Google Pixel 2 XL vs. Entry DSLR Photography

by | Dec 17, 2017 | Google | 0 comments

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been grabbing all the headlines lately for its possibly less-impressive-than-expected-for-a-company-as-well-regarded-as-Google display quality. The display has already been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere. If you are currently using a Pixel 2 XL and reading this article, you are probably satisfied with the display, like I am. The reason I purchased the Pixel 2 XL was not necessarily for the display, I bought it for the camera (I also like the software a lot and the Google Assistant, and some other things).

For about four years now, I have been using an entry-level DSLR, the Nikon D3200, for my project photography needs. This relatively inexpensive DSLR (~$400) has served me very well. It has a high resolution, 24MP sensor, which is much higher than the Pixel 2 XL camera. However, the Nikon D3200 does not have HDR capabilities, whereas the Pixel 2 XL has a fantastic HDR+ processing technique coupled with Google’s impressive machine learning chops. The DSLR has a larger sensor allowing it to collect more light. On the other hand, the Pixel 2 XL has the highest rated smartphone camera ever.

Clearly from the specifications and features alone it is impossible to tell which device takes better photos, an entry-level DSLR or the Google Pixel 2 XL. So that is the subject of this post, a direct comparison between the Google Pixel 2 XL and the Nikon D3200 in various different photography situations.


One detail to point out straight away is that this post was not written to compare all DSLR cameras to the Google Pixel 2 XL. Certainly if you are spending several thousand dollars on a professional DSLR, you will probably get better results than you will with the Pixel 2 XL. The DSLR I am using for this post retails for $300 to $400, putting it firmly in the entry-level category.

Another caveat to this post is that I am not trying to proclaim either the Pixel 2 XL or entry DSLRs as absolutely superior to the other. In fact, as several of the example photos show, each camera has its own strengths and weaknesses.

This post is mostly an exploration into the benefits and drawbacks of using the Pixel 2 XL camera or the Nikon D3200 in different situations and for different photography styles.

Macro Photography

Macro photography, photography with the subject fairly close to the camera lens, is traditionally a style requiring a DSLR. Almost all smartphone cameras have a fixed focal length, generally ranging from 2-3 feet to infinity. Smartphone cameras are designed to focus on subjects at distances typical for most photos taken with smartphones. Essentially smartphone cameras have focal distances designed for appeal to the masses. DSLR cameras on the other hand, have optical zoom which involves moving lenses. A DSLR equipped with the correct lens can focus on subjects just centimeters in front of the lens. Smartphones cannot focus on subjects this close to the lens.

This is a macro photo of some passive electrical components on a PCB. The Pixel 2 XL camera simply cannot focus on subjects this close to the lens. The DSLR, however, can focus just fine.

These photos of a drill bit tip again show that without any accessories, the Pixel 2 XL lens cannot focus on subjects this close to the camera.

So, there are several other example photos I elected not to post here because even from the two above, it is clear that the camera on the Pixel 2 XL cannot focus on subjects close enough to qualify the images as macro photography – at least not without accessories to boost the capabilities of the camera.

Today several companies sell lens attachments for smartphones that can greatly enhance the capabilities of the cameras. So, when I want to take macro photos with my Google Pixel 2 XL, I use a macro lens from Moment. The Moment macro lens attaches to the Pixel 2 XL using a specialized case.

With the Moment macro lens attached to the Pixel 2 XL, the camera is easily able to focus on close-up subjects even if they are almost touching the lens. I was extremely impressed by the performance of the Moment macro lens. The Pixel 2 XL’s already fantastic camera, coupled with its HDR+ algorithms, and the Moment macro lens accessory work in concert to produce beautiful, crisp macro shots.

This photo of the same passive electrical components shown above demonstrates the massive improvement in macro photography performance resulting from the addition of a Moment macro lens to the Pixel 2 XL.

This photo of some laser-cut wood shows how the Google Pixel 2 XL’s HDR+ and other image processing systems help to get a more crisp image showing details in light and dark areas of the photo.

I find that the Pixel 2 XL often shows textures in macro photos better than the Nikon D3200 DSLR.

This is a crimping tool. These images show how the Google Pixel 2 XL often balances lighting in photos better than the DSLR.

This is another example of an circuit board, this time the Particle Photon.

So, for macro photography, as long as you use an attachable lens like the Moment macro lens used in these photos, in my opinion the Google Pixel 2 XL is able to take better macro photos than the entry-level DSLR. The Pixel 2 XL’s camera and the image processing techniques behind it do a better job bringing out textures and colors in the images.

As far as actually using the Moment macro lens versus the Nikon D3200 for macro photography, each has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. The biggest complaint I have about the Moment macro lens is that you need to have your subject literally touching the lens cover in order to get the camera to focus properly. This works fine for subjects that are relatively flat, but it is a big issue for some subjects with obstacles to getting the lens in close. For example, the PCB passive components I photographed first turned out well in that section of the circuit board, but in other sections with larger components next to the ones I wanted to photograph, like USB ports, I could not get the Moment macro lens close enough to focus.

To use the Moment macro lens, the lens needs to literally be touching your subject.

The other major issue with the Moment macro lens needing to be so close to subjects in order to focus is if you are trying to get a picture of living subjects. I think you would have a hard time photographing insects with the Pixel 2 XL and Moment lens for example because you would almost literally be touching the bug. On the other hand, because it has optical zoom, the DSLR can be positioned several inches away from a subject and still get the same magnification. You would be able to photograph an insect much more easily with the DSLR than you could with the smartphone because you could stay away from the insect so it would be less likely to fly away.

On the whole, however, I have found that the Google Pixel 2 XL equipped with a Moment macro lens outperforms the entry-level DSLR for macro photography. Photos taken with the Pixel 2 XL show better colors, more detail in dark areas of the image, and it is easier to use.

Resolution Comparison

One of the other major differences between smartphone cameras and DSLR cameras is resolution. Even an entry-level DSLR, like the Nikon D3200 I am using in the photos below, often captures images in much greater resolution than smartphone cameras. In fact, the Nikon D3200, with a 24MP sensor, has almost twice the resolution of the Google Pixel 2 XL, which is equipped with a 12.2MP sensor.

Of course, depending upon how you plan to share your images, and what post-processing you plan on performing, you may or may not see any benefit from the increased resolution offered by DSLRs. For example, if you just plan on posting your photos on a social media platform or on a website, it does not matter in the slightest how high the resolution of your images is because they will almost certainly be hosted on social media at a greatly reduced resolution. You might need extremely high resolutions if you are trying to crop an image to a fraction of its original size and then print it on a billboard. This may infuriate some photographers but in my opinion resolution is almost completely meaningless for the average photographer, especially smartphone photographers.

When it comes to camera resolution, especially smartphone camera resolution, the resolution specs published by manufacturers are often, at best, taken out of context for most consumers. Megapixel figures are more a marketing tool designed to impress shoppers with a larger number on a particular camera or smartphone compared to the one sitting on the shelf next to it. It is important to keep in mind the how image quality relates to resolution. A 4K video for example, the highest video resolution currently available in consumer-grade televisions and computer monitors, is the equivalent of a 8.3 megapixel camera image.

Many of the images below show that, despite the DSLR having just under twice the resolution of the Google Pixel 2 XL, the image quality is not significantly different between the two in terms of image sharpness. This is the case even when the images are cropped in and resized to much larger images than the originals.

This image shows a zoomed-in section of an image of a wooden fish.

In these images I selected a small circular section between this wooden fish’s fin and adjacent scales. I then increased the size of this selected section by 500% and placed it onto the original image. It is difficult to see much difference in terms of sharpness between the DSLR and the Google Pixel 2 XL. It is obvious that one other difference between these two cameras, which will be the subject of a later section, is the way each camera balances color, contrast, and depth of field. If you try to ignore the stylistic differences, to my eye it would be hard to claim that the zoomed in section of the DSLR image has twice the detail of the zoomed in section from the Google Pixel 2 XL image, at least not in a noticeable way.

In this image, I zoomed in on the tricoper flight controller by 800% for each camera.

I used a similar technique with these tricoper images that I used for the wooden fish above. In the fish images I selected a section and increased its size by 500%. For the tricopter I selected a circular area around the fight controller and zoomed in on that section by 800%. To my eye it is again difficult to see any immediately apparent difference in crispness between the two images.

These images show a cropped section of the original photos after increasing their size by 1000%.

These two images take zoom to the extreme to further illustrate the lack of advantage, as far as subjective image quality is concerned, of a greatly increased image resolution. For the two images above I started by increasing the size of the originals by 1000%. Then, because the size of the resulting image was ridiculous, more than 16 times the size of a 4K display, I cropped out the middle of the image. It is once again difficult to say that the image of the HTC Vive lighthouse captured by the DSLR is noticeable better than the image from the Pixel 2 XL.

As far as normal, everyday photography goes, the only difference between images captured with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera, and images captured by the D3200 DSLR at roughly twice the resolution, is that the images from the DSLR are larger in size.

Images captured by the DSLR are certainly larger than those captured by the Pixel 2 XL.

These images show again the difference in image size between the two cameras.

So, if you need your images to be larger, the DSLR will deliver. If you are concerned with subjective image quality, colors, realism, lighting, or other factors used to evaluate an image, there are many, many other specifications to evaluate than resolution.

Low-Light Photography

In years past, smartphone cameras faced significant difficulties in low-light conditions. For many smartphone cameras, “low-light” is very far from darkness. Only a few years ago, cameras in smartphones faced difficulty even in moderately lit rooms. Like macro photography, taking photos in low light conditions is traditionally thought of as requiring a DSLR.

However, the past several years have seen smartphone manufacturers turn away from the megapixels arms race and concentrate their development efforts on equipping flagship smartphones with cameras designed to perform better in low-light conditions. A number of different techniques are used to increase low-light performance in smartphone cameras. First, the newest smartphone cameras have wider apertures, often indicated in advertising as lower f-stop numbers. A wider aperture allows more light to enter the camera to be capture by the sensor, which allows a camera to take better photos in low-light conditions with less noise.

Speaking of the camera sensor, a second way smartphone manufactures are working to increase low-light performance is by equipping smartphones with bigger camera sensors. Bigger sensors allow a camera to capture more light, which is again important for low-light performance.

Last, smartphone manufactures are developing better software that allows smartphone cameras to  increase the quality of low-light photos by leveraging sophisticated image post-processing algorithms. In many ways, Google is spearheading this effort with the Pixel 2 XL (and the Pixel 2). First, the Pixel 2 XL actually has a dedicated CPU made specifically for image processing. Aside from other functions, the image processing CPU, called the Pixel Visual Core, is used for the HDR+ algorithm used by the Pixel 2 XL. The image processing techniques used by the Pixel 2 XL allow the camera to capture detail in both light and dark areas of an image. This allows the camera to take more detailed photos in low-light conditions.

Testing Methodology

The term “low-light” used in the marketing material for many smartphones is not particularly clear. Any smartphone user knows that a smartphone camera will struggle with the lighting conditions in situations that the human eye can see in well. It also seems likely that the definition of  “low-light” differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. Therefore, a more precise testing method was needed.

So, in order to fairly evaluate the performance of the Google Pixel 2 XL compared with a DSLR, each camera was used to take photos of subjects in different levels of light. The brightness of the light was measured using a luxmeter placed just in front of the photo subject. In all of the photos below, the light level is indicated along with which camera was used to take the picture.

The lux meter will be used to measure the brightness of the environment for the photos in the sections below comparing the low-light performance of the Pixel 2 XL to that of the Nikon D3200 DSLR. To actually control the lighting conditions, a Philips Hue lighting system was used. The brightness of the Philips Hue light bulbs can be precisely controlled in order to provide a smooth curve of decreasing brightness levels in the sections below.

900 Lux to 1000 Lux

With very bright lighting, it might not be surprising that there is very little, if any, noticeable difference in the quality of the photos taken by the Pixel 2 XL compared with those taken with the Nikon D3200 in terms of detail retention and lack of noise. In the two images above, the light provided by the Philips Hue system is augmented by a very bright photography flood light.

400 Lux to 500 Lux

At 400 to 500 Lux, the subject in these photos is still being illuminated by a photography flood light, but it is positioned farther from the subject than it was in the previous set of photos. Again it is difficult to see much difference between the two photos.The lighting condition in these photos could still be considered very bright; it probably does not qualify as a low light photo. This lighting level, speaking somewhat subjectively, could be called normal room lighting.

100 Lux to 200 Lux

Even when the brightness starts to get lower, the two cameras still seem to perform equally well. At the 100-200 Lux range, the Philips Hue lights in the room were set to 50% brightness. This is the first photo that I would consider to be a low-light photo. Subjectively, this lighting level is like a dimly lit room. However, even when the lights start to get lower, it is difficult to say that one camera is superior to the other.

10 Lux to 20 Lux

The 10-20 Lux light level can be considered dark. In these photos, the lighting in the room is set to only 10% brightness. In this set of photos it is finally possible to evaluate the differences in performance between the Google Pixel 2 XL camera and the Nikon D3200. It is obvious from the photos that the DSLR is able to capture more light when the lights get low. The overall brightness of the image captured by the DSLR is quite a bit higher than the Pixel 2 XL. Although the Pixel 2 XL still captured a high-quality image, despite the extremely dim lighting in the environment for these photos, the DSLR photo does look better.

One interesting note, however, is about shutter speed. For the DSLR, the darker the environment, the longer the exposure time. This behavior is basic photography; a longer exposure time allows more time for the camera sensor to capture light. But, the longer the exposure time, the greater the risk for distortions in the image resulting from the camera not being held perfectly still. The Google Pixel 2 XL, on the other hand, maintained very fast shutter speeds even in very low lighting. In fact, whereas I had to mount the DSLR on a tripod to keep it still for the lower light photos, the photos taken with the Pixel 2 XL were capture while I was holding the phone unsupported.

From a usability standpoint, although the DSLR took a higher-brightness photo, the Pixel 2 XL is easier to use in low-light conditions, because the user needs to worry less about holding the phone completely still.

1 Lux to 5 Lux

When the lighting is almost completely dark, in this case with light provided only by my computer monitor, the difference in quality between the photos taken with the two cameras is very pronounced. The image captured by the DSLR looks very good. It’s overall brightness is lower than in the photo taken at a light level of 20 Lux, but the photo still shows detail in both light and dark areas. Furthermore, there is very little noise in the photo taken by the DSLR.

The Google Pixel 2 XL preformed much less well. The image taken by the smartphone is quite dark, and details are lost in the darkest areas of the photo. Plus, the image taken by the Pixel 2 XL has quite a bit more noise.

So, in conclusion, for most lighting conditions, three is very little difference, in terms of detail and noise levels, between photos taken by a Nikon D3200 and a Google Pixel 2 XL. However, when the lighting level gets very low, the performance of the smartphone camera drops off substantially. Meanwhile, the DSLR, thanks to its much larger sensor and the ability to alter its shutter speed, can capture more light in dark settings and produce better images.