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Photo test: the Google Pixel 5 offers an effective score but lacks ambition

Equipped with a very good main camera module, the Pixel is the first Google terminal to benefit from an ultra wide-angle … at the cost of the disappearance of the telephoto module. Easy to use for the general public, its services are however far from the flagships of competitors.

After sweeping aside the interest of an ultra-wide-angle module for its “Pixel 4” generation, Google backed down with the Pixel 5. Which thus benefits from a 16 mm f / 2.2 (in 24×36 mm equivalent) in addition to the traditional 27 mm which equips the main camera module. A module which is, since the first generation of the Pixel family, “the lethal weapon” of Google terminals by offering an excellent level of performance in terms of AF, level of color details, etc. But the problem for Google is that if the first Pixels marked the history of smartphone photography, since then the competition has really changed.

Main module well mastered

The Pixel 5’s 27mm f / 1.7 equivalent doesn’t have the brightest optics, doesn’t have the largest or best-defined sensor, but Google has it under control. Extraordinarily well even. For a “simple” 12 Mpix module, the level of detail of the shots is excellent. When Samsung and Huawei use ultra-pixel-rich sensors to oversample and retrieve as much detail as possible, Google manages to do so with a conventional sensor that is ultimately rather undefined.

Google’s algorithms are very efficient in image analysis and are able to give shape to doors, leaves, grids and fences, or any other structures with complex patterns. In the field of sharpness of the image, that is to say this enhancement of details that gives depth to images, Google’s algorithms are really excellent. In front of Apple whose pictures, certainly detailed, do not have the same punch. Huawei manages to do better than Google in this area, but with much more complex camera modules and with much larger sensors.

The Pixel 5 has an impressive astrophotography mode, which can work even in the city. If it can sometimes be restrictive in terms of stability and its use is quite limited, this function is however very nice

For the “everyday” night photo, the Google terminal is less efficient than a Huawei P40 Pro / Mate 40 Pro or an iPhone 12 Pro Max, the results remain good despite its somewhat dated sensor .

Ultra wide-angle, episode 1: a life-saving software update

Before we tell you about the ultra wide-angle module as it is, let’s talk about how it was at the start of the test. We received the Pixel 5 at the end of October. During the holidays, we took a lot of pictures. On the way back, we took a few more, then tested the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and transferred the images to our PC to analyze the photos on a screen.

And there, horror: all the ultra wide-angle photos were blurry. All? No, the very last ones were certainly a little noisier but perfectly clear. Looking at the EXIF ​​data, that is, the shooting information embedded in all the shots, there was only one difference that would change everything: the version of the photo app. The passage of the version HDR + 1.0.327100404zd to version HDR + 1.0.345618096nd fixed this problem of sharpness of the image. The advantage of waiting a little for the first software updates (or being late…) before setting conclusions.

Ultra wide-angle, episode 2: finally wide in a Pixel!

The Ultra Wide Angle (UGA) of the Pixel 5 is a welcome addition and will do a lot of service indoors as well as in landscape photos. On the color side, not only is it good if we consider the module in isolation, but like Apple, we benefit from very good color continuity between the two camera modules. No color difference between two shots taken at the same time at different focal lengths, which is far from the norm.

In terms of image quality and level of detail, the ultra wide-angle module is not at the level of the main module, far from it. Looking closely at the corners and edges of the image, we feel that the optical correction algorithms are at work. The defects are contained, but not erased: the images are a little stretched and distorted and the bare winter branches reveal a residual tint of chromatic aberration correction.

We are far from the quasi rectilinearity of the UGA module of a Mate 40 Pro… and its level of detail. And for good reason: faced with Huawei’s giant sensor, Google replies with a small classic sensor of small dimensions. Fortunately, algorithms do part of the work in the night world, because its native rise in high sensitivities is more than reduced!

But let’s not be too choosy: in its price range, the quality of its colors and its sufficiently fast autofocus make it a very good module. The only real criticism we can make him basically is that he chased away the telephoto module. Thus limiting (greatly) the zoom power.

A digital zoom x2 that barely troubleshoots

By gaining an ultra wide-angle, the Pixel 5 lost the telephoto module of the Pixel 4 / Pixel 4XL. The only zoom available by default beyond 27mm is a 2x digital zoom, resulting in a modest 54mm digital. This is much lower than what the competition offers.

And it is above all a mediocre module whose quality is much lower than a quite similar module such as the 65mm equivalent telephoto lens of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple’s telephoto lens is sharper, its images cleaner and better exposed. While that of the Mate 40 Pro, Huawei, gives it a nice pantyhose.

To go further than this 54mm equivalent, and if you are a fan of pixel mash, you can pinch / zoom to get a zoom up to x7 (189mm equivalent).

But the result is more like a Thomas Ruff-style artistic experience than “real” photography. With all due respect to aficionados of “all algorithmic”, real telephoto lenses and optics have not (yet) said their last word.

Image processing a little too aggressive

If the colors are good on both camera modules and the level of detail very good on the main module, the Pixel 5’s shots suffer from a small weakness. Analyzed on a PC screen, the photos show a fairly high level of digital noise, even very high in shadows.

In question, the digital software which widens the dynamic range of the photographs. HDR algorithms (high dynamic range) by combining several shots to produce the final image produce a tingling that can be quite strong in shadows.

As for the portraits, if the nature of the background blur is good, even on straight hair and in a favorable situation (here no treacherous pattern, a good distance between the subject and the background of the image), the clipping is far from impeccable. Again, wanting to do everything from just two camera modules and without the help of a third-party module (laser AF, ToF sensor, etc.), Google cannot compete with Huawei, Oppo or Apple.

If the addition of an ultra-wide-angle module is appreciable, the Pixel 5 still relies only on the quality of its algorithms to seduce. If we must recognize Google’s mastery of colors and the very good images produced by its main camera module, the Pixel 5 is not a state-of-the-art camera. No super zoom, no “ultra” Huawei-style image quality because of too small sensors, no autofocus of death, a little image processing time for each shot, and so on.

While this is an excellent mid-range camera for the general public, it cannot claim to compete with serious photophones from Apple, Samsung, Oppo or Huawei.

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