Technology

Comparing the camera on the Pixel 3 vs the OnePlus 7 Pro

My Pixel 3 XL has been getting long in the tooth lately. After a year of owning it, it’s slowed down to the point where I could barely use it in some situations. As a result, I decided to get myself the highly touted and reviewed OnePlus 7 Pro. After a few weeks with it, the biggest issue with it was the camera, especially in comparison to the Pixel. In order to fully decide if I could live with it or not, I decided to study the photos it produced compared to the Pixel in multiple situations.

My Pixel was continually plagued with memory management issues from the outset. While many Pixels had early issues with appls closing and music stopping when using the camera, most were fixed by early software updates. Mine never was. Even worse, recently it got worse to the point where apps were closing while using them, recieving a text would stop music playback, and opening the camera would take seconds, resulting in missed shots of my kids and pet. Even a replacement device had similar issues.

The OnePlus 7 Pro was an interesting potential replacement, coming with a massive edge to edge screen, a buttery smooth refresh rate, and great hardware specs for just over half the price of the Pixel. I didn’t expect the camera to be quite as great as the Pixel, a camera I believe sets the highest standard for any phone camera, but I was curious how close it could come. I was especially curious about the tripple camera set up which includes a wide angle and zoom lens and how these might change the way I take pictures. I also tried installing and using the GCam (Google Camera) app on the phone as it uses similar processing to the Pixel and should have similar results.

In all of the sets below, the default OnePlus photo is first, followed by the OnePlus with GCam in the middle, and Pixel 3 XL photo on the right.

In the first test, I looked at Portrait mode across the phones. OnePlus allows manually setting potrait mode just like the Pixel, but seems to only actively use it when it detects a person’s face, and the range is much smaller than the Pixel. Thanks to the computational photography on the Pixel, objects other than just people actually work, and the range is much larger. The result is a much clearer main subject (my dog) from the Pixel and a much more dramatic result. While the GCam app does add some background blurring above what the OnePlus does by default, it’s not close to the Pixel.

In this set of pictures, taken while running and bouncing up and down, I wanted to see how each camera handled image stabilization as well as situations with a lot of light in the sky but pretty deep shadows. To me, all three cameras do pretty well in this situation which highlights how good most cameras are on phones across the board. I’d expect similar results from just about every flagship phone from Apple to Android. That’s impressive considering how bad photos were on most phones a few years ago. There’s not a tremendous amount of difference between the photos, but the main one is that the OnePlus takes generally brighter pictures, especially in the middle of the shot, while the Pixel stretches out the dynamic range a bit more. I personally prefer the more dramatic look of the Pixel, and many people seem to, but it’s a matter of preference. In these examples, there aren’t any concerns from any camera about noise, blur, or loss of image data.

Another set taken on the run, but this time in the darker woods with a ton more shadow. The biggest obvious difference across these photos is the balance of yellow versus green. Across the trees and grass, there’s a considerable difference with the Pixel balancing toward deeper forest green and the OnePlus on the yellow side. I can’t remember what it actually looked like, so it’s possible things are more yellow than green, but it doesn’t really matter. The greener hues of the Pixel are more pleasant and look more like what I’d expect a forrest to look like. The Pixel also maintains a bit more detail in the sky and in the leaves bordering it, not overexposing it as much as the OnePlus.

Here, with less greenery and more of the dirt ground, the differences are smaller and less noticeable. For a somewhat tricky situation with mostly darkness and an incredibly bright like coming in from above, all three examples are decent. The Pixel again does a bit better with balancing the differences in contrast between the sky and trees, but all three are acceptable.I’d say because of the higer contract, each individual leaf is a bit more noticeable both in the trees and on the ground, giving the Pixel a slight advantage in detail and clarity.

I thought this picture of a sign halfway in sun and shade would be a trickier situation for the cameras, but all three really did well. While not the most readable picture of the sign, all three captured what it actually looked like, which was hard to read, pretty well. The Pixel one is a bit darker, making the blue in the bin pop more and the sign appear more blue, but I think the GCam one actually got the colors the most accurate. The OnePlus did well with the detail as well and while slightly over balanced toward yellow again, isn’t bad. In isolation all three look fine.

A run doesn’t count unless it involves photos of a body of water, so here’s the mandatory lake shot. This shot shows the over-yellowing and exposuring of the OnePlus most clearly of all the photos and I really don’t like how the result came out. It’s got an unatural, Monet painting-like feel to it, and probably wouldn’t be a photo I’d post without a filter. And I’m all about that #nofilter #lifestyle. The GCam one is similar which makes me think this is less about the processing and more about how the OnePlus camera actually captures data. The Pixel one is far less vibrant, but it looks way more realistic.

Similarly here, the stock OnePlus camera produces an overbrightened result here, in the blue metal, the water, and the concrete wall. The ski is actually less bright which is nice and more dramatic, but the rest has an alien look to it which I do not like. The GCam one smooths this out a bit in processing producing something in the middle, and because of the brighter sky, a photo I actually prefer over even the Pixel.

Now to try to get some colors other than green and blue, this photo with some flowers and a further background to judge detail. I don’t think any really stand out here as all three really blurred and smudged the sky and clouds. The detail of the trees and the house in the background are lost across all three, but again because of the difference in contrast, the Pixel one appears to have more detail. This also highlights the weird brightness halo that the OnePlus seems to get around the middle of brighter photos. It might be the brighter lens itself, as it’s noticeable, though to a lesser degree in the GCam photo as well. The Pixel has a more uniform look. The OnePlus also shows the yellow tint in the foreground tree and grass here too, though matches the green of the Pixel futher in the background oddly.

Since not all pictures of of landscapes, I also wanted to try the cameras out on my most difficult subject, kids. Since they are always moving around, they tend to be the hardest to get good pictures of as well as being the subject I most often want to photograph. So many of the pictures I take of them turn out just as blurs, so it’s important to have a phone with a fast camera that can actually get them. I actually got a fairly calm moment, though of course there was still some movement. All did ok here, thoug there is a little blur from the OnePlus, but it was likely more a result of timing. The Pixel ends up with a more professional looking photo, maintaining the dynamic shadows from the window which the others smoothed over.

And my other favorite subject, of course is my dog. Without portrait mode, the photos are much closer. The OnePlus is fairly blurry and a tad overexposed while the GCam and Pixel are much closer. The brightening of the OnePlus actually helps here as it brings a little more detail to the dark fur of the dog.

There aren’t huge differences between these phones in most situations which just goes to show how much phone cameras have improved in recent years. Even a mid market phone like the OnePlus takes some pretty good photos. Still though, the Pixel remains the king of smart phone cameras thanks to the magic its software does for image processing. What makes it stand out to me is the high dynamic range it produces which tends to produce an image that has higher emotional response and may even exceed what real life looked like. Especially with photos of family members, the more professional, if more heavily processed photos, evoke more emotion and are photos I’d rather come back to for fond memories in the future.

Still though, it’s only by looking at them next to each other that the differences are even obvious. The OnePlus still does a fairly good job in most situations. Though it does brighten photos a bit too much to me, and I don’t love the color balancing, most of the photos are good enough and have enough detail to process and get some great results as well, it just needs a little more work. If anything, there is even less reason to pick a phone for the camera now than ever before, since most have pretty good cameras these days.