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Pixel 5 vs. iPhone 12: Which takes better night photos?

We pitted Google and Apple's latest phones in a night photography shoot-out to see which one has the superior camera for taking photos at night.

By now it's no secret Google's Pixels can take great photos. Pixels consistently rank among the best phone cameras and rival the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy. The magic isn't so much the camera sensor, per se, but Google's computational photography that uses software and machine learning to create great photos as opposed to simply snapping them.

With the Pixel 5, Google is doubling down on its prowess with computational photography. There's still a 12-megapixel main camera on the back, but instead of the 2x telephoto on the Pixel 4, there's a 16-megapixel ultra-wide lens. The selfie camera remains an 8-megapixel shooter.

But how good are the cameras, especially when it come to low-light and night photography? On paper, the Pixel 5's main camera is the same exact sensor used in the Pixel 2, a 3-year-old phone. Can Google's software really keep up with newer phones like the iPhone 12, which has a newer image sensor with larger f/1.6 aperture to let in more light, and a faster and more powerful A14 Bionic chip to process images better and quicker?

Raymond Wong / Input

I had to find out which phone takes better night photos. So I took to the streets late at night to see how the Pixel 5 and regular iPhone 12 (not the 12 Pro). The results were predictable, but also sometimes surprising.

Google and Apple are both touting night portrait photos as a major camera upgrade. Here's how they compare.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

As you can see, there's a stark difference between the Pixel 5 and iPhone 12. Both shots were taken with portrait mode using the selfie cameras. The Pixel 5 takes a darker, moodier portrait, but the artificial depth of field looks stiff (especially around the hair) and skin tones don't flatter IMO.

I prefer the iPhone 12's cleaner and more natural photo. It has better color, highlights, and skin tones. And the depth of field transitions from the sharpness in the face to the background in a more natural and gradual way.

Here's another Pixel 5 portrait. You can see my cap is overexposed. This is where the Pixel's less powerful Snapdragon 765G chip really shows its weakness compared to the iPhone 12. Pay special attention the edges of my glasses in the Pixel 5 photo — it's blended in with the background unlike the iPhone 12 shot.

Combined with the lack of a "Pixel Visual Core" image processor, creating HDR photos is not only slower, but less reliable than on previous flagship Pixel phones.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

Pixel phones tend to spit out photos with a bluer color temperature and more contrast, and the Pixel 5 is no different. In these shots of a red sports car (sadly not mine), the Pixel 5's photo looks flatter (almost like there's a fade filter applied on top) and less vibrant, whereas the iPhone 12 image is warmer and more true-to-life.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

More often than not, the Pixel 5's slow post-processing produced blurrier images. The next set of photos of a leaf were challenging to shoot, not only because it was lit only by the street light, but because there was a light wind blowing the leaf around. The iPhone 12 captured multiple frames in an instant. The Pixel 5 required me to hold it steady for a few seconds and, well, the difference in sharpness speaks for itself.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

Here's one more set to show the clarity difference.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

Still not seeing it? Let's zoom in 100 percent to pixel peep for a second. Yep, the iPhone 12 photo has more detail, while the Pixel 5 shot is softer.

Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman/Moment/Getty Images

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

Ultra-wides are a little tougher to compare fairly because the Pixel 5's has a 103-degree field of view and the iPhone 12 has a much wider 120-degree FOV. The wider a lens is the less sharp it is from the center to the edges. In the next comparison, it's clear the Pixel 5 has better corner sharpness.

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

But magnify them and you can see the iPhone 12 does a much better job exposing the shot, particularly around lights. No doubt, this is the iPhone 12's Smart HDR 3 at work.

Pixel 5

The green sign here is completely blown out and the other signage aren't crispy.

iPhone 12

Notice how the words in the green sign and "Shiseido" are not blown out like they are on the Pixel 5.

Let's take a look at one more set of ultra-wides in case you're not convinced.

Shutterstock

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

And let's get even closer...

Shutterstock

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

Finally, to cover all bases, here's what night mode on both phones is like when using 2x digital zoom. Not too shabby for digital zoom. Difference in colors aside, the Pixel 5 does a better job exposing the moon as a round orb compared to the star-like shape on the iPhone 12. However, the iPhone 12 image once again has sharper details (building and leaves).

Pixel 5

iPhone 12

iPhone 12 wins

There's no doubt about it: the iPhone 12 has the superior night camera. Photos are sharper, colors are more realistic, and overall, there's more preservation of darkness compared to the Pixel photos. It's also plain as day that the Pixel 5's 3-year-old camera sensor is starting to show its age and the software is hitting a ceiling when it comes to image processing.

With a steadier hand (or a tripod) and more patience, it is possible to get sharper night photos with the Pixel 5, but if you want the least amount of hassle, the iPhone 12 is the way to go. You pay $150 more for an iPhone 12 with 128GB of storage (Pixel 5 only comes with 128GB) or $100 if you can live with 64GB, but you get a much better camera that will also be great years from now.

It's hard to say how much slower the Pixel 5's camera will get after a couple of software updates, but it's already sluggish image processing doesn't bode well for the future.

There are other things to consider on the Pixel 5. I like the size a lot; it's about the same dimensions as an iPhone 11 Pro and very usable with one hand. The bezels are equal all around the 6-inch OLED display and the resin-coated aluminum frame has really grown on me. (I'm a no-phone-case guy so I really appreciate the extra grip.)

There's also a fingerprint reader on the back; the display is 90Hz so scrolling is much smoother than on iPhone 12; there's wireless charging and reverse wireless charging; and battery life is a tremendous leap over the Pixel 4, lasting all day without draining quickly on standby. The Pixel 5 also comes with 5G, even though — I repeat myself for the millionth time — nobody should buy a phone just for 5G yet.

And of course, it's a Pixel, so it comes with Android 11. No superfluous skins, just a nice clean bloat-free OS with nice Google-exclusive features like the awesome Recorder app, crash detection that calls 911 for you, Call Screen for blocking robocalls, and Hold For Me (Google Assistant sits on hold for you so you can go do other stuff).

Really, the only spec that gives me pause is the Snapdragon 765G chip that powers the Pixel 5. It's not as fast as phones with an 865 chip like the OnePlus 8 Pro and Galaxy Note Ultra, and nowhere near the powerhouse of the A14 chip in the new iPhone 12 family. I haven't noticed any deal-breaking performance issues except for the sluggish camera processing.

That said, Google has complicated things with the Pixel 4a 5G, which is, honestly, a better value at $499 since you get the exact same cameras on the back and front, same 765G chip, same 5G, and you get a slightly larger 6.2-inch screen. You lose the Pixel 5's 90Hz refresh rate, wireless charging, metal-ish body, and water-resistance, but the 4a 5G also has a headphone jack. My advice if you prefer Android over iPhone: skip the Pixel 5 and get the Pixel 4a 5G if you're in it for the cameras. They're the same and you save $200.

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