Illuminate the dark: Pixel 3’s Night Sight vs. Mate 20 Pro’s Night Mode

google pixel 3 night sight vs huawei mate 20 pro mode camera shootout comp header cropped

Smartphone cameras continue to excel, but one area that could use more improvement is low-light photography. In 2018, Google and Huawei offered solutions using artificial intelligence. The Google Pixel 3 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro will knock your socks off at how well they can capture photographs in poorly-lit conditions. We’re putting them head-to-head to see which photos we like more.

How it works

Huawei’s technology is called Night Mode, and it’s a separate setting in the Mate 20 Pro’s camera app (it’s also available on a few other Huawei and Honor devices, though the best results come from the Mate 20 Pro flagship phone). It works with the help of Huawei’s Artificial Intelligence Stabilization (AIS) system, which debuted on the P20 Pro smartphone. The camera app takes a long exposure photo — meaning you’ll need to stay still after tapping the shutter button for four to six seconds (more or less) — and software will stitch the best photos together for one well-exposed photo. No tripod needed.

Google’s feature is called Night Sight, and it works not just on the Pixel 3, but the Pixel 2 and Pixel 1 as well (though the best results are available through the latest phone). It also uses a long exposure to capture photos in low light (it’s a separate mode in the camera app too). Google uses A.I. to detect things such as if the phone is on a tripod, if there’s any handshake, any motion in a scene, and scene brightness. Depending on the answers, it will capture “15 frames of 1/15 second (or less) each, or six frames of one second each, or anything in between.” Google also uses an Auto White Balancing algorithm in Night Sight, which means you’ll see improved color temperature in photos. You can read more in Google’s white paper explaining out Night Sight works.

The difference it makes

We’re only going to be comparing Night Mode photos with Night Sight photos, so first here’s an example of what a photo looks like without using Night Sight or Night Mode.

Compare Google’s Night Sight and Huawei’s Night Mode, and it’s easy to see the differences. The final photos are brighter, offer more accurate colors, and have better dynamic range. In this particular test, we prefer the Pixel 3’s Night Sight photo the most, as it delivers a much brighter image, with sharper details throughout. It’s the photo we want to share.

You can check out our Huawei Mate 20 Pro review and our dive into our Night Sight comparison articleart see more.

Night Mode vs. Night Sight

Pathway in the park

Our first example is in Washington Square Park in New York City, showcasing street lamps as well as a pathway through trees.

The Pixel 3’s Night Sight manages to preserve a little more detail in most areas of the photo, because it’s also brighter. Look at the trash can in the center-right side of the photo — you can see more details here. That being said, we much prefer the color accuracy on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. Everything looks far more natural, unlike the Pixel 3 photo which cranks the saturation a little too high. The green leaves next to the streetlight in the center is a good example of how the Pixel 3 over-saturates the photo.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Washington Square Arch

We like the Pixel 3’s photo of the Washington Square Arch here more than the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. The white balance is more accurate in the Pixel photo (although some users may prefer the warmer tones of the Mate 20 image), and zoom in closer and you’ll see details are far sharper. Huawei does win points for exposing the background buildings a lot better, but it’s not enough to take the win.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Waiting

While we like both photos here, the Mate 20 Pro takes the win. Just look around the main subject, and you’ll notice everything is well exposed. The Pixel 3’s photo shrouds the surroundings in more darkness. Zoom in, and the Mate 20 Pro offers a little more contrast and detail.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Parked bike

There was a good deal of handshake when we captured both of these photos, and neither of them are perfectly sharp — zoom in on both and they’re fuzzy. But the Pixel 3’s Night Sight photo is much brighter overall and offers more detail than the Mate 20 Pro. The more detailed lines on the bike’s headlight is evidence of this. The Mate 20 Pro, however, does have less noise. Still, the slightly sharper and brighter Pixel 3 photo is the winner.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Dog

It’s difficult taking sharp pictures of dogs when they are constantly moving, so imagine taking a Night Sight or Night Mode photo where you have to stay still for a few seconds. The dog’s head in this photo moved once while capturing the long exposure for both these photos, which is why neither are particularly sharp. But the Pixel 3 a much better job of maintaining focus and reducing blur. It also has an ever so slightly sharper image, though with more grain. While we do think the Mate 20 Pro does a good job with colors, especially in the background — it’s not as saturated as the Pixel 3 — it does seem to struggle not just with the motion of the dog, but with focus as well. The fence in the background looks sharper than the dog.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Park

We like both of these photos because they illuminated an incredibly dark scene and delivered usable photos. But the Huawei Mate 20 Pro took the better image, because it’s brighter overall — look at the tree bark on the right side for far more details than offered by the Pixel 3 — but it’s also slightly sharper. It’s excellent.

Winner: Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Selfies

The Pixel 3 does have an ace up its sleeve: Night Sight works on the front-facing camera. That’s unlike Night Mode on the Mate 20 Pro, which only works on the rear camera. That means you can take selfies with Night Sight, and it opens up a whole lot more possibilities. The surrounding area for these photos isn’t too dark, so Night Sight didn’t offer a lot of changes over the standard Pixel 3 photo, however it does deliver improvements over the Mate 20 Pro’s standard photo. There’s more detail on the face of both subjects — just look at their hair, you can pick out individual strands on the Pixel 3 photo. The color temperature is also better, with the subjects having more natural-looking tones than the Mate 20 Pro.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Daylight

While a case can be made that the Mate 20 Pro’s Night Mode can make certain daylight photos better as well, we’ve found results to be mixed. It exposes the whole photo here so there aren’t a lot of dark spots, but it loses a lot of contrast along the way, as well as color. The Pixel 3’s Night Sight photo doesn’t often do much in daylight, looking almost exactly like the original. It’s still the better photo here, though, as it’s sharper, and the deeper colors make it a photo we want to share.

Winner: Google Pixel 3

Conclusion

The addition of A.I.-boosted features like Night Sight and Night Mode dramatically increases a camera’s versatility, and they’ve become essential features on the Pixel 3 and Mate 20 Pro that we use every day. While the Pixel 3 took the most wins in this comparison (including the example photo at the top), Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro came quite close to coming out on top. We’re excited to see the improvements Huawei and Google will bring to these software features in 2019.

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