Comparing photography: iPhone XS Max versus Google Pixel 3 XL
AppleInsider has already run a number of tests on Google's new Pixel 3 XL to compare it with Apple's iPhone XS Max, and so far the XS Max has better performance while the Pixel 3 XL has better audio reproduction. Now it's time to compare the cameras, and see which flagship smartphone can take the best photos.
Before we start the comparison, let's talk about the cameras. The XS Max has dual 12-megapixel cameras on the back while the Pixel 3 has only a single 12.2-megapixel sensor. Interestingly the roles are reversed on the front-end, with dual 8-megapixel cameras on the Pixel 3 and a single 7MP camera on the XS Max.
Thanks to the dual-camera arrangement out front, the Pixel 3 can shoot wider selfies.
The iPhone XS Max has a new Smart HDR feature that brought huge improvements in HDR compared to the iPhone X. Google showed off some really impressive low-light HDR photos in its Pixel 3 unveiling, which should give Apple a bit of a challenge.
Let's start off the comparison with some photographs comparing detail.
In this first scene, both photos look very detailed and it's hard to notice any differences, except that the sky and some leaves in front of it are blown out on the Pixel 3, but on the XS Max the leaves aren't blown out and you can see some blue in the sky.
The story is the same for this photo, except that the Pixel 3 seems a bit too blue compared to real life. Cropping in, the XS Max seems to be slightly more detailed.
Since the XS Max has a telephoto lens, it has a huge advantage for zoom shots. You can zoom in much further on the XS Max, and there's a huge difference in detail as well. Just look at how soft the bark and pine needles are on that tree with the Pixel.
In this scene, we like how the XS Max exposed the image brighter overall, and it seems as if the Pixel added in too much contrast. If we crop in, we can see that the detail is actually very similar, but the added contrast makes the Pixel look more detailed.
Here, the XS Max did a much better job at white balance, with the Pixel being too blue. If we crop in really close, we can barely tell that the Pixel 3 has a tiny bit more detailed than the XS Max.
In this scene, we also like how the XS Max's image is better exposed. The Pixel's photo just looks dark in comparison.
The XS Max isn't blowing out as much of the sky in this macro shot, but it is lacking contrast overall, making the image look really flat. On the other hand, the Pixel has a lot of contrast, maybe too much, making it start to look a bit too dark.
We decided to test out the selfie cameras to see how wide the Pixel 3's dual-camera wide mode is, and it certainly lives up to the name. We think this is actually a really great feature since a lot of people love taking group selfies.
While testing, we spotted a rabbit and decided to zoom in as close as we could with both phones. The XS Max can zoom in a lot closer, and because of that, it's a little bit less detailed, but it's definitely nice to get a closer look.
Macro Shots and Lens Differences
Now let's look at some close-up macro shots to compare detail.
Starting with this shot of a rock, we notice a huge difference in white balance. Just like before, the Pixel is shooting too blue. The XS Max is definitely more accurate, but it's slightly too warm as well. As for detail, you can decide for yourself, but we think the XS Max is a bit more detailed.
In this macro shot, the XS Max is definitely lacking contrast, making it look a bit dull and less detailed. We definitely prefer the Pixel's image here.
Here, we're seeing the same white balance differences. The Pixel is way too blue and the XS Max is a bit too warm, but still more accurate to real life. Both look pretty similar in terms of detail.
Now the XS Max also has the telephoto lens, allowing you to get really close to the subject, I mean really close. You just can't get this type of shot with the Pixel 3.
Not only that, but the telephoto is great for photos of cars. Here's a shot of a truck with the Pixel 3. Because of the wide angle lens, the truck is obviously distorted.
Now here's a shot with the telephoto lens on the XS Max. The truck looks true to life and nothing is distorted. You can also see a lot less of the background as well, making it look nicer.
It has the same effect for portrait photos of people. With the Pixel 3's wide lens, the face is distorted, but the proportions of the face are far more accurate on the XS Max.
Dynamic Range Compared
Now let's move onto dynamic range, starting out with a very difficult situation.
As you can see, the XS Max is the clear winner. Not only is the sky less blown out, but the face is much brighter as well. If we crop in, we can see just how dark the Pixel exposes the face.
We see the same exact results in this portrait photo, but you can definitely tell that the XS Max is lacking some contrast.
Now for a portrait selfie, the Pixel 3 XL actually does quite well in terms of dynamic range, but it's got a little bit too much contrast, crushing the detail in the hair and under the eyes, but the XS Max could honestly use a little bit more contrast.
We see the same exact thing here in this portrait selfie, except that the XS Max does a better job with dealing with flaring. In terms of white balance, the Pixel 3 actually was more accurate here.
Now here's a wide shot of a waterfall. Both do great for dynamic range, but we love the exposure of the XS Max, as it's brighter and just looks better overall. Not only that but the the white balance is more accurate. The waterfall has a noticeable blue tint on the Pixel 3.
We noticed the exact same differences in this photo, except that the Pixel 3 had way too much contrast, making it look really dark. Not only that but if look at the sky near the sun, it's less blown out on the XS Max.
In this scene, there is a massive difference in dynamic range. The sky is way less blown out, and there's much more detail in the shadows as well. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of noise on the Pixel 3's image. The only issue with the XS Max is the extreme lack of contrast, making it look flat.
Finally, let's see if that impressive dynamic range translates to panorama photos as well. Here's the shot on the Pixel 3. The sky is blown out and I look quite a bit dark.
Now on the XS Max, you can see almost all of the detail in the sky, and I look a lot better exposed. Not only that, but there's much more detail compared to the Pixel 3.
Portrait Photo Comparison
Moving on to Portrait photos, we tested a very harshly lit scene, and the XS Max actually did a great job of bringing up the shadows for a properly exposed face. The Pixel had a lot of contrast, yet again.
In this shot, both phones do a great job at blur edging, but the Pixel's white balance is way too blue, as you can see in the waterfall.
We see the exact same issue in this shot, but both phones do great with blur edging.
Now the XS Max gets a feature that isn't available on the Pixel: depth control. You can easily adjust the depth from F16 to a F1.4, adding in a lot of extra blur.
Here's the same image at F2.8, and now at F1.4. As you can see, there's a lot of extra blur, but it makes any issues with blur edging more visible, such as around the ear.
In this extreme portrait mode test, the Pixel 3 does a much better job compared to the XS Max, which missed huge chunks out of the center.
Low Light Photo Comparison
Finally, transitioning into low light, the iPhone XS Max wasn't able to take a portrait photo without using flash, because the telephoto lens has an F2.4 aperture compared to F1.7 on the Pixel 3's wide lens, which lets in more light.
Using the flash, the Pixel 3 XL tops the XS Max in basically every single way. It seems like the XS Max was trying not to blow out the bulb in the background, but it looks much worse.
Taking a photo with the wide lenses, the Pixel 3 again looks much better than the XS Max, which looks really dark and flat. We like how the Pixel 3 is able to bring out the colors.
In this wide shot, the XS Max does a better job at exposing the face, but it blows out a little bit more of the bricks above the lamp. The white balance on the XS Max is more accurate as well.
Now with flash, the XS Max completely ruins this photo by flashing way too bright for the conditions. The Pixel actually limited the brightness of the flash to get an incredibly good overall exposure for the whole photo.
On the front-end, we're seeing the exact opposite results. The Pixel 3 flashed way too bright and it looks very blue, whereas the XS Max does a great job here.
Now heading outside and zooming in at a nearby building, we can easily tell that the Pixel's photo is better. The XS Max just lacks contrast and it's very noisy.
For our final shot, we can see that the XS Max again lacks contrast and just looks a bit flat. The Pixel 3 is able to bring out the colors and the added contrast makes it look more detailed.
Pixel 3 XL vs XS Max: Which phone takes better photos?
After looking at all of those photos, let's discuss what we noticed. First off, the added telephoto lens on the XS Max is really nice for a number of situations, like photos of people, cars and times when you need to zoom in.
The detail between both cameras was extremely similar, but the Pixel 3 constantly produced images that were too blue, and the XS Max was a little bit too warm.
The XS Max definitely performed a better job with the dynamic range in harsh lighting situations, while the Pixel blew out the sky and had way too much contrast in some situations.
For portrait blur edging, it seemed that the Pixel 3 did a better job compared to the XS Max, but the iPhone's depth control feature is really nice to have and can really make portrait photos stand out.
As for low light, the Pixel 3 was the clear winner. It was able to reproduce color much better than the XS Max, which still lacked contrast.
We went back and looked at each photo and found that the iPhone XS Max produced better photos around 60% of the time, not including a few photos that came out as a tie.
So with that, we're giving the win to the iPhone XS Max for photo quality.
Deals on the iPhone XS Max and Google Pixel 3 XL
- AT&T Wireless: Buy one iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max, get a second $700 off when you add a line.
- Verizon Wireless: Buy an iPhone XS and get a 64GB iPhone XR for free.
- Sprint: Get the 64GB iPhone XS for half off with eligible trade-in and Sprint Flex lease.
- T-Mobile: Save up to $390 on the iPhone XS with an eligible iPhone trade.
AppleInsider has affiliate partnerships and may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. These partnerships do not influence our editorial content.