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Pixel 7 Pro vs. 6 Pro Camera Shootout: How Much Changed in a Year?

Commentary: The Pixel 6 Pro's camera was Google's best yet. The Pixel 7 Pro's is identical in some areas -- and noticeably better in others.

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Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Another year, another Google Pixel phone. While last year's Pixel 6 line reshaped the series -- literally, introducing an all-new design -- the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro are iterative updates. That's by no means a bad thing, as the Pixel 6 Pro is a terrific phone. Google took that phone, tweaked its appearance, put in a faster processor and improved aspects of its cameras.

It's likely that the improved cameras are what people will notice most. I tested the Pixel 7 Pro's cameras against last year's Pixel 6 Pro, and found that, unsurprisingly, they're similar. In fact, if you're only looking at plain shots taken during the day, the photos from both phones look identical. However, the 7 Pro's various zoom modes and low-light photography has been changed for the better.

Normally I'd begin a comparison like this with the basic daytime shots but, since they're basically the same on both, I've saved them until last. If you're wondering how the Pixel 7 Pro stacks up against Apple's iPhone 14 Pro, a phone that approaches photography in a much different way, you'll find that comparison here.

Pixel 7 Pro shoots clearer portraits

Portrait mode photos shot on Pixel phones are polarizing. Google's phones rely a lot of computational photography, using software to touch up shots after they've been taken. Since the phones are trained to recognize and amplify textures, portrait shots are always super detailed -- sometimes too detailed. 

The Pixel 7 Pro approaches portraits in the same way, but with some slight tweaks. The biggest difference I noticed is that the Pixel 6 Pro naturally shoots portraits with a larger aperture, resulting in a shallower depth-of-field effect. In the below photos of my friend Addel, you can see the fence in the background is far more blurred in the snap from the 6 Pro. Addel's face also looks undersaturated compared to the 7 Pro's shot.

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), Portrait mode.

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You can see the same deeper blur when comparing these portraits of Chris below. Look closely and you'll see the 7 Pro's edge detection was a teensy bit better at recognizing where Chris' hair ends and the background begins. 

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Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), Portrait mode.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

In these photos of James, I found the Pixel 7 Pro dealt with the challenging light situation (a downlight shining directly down on James' face) better. You have to look close, but the Pixel 6 Pro's take has deeper shadows on James' face -- but it's a marginal difference. 

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Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), Portrait mode.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

These subtle distinctions carry over to the selfie camera, which I actually found to be a little consistently better on the Pixel 7 Pro. Just like with standard portraits, you can see the selfie camera on the Pixel 6 Pro enforces a much heavier blur in the pictures below. As was the case with Addel above, saturation is better in the Pixel 7 Pro's snap -- I found in numerous shots there was less glare, and a little more color in my skin. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L)

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Zoom in on Pixel 7 Pro's changes

We begin to see some significant differences between Pixels once we start zooming in -- or out. Thanks to the Pixel 7 Pro's new tele camera, the further you zoom the bigger the difference becomes between the two phones. This is true in both quality and capability: The Pixel 7 Pro can shoot up to 30x magnification, while the Pixel 6 Pro maxes out at 20x. 

Start at 3x zoom and you notice some slight differences like in the photos below. The dynamic range on the 7 Pro is a little better; the rocks are brighter and, more importantly, the shadows in the bushes on the top left are deeper in the 7 Pro's photo. (This is going to come up again during low-light photography.) At a glance, however, you're looking at basically the same photo.

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), 3x zoom.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Magnify more and the Pixel 7 Pro's strengths become more obvious. The below photos were taken at 5x zoom -- I thought it was some exotic animal, but it turned out to be rat. Our rodent friend is a bit sharper in the 7 Pro's picture, but more noticeable is the insufficient contrast in the Pixel 6 Pro's shot. It looks washed out in comparison.

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), 5x zoom.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Wacky things continue to happen to the Pixel 6 Pro's photos as it relies more on software to zoom further out. Notice the cyan hue present in the Pixel 6 Pro's shot below. The ship was shot at 10x magnification on both phones. The Pixel 7 Pro's photo looks great, but the 6 Pro's photo looks like it was put through a filter. 

These photos of this bird -- who helpfully stayed statuesque for both shots below -- perhaps shows the biggest difference between the zoom capabilities. Taken at 20x zoom, the grass at the top of the image shows how the Pixel 6 Pro just couldn't capture enough data, resulting in some conspicuous dissolution. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), 20x zoom.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Pixel 7 Pro's ultrawide is wider

Google updated the ultra wide-angle camera in its Pixel line to shoot wider shots. You'll notice a difference before even taking a picture. On the 6 Pro, the ultra wide option is represented as a "0.7" zoom. On the Pixel 7 Pro, it's a "0.5" zoom.

In the example below, notice how much more of the building on the left is captured in the Pixel 7 Pro's shot. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), ultra wide-angle.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

The pictures below of a dock were captured from the same position, but you'll see the Pixel 7 Pro's photo looks as if it was taken one step backwards. Other than the wider frame, the Pixel 7 Pro also picked up highlights that aren't present in the 6 Pro's shot -- see both the clouds and the left side of the walkway. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), ultra wide-angle.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Pixel 7 Pro's more subtle Night Sight

When I recently compared the Pixel 6 Pro's camera to the iPhone 14 Pro's, I encountered a dilemma. Whereas the iPhone tries to capture something roughly approximating what the eye sees, the 6 Pro uses software to make an image look as illuminated as possible. I preferred the iPhone's approach, but I could understand if someone were to argue that the Pixel's shots, by virtue of capturing more detail, were superior.

The Pixel 7 Pro scales back the computational touch-ups, and instead allows some shadows to creep into its night-time photography. The result is improved dynamic range and, I'd argue, better-looking night time shots. 

Take these low-light shots below, taken without Night Sight turned on. The Pixel 6 Pro uses its trickery to capture more of the shrubbery that lies before the bay. The problem is that the shrubbery looks noisy, and distracts from the ships floating in the water. It's a question of quantity of data over quality. Also note that the highlights in the Pixel 6 Pro shot, in the form of the vessel lights, are approaching blown-out territory. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), low-light.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

It's the same story with Night Sight activated. The 6 Pro's Night Sight will, by default, take longer to capture a shot than the Pixel 7 Pro, resulting in more exposure and more brightness. In the bay shots below, notice how the 7 Pro allows more shadow by the bushes on the left, whereas the Pixel 6 Pro can't help but light that section up. It makes for a brighter photo, but also a flatter one with less dynamic range. 

The same story plays out with the snaps below. These shots were taken in a poorly lit area, so the Pixel 6 Pro has gone into overdrive lighting up the edges of the photo. The 7 Pro, by contrast, focuses on enhancing the light produced by the boats on the bay. So the 6 Pro wins in terms of total light -- see the twigs on the bottom left -- but the 7 Pro shoots a nicer photo. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), Night Sight.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Below is a less drastic example, but illustrative nonetheless. This building was shot on a better-lit road, so both phones had some light to work with. But look at the bricks on the bottom half and you'll see that the Pixel 7 Pro's image, though darker, is sharper and has less noise. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), Night Sight.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Closing Pixel 6 Pro vs. Pixel 7 Pro thoughts

Finally, let's look at some shots taken on the two phones in well-lit environments. There's not much to say about these photos because they're essentially identical. 

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L).

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L).

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

One traditional photographic area the Pixel 7 Pro improves on its predecessor is macro photography. Because the 7 Pro has better dynamic range -- that is, deeper shadows -- I found it foregrounded close-up shots better. Notice how much lighter the green is in the 6 Pro's photo, which looks distracting when compared to the Pixel 7 Pro's picture.

Pixel 6 Pro (R) vs. Pixel 7 Pro (L), macro photography.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

The Pixel 7 Pro is an iterative upgrade to the Pixel 6 Pro, in appearance, power and camera capability. There's no question that the Pixel 7 Pro's camera is better, but the question is how much -- or rather, whether it justifies an upgrade. Improved zoom and low-light photography are nice, but not enough to make any Pixel 6 Pro owner rush out to buy a Pixel 7 Pro.

However, anyone rocking an older Pixel, or any other Android phone, will appreciate the improvements. There's no killer app here, but plenty of nice-to-have features.