when I took photos in a dark room with very little light, the Pixel 3 managed to capture whole objects pretty clearly.

To see how well Night Sight works, take a look at these images below. Pictures taken with Night Sight enabled are on the right.

Lynn La/CNET
Lynn La/CNET
Patrick Holland/CNET

CNET editor Patrick Holland, who reviewed the Huawei P20 Pro, noted that phone has a similar feature. However, the Pixel 3's photos ended up appearing more "realistic-looking." In addition, while the Galaxy S9's dual-aperture camera is a solid low-light performer, it blows out highlights and softens corners too much. The Pixel 3 with Night Sight captures images that are sharper and more detailed, and has a wider dynamic range overall.

Another CNET editor, Stephen Shankland, said he preferred the white balance on the Pixel 3's Night Sight to that of the iPhone XS Max. In a photo of a park, for example, the Pixel 3's image had warmer tones and colors were more true to life.

To see how these two phones fare against one another, check out the pictures below. Pictures taken with the iPhone XS Max are on the left and the Pixel 3's Night Sight images are on the right.

Stephen Shankland/CNET
Stephen Shankland/CNET

In general, Night Sight works so well that it might end up spoiling you and giving you what you think is a "bad" low-light photo. There were a few incidents when I snapped a photo with the Pixel 3 and thought to myself that the image looked "terrible" because it looked grainy and I could see digital artifacts and noise. But soon after, I quickly realized I'd taken the picture in a near pitch-black setting and that it was noteworthy that the camera managed to capture anything at all.

For even more Night Sight pictures, click through the gallery below.