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Google Pixel 6 vs. Pixel 6 Pro: Which camera is better?

Google's most recent phones take amazing images, but which camera is better? I took them across Edinburgh to find out.

Google's Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro wowed CNET's reviewers thanks to their attractive designs, clean Android 12 interface and solid overall performance. I even found the Pixel 6 Pro's camera to be a real rival to the iPhone 13 Pro when I put the two phones side by side, being able to take beautiful, well-exposed images in any conditions. It's why the Pixel 6 Pro earned a coveted CNET Editors' Choice award.

The Pixel 6 is the smaller of the two phones and it comes at a reasonable $599 -- a big cash saving over the Pixel 6 Pro's $899 asking price. But does that lower price mean you'll have to seriously compromise camera performance? Both phones have 50-megapixel main-camera sensors, backed up by 12-megapixel ultrawide lenses. The Pixel 6 Pro takes things further with the addition of a 48-megapixel telephoto zoom, which gives an impressive 4x zoom. 

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

To find out if that zoom is the only difference between the two camera systems, I took both phones around Edinburgh to see what they can do. 

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Pixel 6 main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Starting off with this view overlooking Princes Street Gardens, both phones have captured a beautiful image with rich colors and masses of details thanks to that high-resolution sensor. There's basically no difference to tell between the shots -- they could easily have been taken with the same phone.

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Pixel 6, 2x digital zoom. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, 4x optical zoom. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The big difference comes when you zoom in. The Pixel 6 doesn't have an optical zoom lens, but it does offer a 2x digital zoom. That zoom essentially just crops into the image, so it loses a lot of detail.

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Pixel 6, 2x digital zoom with 100% crop. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, 4x optical zoom with 100% crop. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Crop to 100% on the zoom images and the difference is clear: The Pixel 6 Pro's zoom gets you closer and keeps a hell of a lot more detail. 

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Pixel 6 main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Back on the main camera, both phones have produced almost identical shots in this bright, vibrant scene. The skies have been kept completely under control and there's plenty of detail in the shadows on the boat on the right. There's almost no discernible difference in detail, contrast or white balance. 

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Pixel 6, wide lens. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, wide lens. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And the same is true with the wide-angle lens, with both phones producing superb images thanks to the identical 48-megapixel sensors. 

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iPhone 13 Pro, wide lens comparison. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Pixels offer the exact same field of view, which is fine, but I did find that the iPhone 13 Pro's superwide lens provides an even wider scene, something that will appeal to fans of wide-angle photography.

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Pixel 6 main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro main camera. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

All of these tests show that the phones are able to produce pretty much identical images when using their main camera, with no difference in the level of visible detail or color balance. That's a relief if you're looking for great image quality overall but you're hoping to save some cash with the Pixel 6. 

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Pixel 6, main camera, night mode. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, main camera, night mode. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

And they both perform well at night. This test shot is bright and pin-sharp, despite being handheld. I love all the light that's been captured in the clouds and the detail in the silky reflection on the water. 

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Pixel 6, wide angle, night mode. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, wide angle, night mode. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With the wide-angle lens, both phones take a dive in quality. The images are bright and there's almost no discernible shift in color from the main camera, but the details are mushier, almost as though it's not focused properly. 

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Pixel 6, main camera, 100% crop. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6, wide camera, 100% crop. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Cropping in to 100% on the Pixel 6's normal and wide-angle night mode shots, the difference in detail is obvious. The same is true of the Pixel 6 Pro. 

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Pixel 6, night mode, long exposure.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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Pixel 6 Pro, night mode, long exposure. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Both phones also feature a neat long-exposure mode, which I've been able to use here to capture car lights snaking their way through the dark city streets. It's impressive that the phones can keep everything else in sharp focus -- a handheld long exposure of several seconds on a regular camera would require a tripod. 

Overall, it's clear that the shared hardware of both phones means they're both able to take images of nearly identical quality. That could be an obvious conclusion, but it's often the case that manufacturers don't use quite as high-quality glass for the lens on cheaper models. Often they'll use less-advanced software, resulting in poorer performance, and therefore giving more reason to pay extra for the top model.

But, since Google has put equal effort into the camera systems on both phones, it would only make sense from a photography perspective to spend extra if you want the telephoto zoom lens. Whether that's money worth spending is up to you. If you're really invested in your photos, I'd strongly consider saving up a bit more for the Pro: That 4x zoom can take stunning images with a field of view that opens up a wealth of compositions. 

If, however, you're looking for a generally great camera for travel, and want to save some money, the Pixel 6 is a superb and affordable option to consider.

Patrick Holland/CNET

With a starting price of $599, Google's Pixel 6 is the best Android phone you can get for the money. In terms of design, power, features and performance, the Pixel 6 is a big step up from its predecessor, the Pixel 5. Google's latest and greatest offers improved cameras, Android 12 and the company's in-house Tensor chip.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Google Pixel 6 Pro's unique design, great software additions, superb camera quality and solid all-around performance have already earned the phone an excellent rating in our full review. With performance that's every bit as good as its design, it's the best phone Google has ever made. The main camera is on par with the best iPhones. And at $899 for the base 128GB model, it trounces its premium phone rivals in price. Read our Google Pixel 6 Pro review.