Google is revolutionizing smartphone photos with computing, not lenses

Google Pixel 3
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The new Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones take low-light images, high-resolution photos, and well-timed shots — but these major photo features aren’t realized solely by the cameras packed inside. Instead, Google is tackling tasks typically left to larger cameras with computing power — specifically machines learning — not lenses and high-resolution sensors.

(Read our hands-on preview of the new Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.)

Like the Pixel 2, Google integrated a special chip designed just for photos, the Pixel Visual Core, and a dual-pixel sensor that enables dual-lens effects with a single lens. And like the original Pixel phone, the Pixel 3 shoots and merges multiple images without a delay by using HDR+. And like the first two generations of Google smartphones, Google isn’t done leveraging artificial intelligence and computational photography to take better photos.

Good-bye, crappy smartphone zoom?

Smartphone cameras have either a slight zoom using two lenses or digital zoom — and all digital zooms produce poor results by cropping the photos. You just can’t fit a big zoom lens inside a small smartphone. Google is promising better zoom with a fixed, single lens smartphone (on the rear, anyways) using Super Res Zoom.

The feature doesn’t appear to require a tripod, since it actually needs those small movements in your hands.

Super Res Zoom revamps an existing idea and reworks the concept to solve a new problem — that crappy smartphone zoom. Digital zoom doesn’t work well because the resolution is drastically reduced — but what if the image you started with had a higher resolution?

Super Res Zoom takes a burst of photos. Small movements in your hands will make those photos taken from a slightly different position. By stitching those slightly different photos together, the Pixel 3 creates a higher resolution image. And with a higher resolution image, you can use digital zoom with results that aren’t so cringe-worthy.

Perhaps what’s even more intriguing is that the feature doesn’t appear to require a tripod, since it actually needs those small movements in your hands. Panasonic, Olympus, and Pentax cameras have similar modes using pixel shift, but they are designed to create a higher resolution final file, not as an artificial zoom, and tripods are recommended.

A good low-light smartphone?

Speaking of cringe-worthy, Google’s Liza Ma says that the Pixel 3’s new low-light mode called Night Sight is so good, you’ll never use the flash. Like the Super Res Zoom, the feature is powered by machine learning. The Night Sight doesn’t use any of the usual hardware solutions for a better low light shot like a larger sensor and brighter aperture — instead, machine learning re-colors the photo to create brighter, more vivid colors even without using the flash.

Google didn’t dive much into detail how machine learning is used to brighten the photos, but says the A.I. recolors the image for a brighter shot without the flash. We’ll have to wait to see just how well that recoloring works — the feature isn’t launching until next month via software.

Top Shot mixes HDR+ with A.I. that chooses your best photos for you

The Top Shot feature inside the Pixel 3 is essentially burst mode — a fast series of photos — and a feature that DSLRs and even smartphones have long had. But what Google is doing different with Top Shot is automatically choosing which moment out of that burst is the best one.

Top Shot takes a fast burst of photos. The Pixel 3 highlights the one with your actual timing, and also highlights a recommended photo. Machine learning, Google says, determines which image in that burst is the best option. By feeding a computer a bunch of good photos and bad photos, essentially, the software learned that, yes, photos are better with everyone’s eyes open and a smile in the frame. And if you don’t agree with the A.I.’s pick, you can dig through the burst and choose the image yourself.

Google says the alternate shots are still also captured in HDR+ — so essentially, that burst mode is also taking smaller bursts to layer together for a more detailed image. HDR+ already impressed in earlier Pixel models, but managing both burst shots and multiple images at once suggests impressive computing power. (And yes, those photos will probably take up a lot of space, but Google is including unlimited Google Photos storage with the Pixel 3).

The idea of using A.I. to choose your best shots is nothing new — Adobe announced a beta tool for Lightroom to do just that a year ago. But what the Pixel 3 does is mix that new concept of automatically flagging your best shots without sifting through the bad ones with the old school burst mode. And it’s all done on one device.

So where does hardware fit in?

While the biggest new features are powered by A.I., the Pixel 3 doesn’t leave camera hardware unchanged. The front of the phone now houses two cameras — one an expected 8-megapixel camera, the other a wide angle lens with a 97-degree field of view so you can actually fit everyone into a groupie. A portrait booth mode will also trigger the shot hands-free by looking for a smile or a funny face, Google says.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The camera keeps a single lens at the back, yet manages to continue the impressive portrait mode from earlier models using dual pixel technology instead of dual lenses. That portrait mode is getting a boost, Google says — the Pixel 3 can edit the result, including changing the subject for a sharp background instead.

The camera’s dual pixel autofocus can also now track subjects — a feature that’s been around for some time on advanced cameras but is a nice addition to see integrated into a smartphone. The rear camera also includes optical and electronic image stabilization, a flicker sensor and a bright f/1.8 lens.

Video is shot at up to 30 fps 4K or 120 fps in 1080p.

Google may have made some claims that are no big deal for DSLR fans like tracking autofocus, but pit the Pixel 3’s camera against other smartphones and those A.I. features could give the Pixel 3 an edge. Annie Leibovitz, at least, agrees — she’s entered into a partnership with Google, the first time the photographer has signed an agreement with a brand. She’s not saying anything about leaving her dedicated camera behind, but Leibovitz did use the Pixel 3 for portraits and places while traveling, Google says.

Of course, we will be putting these features to the test when they become available, so stay tuned for our full reviews of both products.

Emerging Tech

Buying on a budget? Here’s all the best tech you can snag for $25 or less

We live in a world where you can get a cheeseburger for $1, a functioning computer for $5, and thousands of HD movies for $10 -- so it stands to reason that you should be able to pick up some pretty sweet gear for $25.
Mobile

Which new iPhone is the best? iPhone XS vs. iPhone XS Max vs. iPhone XR

Apple has three new iPhone models to choose from this year, making the choice a little harder than usual. What's the difference between the iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max, and the iPhone XR, and which is best?
Mobile

Google is adding Pixel 3 eSIM support for carriers around the world

Google's latest flagships, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, are now official and we have all the details from the October 9 event in New York City and Paris. Here's everything we know about the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2018

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high-tech and low-budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…
Social Media

Hotel chain offers an Instagram ‘sitter’ who will post photos for you

If the pressure to post stunning Instagram photos is ruining your vacations, then how about hiring a local Instagram influencer to do the job for you while you go off and enjoy yourself? Well, such a service now exists.
Social Media

Ride the rails and share your stories with Amtrak’s new social media residency

Amtrak is looking for travel fans with a knack for telling stories on social media. The new Amtrak social media residency program wants amateur travelers to share photos, video, and written content from aboard long-distance trips.
Photography

Full-frame mirrorless cameras just made their Hollywood debut with this thriller

The Possession of Hannah Grace isn't just a thriller -- it's also the first Hollywood feature film to be shot completely with a full-frame mirrorless camera. The film was shot with several Sony a7S II bodies and anamorphic lenses.
Photography

Lens Rentals zooms in on the most popular cameras of the year

As 2018 comes to a close, Lens Rentals is taking a look at most popular cameras of the year, based on rental data. While Sony and Panasonic saw more rentals than the previous year, Canon is still the most-rented brand on the platform.
Photography

Luminar’s new libraries don’t even need you to manually import images

Luminar 3's new libraries feature doesn't require importing -- images are automatically added after clicking on a folder. The long-promised libraries feature gives editors a Lightroom alternative with organization tools as well as syncing…
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Photography

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

Mirrorless cameras offer a lot of photography firepower, inside a compact body. Explore the best mirrorless cameras, from the pro-level to the beginner-friendly shooters, in this guide.
Photography

Photography News: Startup redesigns tripod heads ‘inside out’ for more flexibility

Well, this doesn't look like the ball heads that we've seen before. Instead of designing a tripod ball head with a small cutout, the Colorado Tripod Company created one with most of the ball exposed, allowing for more possible angles.
Photography

MIT science photographer isn’t an artist, but her work could fill galleries

Felice Frankel is an award-winning photographer, but she doesn't consider herself an artist. As a science photographer, she has been helping researchers better communicate their ideas for nearly three decades with eye-catching imagery.